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1.13 pm

Sir Roger Moate (Faversham): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) for allowing me a couple of minutes in this important debate, and I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke on his mastery of the subject, on securing this Adjournment debate and on his forceful speech to the House. To his constituents and to mine, this is, indeed, a matter of great importance. I should at this stage declare

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my interest as parliamentary adviser to the Paper Federation of Great Britain. However, my concern today is principally for the paper mills in my constituency, in particular UK Paper plc, a company that only recently opened one of the most advanced plants in the world for the production of quality paper, particularly copier paper, essentially all of it from de-inked recycled paper.

This country should take pride in the fact that the paper industry leads the world in recycling technology, and is investing massively and contributing more than most other industries to environmental improvement. The industry is totally committed to continuous improvement through environmental management systems. Few industries have done or are doing so much to ensure that we have sustainable industrial development, and the industry's commitment to environmental improvement and to ecological standards is higher than that of almost any other industry. That is why its voice should be taken seriously and that is why I and others fear that the vote in Brussels on 29 May could inflict serious damage on our British industry--damage that will not confer any environmental gain on consumers.

My hon. Friend made the point that the proposed ecolabelling system is described as voluntary both for those who take part and for those who decide whether to purchase the materials. However, my hon. Friend also made the point that papermakers in his constituency supply paper to the House of Commons. It is possible that the House of Commons, the British Government and local authorities will say that they will buy only paper with an ecolabel. The system that we are talking about could ensure that the only ecolabelled copier paper would come from Scandinavia, because of the extraordinary criteria that have been adopted for the proposed ecolabels.

My hon. Friend has clearly described why the criteria are unacceptable, and why they are described as muddled, unsatisfactory and idiosyncratic. It cannot be right that such criteria should be adopted when they will inflict such damage, actual or potential, on this important British industry.

When one reads about how the qualified majority vote was secured, one begins to worry about the whole process whereby at the last moment, to secure one extra vote, an extra criterion that was not properly debated was suddenly introduced. The majority was then secured and the rules changed. That is a very unsatisfactory way in which to proceed.

On 19 January 1994, the matter was raised in the House. I said then to the Minister:

The Minister for the Environment and Countryside replied:

    "What my hon. Friend says is right. It is essential that we have a standard that is applicable throughout the European Union. In those circumstances, it is better to take time and get it right".--[Official Report, 19 January 1994; Vol. 235, c. 878.]

What has happened is that we have taken time and are now in serious danger of getting it wrong. A vote was taken on 29 May, which has caused serious concern to the British industry. I do not know what scope there is under

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the Brussels procedures to revise the criteria or to try to ensure that the regulations are not imposed in this country in this way.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister please, please to do everything he can to ensure that the voice of the British paper industry in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and in my own is listened to and taken seriously, and I ask him to do everything he can to ensure that we get it right for the industry, for our constituents and for the British consumer who is, rightly, concerned about choosing environmentally friendly products which are, essentially, what the British industry is producing.

1.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison): I welcome the opportunity to respond to this important debate, in which my hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) and for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) raised some important points. Both spoke forcefully on behalf of important constituency interests--business concerns that are, no doubt, employing many of their constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke gave me cause for thought as, at the beginning of the debate, I realised that my stationery could have been manufactured by Arjo-Wiggins in his constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham spoke forcefully on behalf of UK Paper plc and other important interests in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke spoke about the wider concerns of the paper industry. In my response to the debate, I do not want to be guilty of failing to acknowledge the efforts that have been made by the paper industry, to which my hon. Friends referred, in managing its process in keeping with recognised environmental management systems, as specified under the eco-management and audit scheme and other important industry standards, such as British standard 7750.

Ecolabelling is important in its own way. It is appropriate for me to begin by putting the scheme and the concerns of the paper industry in the wider context of ecolabelling. Environmental protection cannot be dealt with solely by legislation and regulation. Ordinary people need to play a part by being more aware of the consequences of their actions for the environment, and by doing something about it, even if only in a modest way. In aggregate, such efforts count.

The Government therefore encourage initiatives that go beyond what is required by law, so that businesses and consumers at an individual level can make a contribution to sustainable development. A great deal can be achieved by voluntary action, and by harnessing the power of the market as an instrument of change.

As people become more aware of the environmental challenge, their attitudes to pollution, waste and recycling change. In many households there is a greater readiness to make the effort to use resources more economically, to avoid or minimise waste and to reduce pollution.

Increasingly, the more far-sighted companies recognise the advantages of better environmental management of their production processes in the framework of the ecomanagement and audit scheme or BS 7750. As purchasers, companies and individuals can show their preference for more sustainable consumption by seeking

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out products that do less damage to the environment. The difficulty for consumers is knowing which "green" products really are the genuine article.

The Government see a clear role for reliable information about the environmental impact of products to encourage markets to operate in ways that promote the aim of sustainable development. It is important to bear in mind the fact that Government, while they can try to steer developments in environmental information, can rarely expect to control them. Much depends on the views and actions of the market and of our constitutional partners in the European Union. The Government's policy is therefore about how to influence the development of environmental information, in the market and within a European framework, along coherent lines that can serve the overall aim of sustainable development.

The European Union ecolabelling scheme should be seen in that context. The purpose of the scheme is to identify products that are less harmful to the environment than equivalent brands across their whole life cycle. The aim is to encourage the design, production and use of such products, and so achieve a real environmental gain.

Under the scheme, which is voluntary--I note the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham on voluntariness in this context--manufacturers may apply to display the European ecolabel on their products if they meet the criteria. For consumers, the label identifies products that have satisfied stringent environmental criteria. Having a single Europewide scheme, backed by a Community regulation, ensures consistency in application, and offers real advantages for the industry in the United Kingdom.

The ecolabel currently appears on three groups of products in the United Kingdom--washing machines, paints and household tissue paper. The first ecolabel to be awarded in Europe was for a range of British-manufactured washing machines. In agreement with other member states, criteria for labelling have been developed for further groups of products, including soil improvers, kitchen paper, toilet rolls, laundry detergents, light bulbs, varnishes, tee-shirts, bed linen, refrigerators and copying paper.

In keeping with the requirements of the regulation, we established the UK Ecolabelling Board back in 1992 as the independent body to administer the scheme in the United Kingdom. The board also advises Ministers on the various operational aspects of the scheme. As well as being responsible for awarding the ecolabels to UK manufacturers, the board is closely involved at the European level in the development of the criteria for awarding labels to the different groups of products.

To that end, members of the board are appointed by my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Trade and Industry, and the membership draws together experts from a wide range of relevant backgrounds. We feel that the board provides the necessary competence, independence and objectivity to ensure fair play in effecting a proper balance between the interests of manufacturers, consumers and the environment.

On the particular criteria for copying paper, the process of life-cycle assessment used by the scheme revealed that the main environmental impacts of that group of products

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resulted from the production processes involved in the manufacture of the pulp and paper. Those impacts are notably in the use of energy and chemicals, and the consequences for pollution of air and water.

The environmental criteria therefore aim to promote the reduction of toxic and otherwise polluting discharges. Limits have been set: to reduce water pollution from chemical discharges from the pulping and papermaking processes, and in particular from toxic chlorinated chemicals, and to minimise the environmental damage related to energy use from global warming and acidification, by setting limits on energy consumption and a limit on sulphur emissions from the production processes. The criteria also provide for the application of good management principles to forests from which fibres originate, thus promoting the sustainable use of those resources.

Those criteria were developed over a long period of wide consultation with all interested parties, including producers from outside Europe. During that time, the Commission and the UK Ecolabelling Board, and the ecolabelling bodies in other member states, actively sought the views of the paper industry and other interested parties. In agreeing the criteria, the Commission and the member states were satisfied that the measures chosen allowed for fair and justified opportunities both for European and for foreign copying-paper products.

A Europewide scheme necessarily entails reaching the best compromise to reflect the differing interests involved. That can and does entail some fine-tuning of certain elements to enable final agreement to be reached. I emphasise, however, that considerable care has been taken in arriving at the different elements of the criteria, and in setting the thresholds.

That process has drawn on current best practice among producers across the European market, combined with intelligence about the ability of producers to meet the criteria. By its very nature, the ecolabel is meant to be a reward for those whose performance is at the upper end of the spectrum. The key aim of ecolabelling criteria is, after all, to achieve an environmental gain.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke referred to the criticisms of the criteria for copying paper that have been brought to his attention. I feel, however, that some of those criticisms spring from a context of more general opposition to the ecolabelling scheme itself. The Government support the scheme. As I explained, it provides an important opportunity for consumers to make an active contribution, through their purchasing decisions, to more sustainable development. The scheme provides market recognition for manufacturers who rise to meet the environmental challenge. In certain product areas, UK manufacturers have already risen to the challenge, and I applaud them for doing so.

In the case of copying paper, the UK Ecolabelling Board consulted interested parties widely by circulating drafts of the emerging criteria during their lengthy period of development--in 1994 and 1995, and in the first part of this year. However, during that process, the British paper industry, acting through the Paper Federation of Great Britain, decided that it would take no further part in the development of the criteria. That decision is a matter for the industry, but we feel that it is generally better for the industry to take part in the consultative process.

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Accusations have be made that the scheme is subjective rather than scientifically sound, and that it inhibits innovation. It has also been said that the criteria are not based on science, because they have been changed during their development.

Those criticisms do not recognise the painstaking work involved in examining the scientific and technical factors involved precisely in order to develop criteria that are soundly based and justifiable in terms of the environmental concerns identified. As for making changes in developing the criteria, surely the very nature of arriving at well-considered criteria must reflect discussions and representations on the complex range of factors involved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke said, the matter involves some technical complexity, which he mastered with great skill and ingenuity.

In the case of copying paper, as I said, it has taken the best part of three years to develop and agree the criteria. Once in place, however, the resulting ecolabel has the potential to stimulate innovation by providing an incentive to improve the environmental performance related to those paper products, through the use of better technologies and sound environmental management. That is the overall purpose of the scheme. It is an important purpose that will, in its own way, allow consumers and the market to make a contribution to the important cause of sustainable development.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke raised some important issues, some of which are of a technical nature. I shall, of course, examine carefully the concerns expressed by my hon. Friends in this short debate.

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