Draft Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Regulations 2000

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Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am sure that you, Mr. O'Brien, like me, are delighted that waste has attracted so much enthusiasm. It is clear that numerous hon. Members are keen to debate the issue, which is an important one. I do not want to take up too much of the Committee's time, nor do I want to repeat the questions that have been rightly and sensibly asked by the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green). My comments will therefore be relatively brief, but I do have some questions for the Minister.

First, members of the Committee will be aware that, before the Minister made these recommendations, the Government sensibly consulted on some proposed targets in August this year. The recovery target of 58 per cent. was put out for consultation, and a 56 per cent. target is now proposed. The target for recycling specific materials was 18 per cent., which is still in line with the current recommendation. Consultation has therefore led the Minister to propose a recovery target that is lower than the original figure. Who was consulted, and what was said that persuaded the Department to reduce the recovery target from 58 per cent. to 56 per cent.?

Secondly, the Minister made passing reference to the important issue of waste minimisation, and I welcome that. Committee members who have, for example, recently purchased a new shirt and spent 10 minutes trying to remove the packaging will understand the importance of waste minimisation. What are the Government doing about that, and why have no detailed targets been set?

My third question relates to the scale of charges. The Minister rightly said that we are moving from a sliding scale to a flat-fee system. He claimed that, unlike a sliding scale, a flat fee is neither unfair nor anti-competitive. However, I confess that I do not understand why the previous system was deemed unfair by—presumably—those involved in the consultation. From where does the figure of £460 come? Equally importantly, will inclusion in the statutory instrument of a specific figure involve an annual requirement to uprate it in the light of inflation?

Finally, given that the new arrangements have significant implications for many organisations and firms throughout the country, and assuming that they will shortly be agreed to, how does the Department intend to publicise them?

5.2 pm

Mr. Mullin: I shall do my best to reply to most of those questions.

The hon. Member for Ashford welcomed the flat-fee system, but the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) asked about the impetus for such a change. The principal impetus was the Office of Fair Trading, which judged the previous arrangement to be anti-competitive on the ground that one company had 60 per cent. of the market and could therefore determine operations. That is why we have opted for a flat fee, which, incidentally, should result in a reduction for some 1,500 companies and an increase for about 3,000.

The hon. Member for Ashford asked whether the targets are realistic. I can only say that, had we thought otherwise, we would not have set them. On the question of the estimates' accuracy, we are, as he said, in somewhat uncharted waters, but the waters become more charted by the day. We have no reason to suppose that the estimates are wildly inaccurate, but we adjust them when we see reason to do so.

On the question of free riders, no one has produced evidence to suggest that that is a significant problem. There have been about 17 prosecutions, but little evidence—[Interruption.] A sliver of evidence has just been handed to me. The Government estimate that about 800,000 tonnes of waste was not reported in 1999. About half of that was included this year, and we are confident that the remainder will be included next year. We have no evidence of further significant problems in that respect.

Some 10,000 businesses were consulted, either directly or through their trade associations. Understandably, they are not happy with the prospect of higher targets, but most of them recognise that we must meet the obligation under the EU directive.

The hon. Member for Bath asked why we opted for a lower figure than the consultation suggested that we had in mind. We had to come up with a figure that would enable us to meet the targets, allowing for a margin of error, and 56 per cent. is adequate for those purposes.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I support and agree with the order and what it is trying to achieve. However, will the Department undertake a serious publicity campaign to encourage manufacturers and importers voluntarily to reduce the amount of packaging that they use, to encourage consumers not to ask for even more packaging of goods that are already perfectly well packaged when they buy them, and to encourage supermarkets and other shops to use biodegradable materials rather than forcing people to accept plastic bags?

Mr. Mullin: My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. It is far better to aim for waste minimisation than to have to reclaim or recycle material later. There is a large cultural problem to overcome, as in all developed societies, and the Government are giving it attention.

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Member for Islington, North is right. That is why I asked whether the Department intends to introduce targets for waste minimisation.

In response to my question about the reduction from 58 per cent. to 56 per cent., the Minister said that he believed that opting for 56 per cent. would enable this country to meet the EU target. That implies that the Department has no real enthusiasm for trying to better that imposed minimum. Is that not a rather low aspiration given the figures achieved in many other countries? For example, Germany has more than 90 per cent. recovery.

Mr. Mullin: I suspected that a Liberal Democrat would say that we should be aiming for 90 per cent. instead of a mere 56 per cent. First, however, we are starting from a fairly low base. Secondly, we must be realistic. We recognise that we are imposing a burden on business, and we have to take that into account. The main purpose of having consultation is to take an interest in its outcome. At the time of the consultation, the data for 2000 were unavailable, and the targets proposed in the consultation paper were based on the data from the previous year. By the time that the consultation had concluded, we had up-to-date data, which enabled us to set a lower figure.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): How will the regulations affect the waste hierarchy of reduction, re-use, recovery, recycling and reprocessing? When does the Minister expect the targets to be met, and when does he expect to have to revisit them?

Mr. Mullin: We shall have to revisit the targets often until we meet them. The directive is clear. We have to meet 50 per cent. by next year, which is the aim of the current exercise. The 50 per cent. target was set some years ago under a directive that the Government that the hon. Gentleman supported helped to negotiate, and the industry has been able to see it coming for a long time—there is no element of surprise. When we have met that target, we shall start to consider the changes that we should make. Our first objective is to meet the targets that have been in place for some time.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Why should the European Union introduce a directive on such a matter? Are not Governments such as ours sufficiently mature and responsible to produce packaging levels that meet the environmental needs of the British people?

Mr. Mullin: I suspected that the hon. Gentleman might make such a point and he may find it painful to hear that the answer is probably no. Whatever view one takes of the European Union, one area in which it has been most beneficial is in enforcing this country to confront earlier that it might otherwise have done the need to behave in a more environmentally responsible way. The hon. Gentleman may be able to draw my attention to one or two disadvantages of EU membership, but it is difficult to argue against that.

Mr. Damian Green rose—

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) rose—

Mr. Mullin: I am feeling a little under siege.

We may have to look at subsequent targets next year, but I have given the targets for 2000 and 2003. I give way to the hon. Member for Ashford.

Mr. Green: The Minister said that one reason for Europe-wide regulations is to improve environmental performance. Does he agree that another reason is to ensure that EU countries do not try to gain an unfair competitive advantage by ignoring environmental regulations. The regulations help British industry and industry in countries with better environmental records by ensuring a level playing field.

Mr. Mullin: That is important and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The cost of compliance is likely to be much lower in this country than in the countries of many of our European competitors. Reference was made to a multinational company with interests here and in Germany that said that it paid considerably more in Germany than in this country; we would seem to have a more efficient scheme.

Mr. Kilfoyle: My hon. Friend referred earlier to placing a burden on business. That has become a mantra and a misleading mantra. Should not we change the language and refer to business facing its wider responsibilities? Hon. Members have referred to waste minimisation. The costs may be reduced by encouraging business to consider the wider perspective, and the example chosen by the hon. Member for Bath was a good one. Some hon. Members may buy made-to-measure shirts, but it would be in the interest of businesses that make cheap shirts to recognise that they must minimise the amount of packaging. It is their responsibility, not a burden.

Mr. Mullin: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. It is the responsibility of all of us, and we can all contribute. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) suggested that we should all be more robust in refusing the plastic bags that are pressed on us at supermarket check-outs. All of us, including businesses, have a responsibility to become environmentally more responsive, especially those of us in developed countries where the amount of waste is extraordinary.

 
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Prepared 29 November 2000