Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment

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Miss McIntosh: The assessment suggests that some aspects of the directive may encourage collection, for which the Minister is arguing passionately, while others, especially the cost of meeting recycling targets, may have the opposite effect. Is her Department aware that the proposals may have the perverse effect of doing the contrary to what she is hoping to achieve?

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Lady makes an important point. In a sense, there is a trade-off. There is a balance between how far we increase the separate collection of waste to reduce the amount going to landfill, and how far we can achieve the environmental objectives more effectively by taking that part of the waste that is already separately collected and getting more of it re-used or recycled. Part of what is already separately collected is taken off for re-use and some is separated out and taken for recycling, but a significant proportion of what is left goes back to landfill. By increasing the recycling rates of what is already separately collected, we can reduce the amount going to landfill.

However, if we increase the amount of waste that is separately collected, other environmental costs are involved, as the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said. Waste that may currently be going to landfill must, in future, be transported separately. There are environmental costs as well as benefits at different stages of the process. A really accurate cost-benefit analysis is complex because so many different kinds of product are involved, and a complex value chain links the original production right through to the end of life. We are trying, reasonably effectively, to understand the nature of those costs and benefits and the trade-off between them.

Our goal is simple—to agree sensible directives with the Council of Ministers, the Commission and the Parliament. Once that is done, we can examine how best to transpose those directives into United Kingdom law and ensure their practical implementation. We will continue to work with the electrical and electronic equipment industry to try to achieve cost-effective recycling, by developing new recycling techniques and stimulating new outlets for recycled material. The main lever that we can use for that is our own recycling programme and the waste and resources action programme to which I referred. We also have a research and development project under our recycling programme with the industry council for electronic equipment recycling that is designed to develop a new approach to cathode ray tube recycling, which is one of the most difficult parts to deal with in waste television sets. The technology for separating out different components, treating and possibly recycling them, is constantly changing. It is therefore important that we also invest in research and development with the industry to ensure that, in future, stuff that cannot currently be re-used or recycled may, with the development of new treatment techniques, become available for recycling.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton raised the general issue of regulatory burdens, which is a concern that we share. I am surprised that the Opposition decided only last week to vote against the Regulatory Reform Bill that we introduced. This is not a party political point—one of the problems that we have is the weight of regulation that has built up, not only over the years but over the decades. I recently asked officials to dig out the weights and measure regulations, because they are of enormous concern to many thousands of businesses. A large pile of dusty, yellowing documents was delivered to my office—twenty years' worth of weights and measures regulation. I will refrain from making the obvious point about which twenty years those were, but my hon. Friends will understand. Each regulation had been placed on top of the other—legislatively, not literally. It was impossible to understand the latest change that had been made without understanding all the rest.

Miss McIntosh: That is a particularly astute example. The hon. Lady will be aware that the Administration to which she alludes but does not name had a history of negotiating successive derogations in support of local business. Why have her Government not been minded to continue to apply for such derogations?

Ms Hewitt: I have been making the point that, through the current directives, we seek an exemption for small manufacturers and retailers, and I shall return to that point in a minute.

It is difficult for any Government to find the time to simplify and update weights and measures regulations through primary legislation because many other things need to be done. The Regulatory Reform Bill will enable not a change of substance but simplification through secondary legislation. We will be able to deal much more effectively with the problem of 20 years' worth of weights and measures legislation—and a great deal else besides—in a way that makes sensible use of parliamentary time and eases the regulatory burden on business.

Miss McIntosh rose—

Ms Hewitt: I should have thought that the hon. Members for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton would support such a measure, and perhaps the hon. Lady is about to tell me that she does.

Miss McIntosh: In my short time in the House, I have been struck by our lack of scrutiny of European legislation compared with that of Back-Bench Members of the European Parliament. I should have expected the Minister to see some attraction in using primary legislation. I mentioned the example of gold plating, and I could furnish a list of the many similar mistakes about which I am most concerned. Secondary legislation and statutory instruments acted as the model, and as a result there was insufficient discussion on the Floor of the House.

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Lady has invaluable experience of the legislative processes of the European Parliament and the House of Commons. Regardless of which party is in power, there is the real issue of what could be described as the Whitehall culture. We in this country are fortunate in having fine officials—many of whom, I am happy to say, are in my Department—and an outstanding tradition of public service.

However, it is part of the civil service tradition that one crosses all the t's, dots all the i's, and tries to deal with every possible eventuality and every business in each nook and cranny of the sector in question. As a result, one ends up with absurdly complicated statutory instruments, guidance and forms. That is the culture that we have to change, and it is a matter not simply of parliamentary scrutiny—important though that is—but of establishing a much more effective process of regulatory impact assessment. We need to involve the Small Business Service, which we created and to which we gave a particular responsibility, in regulatory reform, and take on board the work of the better regulation taskforce. We are putting in place levers that will help to change the Whitehall regulatory culture.

I am conscious, Mr. Amess, that I have digressed slightly from the specific issue of the directives, so I shall turn to the other points that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster. He was right to express a concern for small retailers. They are under enormous pressure and we do not want to make matters worse. Our analysis shows that 99 per cent. of electrical retailers in the UK are small, generally independent firms. Between them, they account for about 75 per cent. of all such outlets, but for about 20 per cent. of total turnover. They exactly parallel the small producers to which I referred, most of which are small and have an even smaller share of the market than their electrical retailer counterparts. That is why we are seeking an exemption for small retailers and small producers, and I am fairly confident that we will get it. That would relieve the vast majority of retailers from the burdens that could be associated with the directive, without compromising the achievement of environmental Bills.

Mr. Darvill: I thank the Minister for dealing with that specific point. Will she tell us about the general view in Europe on the matter? I get the impression that there is a similar balance in other European countries in respect of small electrical retailers. I am not asking for information about confidential negotiations, but is there a view that those countries should have similar exemptions?

Ms Hewitt: There is a growing understanding of the difficulties that the directive could cause for small retailers. We hope that the associations of retailers and producers will make their views known to other member states, as well as to the European Commission. They helped in the conclusions of the Lisbon summit last year, and the progress since made. At that summit we took the initiative and achieved agreement with our European partners on a small business charter. An important element of the charter is the commitment that, in considering regulations, the European Union will take particular account of their impact on small businesses and seek to reduce their burden. That is something that already happens in the United Kingdom. An exemption for small retailers would significantly reduce the estimated costs of £500 million per annum—as I said earlier, that estimate comes from the retail industry and has not been independently validated. We are working with the British Retail Consortium to see what can be done on that issue. Similarly, an exemption for small producers will reduce the total administrative costs of implementing the directive. It is vital that we achieve the flexibility we need in the directive and we are already doing so through the working group. That will allow us to implement the directive—when it emerges—with the least cost to business, and particularly to small business.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster raised the important issue of timing. A divergence of views exists among member states on that question. Some want 60 months before the introduction of producer responsibility, others think that 18 months is the maximum acceptable period. In this country, the information technology industry is comfortable with 18 months, whereas the consumer electronics sector prefer 60 months. There is no single view, even among industries in the United Kingdom. We think that a compromise of a period of about 30 months before the introduction of producer responsibility should be acceptable and would assist industry. We would then like a gap of 12 months between that introduction and the deadline for the legal requirement to meet the recovery and recycling targets. That would give business an appropriate time in which to achieve the requirements. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his constructive points; they are on our agenda for negotiations.

The hon. Member for Vale of York raised the issue of the toy safety directive, which was negotiated and implemented by the previous Government and she talked about gold-plating. Without knowing all the details, I think that her initial proposal to prevent giving old toys to charity shops is absurd. It is a good example of the need to change the culture of Whitehall, so that we have a common-sense approach to the negotiation and implementation of directives.

The hon. Lady also raised the issue of e-commerce and purchases over the internet. We do not know how that will develop, but most of the products with which the directives are concerned are produced by local suppliers. For example, one may purchase a product from Dixon's over the internet, rather than from a shop. Regardless of where a retail shop is based on the internet, there still has to be local fulfilment. The goods that one buys are physical goods: they cannot be delivered virtually, but have to be delivered to one's home or office. That creates an opportunity for precisely the kind of take-back to which my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster referred.

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Prepared 28 March 2001