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House of Commons

Thursday 7 March 2002

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill

Order for further consideration, as amended, read.

To be further considered on Thursday 14 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): If she will make a statement regarding the implementation of European recycling directives. [37991]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): The United Kingdom has participated fully in the negotiation and implementation of European Community measures to increase recycling.

Andrew Selous: Will the Secretary of State explain why other European countries, such as Germany, were able to prepare in advance for the ozone depleting regulations, with the result that they did not incur the expenses that the UK has incurred? My county council, Bedfordshire, has had to spend £810,000 this year to store fridges, as no UK treatment facilities are available. Will the right hon. Lady assure the House that the Government will not be caught unawares in relation to any future European recycling directives?

Margaret Beckett: First, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that three other member states had made preparations that allowed them to handle fridges in the way that he suggested, but of course they did not do so without incurring expense. Twelve member states, including the United Kingdom, were awaiting further guidance from the Commission.

I share the hon. Gentleman's view that it is important that we get clear acceptance and understanding not only of the wording of legislation and regulations, but of what they mean—what the implications are. I assure him that we are more than eager to engage in such discussions in order to clarify all these issues before regulations are made or legislation implemented. That has not always

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been the case under previous Governments, but this Government engage at a stage when planning and discussion are under way.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): As my right hon. Friend is aware, there are very few companies throughout the European Union that provide the machinery for removing refrigerants from refrigerators, and there was a backlog of orders for such machines from companies throughout the EU, including Britain, wanting to take advantage of the opportunities of recycling. Will the procedure require licensing in Britain, and how will that affect companies trying to set up facilities in the UK to recycle fridges?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is right; the recycling does require licensing, but there are procedures in place, handled by the Environment Agency, to deal with that. My hon. Friend and the House may like to know that, as of this week, we are expecting the arrival of the first mobile facility for carrying out this type of recycling, and we have every reason to hope that other plant will be in place by June.

Andrew George (St. Ives): Although we accept the Minister's sincerity, does she accept that her Department faces an even worse crisis? A new wave of European legislation to which Britain has signed up is fast coming along, and her Department is as unprepared for that as it was for the directive that resulted in 250,000 fridges being stockpiled. Her Department seems equally unprepared for the hazardous liquid waste directive, which must be implemented in four months, and it is doubtful that the Department will be prepared for forthcoming directives on abandoned cars, waste from ships, hazardous waste, electronic and electric goods and many others. Does she accept that her Department does not have the capacity to cope, and that Britain runs the risk of being seen as the laggard in Europe in respect of waste management and recycling?

Margaret Beckett: No, I do not accept that; it is completely unjustified. The hon. Gentleman rolled into his observations a number of different sets of regulations that are all at different stages of discussion and implementation. For example, the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive is still under discussion in the European Parliament, so we are some distance away from that. I entirely share his view that it is right that we take on board the implications of these issues and prepare for them as thoroughly as we can.

The end of life vehicles directive is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that extensive discussions and consultations are under way to make sure that we implement properly and proportionately the legislation and the regulations to which we have agreed. I can also assure him that there is no truth whatever in the suggestion that the UK is a laggard in these matters. Every member state has the same concerns and frequently the same difficulties as people experience in this country.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): May I remind my right hon. Friend that the delay in implementing the European directives was the responsibility of the former Tory

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Government, who delayed the introduction of any such regulations for three years? Will WRAP, the waste and resources action programme, have some influence in determining the markets for recycled materials, which is one of the main problems that the Government face?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is right that WRAP is a very important organisation that was set up by the Government exactly in order to work on and develop the market for recycled products. One of the things that people often leave out when they discuss this issue is that it is all very well to talk about recycling and finding new markets, but it must happen in reality. He is right that the programme is an important and useful initiative that has been taken by the Government. He is also right to say—I realise that this was not popular with everyone in the House—that, with regard to the implications of European legislation in many fields, we have had to grapple with the knock-on effects of delay and the previous Government's inability to engage in negotiation. That is not a course of action that we intend to follow.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): I am delighted that the Secretary of State has come here to answer questions on fridges; we are used to the dithering performance of the Minister for the Environment. Perhaps she can clear something up for us. The Minister has blamed the European Commission for failing to keep him informed of the consequences of the directive on the recycling of fridges. As she will know, the Commission has vehemently denied that and blames the Government for the fridge mountain. As they cannot both be telling the truth, which one of them is not doing so?

Margaret Beckett: I see that it is my right hon. Friend's turn to be abused by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. It is the first time that I have heard anybody call my right hon. Friend dithering, and I have certainly never seen any evidence to suggest that he has such a problem—forthright and determined, yes, but dithering, no. On the handling of the fridges legislation, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a very clear difference of opinion between ourselves and the Commission. I remind him that, as I said, 12 member states had not taken action to implement the directive, while 12 clearly had concerns about precisely what it meant.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am sorry, but that answer is hopelessly inadequate. There is a very serious problem with fridges, which are potentially hazardous, not least because they contain CFCs, and the Government are doing absolutely nothing about it. These days, one is about as likely to see a field full of fridges as one full of sheep. Given that, as we have heard, there are new directives in the pipeline dealing with televisions, personal computers and cars, is not there a real danger that the fridge mountain could turn into a whole mountain range of discarded possessions?

Margaret Beckett: No, there is no evidence of a huge build-up of difficulties in respect of fridges. The hon. Gentleman says that the Government are doing nothing, but I am sure that he is aware that we have already made some £6 million available to local authorities—

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Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): Piffling.

Margaret Beckett: As the hon. Gentleman's party is committed to cutting public expenditure, I am not quite sure how much he would make available.

The money is intended to deal with the issue up to the end of March, and we will discuss the matter further with local authorities. There is no evidence of a vast and growing problem or of great difficulty. It is a pity that Opposition Members are trying to create such a problem when one does not exist.


2. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): If she will make a statement on the energy review published by the performance and innovation unit. [37994]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I welcome the review as a valuable contribution to the debate on how best to help the UK move towards a low-carbon economy in response to our internationally agreed climate change goals. It is too early for the Government to have reached a view on all the review's many recommendations, but we will consider them very carefully. As has been announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, we will hold a full public consultation leading to the publication of a White Paper later this year.

Joan Ruddock: I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. As Government investment in renewables is running at about £100 million a year and in energy conservation at about £200 million year, and as her estimates of the costs of cleaning up nuclear waste from the nuclear programme suggest that they will be £85 billion, will she tell her colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry that greater political will and more investment in energy conservation and renewables could enable us to meet any perceived energy gap, and that the environmental imperative is to say no to any new nuclear capacity?

Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend rightly says, the Government are committed to making much more substantial investment in renewables than in the past and to investment in energy conservation. We fully recognise the enormous contribution that those steps can make towards helping us to meet our climate change obligations. My Department has instigated a thorough consultation on the handling and treatment of radioactive waste. The Government are alive to the importance of these difficult and different issues and keen to stimulate public consultation and debate.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): The Secretary of State will be aware of the potential benefits to UK agriculture of renewable energy crops, but the problem is that power stations capable of using those crops are few and far between. What negotiations is her Department conducting with generators to increase the number of those units, and

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what input is she having into the rewriting of electricity trading arrangements to favour electricity generation from such sources?

Margaret Beckett: Electricity trading arrangements are the subject of wider discussions with my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry. Fuel crops offer considerable potential and they will be considered as part of the Government's discussions on our forward strategy for agriculture as a whole.

Dr. Jack Cunningham (Copeland): Is not it odd that on the very day that the Government's chief scientific adviser has called for a nuclear power building programme, and given that the Government are not only failing to meet their CO 2 reduction objectives under Kyoto, but will have no chance of doing so if we remove the contribution to electricity generation that is made by nuclear power—

Joan Ruddock: I am not suggesting removing existing nuclear power.

Dr. Cunningham: Will my hon. Friend stop making sedentary interventions and keep quiet for a moment?

As the performance and innovation unit report makes it clear that we should keep the nuclear option open, does my right hon. Friend accept that it is about time we faced the reality that however big the renewables programme—I support a big programme—we will not be able to provide the electricity for an advanced industrial economy without a contribution from nuclear power?

Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend is correct to say that the review suggests that we should keep open the option on nuclear power, although it did not make concrete proposals about the steps that we should take. The Government are carefully considering the recommendations in the review and will make proposals for consultation in the near future.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): Will the Secretary of State answer the question put by the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham)? Does she agree with Professor David King that the UK needs to reinvest in nuclear power, with the backing of a substantial Government financial package?

Margaret Beckett: I have not had the opportunity to study what Professor King is reported to have said, and I would wish to do so before I commented on it. All I can say is that the review recommended that the Government keep an open mind on the future use of nuclear power. As chief scientific adviser, Professor King is of course free to make his views known.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): If we are fully to develop renewable sources of energy, will my right hon. Friend tell the environmental and other groups that come to see her not to oppose offshore wind farms? Although they want renewable energy, many of those groups have blocked wind farms in the countryside. As the windiest

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country in Europe, it would be a disaster if our huge potential for developing offshore wind power were to be thwarted by the activities of those groups.

Margaret Beckett: I know that my hon. Friend shares the view of many in the House that many of those groups make a useful contribution to the debate, but he is also right to say that there can be a worrying tendency to a degree of inconsistency among them when it comes to concrete proposals. Everyone who wishes to see the greater development of a programme for renewables—I think that includes most hon. Members—must recognise that none of these issues is problem free.

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