Angela Watkinson (Upminster): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the effects of the European Commission's regulation on the safe disposal of waste freezers and refrigerators. It has affected industrial and commercial appliances since October last year, but has also applied to domestic appliances since 1 January this year. Before I highlight the practical problems being experienced by local authorities in implementing the new duties, I will outline the background to the regulation.
The possibility of damage to the ozone layer from chlorofluorocarbonsthat is the last time I will say that word in fullwas predicted in 1974. In 1985, the Vienna convention for the protection of the ozone layer was framed to promote precautionary action. In 1997, an international agreement was reached to reduce progressively the use of CFCs and halosthe Montreal protocol to the Vienna convention. That has now been ratified by 156 countries, including all industrialised nations. Recent reports that the United Kingdom faces a growing pile of old refrigerators is perhaps the first obvious impact of the Montreal protocol. In 1999, the United Kingdom agreed to a European directive that would require all CFCs from refrigerators to be recycled from 1 January 2002.
In July 2001, it was brought to the attention of the United Kingdom Government that the directive would also cover insulating foam in the doors and walls of refrigerators. The Government have complained about the late timing of the information passed on by the European Union, but the 1 January deadline caught them unaware. The Minister stated that he did not believe there was a precedent for a delay in the implementation of the directive when the matter had already gone through Brussels. Unfortunately, the Government did not even ask for a delay in the implementation of such a worthy directive. A delay or phased implementation would have eased the many problems now being faced by waste collection and disposal authorities. Sites could have been identified for the recycling of refrigerators and other electrical goods.
The habit of refitting the kitchens of homes when they exchange hands means that many redundant refrigerators are still serviceable and in good condition. If they could be reused, the numbers requiring degassing and disposal, either by high temperature incineration or to landfill, would be reduced. In response to a parliamentary question, the Minister said that up to 3 million domestic refrigeration units are disposed of in the United Kingdom each year. A large number of them seem to be in my constituency.
Old refrigerators must be treated in one of three ways. The whole refrigerator may be disposed of in an incinerator. That process is expensive, and means that the metal elements of the refrigerator cannot be recycled. It has also been suggested that they can be disposed of abroad. However, refrigerators are now classified as hazardous waste, and thus cannot be exported. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will be kind enough to clarify that point when he sums up. Moreover, transport costs are very high. The best available option is that proposed by the Government: that refrigerators be disposed of in purpose-built reclamation facilities in the United Kingdom. However, the Government do not seem to have made provision for that most sensible means of disposal. Although the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has allocated £6 million to help local authorities deal with the storage costs of the refrigerators that they cannot dispose of, none of that sum is payable until the next financial year.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): My hon. Friend has rightly alluded to the length of time that it took for the Government to wake up to such matters. Is she aware that the Minister received a letter dated 24 November 2000 from Dixons Group plc that alerted the Government to the ending of both the company's free take-back scheme and the export potential of those refrigerators, and to the consequences? The Government did not react to that timely warning.
Angela Watkinson : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his helpful intervention. I have received many letters from retailers about that very point. The potential exists for the retailer take-back method, which offers opportunities for refurbishment and resale, to take 20 per cent. of waste refrigerators from the waste stream. It is a great pity that that method is not available to the retail trade.
Mr. Jack : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene again. She may have noticed that, when I gave her that piece of information, the Minister intimated that he vigorously disagreed. In his reply to the letter that I mentioned, Lord Whitty says:
Angela Watkinson : My right hon. Friend is right, of course. Another problem is that additional costs are piling up on local authorities, which have a duty to collect redundant refrigerators if retailers do not take them back.
Angela Watkinson : Let me give an example. Essex county council has estimated that its costs are expected to be in the region of £1.68 million. So far, its predicted share of the £6 million sum is likely to be in the region of £50,000. The shortfall will have to be found from council tax, at a time when the difference between central Government grant and the spending requirements of local authorities is widening annually at an alarming rate. On the other hand, the East London waste authority, which services my constituency, has yet to learn how much funding it might be given. Havering council accepts and collects, via its bulky refuse collection service, only domestic refrigerators and freezers, which are temporarily stored at a local civic amenity site. Neither Havering nor any of the other ELWA constituent authorities accommodates commercial refrigerators and freezers. Between November and Julya period of only seven monthsHavering had almost 5,000 refrigerators and freezers weighing 204 tonnes collected from its civic amenity site by ELWA collection vehicles, which required 153 vehicle movements.
A recent ELWA report highlighted the scope of the problem when it revealed the expectation that the authority would receive between 7,000 and 40,000 units. The speculative nature of the numbers involved illustrates one of the difficulties in planning that service. As the containers have to be stacked for onward shipment to Germany, closed-top containers must be used to meet health and safety and licensing requirements. A short-term contract was let, which allowed the disposal of approximately 5,500 units. However, the report pointed out that ELWA was receiving 574 units a week and that, by the end of June, more than 10,500 units would be stored at its refuse transfer station.
The report went on to identify options and associated costs for the disposal of refrigerators. The option chosen by the board of ELWA was the disposal of all units within the current financial year. That would have the advantage of clearing the RTS site as quickly as possible, and there would be no burden on future years' expenditure.
The total estimated cost for 200203, including storage and disposal, is between £750,000 and £1 million. Havering alone, one of ELWA's four constituent authorities, has roughly 95,000 properties. It can expect between 9,500 and 19,000 units a year, depending on the life of a refrigerator; the figures are based on a lifespan of five to 10 years. The council has to offer a free collection service to deter fly tipping, and that is an additional burden on its budget.
The guidance that outlines the legislative requirements for the collection and disposal of refrigerators is highly prescriptive. It imposes many new duties for which authorities are unprepared in both practical and financial terms. The standard that practitioners should achieve is an ozone-depleting substance loss of 15 to 25g per unit, which can be achieved by using a fully automated mechanical recovery plant with an integrated degassing unit. It is anticipated that losses in that range would certainly be acceptable from a Montreal protocol perspective.
The following requirements in the guidance involve techniques that prospective practitioners may not have anticipated: the removal of ozone-depleting substances prior to the storage of the appliance; extraction of both the oil and refrigerant in the same step; and, possibly, the pre-heating of appliances prior to degassing. Best practice would also involve degassing in a controlled environment where fugitive releases of ODS could be recovered. In the interim, the pragmatic decision has been taken that degassing can take place in the open air. Although degassing outside a controlled environment introduces an additional uncertainty regarding the overall ODS recovery efficiency from cradle to grave, it is currently considered acceptable, given the unquantified loss of ODS from handling and transport operations.
The standard licence is for the pre-destruction and storage of refrigeration equipment, including refrigerators. The conditions require the removal of foodstuffs and loose materials, cleaning, and the removal or securing of doors before the refrigerator is put into storage. That is defined as pre-treatment. The storage prior to pre-treatment, and the pre-treatment operation itself, must be undertaken on an impermeable surface. Once the pre-treatment has been done, the refrigerator can be removed to hard-standing for short-term storage of less than 12 months.
If refrigerators are stored for more than 12 months, the compressor must be drained of refrigerant and lubricating oil, and that draining operation must be done on an impermeable surface. The standard licence is to be used for the pre-destruction treatment and storage of waste refrigeration equipment only, and is not to be issued without modification in flood-risk areas.
The uncertainty about the long-term funding of that highly complex service makes it very difficult for disposal authorities to commit to long-term contracts. That is slowing down the process, and is resulting in a greater backlog than is necessary. The most immediate need is for a fast, non-bureaucratic reimbursement system, backed up by documentation, so that local authorities can forward plan with confidence. They need to be able to expand their local civic amenity sites where electrical goods can be brought for recycling, to provide proper storage facilities, and to form partnerships with refurbishing organisations such as Renew Trust.
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): Is my hon. Friend aware that some time ago, in answer to a question of mine, the Minister said that the Government would fund any new duty imposed on a local authority? Is she aware of whether the Government have quantified how much they expect to pay local authorities, and
Angela Watkinson : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because the main thrust of the debate is that local authorities are unprepared, both financially and in practical terms, to deal with those expensive new duties. The £6 million that has been promised will be spread thinly over local authorities across the country, and that will leave an enormous shortfall that local authorities will have to make up out of their council tax.
Mr. Jack : My hon. Friend mentioned the thinness of resource for local authorities to store refrigerators and the fact that the Minister estimates that the cost of disposing of the existing mound of refrigerators will be some £40 million. The trade suggests that it could be as high as £60 million to £70 million. It remains unclear who will pay for the disposal of those refrigerators, let alone what will happen in future.
Angela Watkinson : My right hon. Friend is right. Security of funding is necessary for all authorities that deal with the storage or disposal of fridges, to enable them to enter into long-term contracts. Until they can do that, there will be no lessening in impact of either the existing fridge mountain or the one gathering as fridges continue to flow into civic amenity sites throughout the country.
Renew Trust is typical of a refurbishment company that specialises in taking in redundant fridges for resale to housing associations and social services. I understand that legislation to reinstate retailer take-back is not expected before 2004. Interim measures to enable the service to be reinstated before then would greatly benefit that sector of the waste management industry. That would also prepare for the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive, which is wending its way through the European Parliament and will introduce new measures to reuse, recycle and recover all electrical and electronic equipment in order to reduce their disposal to landfill.
The lessons from the fridge disposal debacle need to be learned. The cost impact of the WEEE waste electrical and electronic equipment directive on both large and small businesses as well as waste collection and disposal authorities needs to be assessed. The last thing we want is a computer mountain that makes the fridge mountain look like a molehill.
Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who spoke properly and strongly about the problems affecting her area. It is a national problem. Between 2.5 million and 3 million fridges are discarded each year. According to the Minister, the cost of the episode is £40 million, although informed estimates from the private sector suggest that it could be much moreabout £60 million to £70 million.
It is important to look at the landscape. Over the weekend, I visited Burntsump waste disposal site in north Nottinghamshire to see the piles of refrigerators. It will clearly take some time to resolve the problem.
The episode has not reflected well on any of the parties involved. Following press speculation and the Select Committee report, it is important to draw lessons for the future. In introducing the new regulation, it is important in environmental terms to achieve more than we have so far.
The Select Committee report refers to the regulation being rushed through Parliament at a breakneck speed. It took three weeks for Parliament to consider that important matter. I appreciate that that is a matter not for the Minister but for the House and the appropriate Committee, but we need to look carefully at how we deal with the increasing amount of European Union legislation on the environment in particular.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. What emerged from consultation on fridges and end of life vehicles is that negotiations with the EU seem to be led by the Department of Trade and Industry. However, the Department with responsibility for implementation and enforcement is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which was not party to the process, and was not fully informed about what was agreed. Is not that an obvious lacuna, and an example of a total lack of joined-up government?
Paddy Tipping : One of the things that emerges from this episode is that several Departments were involved, such as the DTI and the forerunner of DEFRA. When discussions took place at the management committee in Brussels, it was not always clear which official and Department was taking the lead in the negotiations. However, it is significant that when the British Government, and Governments across the EU, signed up to this regulation, they did not have a clue about what they were signing up to.
Malcolm Bruce : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there was pressure to reach political agreement before the details of the ozone-depleting substance regulation and subsequent European environmental legislation were sorted out, and that, in retrospect, that has turned out to be the Achilles heel of this approach to environmental legislation?
Paddy Tipping : That is absolutely right. One of the lessons that we can learn from this regulation is that it is necessary to involve politicians at an early stage, when things appear to be going wrong. There was a protracted discussion between the Minister's Department and officials in BrusselsI know that the Minister will tell us about thatand I believe that there were faults on both sides. However, when the Minister became directly involved in July 2001, things began to happen. I make no complaint about the way that officials worked, but it is clear that things were going badly wrong. There had been a series of discussions to try to resolve the matter, but when the Minister became involved, progress began to be made. When difficulties of this kind arise, the Council of Ministers ought to be brought back into the discussion.
Mr. Sayeed : If I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, he suggested that other EU countries were no more ready than the UK. Is he aware that, as of October 2000, four other EU member states were fully prepared to deal with this problem?
Paddy Tipping : There is a mixed response across the EU. Some countries, such as Germany and the Scandinavian nations, were well prepared. However, some EU countries have not made the progress that the British Government have madeand we have still got problems.
I return to my point. A political agreement was reached. A technical discussion then took place about the way that the regulation was going to be introduced. Problems arose, and at the end of the daythree years after the initial discussion of the regulationwe have environmental problems, because there was a lack of proper planning in this country, and across the EU.
Two lessons must be learned from that process, and talked about further. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) talked about the private sector. Companies such as Comet had spotted that there was a problem, and it tried to tell the Department about it. It might not have been pitching at the right level in the Department, but it is clear that the private sector perceived that there was going to be a problem. That lead them to withdraw the take-back scheme. Their messages should have been picked up sooner. We must also have a better and more thorough discussion about the technical nature of the problems as such regulations are introduced.
Therefore, the process of introducing the regulations is difficult, and it should be improved. I take on board the point that it is important to get this right now, because there is a great amount of European legislation that will have an impact on this country. The landfill directive will change radically, and for the better, the way that waste is disposed of in the UK. The hon. Member for Upminster mentioned the end of life vehicle directive and the WEEE directive, both of which are sitting on the Minister's desk. They present major challenges for the Government. I would like to sayand I hope that the Minister will reassure methat we are better prepared for the introduction of that legislation, but I am slightly ambivalent about that.
With regard to the end of life vehicle directive, a decision was taken only a few weeks ago that the last owner should pay for the disposal of the vehicle. That will lead to real difficulties. I know that steps and measures have been taken to try to mitigate them, but, potentially, the problem of abandoned cars and vehicles will become another real issue for the Government. It could be the end of the road for good quality waste disposal governed by DEFRA. Similarly, the WEEE directive affecting electrical equipment great deal of potential to cause problems.
The hon. Member for Upminster mentioned the costs to local authorities. On balance, the points that she made were pretty fair. Let us examine what has taken place so far: £6 million was made available to local authorities in 2001-02 for storage costs in the first three months of this calendar year. That money has been paid to local authorities via the standard spending assessment, through the distribution mechanism. However, when one asks local authorities, "How much money are you getting to store refrigerators?", they do not know, because it is drip fed throughout the year.
I have tabled parliamentary questions asking the Minister to specify how much money has been paid to each local authority in 200102. I am concerned that, after pressing this matter for some time, we still do not have that breakdown in black and white. In the light of those comments, I am sure that the Minister will examine the matter and respond quickly.
The hon. Lady quite properly asked about the real costs for the current financial year. Three months into this financial year, no announcement has yet been made. We must have an announcement at an early date so that local authorities know where they stand. At the end of the day, if their costs are not reimbursedand I doubt that they will bethey will knock on to the local council tax payer.
We need some indication from the Minister in the near future about the way forward, which, in a sense, should be to go back to what we had before. Companies such as Comet that provide new fridges should have a take-back scheme. When we refit our kitchens and buy new equipment, it makes obvious sense to have someone take the old equipment away. I would like to see a take-back scheme introduced quickly. I know that there have been discussions between the interested parties about that, and, in March, the Department issued a potential protocol for the way forward. My impression is that all the stakeholders are keen to take that forward.
Paddy Tipping : Retailers, including Comet, run schemes throughout the country. White goods are taken and refurbished. The scheme has the potential to offer refurbished goods to families with limited incomes, and alongside that is the opportunity to train people with employment problems due to such things as long-term employment or disability. We should focus on such a scheme because it is the way forward.
Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to read the "Captain Cash" column in the News of the World on Sunday. I look at only the front page of that paper to ensure that my name is not there; I never look at the inside pages. I shall peruse the "Captain Cash" column very diligently.
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): The Western Mail might not have reached Sherwood yet, but if the hon. Gentleman had read it today, he would have seen a picture of Europe's largest fridge dump of 35,000 refrigerators at Newport dock. The story in the paper is more encouraging because it mentions the opening of the United Kingdom's first fridge and freezer recycling facility. If we work with such facilities, and distribution companies, manufacturers and sellers of the products, the recycling circle will be finished. The key to success will be not only the useful additional recycling for less well off families that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but the 35,000 fridges in Newport that will be processed there by a new facility.
The Government are consulting on a protocol on a way forward: the notion of fridge recycling credit. It would help all parties involved to be told by the Minister today whether that scheme will be introduced within three or four weeks, or whether it will take longer.
Angela Watkinson : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the additional benefit of the retailer take-back scheme is the fact that as refrigerators are carefully collected, stored and transported, and kept upright, it is more possible to refurbish and resell them? Refrigerators that come via local authority collections are not stored and transported carefully, and I understand that only about 1 per cent. have the potential to be reused.
Paddy Tipping : The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The Minister has direct experience of that because the storage mountain for his region is close to his constituency. There has been controversy about the way in which refrigerators have been stored there. If fridges are stored properly and stacked correctly, there is a much better chance of recycling and reusing them.
I turn to the point that was raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas). There has been much investment in Wales, and there will be much investment throughout the country. The real lesson from the story is that the United Kingdom Government have a good record on environmental matters. We have an emerging environmental industry and emerging environmental technologies. With good leadership and forethought about legislation, that technology can be developed and investment can be made. We can not only enhance the environment, but build a new environmental technology industry that can be the envy of Europe.
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing this important debate. It is as timely for people in Wales as for those in south-east England.
If a fridge still works, we should discourage people from throwing it out and encourage them to hang on to it for another year or so, rather than buy the latest cobalt blue or shiny gunmetal grey model. They should be content with their old white fridge, with alphabet magnets and poetry stuck all over it. It is sometimes environmentally more sound, because of the environmental costs of manufacturing, not to buy a new product but to continue with a slightly older one.
In our wasteful society, we have been throwing away 2.5 million fridges a year, which has a huge environmental cost. It was right and proper that the Governments of the European Union introduced legislation to try to deal with the chlorofluorocarbons found in fridges, because the link with the thinning of the ozone layer is proven. This Government had four years to prepare for that legislation but, regrettably, were not sufficiently prepared to facilitate recyclingor even incineration of fridges at designated sites, which is another option for some fridges. I am sure that we shall hear a reason for that before long.
As I said, we have been throwing away 2.5 million fridges a year, but when the legislation was introduced, we had the ability to dispose of only 8,000 a week, so we had only a 10th of the recycling capacity needed for discarded fridges. Any fridges discarded since January have either been stacked up by the local council on a farm, waste disposal site, at Newport docks or wherever, or sent to an approved facility abroad.
As I mentioned in my exchange with the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), the good news, certainly from the perspective of people in Wales, is that Sims Metal has just opened the first fridge and freezer recycling plant to deal with the problem. Currently, it has 35,000 fridges, but that is expected to increase to 400,000. The plant can deal with commercial appliances from throughout the United Kingdom; it is not only for Wales. The plant is the fruit of a partnership between the private sector and the National Assembly for Wales, and Assembly money has been invested in it. An element of Government money is needed to kick-start a recycling facility to deal with CFCs from fridges.
The Government are spending £6 million to tackle the problemthat is mainly for storage costs, as we have heardbut I think that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report estimated a cost of £40 million, which could increase to as much as £64 million. We in Wales have an interest in central Government's investing in local authorities. After all, we benefit from any increase in public spending in England through the Barnett formula and the block grant, so any investment in England to meet the demands of the hon. Member for Upminster would eventually be good for Walesalthough not as good as it should be, because of the formula, but that is another debate.
The other positive element was touched on by the hon. Member for Sherwood: the increasing numbers of local fridge recycling schemes. There are two in my constituency. CRAFT recycles all kinds of goods and delivers them to people on benefits, those who cannot afford new goods and those with a particular need. There is a direct relationship. Such goods are removed from one household, refurbished by unemployed people or those with learning disabilities, and then sent to another household. That virtuous circle benefits the community in Aberystwyth.
Another, ambitious project involves the Ceredigion Materials Conservation Association, which is trying to recycle just about everything in the county. I am pleased that it is in line for an award at the Royal Welsh show to acknowledge its success.
Mr. Sayeed : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, although the recycling of fridges is extremely valuable to employment prospects and gives poorer people adequate forms of cooling food and so on, there are problems? Under the regulations, not just the directive, recycling must be conducted under controlled circumstances, and is therefore extremely expensive.
Mr. Thomas : I accept that point, but facilities to engage in such control will spread throughout the United Kingdom. If we are to create the right virtuous circle in the recycling of fridges, there should beI expect itat least one such facility in each local authority area.
The report apportioned "overwhelming responsibility"I think that those were the wordsto the Government for the current fiasco. However, there is also confusion with the European Commission. Points were well made about future directives, and I would like some Select Committeesfor example, the Environmental Audit Committee or the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committeeto have an increased role in scrutiny. There is a tendency for matters to be passed to European Scrutiny Committees, never to be seen again. Most Members do not involve themselves in the processes of European Scrutiny Committees or Standing Committees as perhaps they do in those of Select Committees. If they did, that might be a way forward.
In advance of the debate, I contacted all 22 unitary authorities in Wales, as I wanted to know the picture. Some 16 authorities responded, and I will tell hon. Members about some of their experiences. Interestingly, only one or two local authorities reported an increase in fly-tipping. However, they reported an increase in storage and related costs. Several authorities now charge between £5 and £10 to remove fridges. That is not a huge sum of money, but for someone who cannot afford it, that is a significant disincentive to having a fridge removed from a property, when previously a retailer may have exchanged it for a new one. Three local authorities now charge. That may be a disincentive, but they claim that there is no evidence for that. One local authority claimed that the charge was to stop hoax callerspeople who call out the local authority for nonsense reasons, such as asking it to remove garden rubbish instead of the fridge.
The crucial point is that the maximum charge of £10 is met by a fee of between £28 and £30, which local authorities have to pay other contractors to remove fridges. That is a huge funding gap, which I do not want the National Assembly for Wales to fill entirely, even though recycling is a devolved issue. It is down to the UK Government and the way in which they have treated the issue. They need to propose a financial settlement for all local authorities throughout the United Kingdom. The figures that I have to date suggest that the new plant in Newport is likely to charge approximately £17 to £18 to take away each fridge or freezer, which means that local authorities there will also be out of pocket.
I am told that fridges and freezers can be recycled in Europe at about £4 to £5 per unit, which worries me slightly. First, why is it much cheaper to recycle fridges in Europe than in this country? Secondly, I worry that there will be an export of fridges from this country to Europe for processing. That entails the hazard of exporting waste, although I have no doubt that there would be a way of doing it. I am concerned that one environmental "good" will be undermined by another environmental "bad". What will be the cost in fossil fuels of transporting all these fridges to be processed abroad? We will be trying to reduce the damage to the ozone layer while increasing greenhouse gas emissions. That is like shutting the vents on the greenhouse and turning up the paraffin heater. It makes no sense to deal with fridges in that way.
I hope that the Government will consider the matter carefully and ensure that it is economically and environmentally sound to deal with fridges in the United Kingdom. We should also minimise the transport of fridges, which is an environmental cost in itself. We are not going down this route in order to incur other environmental costs.
I shall conclude with one thought about how we should deal with the problem in the long term. There is a central provision in environmental and fiscal legislation that the polluter pays. We will not solve the problems of waste and recycling of fridges until the cost of disposing of them is built into the cost of purchasing them. That should include the cost of removing and recycling the fridge, which would mean a slight increase in the purchasing price of about £10 or £15 per unit. That is not a huge amount to pay to create a cleaner, better and healthier environment. I hope that the Government will examine that solution for the medium term.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton): Before I call the next hon. Member, I should say that I want to call three further speakers. I shall start the winding-up speeches promptly at 10.30 am, because the Minister should have proper time to reply to the debate, which is important to the people of this country.
There are very important lessons to be learned, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing the debate and on the dispassionate way in which she spoke. Unfortunately, some of her right hon. and hon. Friends have used previous debates as an opportunity for argy-bargy and
The European Community breached three important principles of law making in passing the legislation. The first is the principle of clarity. The regulation was not clear, and a passage in the excellent report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee identified 23 areas of ambiguity. That is unacceptable; laws must be clear. There may be universal agreement on a policy, but unless the law is expressed clearly, it will not be effective.
The second principle is that the implications of the law must be understood, but they were not. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) said, with other regulations and directives coming through, it is important that the implications are fully understood. One implication of which the Government did not seem to know was that some 40 per cent. of domestic fridges in this country were refurbished and shipped to Africa.
The third principle is consultation. It is vital that those affected by laws are consulted, so that the implications can be understood. We can never have perfect foresight about a law's implications, but there are definite lessons to be learned as a result of this case.
I want to speak briefly about the restoration of the take-back scheme, which has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Upminster and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood. The regulation stopped the scheme, under which retailers collected the old equipment when they delivered new fridges. That put a stop to important schemes such as that operated by the Renew Trust in conjunction with Comet. I pay tribute to both, especially Comet for supporting the scheme in a socially responsible way.
The Renew scheme had several advantages. First, it meant that fridges would be in a good condition when they were collected. As the hon. Member for Upminster pointed out, some 20 per cent. could be refurbished when they were collected, rather than the 1 per cent. of those collected by local authorities. Secondly, disposal is more manageable. The company delivers the new fridge and takes back the old. Thirdly, Renew employs and trains the long-term unemployed and people with disabilities. I have a personal interest in that, as Renew was planning to open an outlet near my constituencyjust over the border in West Bromwichat which some 30 long-term unemployed people were to be employed and taught skills of renewing disposed fridges.
My question to my right hon. Friend the Minister is about the future of the take-back scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood mentioned the draft protocol, which was published earlier in the year and involves other stakeholders including local authorities, retailers and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. My right hon. Friend mentioned that in a newspaper article earlier in the year. The draft protocol has been published. What progress has been made on restoring the take-back scheme?
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing the debate. I must say, when I was elected I was unprepared for the fact that so much of hon. Members' time was dedicated to talking about fridgesnot even nice shiny new fridges, but dead fridges. Some of the exchanges at Question Time were a bit bizarre and surreal, reminding me of the dead parrot sketch so beloved of Monty Python fans. This is a dead parrot. This is a dead fridge. However, it is not just one dead fridge; we are talking about many thousands of dead fridges that are building up around the countryside.
While we have been debating the history of the problem, people in the rest of the country have been tackling the technology problems of disposing of and recycling fridges. In the few moments that I have, I will deal with a constituency issue. Mr. Cliff Matthews of Industrial Plastics Recycling of Knighton has proved himself to be able and innovative in the field. He has developed a new technique to deal with what are called dirty plastics, which are plastics that have been used for industrial and household processes. Many have said that they could not be easily recycled, but Mr. Matthews has shown that he is able to do that. He has produced recycled plastic in a quantity and quality appreciated by people looking for feed stocks in the plastic recycling field.
Mr. Matthews is critical of some of the technologies that are used in recycling fridges. He believes that the foam and the plastic in fridges are not separated prior to being fragmented and pulverised and before the degassing process takes place. As a result, after degassing the foam and plastics cannot be separated economically to be recycled. Mr. Matthews has developed a process that separates the plastics and foam at an early stage before the degassing and fragmenting take place. He can then recycle more of a fridge than is possible with current technologies. He goes so far as to claim that he can recycle up to 99.5 per cent. of the fridge. He is critical of some of the machinery that is being imported into the country for the process, because he does not believe that it can achieve an acceptable degree of recycling. He suggests that it might not even meet the requirements of the European directive on the amount of fridge material that can be recycled.
In doing such new and innovative work, Mr. Matthews has had no support from the Environment Agency for England and Wales. I have been working with him to see whether he can get a licence for his process. Far from being encouraged, he is being prohibited at almost every stage from doing his work. I have written to the Environment Agency on several occasions and have received replies. We have reached the stage where Mr. Matthews has been told that it will be at least three months before he has any chance of starting the work he wants to do.
Will the Minister ask the Environment Agency to give more encouragement to people who are doing such innovative work, often at their own cost and through investment of their own resources? The agency should also check whether the other recycling technologies meet European directives on the amount of material in fridges that is recycled.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Only 16 months into the last Parliament my constituent Mr. Charles Curry, an engineer by training but for a long time the editor of the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times
Mr. Swayne : Indeed. Mr. Curry sent a facsimile advising me that the directive would cause precisely the events that have been described this morning. If the editor of a provincial newspaper could spot this coming so many years ago, how could Parliament and the Department be unable to spot the same problem? It is extraordinary.
What on earth was the rationale for signing up to article 16? The export of fridges is a perfectly proper way of recycling them: surely sending fridges to people in Africa who want and will use them is better than having them standing leaking CFCs in sites throughout the country. What is wrong with the export trade? What is wrong with the export of CFCs from the European Union, that it should be outlawed in principle?
As for foam insulation, was it reasonable for the directive to require the recycling of the foam? Even if it was reasonable, should we have signed up to it without the capacity to implement it? We have finished arguing about whether it applies to foam because we know that it applied from June last year, so why did we do nothing about it then?
How many planning consents is the Department aware of that have been granted for recycling facilities, and what capacity for recycling fridges is likely to result from them? What will be the allocation for each local authority for the current and the next financial year? I do not expect an answer this morning, but it would be useful for the information to be placed in the Library. What is the size of the current mountain, and what estimate has been made of the number of fridges illegally dumped? How many have been exported to Germany, and what are the cost implications of exporting our recycling? How much more expensive is it to export?
Last year I received another communication from Mr. Charles Curry, who warned me about the end of life directive for vehicles. I am particularly interested because I am a collector of the Dyanne variant of the Citroen Deux ChevauxI have had five of them. It cost me £60 to get rid of my last one. If the cost of recycling is to be borne by the last owner, how much more will it cost to get rid of the next one? I do this by choiceit is my hobbybut many people drive that sort of vehicle out of necessity, because they cannot afford a newer model. Moreover, the editor warned me that I would require a special licence for doing what I customarily dostrip one and use the parts on the other. Can that be true? Can anything so absurd be envisaged?
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): As I listened to the debate it struck me that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and never was there a truer example than the Government's handling of the refrigerator crisis. They had a good idea; they liked the headline, and
The hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) valiantly defended the Minister by saying that things got better when he intervened. Moments before, the Minister had leapt to his feet to tell us that he had known about the proposal since 1999. At this stage, blame for the crisis must stop with the Labour Government.
Malcolm Bruce : I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on giving us an opportunity to have this debate, which is overdue and necessary. There has been a mixture of contributions, some from hon. Members who have been up to here with fridges for a long time and some from those who have entered the debate more recently.
First, those who devised the regulationI think that it was under the Austrian presidencybelieved that the technology was already available and being used. The difficulty was that the view in the United Kingdom, which is always laggardly in these matters, was that the technology was impossible and impracticable. Therefore, we could sign the directive because we could argue that what was proposed could not be done, whereas those who drafted the directive knew that it could and would be done and were already doing it, or planning to do it. Peter Jones of Biffa summarised the matter well in his evidence to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He said that
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) was right to say that we should be considering ways to encourage people to refurbish their fridges and hang on to them. The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) mentioned Africa. The argument was that Africa solved our problem because the vast majority of our old fridges were exported there. The problem is that when those fridges eventually died, Africa had no facilities to dispose of them. Sending our fridges to Africa did not help our objective of reducing emissions.
We must consider how we can get on top of the problem in respect of the regulation, because we have not done so yet. The cost to local authorities has been mentioned on several occasions. My office tried to analyse the financial implications of the problem. By dint of asking the industry the average cost of disposal and asking local authorities how many fridges on average they disposed of, we came up with a figure of between £60 million and £70 million a year. A spokesperson for DEFRA said that the Liberal Democrats were talking rubbish.
The real worry, which the hon. Member for Sherwood rightly touched upon, is that local authorities, which are legally and practically responsible, are not being fully reimbursed for the cost of taking and storing fridges. The £6 million that they have received so far is considerably short of the total cost. In addition, they have to move fridges to an intermediate location. They then have to pay the cost of storage, and will have to transport the fridges to the place where they are eventually recycled. All that could have been avoided if we had acted early enough to get the capacity in place.
Biffa was more than willing to make an investment some time ago and in time to meet the requirement of the regulation, but it could not obtain clarification from DEFRA about whether the regulation would be applied. Mr. Jones said that the company would not spend £3 million investing in a plant if some fly-by-night character could come and steal the business away from it. It wants to be sure that the Government will back it up and enforce the regulation. There is clearly a difference of view about the timing, and about when the investment could have been in place.
The reference that has been made to the end of life vehicle directive is relevant. Here is a chance for us to get it right. There is enough lead time on that directive for us to think through what we are doing and solve the problem in advance. As I said earlier, the proposal that the last user should be responsible is bonkers and totally unworkable. The hon. Member for New Forest, West may be a responsible chap who pays to have his taken away, but hundreds of thousands of cars are abandoned every year and 15 per cent. of them are set alight. It costs on average £400 million a year to deal with abandoned cars, and that figure could well double if we apply this regulation. It will be a much more expensive problem than the fridges problem if we do not tackle it head on and in good time.
The lesson to be learned, and I quote the Secretary of State here, is to work with the flow of these European directives and regulations rather than resisting them. We are laggards in this country. I commend the Minister. I accept that he has a commitment to the environment and to implementing policies that will improve our environment and deal with recycling, and I suspect that he sometimes has frustrating experiences in Government when trying to get some of those policies implemented. On 2 May 2002 the Secretary of State said:
Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries are way ahead of us in recycling, in terms of both their cultural commitment to it and their practical engagement with it. These are the people who are shaping the regulations and the directivesrightly so, because handing the task of creating a directive to the worst performer would represent the lowest common denominator rather than the highest aspiration. In a sense we should accept that other countries are ahead of us, and take the opportunity to catch up. Obviously I do not know the exact details of his constituent, but the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire put his finger on an interesting point. There are advantages in being late, as long as we are committed to implementing the proposals. That means that we may be able to invest in superior, more efficient and effective technology and thus demonstrate that, late as we are, we can make a realistic contribution to solving the problem.
My plea to the Government is to start doing what the Secretary of State suggests: think things through in good time, encourage people with clear directives so that they know how to invest, and ensure that the mechanisms that we have in place will deliver the desired outcome. The desired outcome is a lot less waste, a lot more recycling and a climate in which the UK can hold its head up high and say, "We are not the worst polluters in Europe; we are setting the best example." However, there is a long way to go.
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing the debate. Although the fridge fiasco was well catalogued by the British media and the Government have been criticised by pretty well everyone, it is fitting that the House should be presented with another opportunity to discuss how we came to such a sorry situation.
The Minister for the Environment insists that his Department was given the relevant information belatedly, but we have known for many years that no other part of a refrigerator presents such a serious threat to the ozone layer as the CFCs in the insulation foam. Because of that and because the aim of the EU regulations on fridge disposal is to safeguard the
Even now, the UK has only one 10th of the recycling capacity needed to implement the regulation. The Minister has admitted to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that a £20 million industry exporting refurbished fridges was destroyed under EU regulations. Up to 40 per cent. of the 2.5 million domestic fridges replaced every year used to be refurbished for that export market, or for poorer people in this country. The majority were exported, and most went to the poorest countries in the world which cannot afford new refrigerators in which to store essential drugs. However, the Government have now admitted that until Customs and Excise began to enforce the regulation to stop the export of refurbished fridges, the Government did not realise that the regulations would destroy that life-saving trade.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has confirmed what everyone has said all along: the current fridge fiasco has been caused by the Government's incompetence. The Government alone are to blame. The Committee said:
The result of the Government's ineptitude is that at least 1 million fridges are piling up across the UK with few facilities to combat the problem, which will get worse. Discarded fridges are rotting and leaking the greenhouse gases that the European directive aims to have safely recycled. The Minister proceeded with the regulation without appropriate preparation and has consequently created an environmental hazard that is far worse than the one that would have occurred if he had delayed or done nothing. The Select Committee has found that the fiasco will cost the UK about £40 million, which would not otherwise have been incurred. Local authorities say that it will cost them £65 million this year alone. If we add to that the extra cost to householders and the cost for next year, we will be facing an unnecessary bill of more than £100 million.
It is imperative that the Government accept the blame for this fiasco, and learn the necessary lessons from it. Implementation of other EU directives, such as the end of life vehicle directive and the WEEE directive, is imminent. The Government must ensure that we have the ability to deal with redundant products before these directives are implemented.
When the Minister discussed matters with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, he blamed EC officials for their tardiness in providing an authoritative ruling on whether foam was included in the regulations, but he withdrew an allegation that the European Commission was incompetent. When the Commissioner made it clear that it was the Minister who was in the wrong, the Minister blamed the waste industry for having claimed that it could provide facilities to meet the deadline for recycling foam. He neglected to say that his Department had not informed the industry of the rules under which it would have to operate. The only people who have avoided the Minister'sbut not the public'scensure are the Minister and his officials in DEFRA. Even if the EU was tardy, it is an abysmal dereliction of duty not to have done what other countries did, which was to make contingency plans.
In the past, the Minister has made extravagant comments about himself. He has claimed that his performance as a Minister has resulted in the climate change programme, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, the home energy efficiency scheme, the energy efficiency commitment, and a commitment to end fuel poverty within 10 years. Most other people have a very different opinion from the Minister's about the Government's record on the environment. Carbon dioxide emissions have increased over the past two years. Labour Members have joined Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members to stop the Government scuppering the Home Energy Conservation Bill, and hurting the fuel poor.
I accused the Minister of being the environmental fig leaf for a Government who did not give a fig for the environment, and the Minister's self-congratulatory examples prove my case. Commenting on the Government's five-year record on the environment, the Minister's erstwhile friends in Friends of the Earth highlighted the importance of the environment in modern politics and the lack of political will on the part of the Government. It would be straining parliamentary language to quote what the Home Energy Conservation Partnership has said about the Minister.
DEFRA's lack of foresight has resulted in 13 million old tyres smouldering away and polluting the atmosphere, and mountains of old fridges with no means to recycle them. Unless the Minister learns from his mistakes, they will be joined by thousands of incinerated cars and millions of dumped televisions, all of which will blight what was once a green and pleasant land.
Mr. Meacher : There is certainly a major difference between the speech of the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who presented a balanced, thoughtful and fair case about the problems in her constituency and in general, and the extraordinary rant that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), who spoke from the Conservative Front Bench, which was the biggest farrago of nonsense that I have heard since he last spoke.
The hon. Lady made the point that the Government reacted too late. However, as I have related the facts so many times, I am astonished that Conservative Members are so unwilling to take on board what actually happened, and prefer to resort to the kind of political slapstick that we have just had from the Opposition Front Bench. I will take the hon. Gentleman through what happened.
legislation was passed in December 1998 by the Austrian presidency, which was keen to reach agreement quickly. Although the legislation was not published until August 1998, it went through in December of that year because of strong political pressure to secure early agreement under the Austrian presidency. That is one thing that went wrong. The real point is that no onenot the presidency, the Commission, or any Department in any member statequestioned the idea that the regulation applied only to the coolant circuit of refrigerators. That is what everyone believed. Prior to December 1998, when the regulation was passed, no one, including those in the waste management industry in the UK and elsewhere, asked whether it also applied to insulation foam. The UK industry raised the subject with us two months later in February 1999, and we immediately raised it with the Commission.
As I have said on nine separate occasions in the past two and a quarter years, between February 1999 and June 2001, my officials raised the matter at every management committee meeting, which was the right place to do so. They also raised it at formal meetings of the Commission, held to decide any details left unresolved in the Council of Ministers and to settle how directives and regulations should be implemented. My officials did absolutely the right thing. I have heard the Select Committee's response that "overwhelming responsibility" for the issue lies with the Governmentthe words have been correctly quotedbut that is the biggest travesty of the reality that I have ever heard.
Malcolm Bruce : The information from the European Commission says that on 1 October 2000 it was made clear that foam should be removed. It was the British Government who questioned the practicality of doing so.
Mr. Meacher : That is simply not the case. The Commission's view before October 2000, and afterwards, was that of the UK industrythat foam removal was probably not required. There was a question about whether the "if practicable" part of article 16 applied. We continually asked for certainty on that matter, because the industry needed it. It was not until we insisted, out of the normal cycle of events, on having an extraordinary meeting in June 2001 that it was finally decided, after lengthy and anguished discussions, that it did apply. We then immediately put in place all the measures that we could in respect of local authorities, the waste management industry, and investors, in order to deal with the situation.
I absolutely insist that the Government could not have done more. The only thing that my officials acceptI must say that I agree with themis that I should have been brought into the matter earlier. I was not informed until July 2001, and in retrospect, I think that that was wrong, and my officials agree. As I have said publicly, I would have contacted the Commissioner. I would have raised the matter in Council meetings, and I believe that I could have got an earlier answer. However, on the basis of the facts that I have given, the fault lies absolutely and wholly with the Commission. There are lessons for us to learn. I do not want to get into an argument with the Commission, but I have given the facts, and I need those facts to be recognised.
The UK industry has now made the investment necessary to enable the safe disposal of fridges. I entirely absolve it of blame for the fact that seven months was too short a time for it to be able to do so before 1 January 2002. Four plants have been operating for several weeks. Another opened last week, and a further five are due to come on line this year, two of them in August. We therefore expect the fridge mountain to begin to reduce from October.
The hon. Member for Upminster asked, perfectly fairly, why we did not delay implementation of the directive. Of course we thought about that. It would have been desirable, but the directive does not have to be transposed into UK law; it is a regulation that has applied automatically to every member state from 1 January 2002. Once it had been passedin fact, two or three years before thatit required the agreement of not only the Commission but all member states to delay its implementation. As has been said repeatedly, four member states already had the relevant technology and would not have agreed, so we could not get a postponement of the directive.
Exports have been endedrightly, I thinkbecause developing countries do not have disposal facilities. The object is to prevent leakage or gassing, which causes gas to enter the atmosphere and deplete the ozone layer.
I have said, and I repeat what others have said, that our best estimate of the initial annual UK cost is about £40 million. That cost will decrease as plants are commissionedI have already said that there will be 10 by the end of the yearcompetition becomes established and more fridges that do not require treatment enter the waste stream.
I was asked about the retailer take-back scheme. I am keen for the scheme to resume operation. The decision to stop it was not required by the regulation, but it was a commercial decision taken partly because of the end of the export trade. The retailers said that they could not continue the scheme without adequate treatment facilities. The main barrier to the scheme is the increased cost associated with fridge disposal. I hope that we will soon be able to make a statement about funding, although any decision must be taken in the context of the spending review. Further to several meetings that I have held with the retailers, I believe that conditions required to put the retailer take-back system in place are fulfilled.
It was correctly said that four member states had the technology in place at the outset. Eight member states now have plants to deal with fridges, and at least four or five have adequate capacity to handle all their waste fridges. Luxembourg hires a plant to deal with its fridges as necessary. The remaining six or seven member states are in a worse position than the UK. By the end of the year, or shortly after, we will be able to reprocess the vast majority of our fridges, and certainly 1.2 million per year by the end of next month. We have made substantial progress.
I turn to the waste electrical and electronic equipment directiveWEEEand the end of life vehicles directive. Both directives must be transposed into UK law before they are applicable, which gives us time to implement them properly. That is the key point. We will not implement the directives until we are confident that facilities are in place. Fridges were covered by a regulation, which meant that it came into force in all member states automatically.
It is a key point that we will not have the uncertainty about each new directive that we had with fridges. The WEEE directive is subject to conciliation, and it is still going through Brussels. It will not come into force until 2004, which gives us sufficient time to deal with it. We are consulting local authorities and industry even before the directive has been finally approved.
We carried out one round of consultations in March 2001 on the hazardous waste directive, and a second round will be held later this year. Legislation is now in place implementing the landfill directive in England and Wales. There has been uncertainty about the waste acceptance criteria. Brussels has extensively delayed letting us know what the criteria will be, and they will not be finalised until a vote is taken on 23 July. We need the criteria in order to decide the different classes of landfill and what is hazardous, non-hazardous or inert. That information has still not been provided.
As the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said, the Department of Trade and Industry is leading the way on implementation of the end of life vehicles directive, but I assure him that there is the closest liaison about it. Even though both Departments are involved because of their different interests, we are working closely to ensure that the directive comes into force smoothly. The technology is already available and we do not foresee any problems.