Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)
RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER MP, MR JOHN ADAMS AND MR STEPHEN HALL
WEDNESDAY 8 MAY 2002
40. And how far back will we be able to compare then, where have you started actually collecting the new data from?
(Mr Meacher) From the Strategy, 1999.
(Mr Hall) I think it will be just a snapshot of a year or so ago.
41. So it is not possible now to show us what has happened since 1999?
(Mr Meacher) Let me make it absolutely clear, waste is a problem area, it is a red area, and this is not a device to evade that fact; it is simply saying that, on the statistical comparisons which we believe are right and proper, we do not have the necessary data going back to the period since the Strategy.
Mr Francois: On this point about municipal waste, Minister, it is the Government's own Environment Agency that have told this Committee, very clearly,
Chairman: We will have to suspend for a quarter of an hour, until 5.15, we will come back at 5.15.
The Committee suspended from 4.57 pm to 5.12 pm for a division in the House.
Chairman: Minister, we have got a qorum, so if you would not mind starting three minutes earlier than I indicated, because we have got your questioner here as well. So perhaps Mr Francois could carry on with the question he was so rudely interrupted on.
42. Minister, we were talking about waste and the configuration of the waste headline indicator. The point I was seeking to make was, following on from what the Chairman was saying, it is the Environment Agency that have stressed to us, as a Committee, on a number of occasions, that the principal problem, in terms of waste, is household/municipal waste. So I think the reason why we are emphasising this is because your own environmental experts, in the Agency, have repeated this to us, and therefore I think it is fairly legitimate for us to repeat it back to you; they are saying it is the key problem, so surely it should be separately identified?
(Mr Meacher) There is an argument to that effect; we could do that. However, with great respect to the Environment Agency, and I have a lot of respect for them, that is not the definitive judgement, it is really what the public feels, and I do think that overall levels of waste are, actually, in my mind, in the end, what matters most. I am very concerned about household waste, it is going still too much in the wrong direction; if it were separately identified here it would be a red. And it needs to be changed, and is being changed, and I can spell out the policies by which we intend to do that. But we have, I think, rightly, taken account of industrial and commercial waste streams as being five or six times more, because I think that is the key factor; and, the truth is, the data on which to base a comparison of change since 1999 is not available on that basis. So I am totally open about waste, it is an area within my direct responsibility which is not going the right way; we need new policies, which are now being implemented, and we may have to have further policies still. But, in terms of recycling, statutory targets, in terms of money which is being put into this area, in terms of the creation of markets for recyclates, through WRAP, the right policies are there and these policies will change.
43. It is admirable that you want to measure the whole waste stream, I agree, but when will you be able to do that, 2003, 2004?
(Mr Meacher) Yes; it is not an annual
44. It is not annual?
(Mr Meacher) Not, it is not; that is why it will be 2003, 2004.
45. 2003 or 2004, you are not sure about that?
(Mr Meacher) In the financial year 2003-04.
46. But, also, that does mean that we will have no comparator for two years after that, will we, because you have no comparator now?
(Mr Meacher) But that is a comparator, is it not?
(Mr Hall) It will be a comparator with the figures that we had at the time of the Strategy, but then there will be, again,
47. But you have no figures now, let us just establish the point. You have no figures now for this total waste stream, no figures now, so the first figure you will have will be 2003-04, right, so that will become the comparator?
(Mr Meacher) I thought that was not the case. In 1999, which is when the final column derives from, we did not then have data for the whole waste stream, including industrial and commercial waste. We have, for, which year, 1997-98, but we have not got a comparator with 1997-98.
48. But that is rather amazing, is it not; you could measure the whole waste stream in 1997-1998, we have not been able to measure it since then and we will not be able to do so until 2003-04?
(Mr Meacher) It surprises me, too, but the industrial and commercial waste is not measured on an annual basis, it is measured every five years, in effect.
49. Every five years; so really we will not have a measure of the waste stream until once every quinquennial?
(Mr Meacher) In effect, that is right. But, before you ask the question, I think we should consider whether that should be more frequent.
50. Why was the five-year period adopted?
(Mr Hall) I do not know. I think basically it is very expensive and difficult information to collect, and so it cannot be done on a very frequent basis.
51. I am a bit lost here to understand why we do not have this information. I used to sit on a local authority, in Surrey, in 1986, and at that time we did have various directions from Government, and our own thoughts on the subject added to it, about how to recycle more, and do all that sort of thing, and the stuff was measured. And what does it say about local authorities adopting Agenda 21, that was ten years ago and there were lots of things about waste, if I recall correctly. Would it not even have been, given what you have said, a better idea at least to put the domestic waste in somehow; there must be figures, and if there are not figures then it is a staggering omission on everybody's part?
(Mr Meacher) I repeat that municipal waste, which is measured on an annual basis, certainly in terms of the statutory targets to which we are holding local authorities now, will certainly be monitored very carefully on an annual basis. What we are talking about here though is industrial and commercial waste, and the first time that was measured was 1997-98, that was the first time it was measured; one can argue about why that did not happen before, but it was the first time it happened, it was not happening in the 1980s. Again, one can argue that we should have access to that data more frequently than once every five years, but Government does have to take into account the cost. I have not got the costings.
52. But I think the public would be understanding, if, in the meantime, you said "It's very expensive to collect all this information, other than once every five years," or perhaps occasionally more often, but at quite long intervals, "in the meantime we will publish figures on municipal waste," in the meantime, explaining quite frankly and openly why you are doing this?
(Mr Meacher) We could do that.
53. Can I suggest that to the Government then?
(Mr Meacher) I am not opposed to that, except that it is only a small part of the total picture.
Chairman: I accept that, but, nonetheless, it is better than no information.
54. Yes; and, every five years, of course, there used to be a recession every five years?
(Mr Meacher) The question is whether it is better to have more information about a small part of the problem or less frequent information about the whole of it; you take your choice and you pays your money.
55. But do you have to take a choice; surely, why can we not have a situation where we have the municipal figures every year, and once every five years we have the municipal figures together with the commercial waste and together with the total figure? That seems to me to be fairly obvious sense, if you are saying municipal waste can be fairly easily measured; is that not something the Government could consider?
(Mr Meacher) Those are exactly the figures that are available and which are published.
56. Not here?
(Mr Meacher) The only issue is, when you are looking for 15 headline indicators and you have got one index, only one way of publishing the data, the question is, which is the best way to do it; and you, the general Committee, are saying we should concentrate on household waste to the exclusion of the whole picture, I am saying it is better to concentrate on the whole picture, even if less frequently.
57. If I can just refer to the leaflet and the headline indicators that are set out there, there are two specific splits between, in the crime and the wildlife indicators, and you could quite easily have a waste indicator saying commercial waste and household waste, and the information could quite easily be supplied in exactly the same format as we see for crime and wildlife there, and that would give the public more information than they have from the indicator at present. Would not that be an improvement?
(Mr Meacher) It may well be, and I am happy to consider that. As I say, the figures are available, they are published, but, in terms of having it on this particular diagram, if it is useful, if you, the Committee, and the public would find that helpful, I certainly think we should consider that seriously.
58. On the figures, how are the figures actually collected on the commercial waste, because, looking at what you have quoted here for 1997-98, which was the first time it was done, the figure that is quoted is between 170 and 210 million tonnes; that is a huge range?
(Mr Meacher) Can either of my colleagues help me on how that figure is collected?
(Mr Hall) It is only collected on a survey basis, so there are margins of error in the results from the survey.
59. It looks like very significant margins of error, between 170 and 210 million tonnes, that is nearly 25 per cent of the lower figure, the top figure, and then we are setting targets about reducing landfill for industrial and commercial waste by fairly precise percentages, and one wonders how we are actually going to know whether we are hitting those targets, if the variation is so large?
(Mr Meacher) Sampling does have a margin of error, and obviously it depends on the size of the sample, and that depends on cost as well. But the magnitude, even if it is quite wide, I accept that, I think what the public are interested in, I am sure the Committee is interested in, is a quantification of the rough magnitude, compared with the household stream, which is just under 30 million tonnes a year.