Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-339)



Diana Organ

  320. They had asked for meetings before, had they not?
  (Mr Meacher) I am sure there are, from time to time. If you are saying, as I am sure you are, when were you discussing this particular Regulation and its application, I think the answer is the first meeting was in February 2000 and there were several meetings thereafter. I am as astonished as you are that when 40 per cent of fridges were exported that this was not known to Government Departments or, I have to say, to other Member States where the trade was taking place or to the Commission.


  321. Just to carry on that line of questioning. I have a letter here dated 1 December—
  (Mr Meacher) 1 December which year?

  322. 2000.
  (Mr Meacher) Right.

  323. Which gives the impression, or it does not give the impression, it is signed by Mr Robert Mason, it says "The export of second hand fridges and freezers . . ." and it goes into some detail about what would be banned and it says that there have been widescale consultations. That must have gone on for some months before this letter of 1 December was issued. It sounds to me as at some point in the year 2000 people became very aware of this matter.
  (Mr Meacher) Indeed. I have just indicated that we had discussions with the recycling industry in February 2000 and I am sure several meetings thereafter through 2000. What I am saying is that prior to that apparently this export trade, on a substantial scale, was not known.

Diana Organ

  324. Can we talk about another knowledge gap. Dr Batchelor mentioned again at another meeting of the Management Committee that two thirds of CFCs in a typical refrigerator are contained within the foam. I wonder, therefore—because all this hinges around the understanding that the UK Government has about this Regulation 16—why were the DEFRA team ignorant of technical facts about the CFCs contained in foam? Surely if you are signing up to a Regulation that is going to deal with this you would expect somebody to have some technical knowledge about it?
  (Mr Meacher) Of course we had that technical knowledge. I think we would say at least half rather than two thirds but certainly 50 to 60 per cent is contained in the foam. We fully understood that. Of course that is completely different from the issue which is at the heart of this of whether recovery from foam applied under 16.1.2 or 16.3. We were not disputing the need for it, the desirability, we were questioning the basis of the date at which recovery would be made mandatory because it mattered for our industry because we did not have the technology. That was the sole issue.

Mr Lepper

  325. It is clear that there were these two areas of knowledge about exports and about the technicalities of foam where there were gaps of understanding on the part of Government Departments. Now Dr Batchelor, who has been referred to several times in our session this afternoon, is from the Climate Change Unit at the European Commission, when he was before us he had perhaps a not very charitable interpretation of what was going on in terms of the correspondence between UK Government Departments and the Commission over these issues. He said this "If you become aware of the significant facts—the volume of trade combined with the lack of knowledge of the volume of CFCs in the foam—then you may adopt a strategy that would try to discuss the semantics of the Regulation in the hope that you might undermine that part of its compliance and therefore take you on a track that might absolve you of those difficulties you are facing". What he seemed to be suggesting was that suddenly—I did not say here is a way of looking at it—the UK Government became aware of the fact that there were things it should have known about this Regulation and did not know. It was facing a crisis. "How do we deal with it? Let us try to argue for as long as possible over the meanings of words, particularly those two words `if practicable' and hope that we can buy time either to deal with the situation in some way, get the technology in place, or perhaps undermine that part of the Regulation where in fulfilling its requirements we are deficient currently". How do you feel about that interpretation?
  (Mr Meacher) This is Dr Batchelor who gave evidence to you the other day?

  326. That is right.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes. First of all, I accept, and have made clear, my sharing your view of surprise at our not knowing about the export trade but I do not accept the other point that you made that we had a knowledge gap, as you put it, with regard to the chlorine loading of foam. I do not believe that. I think Dr Batchelor is being a little perverse if he thinks that we were just simply playing for time. He, of course, is defending his position in the Commission, I entirely understand that and I do not want to be at loggerheads with the Commission, I simply want to explain our position. I think it is not unreasonable that we wanted clarity as to whether recovery from foam fell under 16.3 and therefore was "if practicable" and we then discuss what that means and how our industry has time to install the necessary technology or whether it is under 16.1 or 16.2. To say that we were simply playing for time, engaging in semantics, I simply do not accept. I just say to any objective observer or listener to the arguments to make up their minds. I am absolutely convinced of the reasonableness of our position. I repeat, we raised it on nine separate occasions seeking clarification. I do not think one could be more reasonable than that. Since you do mention the question of semantics, I did take the opportunity to look at the evidence which was given by Mrs Marianne Wenning and Dr Tom Batchelor to you. I must say I could not help but observe that they themselves even at this very late point in the argument appear to be contradicting each other. I am not sure if this appeared to the Committee. If I could refer you to paragraph 230, you probably have not got the text in front of you. At the end of paragraph 230 Mrs Wenning is speaking and says, and I quote her words "so foam is the product which is not mentioned under Article 16.1 and not under Article 16.2 so the recovery of ozone depleting substances such as CFCs from foam would be required if practicable", in other words under 16.3. "So for us" she says "it was never a question of whether there was the demand to recover CFCs from foam but always the question `is it practicable?'". Now that is the most senior official from the Commission speaking and I think if she says that it is not unreasonable that I should be repeating it. However, almost immediately afterwards, Dr Batchelor in paragraph 233 says, and I quote his words, "so this Regulation by covering 16.1, 16.2, and 16.3 was very clear to us from the beginning that no matter which components of a refrigerator you were talking about, no matter how you interpreted it, that required both the recovery of the CFCs from the foam and from the compressor". I am not saying which is correct, I am simply saying that they are incompatible. I think if the Commission, even at this stage, and its most senior officials, gives an incompatible interpretation that throws a pretty searing light on the difficulties we have all had in the last three years.

  327. So despite the clarification that everyone thought had been given back in June or July last year on this issue, are you suggesting, as far as the Commission is concerned, there are still issues to be settled?
  (Mr Meacher) I can only give the evidence and I leave it for you, Mr Lepper, to draw your conclusions. The way we left it was that the Commission finally retreated from the view that they had taken all through that foam was a product and therefore came under 16.3, that was a view they took right up to the end, until June 2001. We accepted that view, even though we had doubts about it, because the industry wanted certainty and so long as a view was taken one way or the other about what it actually meant we were going to accept it. For that reason I am still a little surprised that the matter continues to be raised. We have accepted the position in June 2001 and we have acted scrupulously, promptly and, I hope, effectively since then to try and deal with it in the light of that agreement in June 2001.


  328. Minister, as we are in a sort of evangelical mood of trading quotations, let me ask you why you did not get as far as paragraph 244 of the evidence given by Dr Batchelor because he says "However we look at `if practicable' from the EC level and we would interpret it, and I think many other Member States would interpret it the same way that if somebody can do it some way in the EC then it is practicable and we saw that not one, not two, not three, but four Member States came forward right at the beginning and said it was practicable". I am sure we could go on taking our own textural analysis but paragraph 244 seems to bring together the other two paragraphs which you quoted a moment ago.
  (Mr Meacher) My answer to that is if we are talking about "if practicable" then we are moving into different territory because the question then arises—

  329. You raised it.
  (Mr Meacher) I did, I did. It was always our view that that was the relevant consideration. In the end the Commission took a different view and we accepted it. All I am saying is that if Dr Batchelor thinks that "if practicable" is actually the real consideration, that brings him into alignment with Mrs Wenning, I agree, although it is rather contrary to what he said a little earlier. The question then has to be decided what is meant by "if practicable". It might be a question of if that technology exists in another country, fine, then it is practicable anywhere, or it might be, yes, of course it is practicable because it exists elsewhere, but we have to look at the practicalities of investing in our own country and the timescales which are required for that.

Mr Martlew

  330. Before you came in, Minister, we watched the recording of your performance at Question Time and it was very interesting. If you were asked the question again would you answer it in a different way?
  (Mr Meacher) I was asked, if I remember, by the Member for Mid Bedfordshire, who was the Opposition spokesman on the environment, and I have not had the advantage or disadvantage, whichever it is, of looking again at the script, but if I recall he raised the point that the British Government had been incompetent. I was incensed by that. Maybe I should not have risen to the bait but I did, I think it was very unfair for all the reasons I have given this afternoon. I think it is a judgment which cannot be sustained. I simply responded in accordance with the badinage which goes on in the Chamber by saying it is not we who have been incompetent, it is the Commission. I do regret that as a result of that, of course, there was a great deal of discussion about the UK Government and the Commission at loggerheads and I certainly did not intend that. I was responding off the cuff in the heat of the exchanges that occur in the Chamber to a provocative statement. Does that answer your question?

  331. Basically you are saying you would not say the same again?
  (Mr Meacher) I would not say it again in cold blood, no. I think there is a different way of approaching this and that, I think, is the serious way which we have now accepted.

  332. You were talking about the blame culture earlier on. You are not blaming the civil servants now?
  (Mr Meacher) For all the reasons that I have given I do not believe that British civil servants behaved in a deficient or improper way at all, not at all. I have looked at this with great care and I do not believe that any person on the British side has failed to do what is necessary in the circumstances. As I have said, there are lessons to be learned and I do not simply want to say "we are fine, it is all the Commission's fault", I do not want to say that. I am sure the Commission did not want this to happen. They did not expect it to happen, none of us expected it to happen. We have to learn the lessons of what has been obviously a very regrettable episode.

  333. Do you welcome these Regulations, Minister?
  (Mr Meacher) Do I welcome?

  334. Do you welcome the Regulations?
  (Mr Meacher) I do. I do.

  335. From evidence we received it appeared that the UK civil servants were arguing to stall these Regulations. Would you accept that?
  (Mr Meacher) No, I would not. I do not think they were stalling. I think what they were doing was saying we need to be clear about the basis on which recovery from foam, which is a technology the UK does not have, operates. That was what they were saying, no more, no less. They were asking a very simple question. We could have got an answer as early as February 1999 or on any of the eight occasions before June 2001. If we had, we would have been in a much better position to put in place what we are now trying to do but, unfortunately, it is now late in the day.

  336. If you had won the argument, how would you have implemented the Regulations regarding foam? Would you have done it or would you have said that we do not have to do it?
  (Mr Meacher) No, no. I fully accept the view which has been put by the Chairman and several other Members that there is a high level of chlorine loading in the foam. In fact, most of the CFCs do occur in the foam and clearly it is desirable that it should be extracted. Certainly the UK Government wants that to be done. Our concern is that we should be able to do it without fridge mountains, without finding ourselves in the position in which we now are. If we had known the position three years ago there would not have been a problem.

  337. But you did know the position three years ago to the extent that you knew that two-thirds of CFCs were in the foam. Why did you not take practical steps to ensure that we had the machinery available to extract it?
  (Mr Meacher) As I stated earlier, if we had then insisted with our own industry that it had to be undertaken even though there was uncertainty about the application of the EU Regulation I have absolutely no doubt that we would have been chased out of town on the grounds that we were gold-plating, we were going beyond what was actually required, we were imposing costs when in the event it might not be necessary. To require the industry to spend—We are now talking about eight to ten plants, they could cost two to three million each, this is a substantial cost, and to require them to do it when they would say that there was no requirement apart from the caprice of the British Government in enforcing it when no-one else was subject to the same requirement, we would not have got away with it.

  338. So you were frightened of the wrath of the industry, is that what you are saying?
  (Mr Meacher) Another way of putting it, Mr Martlew, is that we were sensitive to the reasonable request of the industry to have certainty. The right way to solve this is not to go ahead and do it when we do not have to, but to get certainty about what is required, get it as soon as possible, and then we all act together.

  339. Surely the right way would have been to have contingencies to argue this case, to get clarity. You knew that we needed to take the CFCs from the foam but you appear to have done nothing about it.
  (Mr Meacher) You say that we knew we had to—


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