Examination of Witnesses (Questions 269
MONDAY 1 JULY 2002
MP, MS SUE
269. Minister, you are very welcome. The way
you looked at your name plate, you might have been a contestant
in Stars in Your Eyes where you then have to say who today
you are going to be, and I think we can confidently say that you
are going to be Michael Meacher, Environment Minister. You are
very welcome and thank you for bringing your two colleagues. I
wonder if you would be kind enough to start us off by telling
us about Sue Ellis and Mr Simon Hewitt. What do they do?
(Mr Meacher) First of all, Simon Hewitt is the Head
of Waste Strategy Division and Sue Ellis on my left is Head of
Waste Management Division. Needless to say, they work closely
270. Good. I hope we will hear from both of
them as well as yourself because this is a hugely complex area
but also a very important one. I wonder if you could help us because
you have many competing responsibilities for your time. Could
you give us a flavour in terms of your ministerial time allocation
in dealing with not just the question of the Landfill Directive
(Hazardous Waste) but also the tidal wave of European environmental
legislation which is coming along? Secondly, could you give us
some indication as to how your department is organised to deal
with it internally and also in linking with other government departments?
(Mr Meacher) I could only guess at your first question.
What would my guess be? Of the order of a fifth or sixth of my
time, something of that order, which I regard as a large proportion.
When you look at the size of the portfolio, which includes GM,
nuclear, climate change, air, water, land contamination, pollution
of all kinds, a fifth or a sixth of my time is a lot, so it is
very considerable. What can I say extra about the organisation
within the department? There are two divisions dealing with this.
The fact that there are two as opposed to one shows its size.
If you want details of how those units operate I think my colleagues
had probably answer that direct. In terms of other government
departments, of course working very closely with them is very
important, particularly of course DTI, and indeed DTI is in the
lead in terms of policy over areas like vehicles and we liaise
very closely with them of course on
271. Is that liaison at ministerial level with
(Mr Meacher) No. It is at official level. It will
only be at ministerial level as necessary. Some of these issues
do come to the Environment Committee but more regularly they are
resolved at official level.
272. How, given the enormous range and variety
of environmental legislation that is coming along, are you kept
appraised of progress and sometimes the difficult detailed discussions
which are taking place? I would be interested to know, if you
have a conveyor belt of this lot, at what point does it come past
(Mr Meacher) I smile because last time when I appeared
before you when you were Chair of this Committee that was quite
273. That is why I ask the question.
(Mr Meacher) You may well remember that, although
I did not criticise my officials in the way they handled the fridges
issue in terms of trying to get the necessary information from
the Commission over a two and a quarter year period, I did think
that they should have brought me into the picture earlier. I still
think that. As a result of that and other difficult issues I did
recently commission within the department a paper which required
an implementation plan for every directive which had to be transposed
or every regulation which had to be implemented in the UK so that
there should be no surprises and so that we should be aware of
the track which needed to be passed through before one reached
implementation so that one could keep a record of where we were
falling short. I quite agree; I would not call it a tidal wave
but there is certainly a significant amount of legislation and
keeping track of it to ensure that we implement in time, that
we are not subject to proceedings or get into other difficulties,
I think that is very important.
274. I am delighted to hear that additional
focus. Let us move down to some more specific question. The organisation
SITA, who gave some written evidence to the Committed, noted that
"monies from the Landfill Tax Credit Scheme have almost exclusively
been directed towards enhancement of the management of municipal,
commercial and non-hazardous industrial waste in the UK."
They go on (and other evidence has come before us) to say how
challenging hazardous wastes are, and perhaps there is a sense
in all of this information that the balance has been so far, both
in research and legislation, towards the non-hazardous situation,
and then we have had these hazardous waste changes and the implications
of the Landfill Directive suddenly come upon us. Do you think
it would be a fair charge in that context to say that the balance
is wrong, that the Government may not have had its eye as completely
on the hazardous waste ball as it might have had and, if so, is
there any chance of re-balancing work in this area?
(Mr Meacher) First of all, Chairman, I would not wholly
agree with your statement that the Landfill Tax Credit Scheme
has been almost wholly concentrated on non-hazardous landfill.
Substantial amounts of those funds have gone to assist environmental
projects. Simon Lester of the Wildlife Trust is always telling
me how absolutely crucial it is for the support of projects which
would otherwise probably not get support, and of course, which
is something of concern to me, some of that money has gone for
social expenditure around landfill sites, so it is not just on
landfill sites themselves. On your question about focus on municipal
waste, we have, I think rightly, been focusing on municipal waste
but we certainly have not in my view taken our eye off the whole
issue of hazardous waste. The National Waste Strategy, which we
published in 2000, of course already covers all waste streams,
including hazardous waste, so I do not think we have been unaware
of this issue but it has, I agree, concentrated minds in now having
to meet these quite specific requirements of the Landfill Directive.
275. The PIU is looking into all aspects of
waste. You have seen what it is looking into. Can you give us
the flavour of how it is approaching the subject of hazardous
waste? What are your expectations in this area, and can you take
that as two separate points?
(Mr Meacher) I am afraid, Chairman, I cannot because
the PIU have certainly indicated that it is an area they are looking
at. They have given us some preliminary indication of the coverage
of their study but I do not know in detail what they are likely
to be reporting on hazardous waste.
276. Are you as a department going to be making
any formal submissions to them as such or is it sitting back and
waiting and seeing what they have? I am sure there must be the
odd little bit of information which creeps into your domain via
the usual channels of communication.
(Mr Meacher) Oh yes, of course. When the Prime Minister
sets up these cross-departmental studies, which I think are extremely
useful because a lot of these things do fall down the cracks,
obviously the relevant departments will have extensive discussions
with the team to brief them about our existing procedures and
our working practices so that they are fully up to speed with
that, so that they can give advice on the basis of accurate information
on what is happening on the ground.
277. Do I take it from that that they have asked
lots of questions about hazardous waste and you have given them
lots of information?
(Mr Meacher) I do not know in detail. I am certainly
quite sure that if they asked detailed questions we would have
told them as much as we could.
278. Can you clear up on a point of detail about
the waste acceptance criteria? You said in the House of Commons
at the last Question Time, and I hope I quote accurately: "There
has been a delay in the determination of exactly what the waste
acceptance criteria are, but the Commission recently completed
that determination rather late, but not as late as previously,"that
is an interesting form of words, `not as late as previously'"
and the criteria will of course be adhered to." There appears
to be some difference of opinion on that because we have had some
other information given to us that said that they are still under
discussion by the Technical Advisory Committee that was supposed
to be dealing with this particular matter and that in fact it
was going to take until 23 July for the issue to be finally resolved.
I wonder if, for the sake of the record, you would be kind enough
to resolve that issue for us?
(Mr Meacher) What you have just said is absolutely
correct. The final vote will be taken, as I understand it, by
the Technical Advisory Committee on 23 July. This will be in the
light of the drafting of those waste acceptance criteria which
has already of course been extensively considered. I am not suggesting
this is just a rubber stamping; it is not, but I think there is
every expectation that they will be largely accepted in the form
they are. However, you are quite right that the final authorisation
depends on that vote. What is significant about that vote is that
it is actually one week after 16 July, this very important deadline
in terms of the implementation of the Landfill Directive, when
hazardous waste can only, after 16 July, go to hazardous waste
landfill sites. Conditioning plans have to be submitted to the
agency for landfill operators and certain wastes are banned in
respect of hazardous waste sites. It is extraordinary to me that
absolute finalisation of the waste acceptance criteria has taken
three and a half years from the time that the Landfill Directive
was passed, which was in 1998. That is what I meant by saying
"not quite as long as before". In fact, I am not sure
I am right in saying that. It was about as long as in the case
of fridges. There are different circumstances which I would be
the first to say. In the case of fridges the Commission had come
up with the relevant information on a point which arose after
the directive had gone through. In this case that was not the
issue. The issue was trying to establish what are the appropriate
waste acceptance criteria and it was the UK once again who did
a lot of the modelling work, who held meetings with key stakeholders
and liaised with the industry in order to assist with the finalisation
of this material. We are only one of the Member States. I am very
proud that the UK takes a lead, but I think it says something
about the process that it is once again left to the UK and I am
afraid I think the Commission again has been very laggard in coming
forward with this data.
279. Do you think there is a need to have a
thorough-going review about the way in which environmental legislation
originates mostly from the Commission and then seems to go through
this labyrinthine, elongated and sometimes very time-consuming
process before things get finally decided, defined and subsequently
implemented with all the confusion that that causes?
(Mr Meacher) I used not to think that but I have come
round to that view. I think it would indeed be very helpful if
we could have a discussion, together with the Commission, to ensure
first of all that the detailed requirements for implementation
are fully understood before a directive or regulation is passed
or adopted, and that any matters which were not foreseen should
then be promptly and rapidly dealt with, which has not happened
in the case of fridges and frankly has not happened in the case
of the waste acceptance criteria. There must be a system to settle
these in a prompt timescale with full consultation. I am not saying
we should rush this but three and a half years is a long time.
Even if it is very detailed, complex and difficult, and there
are contentious issues here without any question, I still think
they can and should be resolved much more quickly.