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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 269 - 279)




  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 together.

  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 regular bilaterals?
  (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 you?
  (Mr Meacher) I smile because last time when I appeared before you when you were Chair of this Committee that was quite an issue.

  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.

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