Sixth Environmental Action Programme

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Mr. Viggers: The Minister gave a warm welcome to the Commission's programme. The Commission takes credit for progress but then says that more must be done. As the programme admits, rather than a coherent policy, it has a thematic strategy, which is significantly less positive.

We should re-examine some of the statistics on page 50 of the communication. Water use has increased from 1.3 billion tonnes to 4.2 billion tonnes, and the document says:

    ''Demand for freshwater is now often above the rate of replenishment in many parts of the world. Similarly, many areas are suffering desertification, deforestation, and the degradation of soils of alarming proportions.''

Rainforest cover has gone from the equivalent of 100 in 1950 to 70 in 1997. Intriguingly, the number of elephants has reduced from 6 million in 1950 to 600,000 in 1997, which the Minister with his experience of education will know is nine times worse than decimation. Those are serious and panic figures, which should result in a level of alert far greater than I perceive in the document. It worries me that the Government are prepared to accept the document at face value without expressing more concern about its lack of urgency.

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If one is fortunate enough to travel around the world, one sees appalling pollution in unexpected places. I grew up thinking that the biggest cities in the world were London, New York and Paris and being unsure which was largest of the three. Now we have 25 mega-cities with populations of more than 8 million, and the largest cities in the world are ones that one had scarcely heard of many years ago—Jakarta, Mexico City, Alexandria. Those are the areas in which there has been massive pollution. The pollution in Mexico City, and unexpected places such as Kathmandu, is horrendous, and Europe must give a lead.

I would have liked a greater emphasis in the document on controlling population, which I regard as a mainspring of our problems, and then pollution. We need a policy towards finite resources, which will increasingly include water. Indeed, water may be the cause of several wars in the future. Although this does not necessarily fit into environmental policy, I would have liked a reference to the promotion of democracy, because the greatest environmental hazards are happening in undemocratic countries.

I welcome the statesmanlike speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. It was a speech of which Conservatives could feel proud, and I am sure that it will be quoted much in the future, because it demonstrates that our party, at least, has grasped the problems that we face in the environment.

11.53 am

Mr. Meacher: I will try to deal with each point raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. I welcome the general support that he gave to the document and the Government's commitment to it, although it was given in a rather gratuitously churlish manner, with several sideswipes at the Government. None the less, his points deserve a response.

It is extraordinary to claim a lack of environmental action. I will not get into silly political games by saying ''In your 18 years, what did you do?'', but I will concentrate on some of the key areas of Government performance in the past four or five years. Climate change is unquestionably the most important. The EU is, in effect, leading the world on climate change, realising its significance, making stronger, more vigorous proposals on how to deal with it, and being prepared to accept more stringent action than any other part of the world.

I think that it is right and necessary, but it happens through action by individual member states, and I would lay claim that the UK Government have been as influential as, and possibly more influential than any other over the past few years. It is well understood that the Deputy Prime Minister had a decisive influence at Kyoto. More recently, there was the entrenching of the mechanisms to enforce climate change at Bonn and Marrakesh, in which he played a very significant role.

However, our actions are not confined to climate change. There are issues of energy efficiency or conservation. We have made a commitment to end fuel poverty in all vulnerable households by 2010. We are tightening regulations in respect of the water companies. We now have a quality investment

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programme—the asset maintenance programme, AMP 3—worth between £7 billion and £8 billion, dealing with better sewage treatment, with combined sewer overflows, improved river water quality, and coastal water management. At the same time, consumer bills across the country are being reduced by an average of 12.5 per cent. That is a remarkable achievement for the next five years in the water industry.

It is clear that we not only have cleaner water, both in our rivers and on our coast, but have achieved a 97 per cent. pass rate—or was it 94 per cent.? I had better get my facts right, but the figure was certainly very high—for the 458 coastal bathing places. Air quality is also markedly improving in this country. The level of air pollution has improved for all the eight air pollutants, although problems still remain with particulates.

Mr. Sayeed: The Minister may have noticed that I did not mention climate change when criticising the Government. Indeed, I am very glad that they have built on what an earlier Conservative Government were doing. They have entrenched that, and that is excellent. With regard to energy conservation in homes, I hope that he will recognise that that was started by a Conservative Government.

I hope that the Minister regrets, as I do, the fact that the national house-building targets for energy conservation within homes are still so low. I would like to know whether they will be improved, and whether the Government intend to push that. I am glad that he has recognised the benefits of water privatisation, which have helped to clean up water, brought in private money in and reduced bills. When it comes to air pollution, I hope that he will recognise that this builds on what Conservative Governments have done in the past, such as—

The Chairman: Order. This is a rather lengthy intervention.

Mr. Sayeed: I will finish it, then, by saying that I hope the Minister will recognise that this builds on what happened under a Conservative Government to ensure that cleaner fuels are used in cars.

Mr. Meacher: As you say, Mr. O'Brien, that was not a brief intervention. I do not think that it helped the Committee to have a game of ping pong about what the previous Government and the present Government have done. I shall just correct one important point.

The hon. Gentleman said that water privatisation had reduced water prices: prior to AMP 3 last year, the cost of water bills had increased by 35 per cent. in real terms since 1989. That is faster than any other single item in the retail prices index. We have now reversed that by a reduction of 12.5 per cent. I shall make no further points. The record stands for those who look it. There is no comparison.

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The hon. Gentleman referred to waste, fridges and flooding. I will come to waste later. I have referred to fridges exhaustively. We have not been incompetent. I have already explained that the main fault lies with a surprising decision by the Commission at the last moment. We are trying to deal with that as rapidly as we can. Flooding is a serious issue. We are well aware of it. It is also unpredictable. No one expected the severity of the flooding in 1998 in the east midlands. It was greater than any in the previous century. We have been spending large sums to try to improve flood defences. We have certainly not been indolent and I resent that implication.

Mr. Viggers: I hope that the Minister realises the size of the refrigerator problem. Hampshire county council plans to set aside four acres of paved land to store refrigerators. Fly tipping has been found across the country. That was predictable and predicted. Was it not possible for the Government to seek a derogation from the EU regulation?

Mr. Meacher: I have no doubt about the size of the problem. It did not arise through any failing on the part of the UK Government, but as the result of the late notice of a rather surprising application of the regulation. The regulation applies directly in the UK, so any failure to comply can be taken to court. As it passed through Brussels in 1998 with the agreement of all member states, there is no precedent for seeking a subsequent derogation unless factors have arisen beyond anyone's control. That is not the case here.

Mr. Viggers: Would it have been possible to ask for a delay in the implementation of the directive?

Mr. Meacher: Of course we considered that. We do not believe that there is a precedent for that when the matter has already gone through Brussels. It went through Brussels in 1998-99. It became operative at the beginning of this year. That is normally a sufficient lead time for action to be taken. We were let down by the late timing of the information about a particular aspect. Other member states are faced with exactly the same situation. All have to comply. We believe that there is no option. We believe that we can comply and that we have taken the necessary action to do so.

We are providing local authorities with the money for both storage and treatment, where that takes place, until the end of the financial year. Where more money will be required beyond then, as it certainly will, we are carefully considering what the sum should be, for what period, and what we expect local authorities to do. All local authorities run civic amenity sites. It is not as if the storage of white electronic equipment does not already take place across the country on a considerable scale. The problem is that the rate of shift from those amenity sites into treatment plants is slowed down because of the current lack of such plants. We are taking urgent measures to deal with that. I have already said that we expect several—half a dozen or a dozen—companies to construct new plants in the near future in order to reduce the pressure on local authority storage.

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The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire made a lengthy speech about the requirements of business. Business is an extremely important stakeholder—no one would deny that for a moment and we would assert it strongly—but he did not say a word about citizens or the work force. He made it clear that the Conservative party stands for business—that was the implication—but many people in business today might find that rather presumptuous. It is significant that he said nothing about the people who work for companies as opposed to those who manage them, or about citizens, who are important when considering environmental impacts.

The hon. Gentleman talked about companies being penalised, but we work closely with business and we have an Advisory Committee on Business and the Environment. On the critical issue of climate change, we are the first country in the world to set up an emissions trading scheme so that businesses can secure commercial advantage from being first into the market for reducing emissions. We have the avid support of business in launching that initiative in April this year.

The hon. Gentleman also said that business should be aware of its own performance. I entirely agree. Does he therefore support requiring businesses to report their environmental performance so that management itself—as well as the rest of us—is aware of environmental impacts? I hope that I can number him in that group.

I was surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman say that the Conservative party was passionate about preserving the natural heritage. That took my breath away when I recalled that the largest road-building programme since the Romans, as we were told at the time, was initiated under Mrs. Thatcher. That involved the destruction of Twyford down. I could list many more factors, but waste is a major issue, and the Opposition have very little to crow about that. In 1992, after 13 years of Tory rule, the waste recycling level was just 2 per cent. It is now 10 or 11 per cent., which is nowhere near good enough, but a considerable advance on 2 per cent.

The hon. Gentleman claimed to be raising targets on renewables—always convenient when in opposition. I agree that the current level is far too low, but it is slowly going up. It was 1 or 2 per cent. in the 1990s and is now about 3 per cent. As he knows, we are committed to 10 per cent. by 2010. I accept that that must be raised after 2010 and I suggest that he reads the PIU report for our conclusions on that score. Will it be published? I said that it is a report for the Prime Minister, and it is a matter for him to decide whether and when to publish it.

We have already discussed naming, shaming and fame exercises. I am in favour, provided that accurate and comprehensive information is available and that the real constraints on companies and countries are properly understood. It was interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman say that we should avoid gold-plating, but I believe that a balance must be drawn here. He asked how swiftly sanctions would be levied, which picks up a point raised by the hon. Member for Ludlow. It is of course a matter for the Commission.

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The sanction is that if a country fails to provide information that the Commission is entitled to have—I am not sure if there are any precedents; I believe that all member states comply—it has the power to fine that country, just as it has the power to fine companies. Countries take responsibility for companies operating within their boundaries for failure to meet the targets of individual directives. That applies to all member states, including the UK. The sanctions are there and they will be levied.

The hon. Gentleman is treading on thin ice when he says that little action is being taken regarding waste. Whether the action is sufficient is a matter of judgment, but it is a great deal more than was previously taken. We have implemented statutory recycling targets for the first time, as I am sure he knows. Every local authority in the country will have to double its recycling level within three years, by 2003-04 and to treble it within five years, by 2005-06. That is a fairly tough target. Maybe it is not enough, but let whoever says so speak to local authorities that say that it is impossible or extremely difficult.

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