European Standing Committee C
Wednesday 17 July 2002
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Waste from Electrical and
The Minister for Industry and Energy (Mr. Brian Wilson): I am grateful to the European Scrutiny Committee for setting up the debate. We welcome the opportunity to outline our approach to the directives and to answer questions that members of the Committee may wish to ask. Naturally, we shall take their views into account in future discussions and negotiations. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will agree to the motion in support of the Government's approach.
The Government fully support the environmental objectives of the two directives. The proposal on waste electrical and electronic equipment—WEEE—aims to protect the environment through the prevention of waste by increasing the recycling and recovery of WEEE and improving the environmental performance of all operators. The proposal on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment—ROHS—aims, first, to ensure harmonisation of legislation controlling hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment and, secondly, to limit the environmental impact of electrical and electronic equipment when it reaches the end of its life through the minimisation of the use of hazardous substances.
We recognise that the growing number of EU member states taking unilateral action in such areas makes it increasingly important for a level playing field to be created by taking action through European legislation. It is important for us to note that the aims of the proposals are very much in line with the United Kingdom's policy and the goals that are set out in the national waste strategies. In spite of that, the Government have several worries about the texts of the documents. Members of the Committee have said that there is a wide variation between the cost estimates given in our regulatory impact assessment and that the costs seem to outweigh the environmental benefits.
I hope to make it clear during the debate that the proposals offer real environmental benefits and that they support existing environmental legislation. Our regulatory impact assessments contain several options to take into account various outcomes of our negotiations and consider a range of possible implementation strategies, hence the cost variations. Our main concern will always be to ensure that we can implement the directives in a way that is practical for the United Kingdom, thus maximising the environmental benefits without compromising our competitiveness in any way.
As for practicality, we want a WEEE directive that is clear about what it is setting out to do and how it
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intends to do it. Lack of clarity will make the proposals difficult to implement and to enforce. During our negotiations, we have helped provide more clarity, while retaining the flexibility that we need to suit the United Kingdom's circumstances. I do not claim that everything is perfect, but real improvements have been achieved as a result of negotiations. We have also achieved a significant reduction in the likely costs of collection and provisions that will make the collection requirements less burdensome to put into practice by introducing more options for retailer take-back. We have fought hard for measures that will be helpful to small firms.
Although we fully support the environmental goals in the proposals and welcome the challenging targets, it is essential that any targets proposed are achievable within the time constraints set out and are easy to measure. The common position text is helpful in that respect. We have made clear our strong objections to the European Parliament's proposed changes to the recovery targets and its proposal to remove the time-limited derogation for small firms.
We are seeking maximum flexibility for some provisions, such as the producer responsibility financing requirements in the WEEE directive, so that member states can implement them in the most suitable manner. We will resist the Parliament's calls for near-mandatory individual producer responsibility, as we believe that what is proposed will impinge on our ability to implement the directive in the manner best suited to the United Kingdom and could have a significant effect on the competitiveness of UK manufacturers, particularly small firms.
For the ROHS directive, we have sought to ensure that, when a substitute is not available or practical for the substances that are to be replaced, all applications are accounted for and granted appropriate derogations. That has been particularly successful with regard to lead soldering. Exemptions now allow the continued use of lead in cases in which safety and durability are critical, such as telephone switching systems and data storage.
We continue to be concerned about the potential effects of the WEEE directive on small businesses. In addition to negotiating amendments to the text that would be helpful to such businesses, we have been working with the Small Business Service to heighten awareness of the directives among all levels of industry. We have instituted a small business focus group and have planned several seminars around the country for the autumn. We are also working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that the same message is repeated in their regions.
We are already talking to a wide range of businesses, including manufacturers and retailers, as well as local authorities, and will intensify that dialogue once the texts are finalised. There have been several conciliation meetings this month. I expect agreement to be reached around the end of September.
The Chairman: We now have until 11.30 for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and asked one at a time.
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There is likely to be ample opportunity for all hon. Members to ask several questions.
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): It is always good to hear a Scottish Minister talking about a WEEE directive from Brussels. I am sure that he would be the first to admit that the directive is anything but WEEE; it is fairly major. It went through several metamorphoses when the Parliament had a go at it. Will the Minister outline for the Committee where we are in terms of the text? The European Scrutiny Committee noted that the common position text was not available to it when it considered the matter. Will the Minister make it clear which of the Parliament's amendments have been accepted by the Commission, and the cases in which the UK Parliament disagrees with the common position text and intends to amend it further?
Mr. Wilson: I have mentioned some of the subject areas on which we disagree with the text. I shall briefly run through the timetable. The conciliation commenced this month. It is expected that it will be completed in September or October. The publication of the final text is intended to follow in November. The WEEE directive—I take the hon. Gentleman's point about its name; I must try to enunciate the extra ''e'' at the end to distinguish it from ''wee''—commences in the UK in June 2004. Financial obligations will commence in June 2005 and the recovery and recycling targets should be achieved by December 2006. The timetable for the ROHS directive is roughly parallel to that.
The hon. Gentleman asks in what respects we disagree with the Parliament. On WEEE, the Parliament wants to place more emphasis on individual producer responsibility. It wants to make separation of WEEE from household waste compulsory for consumers in order to increase collection rates. It wants to remove from the directive's financing requirements the 30-month exemption for micro-companies, on the ground that that could distort the single market. It proposes to increase, and to make compulsory, the separate collection target: from 4 kg to 6 kg a year per head of population. We already do slightly better than that. It proposes that recovery targets should be increased by 10 per cent., from 80 per cent. to 90 per cent., while recycling targets remain the same as in the common position text, and that manufacturers provide manuals for recyclers and re-use organisations for all products. In each case we have significant disagreements with the Parliament.
Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): With respect to reducing certain types of material in electronic components, surely the key question is what is practical—what can be changed and still have the equipment work? Has the Minister held meetings with companies such as Intel and other component manufacturers to find out what could be done now and what needs to wait until new technological developments come along?
Mr. Wilson: I personally have not held such meetings; nor, as far as I am aware, have they been sought. However, there is close consultation with the industry at both UK and EU levels. A clear parameter
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for our approach to the directive would be not to introduce any measures that were either impossible to implement or to the competitive disadvantage of British industry. Ad hoc groups work on such issues. One involves retailers, another manufacturers, and another local authorities. Issues such as those that my hon. Friend properly raises are being discussed in the appropriate group.
Mr. Hammond: The Minister spoke about the conciliation process now under way between the Parliament and the Council. What is the position of UK Labour Members of the European Parliament? As far as he is aware, will the UK Labour group in the European Parliament support the British Government's views and position on the matter, or will it, as in the case of other measures that we have considered recently, take the opposite view and vote against the position that the UK Government want to agree?
Mr. Wilson: I am sure that as a Tory Member of Parliament the hon. Gentleman will understand the dangers and lack of common sense in trying to express a uniform view on behalf of colleagues in the European Parliament. They have a job to do, and they will no doubt approach their responsibilities seriously. I do not suggest that they will take exactly the same line as me on everything, but I am sure that they will be guided by the same imperatives of ensuring the competitiveness of British business and not imposing unreasonable or unrealistic burdens on industry.
There are three UK members on the conciliation committee. Two are Labour, and one is Tory. I am sure that we shall all try to achieve consistency in the approaches to such matters, but I cannot speak for the Labour members of the conciliation committee any more than the hon. Gentleman can speak authoritatively for the Tory member.