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14 Mar 2003 : Column 571—continued

Mr. Simon Thomas: That point supports what I said earlier. This is a UK Bill, of course, but it would have huge effect in Wales. For example, if the Government decided to introduce a plastics tax—a tax on carrier bags is the most obvious example that might be the first to be introduced—that would affect the Bill and the target at Welsh level. Therefore, it is surely right that the Bill has a UK target, but that, as the hon. Gentleman and I have said, we work in Committee to ensure that it gives the National Assembly maximum flexibility to meet its own target. Of course, the Assembly's money will be spent on these matters, as he has just emphasised.

Mr. Williams: I agree that it is important for the Bill to have a UK dimension, and there should be flexibility within it so that the Assembly can play its part in meeting the UK targets.

The Bill will take us further down the road that so many of us and our constituents want to take. I wish it well.

12.34 pm

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): I apologise for not being present during the main part of the debate. I do not wish to detain the House for more than a few seconds. I wish to draw to the Minister's attention the excellent progress being made in the London borough of Bromley, where my constituency is located, which has rolled out 119,000 green bins over the past six months and, as a result, pushed up the rate of recycling considerably.

I draw to the Minister's attention—it may have been already—the excellent work being done by London Remade, which hon. Members on the Labour Benches, at least those representing London constituencies, and Conservative Members may know quite a lot about. Only a week or so ago, my Committee, the Select Committee on Environmental Audit, had the pleasure of visiting many of the schemes that it is backing, with Government help. I pay tribute to the Minister for that. It is doing excellent work, which should be further supported.

I flag up the fact that the Select Committee will be bringing out a report on waste shortly. As the Minister is a member of the Committee, I am sure that he will look at it extremely sympathetically.

12.36 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) for presenting the Bill to the House. It is remarkable and indeed meritorious that so many hon. Members have attended on a Friday to support the Bill. I do not think that it is unprecedented but it is pretty unusual that there has been consensus across the whole House on the Bill; the characteristically curmudgeonly speech by the hon.

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Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) can probably be interpreted as being in support of the Bill. That is striking.

The Bill addresses a key environmental challenge and is one which is certainly a Government priority. My hon. Friend said that it was a passion for her. It is also a passion for me.

In 1997, the Government inherited absolutely the wrong structure for waste management. Eighty-five per cent. or more of household waste was being landfilled. In 1992, the recycling level was 2 per cent. In 1997, it was 6 per cent., I think the lowest in Europe. There were 20 or 30 incinerators and, as far as I know, no effort was made to achieve waste minimisation.

That is all being changed. The level of landfilling of household waste is going down, albeit too slowly. On business as usual, there is still a serious prospect of a doubling of the level of landfilling in this country over the next two decades, when we have to reduce it by two thirds, but we are making a start in the right direction. The number of incinerators is down to 14 in the United Kingdom. Considerable effort is being put into waste minimisation, although I would be the first to say that it is nowhere near enough. In terms of recycling, the latest figures I have are around 13 per cent., which is more than double the figure in 1997, although it is still very low.

I think that I carry the whole House with me when I say that my hon. Friend made a powerful case for her Bill. There is no question but that there must be an increase in doorstep recycling. We believe that the targets that I have set of doubling the level of recycling, reuse and recovery by 2003–04 and trebling it by 2005–06 for every local authority will almost certainly require doorstep recycling almost universally across the country. Otherwise, those targets probably cannot be achieved.

My hon. Friend made a powerful point when she asked why we had such high levels of landfill in comparison with other countries. It is because, in so many cases, there is no doorstep recycling at present and because recycling facilities are too far away for many people. Clearly the Bill is a serious attempt to address that issue and I welcome it in that sense.

This country remains dependent on the least sustainable form of waste management, which is landfill. Even now, we still landfill nearly 80 per cent. of household waste, which is a wholly lost opportunity. Landfill has been referred to today as almost a medieval practice; we are piling it into the ground. I agree. It is certainly in opposition to sustainable development. In addition, landfill is also the source of 25 per cent. of the UK's emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, adding to climate change problems.

The landfill rate is still well above the European average and our rate of recycling, which can gain value from waste, remains at about 13 per cent. in 2001–02, well below the European average. The Government are taking waste management seriously and we have done a great deal to address waste problems. First, we are proposing to triple the level of the landfill tax from £13 to £35 per tonne. We have published the Waste and Emissions Trading Bill to tackle the immediate problem of our over-reliance on landfill in the municipal sector.

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The Bill will introduce a landfill allowance trading scheme to help the UK meet the reductions in landfill needed to meet the landfill directive.

We must get people to understand that we have to reduce the amount that goes to landfill to no more than two thirds of the levels of 1995, which are much lower than today. That is a huge switch; we have heard today about the 30 million to 40 million tonnes that would otherwise be landfill that must be disposed of differently. Members will welcome the Waste and Emissions Trading Bill in that regard and we will debate it next week.

In addition, the strategy unit report has made a series of recommendations to the Government and we have listened carefully. In answer to the question as to when we will publish our conclusions, the answer is shortly, and shortly means shortly.

I repeat that we support the Municipal Waste Recycling Bill's objectives but, as some Members recognised, we have some problems with it. The first question is the requirement for a strategy to be prepared within six months to achieve a 50 per cent. municipal waste recycling rate. We are not clear that that would fit with the rather more comprehensive waste strategy 2000, which looked at the whole of the waste stream and not just municipal waste, and addressed the whole of the waste hierarchy, not just recycling.

The Government are considering the issues as part of the response to the strategy unit report, "Waste not, Want not". We think that it is important to focus on the action needed by central and local Government to meet our published targets, rather than to publish a further strategy so soon after others have been produced. At least one hon. Member said today—this chimes with what external commentators have said—that a significant proportion of local authorities are not going to meet their more modest 2005–06 targets, let alone the much higher ones for a further term ahead. Our efforts are rightly concentrating, therefore, on delivering the already stated targets.

Although I do not want to place too much emphasis on the administrative issue, it is important to point it out. It would not be appropriate for the Secretary of State to prepare a strategy for the whole of the UK in a devolved policy area. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) mentioned the importance of the role of the National Assembly for Wales, which is absolutely true.

Speaking just about England, we would have to look very carefully at the proposed 50 per cent. target, which is far beyond the current target of recycling 30 per cent. of household waste by 2010. It is also above the figures of 35 per cent. by 2010 and 45 per cent. by 2015, which were recommended by the strategy unit when it examined the targets. We are looking at these issues in response to the strategy unit.

Clive Efford (Eltham): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Meacher: No—I just want to finish this point because it is rather important. The Government as a whole are not yet persuaded of the practicality of

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delivering a 50 per cent. target, given that resource allocations beyond the spending review of 2002 have not yet been determined.

Norman Baker: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Meacher: If it is on that point. I should first point out to hon. Members that this has been a consensual debate, and although I do not intend to depart from that in any way, I am conscious that others also want an opportunity to speak.

Norman Baker: The key point is that the landfill directive is bearing down, requiring local authorities to choose now between the alternatives. They can choose either incineration or recycling, but if the recycling target is lower than 50 per cent., they will, I suspect, opt for incineration, particularly given the absence of an incineration tax.

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