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20 Mar 2003 : Column 1129—continued

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Meacher: I will, but I have a lengthy speech and I am wondering how far I will get.

Mr. Chaytor: I assure my right hon. Friend that I shall be brief. He said that the Bill is only a small part of the Government's strategy to deal with the waste management crisis and respond to the threat of climate change. Does he see merit in establishing a trading system for non-biodegradable waste? Would that form part of future legislation?

Mr. Meacher: We have not considered that. The landfill targets in the Bill—they are the ultimate driver behind the Bill and other legislation—are concerned exclusively with biodegradable municipal waste. That has been a serious problem for this country, which has one of the highest levels of landfilling of biodegradable municipal waste in the EU. I am not sure whether Greece's level is higher, but ours is extremely high. That is our prime target. That will be a difficult enough task because we inherited a rate of landfilling of biodegradable municipal waste of about 85 per cent. It is now below 80 per cent., but is still extremely high. Once we have secured that target and aligned our waste management strategy to meet our landfill targets—the primary concern of my right hon. Friend and me—we can look further. But it will be difficult enough to meet existing targets without extending them gratuitously.

Trading is a flexible and cost-effective economic instrument that allows reductions—whether in the biodegradable municipal waste going to landfill or in emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—to be made where it is most cost-effective to do so. It is a market system to achieve environmental objectives. In both parts of the Bill, the holder of steadily reducing landfill allowances or emission targets has three choices. First, they may take direct action to reduce their landfill or emissions to their allowance or target level. Secondly, they may reduce below the target and sell or save the surplus. Thirdly, they may choose to exceed the target or allowance and purchase excess allowances that are needed from those who have made cuts and are willing to sell in this way.

Norman Baker (Lewes): There is a fourth option as well: the holders can choose to incur a penalty. I do not say that flippantly. They may make the calculation that the cost of a permit—demand for which will be high—

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is such that it might be cheaper to incur a penalty from the allocating authority. Has the Minister considered that?

Mr. Meacher rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman replies, I ought to update a statement I made earlier about Carriage Gates. Members should be advised that the gates are now closed again because of the security situation.

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. In a market system, between buyers and sellers, the price is set by the market. Depending on the demand for excess allowance, I would expect the price to be pitched at a level that acted either as a sufficient incentive or as a sufficient deterrent, whichever way one looks at it. I am prepared to consider his point if such a situation arises, but I doubt it.

The required overall reductions are still met, whichever of the three options is adopted, but trading will provide flexibility by allowing additional reductions to be made where that is most cost-effective. In all cases, reductions will still be made over time. That is the key point. We will meet environmental objectives and our landfill targets systematically.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that although much of the Bill is good, as it is against landfill and is trying to reduce the amount of waste we put to landfill, there is a danger that we could be promoting incineration over other forms of dealing with waste? Will he look at introducing a binding cap on incineration in addition to the measures in the Bill on landfill?

Mr. Meacher: We are not providing any incentives for incineration. As a result of the "Waste Not, Want Not" report of the strategy unit, the Government are looking at the wider health and social implications of different parts of the waste stream, including incineration. My hon. Friend's considerations will be assessed in the report. Obviously I cannot presume any conclusions that might come from the report. However, I see no reason why the Bill might encourage incineration. We are clear about the waste hierarchy, and incineration is only just above landfill.

The first part of the Bill tackles the requirement in the landfill directive to reduce the United Kingdom's reliance on landfill. The United Kingdom currently landfills nearly 80 per cent. of biodegradable municipal waste. Landfill produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide; 25 per cent. of all UK emissions of methane come from landfill sites.

As well as the implications for climate change, landfilling constitutes the loss of valuable resources that are locked up in the waste. Many of these resources, in our view, could be reused or recycled, or have the energy extracted from them.

Landfill is at the bottom of the waste hierarchy, which is how we determine the relative environmental impact of different waste management options. At the top is waste minimisation; in other words, we should be

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reducing or minimising the amount of waste that we produce. Best of all is not to create the waste. That is not going to happen very often, although it can be incentivised more; we are keen to do that.

Thereafter, we should reuse what would otherwise be waste, followed by recycling; the third is recovery through composting and energy recovery. At the bottom comes disposal or landfill. To tackle problems associated with landfill and to move from a reliance on it, the UK—along with our European partners—agreed the landfill directive in 1999. I want to make it clear that although it is difficult for the United Kingdom, we believe it to be the right legislation. This directive includes stringent targets to cut the amount of biodegradable municipal waste that is sent to landfill.

Sue Doughty (Guildford): The Minister refers to different options, but clause 17(3) in particular suggests that targets can be met by recycling, by composting and by energy from waste. Is not incineration sitting at the same level as recycling?

Mr. Meacher: If the hon. Lady had been listening—I am sure she was—when I spelled out the waste hierarchy, she would have heard me say that, after minimisation, the next requirement is recovery and reuse. Of course, one of the options remains recovery of the energy from waste; that is better than burying it in the ground. But the Government have made it clear that the prime concerns are recovery, reuse, recycling and composting. We are clear about that, but we are not excluding the other option, which would still be better than landfill. However, we strongly prefer the first four.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): What would happen if a council were to compost its biodegradable municipal waste and then use it for landfill? How would that fit in with the quota?

Mr. Meacher: It would not fit in at all well, because such waste would still be biodegradable municipal waste even if it had been composted. It would probably turn into a type of sludge that would have to go to landfill. That would tell against our landfill targets, so the Government are strongly against any such proposal.

Within the United Kingdom, environmental protection is a devolved matter. It is therefore for each of the Administrations to put in place their policies for meeting the reductions in landfill required by the landfill directive. The Administrations have agreed to act together towards this common goal, and have agreed that this Bill should be considered in total and as a unity by this Parliament. That is helpful and will increase the effectiveness of the measures by widening the area for potential trading and by ensuring that the UK as a whole can meet the reductions required in the most cost-effective manner.

The obligations on the UK under the landfill directive—even allowing for a four-year derogation that is open to us because of our heavy reliance on landfill— require a 25 per cent. cut in biodegradable municipal waste from that produced in 1995, a lower level than that of today, by 2010; a 50 per cent. cut by 2013 and a 65 per cent. cut by 2020. That is a huge challenge. As I repeatedly say, if we were to do nothing—the opposite

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of what we will do—and were to have business as usual, the amount going to landfill would probably double over that 20-year period. Instead, we have to reduce it by two thirds. That is a massive challenge, and the Bill is at the heart of meeting it.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): Something that concerns me slightly about the trading aspect of waste management is the fact that it is clear that one cannot trade across the target years that the Minister has just mentioned. Is there not a danger that some authorities will not take the issue seriously until they come up against the buffer of the target years? Might it not be better to have shorter periods so as to reduce the dependence on the three target years?

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