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5.27 pm

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): May I add my tribute to those that have been paid to my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) and welcome his worthy successor, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment?

Hon. Members have talked about departmental weaknesses and the problems of pinning down responsibility for waste and waste management, which the two reports before us highlight. The reports also question the political will and resources available to deal with those important issues. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) spoke about another aspect of the problem, which is summed up by a quotation in the report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. Southwark borough council was quoted in the report as saying:

I do not want to let the Government off the hook in terms of policy and the availability of resources, but the statement makes an important point.

I want to concentrate on good practice that can be used to change people's habits by citing examples from my constituency, I am proud to say. Perhaps we should start changing people's habits at birth. I am pleased that Brighton and Hove's real nappy promotion project won an award last year from Biffa and the Women's Environmental Network. Seven councils, two hospitals, 10 businesses, a nursery and the National Childbirth Trust are involved in the project, which tries to persuade new parents to use reusable nappies. I understand that reusable nappies today are nothing like the squares of terry towelling that I recall from the days when my children were young.

The issue is important. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) will know that every year East Sussex county council and Brighton and Hove city council dispose of 15,520 tonnes of nappies in the Beddingham landfill site in his constituency. I welcome the fact that DEFRA has provided support for our local project to appoint a project officer to expand its work. It aims to increase by 5 per cent. in one year and 10 per cent. in two years the number of parents with new babies who use reusable nappies.

Norman Baker: Not reusable.

Mr. Lepper: I mean non-disposable nappies.

Let me move from birth to children. Our report highlights one anomaly. Environmental Campaigns Ltd.—Encams—has done a great deal of work on encouraging schools to become eco-schools and to think seriously about recycling. But a letter to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee from

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my constituent, Rob Stephenson, who works for Encams and is quoted in our report, highlights the anomaly that for many local authorities schools are regarded as commercial enterprises and cannot take advantage of participating in local recycling schemes. The report makes a recommendation on dealing with that which I hope the Minister takes into account.

When the Select Committee visited Denmark, one of the interesting projects that we saw was involved in recycling waste from construction and demolition sites. We were told that 90 per cent. of such waste in Denmark is recycled in some way or another. That is because of an agreement between the Danish Government and the Danish Construction Association. Nothing like that exists in this country and I recommend the idea to the Minister.

My constituency has the Brighton and Hove wood recycling project. It won the national social enterprise award 2002, awarded by the Department of Trade and Industry, NatWest and the Royal Bank of Scotland for entrepreneurial thinking, environmental concern and social change. It began because Richard Mehmed dug around in skips, as he put it. He now runs a major local recycling business.

I recommend to my hon. Friend the Minister the excellent work by the university of Brighton's environmental body under its chief executive, Marie Harder, both to monitor recycling work going on in the East and West Sussex and Brighton and Hove areas and to examine important issues, such as recycling end-of-life vehicles, so that the metal and the plastics are reused—good practice that I commend to the Department.

5.33 pm

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): May I also start by paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher)? He and I crossed swords numerous times during my short two years in Parliament, both in the Chamber and in Select Committee, but my respect for him grew steadily in that time. Although at the outset of this Administration, the Prime Minister's regard for the environmental agenda was not sufficient to persuade him of the need to put the right hon. Gentleman at the head of a Department, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton was nevertheless able to achieve far more in his six years in government, and leave a better legacy, than many of his nominally more senior colleagues inside the Cabinet. His departure from the Government will leave a gaping hole in DEFRA, and I fear it may signal a further downgrading of the environmental causes that he so ably championed

The Environmental Audit Committee's waste inquiry is, without diminishing the other reports that it produced in the past 12 months, the most important document that it published in the past year. Why? Because waste touches every one of our constituencies and waste is inextricably bound up with the daily lives of each and every one of our constituents. Some 30 million tonnes of waste are produced annually in UK. According to the most recent but still relatively dated figures, of that, 80 per cent. goes to landfill, 12 per cent. is recycled and a growing 8 per cent. is incinerated. Far from reducing the amount of waste we produce, it has grown at an average rate of 3.4 per cent. per

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annum in recent years. Between 1999 and 2001, it outstripped the growth of our gross domestic product, so we are throwing away our rubbish faster than we are producing it. On current trends, the total amount of waste that the UK produces annually will double by 2020. However, the EAC found that 25 per cent. of local authorities were likely to miss statutory recycling targets in 2005 and 2006.

In my Bexhill and Battle constituency no single local issue has created greater public anxiety or generated more spontaneous demonstrations of concern than the threat of landfill or incineration. The vast majority of my constituents are not narrow-minded nimbies seeking to duck the big issues created by the Government's failure to curb the year-on-year growth in waste. Energised by the threat of an incinerator at Mountfield, the continued existence of a waste plant at Pebsham or the proposal to create a massive landfill site at the top of Bexhill at Ashdown brickworks, they all want a solution that is better than simply saying, "Not in my backyard."

My constituents, like millions of people up and down the country, want an ambitious, forward-looking programme of environmental action to deal with the whole problem. They want an over-arching holistic solution to the modern-day multi-headed Hydra of waste. The Government's singular lack of a convincing and sufficiently ambitious, coherent strategy is clearly illustrated by the EAC report. We concluded at the end of our investigation that, based on current performance, improvement would not come close to meeting any of the national targets on recycling or recovery. The targets set for 2010 and 2020, as has been noted, will be missed by a wide margin and do not appear to have a cat in hell's chance of being met.

Inadequate and, in my view, overly complex and Byzantine funding, coupled with a lack of clear Government guidance, was cited in the Committee's conclusions as making it harder for local authorities to reach targets that have already been set. The EAC was extremely concerned that the measures taken to date do not reflect the urgent need for improvement. I am not suggesting that the Government are closing their eyes to the problem, and I give credit where credit is due. Progress has been made in the past six years. This Administration has gone further in several directions than any Government, Conservative or Labour, have gone before, but that is not enough. One cannot escape the conclusion that, at the very top of DEFRA, at the heart of Government and around the Cabinet table, the issue of waste and many other aspects of the wider environmental agenda simply do not get the priority that they deserve. The problem needs more than just a safe pair of hands. It needs conviction, imagination and ambition.

The last appearance of the Secretary of State before the EAC on 12 February was a depressing affair. She displayed her usual sure-handed control of her brief, but exuded a wanton lack of ambition or, indeed, any sense of urgency about the issue. In a slightly petulant intervention, she said:

a reference to our witnesses—

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Perhaps the Secretary of State should listen to Baroness Young, the new Labour-appointed chief of the Environment Agency, who recently said:

When I asked the Secretary of State whether she would support universal doorstep recycling, she was distinctly cool. I am glad that she has since had a rethink and supports, albeit tacitly, the excellent measure introduced by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). Once again, however, the Secretary of State's response shows that DEFRA is on the back foot, reacting to the debate, not leading it. There is simply a lack of leadership and resources to tackle the problem.

I am afraid that because of time constraints, I have to cut to ribbons the speech that I intended to make. In conclusion, we need to go further on the landfill tax, which will not work without an incineration tax because, as has already been mentioned, we will upset the waste hierarchy and push more municipal waste into incinerators.

A lack of coherent, enforceable, ambitious strategy ran through our investigation, like a blue vein in English Stilton. The right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton was fond of "Waste 2000", but it lacked legislative force. The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs remains a muddle of mixed targets and priorities and the new Minister will have his work cut out in re-establishing faith in what the Department can do to meet the challenge.

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