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House of Commons

Thursday 1 February 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Lady must wait until after questions, and then the business statement, and then the statement, so she has time for a cappuccino.

Local Authority Recycling

1. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): What steps he is taking to improve local authority recycling performance. [117810]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): Recycling and composting of household waste has doubled in the past four years and more than tripled in the past eight years. Government support for, and engagement with, the poorest performing local authorities, as well as progressively lower landfill limits and the escalating landfill tax will all help to drive forward even higher recycling rates.

Mr. Jack: Impressive as the Secretary of State’s answer is, he will be aware of the considerable discrepancies between the policies of different authorities. Some recycle glass, but others do not; some recycle plastic, but others do not; some fine people if they put their rubbish in the wrong recycling bin, which is not helpful if we wish to encourage more recycling. As the Secretary of State prepares to publish his new waste strategy, what steps will he take to encourage a more uniform performance by local authorities further to increase recycling rates?

David Miliband: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s recognition of the Government’s impressive record, which was largely achieved before I arrived in the Department. I accept his point that we need to drive up performance across the country, but there are different ways of doing so in different areas to reflect local needs. It is significant that over 90 per cent. of local authorities offer kerb-side collection, and over 80 per cent. collect plastics as well as the more traditional recyclates. In the waste strategy, we will
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indeed seek to find ways of helping all local authorities to raise their performance. May I point out to the right hon. Gentleman an example of interdepartmental co-operation that he will applaud? In the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which has been introduced in the House, the development of joint waste authorities across metropolitan borough lines will help to achieve the consistency that he rightly seeks.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Will the Minister consider, too, the slightly perverse effect of the weight requirement on local authorities, which discourages the recycling of plastic and results in recycled paper being of much poorer quality because of the co-mingling of waste?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes an important technical point. As she suggested, there is a tendency, if we are not careful, to discriminate against the collection of high-volume but low-weight plastics. As I suggested earlier, the fact that 80 per cent. of local authorities collect plastics is a step forward, but I assure my hon. Friend that the issue is being looked at. We are keen in the waste strategy to make sure that any disincentives to recycling and collection are minimised.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Is it not the case that recycling rates would improve if more packaging were made of recyclable materials? What steps has the Secretary of State taken to encourage food producers, particularly the large supermarket chains, to adopt a more responsible approach by reducing excess packaging and, importantly, making sure that any necessary packaging is made from materials that can be recycled?

David Miliband: I hope that the hon. Lady agrees that the first priority is to reduce the amount of packaging, rather than to tackle the recycling potential. As for packaging that is required, may I point out that voluntary agreements to achieve an 80 per cent. reduction in packaging have been negotiated in part by my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare with some major supermarkets? All supermarkets have to meet the requirements of the packaging directive that we have implemented, but the hon. Lady made an important point about the recycling of packaging. As I recollect, 70 to 80 per cent. of packaging is recyclable, but it is important to drive that up as high as possible. The interest in her constituency knows no bounds, because one of my colleagues tells me that she conducts some of her surgeries in Tesco, and I am sure that she can take the recycling message to her next surgery.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Stockport’s Liberal Democrat council proposes to deliver 52 black bin bags—a year’s supply—to every household in one go, with no restrictions on the number of bags that people are allowed to put out each week. Will that help or hinder recycling efforts in Stockport?

David Miliband: When it comes to local matters in Stockport, I certainly take my hon. Friend’s views about the rights and wrongs of the situation into
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account, as he is a passionate campaigner for a more environmentally friendly and greener Stockport. From central Government’s point of view, it is important that local authorities pay suitable attention to the particular needs of their own areas, which is why we have not sought to impose a single Stalinist model for recycling and collection on the country. It is right that local authorities innovate, but they should do so in a sensible way, not a silly way.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Over the past year the Government have announced welcome plans to do more, at last, to promote recycling of school waste, but how will they judge the effectiveness of any of those initiatives if, according to the written answer given to me by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda),

New schemes are great, but where is the visible follow-through, where is the rigour of reporting progress, and where is the accountability?

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman want more regulation?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I applaud the hon. Gentleman’s concern to boost recycling rates, and I am sure he will be as pleased as I am that local authorities have been reminded recently that they have a duty to collect recyclates from schools, which has not always happened. As my hon. Friend suggested, one person’s rigour in reporting, which I think was the phrase that the hon. Gentleman used, is another person’s bureaucracy and form-filling. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want me to announce that I was sending a form to every school in the country asking it to weigh the amount of waste recycled. We will know success when we achieve more recycling by local authority levels. The percentages that I gave in answer to the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) are the sort of outcome that the hon. Gentleman should support, rather than denigrate.

Domestic Waste

2. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What discussions his Department has had on reducing the amount of domestic waste exported. [117811]

The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The export of waste for recycling is not bad in itself because it reduces the amount of virgin materials used by the importing country and is often carried in ships that would otherwise sail empty. However, we are working to expand markets for recyclates in this country and to reduce our reliance on exports.

John Robertson: My hon. Friend will be aware of recent reports about the 200,000 tonnes of plastic that have been exported to China. Does he share my concern about the effect that that will have on local
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people there? What can he do to ensure that they are protected, and that we as a nation deal with our own waste and dispose of it ourselves?

Mr. Bradshaw: It is a matter for the Chinese Government to ensure that proper consideration is given to the working conditions to which my hon. Friend refers. We ensure, as far as we can, compliance with international rules. It is not in the interests of China to import recyclable materials only to see them put into landfill. As I said in response to his initial question, it is better, particularly in overall climate change terms, that China, India and other emerging and growing economies make products from recyclable materials that we produce, rather than cutting down trees or using virgin oil to make those products.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): But is it not a fact that we import an enormous amount of goods from China? I recall the container coming to the UK before Christmas laden with goods for us to buy as presents. Would it not be a good rule, therefore, for us to return all the packaging around those imported goods, so that the producers think twice about the amount of packaging that they use for goods exported to the United Kingdom?

Mr. Bradshaw: As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the House, a number of initiatives and measures have been introduced, not least by retailers, to address the problems of excess packaging. What the hon. Gentleman suggests does happen. A significant proportion of plastic, paper and card packaging which comes from overseas is re-exported as recyclable material, as I said earlier, obviating the need to make new products from virgin materials, which can only be a good thing.

Single Payment Scheme

3. Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): If he will publish payments made under the common agricultural policy single payment scheme by constituency. [117812]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): Detailed analysis of all the payments made under the 2005 single payment scheme is not yet available. Once the remaining 2005 scheme payments have been completed, a decision will be taken on the level of detail that will be published.

Martin Linton: Some £16 billion is paid every year to farmers and growers under the single payment scheme— [Interruption.]—£16 billion. In the interests of accountability and transparency, is it not time to identify payments at least by constituency?

David Miliband: Many farmers would like £16 billion to be distributed under the single payment scheme, but the figure may be one tenth of that. My hon. Friend raises an important point. He asked a similar question a year ago. He has rightly been saying that information should be available about the amount paid under the single payment scheme. As he knows, for the period up to 2005, we published regularly the payments to individual farmers. That is entirely reasonable. Our first priority, obviously, is to make sure that the payments
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are correct. Once we are sure that they are correct— [Interruption.] I made the point myself. I ask hon. Members to humour me for a moment. It is our first responsibility to make the payments correctly, but once they have been made, it is important that the information is in the public domain, and I should like that level of openness to continue under the new system.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): The Secretary of State would therefore agree that if any figures were to be meaningful, he would have to be certain that the money was paid to the farmers who were entitled to payments in respect of the land which so entitled them in the year for which they were eligible and in respect of a product that they grew. Since none of those conditions is yet in place, it would be entirely fatuous to attempt to publish anything, but when they are in place, we would welcome their publication.

David Miliband: I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but he could not have been listening to my last answer, in which I said that our first duty was to ensure that the correct payments were made and that we should then publish the information.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): It would be helpful to members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on which I sit, and to other Members to have information of the kind suggested in the question. Could we not go further in respect of the largest decile of payments and publish the individual payments made to the very rich agro-industrial complexes that receive so much agricultural support?

David Miliband: I am sorry if the situation is not clear; perhaps I should have made it clearer. Under the system that was introduced by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), individual payments are published. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) asked about payments by constituency. We have not done that so far, not least because several farms, large and small, cross constituency boundaries. We do not want to create additional bureaucracy. However, the degree of openness suggested in the original question is important, and I know that my hon. Friend and his Select Committee share that view.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The Government’s preferred method of agricultural support is through the rural development programme and pillar 2 payments, yet the Department has failed to publish the English rural development programme for this year. As a result, new agri-environment schemes and local food processing payments are not being made. Is the Secretary of State content with that situation, and how long will it continue?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman has a conspiracy theory too far if he believes that it is the Government’s fault that the European Parliament, at the behest of the Conservatives, should have blocked the development of the rural development programme; that the European Commission’s plans should be stuck in the European Parliament, with the support of the
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official Opposition; and that the European Parliament should now be saying that 20 per cent. of the funds due to farming communities and rural areas should be blocked, again with the support of the Conservatives. That is not the Government’s fault but something that we are trying to resolve, and we could do with a bit of help from Opposition Members.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): What percentage of farmers will receive this year’s single farm payment by the June 2007 target date?

David Miliband: As the hon. Gentleman may know, the European rules are based on the percentage of the fund disbursed rather than the percentage of farmers who are paid. As I made clear in my statement in November, our aim is to meet the European Union requirement that 96.14 per cent. of UK funds are disbursed by 30 June. I am pleased to say that we are working hard with the Rural Payments Agency to deliver that. As I have said before, I will always keep the House informed on progress.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): In his statement on the single payments scheme on 7 November, the Secretary of State told the House that a mere 1,700 farmers were still awaiting their final payments for 2005. Did he know at the time that in fact up to 20,000 cases remain unresolved? If he did know, why did not he tell the House, and if he did not know, why not? Why did it take an investigation by the Yorkshire Post to extract the truth about the scale of the continuing mess at the Rural Payments Agency? So much for his talk of openness. Is not this just the same old sleight of hand and spin? Is this the way to restore the confidence of the rural communities, and why should they believe a word he says any more?

David Miliband: It is very important that I answer this charge absolutely directly. The hon. Gentleman has rushed into print to accuse the Government of covering up information that he says was only exposed by the Yorkshire Post—a fine and wonderful newspaper, I should like to underline.

The hon. Gentleman’s allegation is that throughout the autumn the Government conspired to keep from the public and Members of the House the fact that the Rural Payments Agency, having made payments to farmers, was then open to farmers coming back and asking for corrections. I have with me a press release dated 6 September 2006—fully three to four months before the hon. Gentleman woke up to this story—the second sentence of which states:

Some cover-up! That is a press release put on to the internet by the Rural Payments Agency. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman improves his research before he starts making allegations.


4. Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): What percentage of the population of (a) cod, (b) sole and (c) plaice are expected to be removed from UK seas per year under new quotas. [117813]

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