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David Miliband: My hon. Friend is an acknowledged expert in this area. He knows that we need to see today’s announcement in the context of yesterday’s significant announcements about renewable obligation certificates and the higher valuation given to anaerobic digestion, which is known as biomass. It is only in the past 12 months, since I entered this job, that I realised that there is an argument about when waste is waste, and I assure my hon. Friend that we will develop clear protocols to address the definitional problems. I know
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that he has raised anaerobic digestion before, and the Environment Agency is proceeding with due speed to get that definition done, so we can make progress.

Chris Huhne: The Secretary of State is right to point out the considerable improvement under this Government, although he has perhaps underestimated the extent to which we still have to catch up, given the state in which the recycling industry and waste collection were left by the previous Conservative Administration. Britain is still the dirtiest rich country in the European Union. Every British person throws away 0.5 tonnes of waste each year, which is 15 per cent. more than 10 years ago when this Government were first elected.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that on the internationally comparable figures we still have the third worst recycling record of all the old EU members? Shamefully, only Greece and Portugal have worse records. The Netherlands and Germany recycle three times as much as we do on the latest figures, and even if the Government were to meet the target that they set in the documents issued today, we would still be recycling substantially less than either Germany or the Netherlands. The statement says: “We intend to achieve at least a 50 per cent. average household recycling rate by 2020”. The current rate in Germany is 58 per cent. The Government need to be far more ambitious. Will they commit to achieving the best standards in the EU within 10 years, instead of achieving the worst?

We need to work on every aspect of the problem. Will the Secretary of State help to curb excess packaging by introducing a right to return at retailers? Will the Government recognise that trading standards officers are under-resourced to prosecute users of unnecessary packaging? And will they ensure that a central agency can also take on the task? It is no use just buck-passing to discussions with Commissioner Dimas, as the Secretary of State has attempted to do today.

Will the Government argue for an EU-wide colour coding scheme for recyclables, so that householders know whether their council collects such material, which will put further pressure on councils to expand recycling? Will they encourage weekly collections of food waste, which is set to provide 17 per cent. of Germany’s electricity by 2020? Will they boost reuse schemes for bottles and other products, perhaps even with a German-style “help yourself day”, in which people leave things outside their houses that they want to give away? Will they trial a plastic bag tax, as in the Republic of Ireland, to encourage the provision of reusable bags?

We agree that local councils need to have the freedom to tailor waste collection to the needs of their areas, including the ability to give discounts for good recycling. That is a welcome enabling power that will encourage experimentation. However, will the Government recognise that there should be clear incentives on all authorities to recycle more by passing on the cost of the landfill tax and the current limits on landfill, which is not currently the case in two-tier authorities? When I have raised that point in the House, Ministers have pooh-poohed it, but 17 per cent.
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of the English population, which is 8.4 million people, live in two-tier authority areas. A district authority responsible for—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will finish with one more question.

Chris Huhne: What steps will Ministers take to align the incentives on districts and councils?

David Miliband: I shall try to be brief and to follow your injunction, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Anyone listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman would realise that he supports our announcement today, and I thank him for that. I agree with him that we must do much better. We have the third worst record on landfill as opposed to the third worst record on recycling, but his basic point is a good one. It is worth pointing out in that context that sometimes people think that if one obtains more energy from waste, one is bound to have less recycling. The countries with the least landfill in Europe also have higher levels than us of both energy produced from waste and recycling. We must—excuse me for saying this—dig ourselves out of the hole left by the Conservative party on recycling. I certainly do not underestimate the catching up that we have to do.

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about the lack of prosecutions in respect of packaging; he mentioned trading standards officers. I am happy to correspond with him further about that. He rather pooh-poohed the idea that it was sensible to involve the European Commission. In fact, all our evidence is that the vague wording of the packaging directive is a significant hindrance to effective prosecution. That is the reason for engaging with the rest of the European Union, which is a sensible approach.

The hon. Gentleman talked about a plastic bag tax. We should remember that all disposable bags are important in terms of their environmental impact: the carbon content of paper bags is often higher than that of plastic bags. I hope that that was shorthand on his part.

On two-tier areas, I agree that there are significant issues in 34 counties of England where district councils collect and county councils dispose. That is why we have made provision in the Local Government Bill for joint waste authorities. Although the hon. Gentleman is not smiling about that, Members behind him are nodding vigorously.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD) indicated assent.

David Miliband: Thank you very much.

The joint waste authority arrangement, which will only be entered into unanimously by local decision, is the right way to get the sort of alignment that the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) is talking about.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I warmly welcome the waste strategy. I am sure that my right hon. Friend shares my concern that my local council, North Lincolnshire, received the worst rating in the country in terms of satisfaction with its waste
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collection service. He is right that people pass judgment on their local authorities. I am sure that he would want to join me in welcoming the new Labour administration elected this May, which has pledged to consult local people about improving waste collection, options and costs. It is extraordinary that the official Opposition seem to be against consultation and engaging people in this debate.

I have two quick points. First, will my right hon. Friend consider the possibility of phasing out plastics that cannot be recycled? Secondly, anaerobic digestion is a very welcome development. Farm facilities such as pig units would like to invest in such facilities and could incorporate waste food. Will there be measures to support such investment?

David Miliband: I am sure that the whole House recognises that my right hon. Friend speaks with considerable authority on this subject. The short answer is that I am happy to consider his proposals on plastics. On anaerobic digestion, there are significant capital and other allowances. The renewables obligation announcement made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry gives a clear financial boost to anyone thinking about investing in anaerobic digestion. There are 3,000 such facilities in Germany but fewer than 100 in the UK. I am determined to help British farmers to exploit that big opportunity.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I ask for crisp questions and crisp answers?

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Fylde borough council recycles at 40 per cent.—a tremendous achievement. It would like to do better but wonders where the additional resources will come from, bearing in mind that the Secretary of State’s strategy acknowledges the rising cost to local authorities of improving their performance and the fact that his Department’s Gershon savings are predicated on local authorities reducing their expenditure. How does the strategy address that?

On commercial waste, the authority would like to offer recycling for that waste stream but is inhibited by the county council and cannot charge for it. What does the strategy say about overcoming that problem?

David Miliband: As ever, the right hon. Gentleman makes two good points. On the second, he is right to say that the Berlin wall that seems to exist between commercial waste and municipal waste does not make sense. I am not suggesting that he has not gone through the whole document yet, but I assure him that it contains clear measures to make it easier for local authorities and commercial operators or premises to be brought together and for local authorities to play a bigger role in that respect.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the strategy does not set out the Department’s spending patterns over the next three years—that will be done in the spending review in the autumn in order to take forward our proposals.

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Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend probably knows that I have been involved in this matter for a long time in connection with an all-party group that knows a lot about it. I assure him that there will be much more all-party support for the measures announced today than he might think given what has been said so far. Does he agree that it is a question of getting the balance right between recycling, generating energy from waste and all the other ways that we can treat waste? The document is right about that. If we get the balance right, do not get carried away by fashions and fads—as with packaging, for example—and carry on with good national leadership, stressing innovation and getting local determination, we will win this battle.

David Miliband: I am surrounded by authorities on this matter from all parts of the House. I agree that it is a matter of balance, not of fads, and that comes through in the document. I would point out to the House the consensus that has emerged across local government, environmental groups and the business community. As ever, they do not say that the strategy is the best thing since sliced bread and award 10 marks out of 10 to the Government, but there is unanimity among them that it represents a significant step forward. My hon. Friend is an important part of that consensus; it is a pity that Opposition Front Benchers have not chosen to join it.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): A key part of the document is the ability to apply incentives and levies on those who do not recycle. Fiscal neutrality at the level of every local authority will be quite a big ask in the case of some local authorities; it will depend very much on the sociology of their areas. How does the Secretary of State envisage local people deciding whether they want to apply the scheme? Will there be a local referendum? If the vehicle for payment, incentives and fines is the council tax, how will that affect people on benefits, particularly council tax benefit? If he wishes to visit Chateau Curry at any time he will see a very good state-of-the-art compost heap.

David Miliband: I look forward to seeing the chateau and the moat as well as the compost heap.

There is a detailed consultation on the choice that we are giving to local authorities. Because we want to give them choice, we are not prescribing the way in which they consult, but elections are obviously the ultimate form of consultation. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is an important decision that a local authority would want to enter into only after careful thought, but we think it right to give them the ability to do so. He will see from the details that we do not propose a rebate scheme through the council tax system. We have kept the scheme separate from council tax. I am told by those who know more than I do that council tax is complicated enough as it is, so it will sit in parallel and not add to the complexity.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I welcome the statement but remind my right hon. Friend that the waste collection service is probably the single most important universal service that most households get and pay for through their council tax, and Labour Members know to our cost that it is a
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politically sensitive one. What guidance will he provide to local authorities to ensure that in their consultations they do not just listen to what the majority say but provide a flexible service? My local authority makes fortnightly collections, which, while they work for some people, make life a complete nightmare for many others. [ Interruption . ]

David Miliband: As my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) pointed out, Conservative authorities have felt the pain of voters’ anger.

Surely my hon. Friend and I agree that this is a matter of local choice and implementation. It would be wrong for me to say that I believe in devolution and then tell every local authority—urban, rural or suburban—exactly how they should do their waste collection. It must be right for authorities to choose how to do it and then gain the plaudits or suffer the consequences. We have presented new evidence today about food waste and the benefits that can come from collecting that separately. Different parts of the country do this in different ways. Alternate weekly collection has caused difficulties in some areas but has not given rise to the same concerns in others. That is local democracy and local politics, and it is important that we should defend that.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Besides fly-tipping, the other great scourge of the countryside is litter. The Secretary of State will know that Bill Bryson, the newly appointed president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and Jeremy Paxman have great concerns about this, but so have all our constituents. We all accept that it is partly a matter of education, but is there anything in the strategy that will assist local authorities not only to pick up litter but to prevent it?

David Miliband: In the gentlest possible way, I remind the hon. Gentleman that we debated the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 in the House at great length. It gave local authorities a wide range of powers, and no one has subsequently claimed that we need new or additional powers. The simple answer is therefore that today’s announcement proposes no addition to the 2005 Act.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman recognises the importance of litter. I ran into, and have written to, Bill Bryson, and I look forward to meeting him to discuss his new role in the CPRE. Jeremy Paxman’s figures are, as I think that he himself would admit, anecdotal. The independent survey evidence suggests that the amount of litter is reducing. I do not minimise the significance of litter for people, the image that it gives of the country or the spirit that it fosters. The hon. Gentleman used the right word when he said that “culture” is important, as well as laws. I thoroughly agree with him that we must get the culture right.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I call Keith Vaz. I beg your pardon—I call David Taylor.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): This is the first time that I have been mistaken for my near colleague, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am flattered.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) clearly decided not to continue standing to be called.

David Taylor: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State deserves congratulations from hon. Members of all parties on the White Paper. I am sure that those who serve on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be impressed by the rapidity with which he has got to grips with his brief on such an important subject.

For revenue-neutral incentives to reduce or recycle waste, there will be a need for some form of technology to ensure efficiency. Computer chips in bins will be part of that. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the story that some of the more excitable tabloids are enthusiastically peddling—that the chips will track every last baked bean can, gin bottle and Focus leaflet that are put into bins—is way off the mark, and that they will contain only an address and possibly some sort of weight indicator?

David Miliband: The short answer to my hon. Friend is yes. He is right that the idea that cameras are buried in the chips to spy on beans—

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): And Focus leaflets.

David Miliband: I am not sure whether those are biodegradable, or how much hot air they contain.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): They are rubbish before they start.

David Miliband: As my hon. Friend says, they are rubbish even before they go through the letter box. We do not need a definition of waste to know where to put our Focus leaflets.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) has raised a serious point. Although the document makes it clear that some local authorities may want to use the modern technology, that is not a requirement to introduce a financial incentive scheme. Simple bin-based or sack-based schemes are perfectly usable. The technological solution is a separate issue and not a requirement of the financial incentive schemes. I am sure that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will want to consider different methods of applying the schemes in due course. However, it is right that we do not prescribe from the centre one way of organising the financial incentives. Local authorities should get the gain and take the blame.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I point out that at least Focus leaflets, unlike some others, are non-toxic?

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