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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): To confirm what the hon. Gentleman says, on Saturday I was approached by a constituent who takes old phone systems and tries to recycle them. The process involves some waste, and he was unsure about whether he should register. That is part of the problem. The main electrical retailers seem to know what they are doing, but elsewhere in the waste chain, an awful lot of people are uncertain.

Dr. Pugh: That is a big problem. In responding to that intervention, I should like to put on record the great part that big firms such as Hewlett Packard have played in ensuring that there is awareness throughout the system. However, even the big firms’ attempts have not gone so far as to penetrate the smaller retailers, who think about their day’s profits and the products that they sell, rather than about their products’ end-life use.

I had some initial fears, which, to some extent, have been dispelled. I was genuinely worried that there would be a lack of producer co-operation, but that is not true. I have been impressed by the extent to which the big players in particular have wanted to make the legislation work—and work on a European basis. I was worried that there would not be any adequate recycling facilities to do anything useful with the products when they were returned. The studies that I have made and the information that I have received convinces me that there is a more mature market than I thought, however. There are more end-use products: the stuff is not just being collected and put in warehouses; there are some valid and intelligent uses, even for things such as plastic casings.

There are problems in certain areas, however. I am told that, for example, a dead television is practically worthless in terms of what it or its components can be turned into. I was worried at first that there would not be an adequate number of disposal sites where people could take products. According to a recent Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs answer, however, my worries are again misplaced. Local authorities are more clued up than I expected and 72 per cent. are ready, so the infrastructure seems to exist.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Is my hon. Friend aware that on the last count, 250 council recycling centres did not have a partnership with a manufacturer’s scheme? That situation has been calculated to leave council tax payers with an estimated £27 million bill: £18 million for the facilities to collect and recycle and £9 million for the running of civic amenity sites.

Dr. Pugh: That is a big problem, which I shall go on to highlight. There is a distinction between an authority’s physical readiness, whereby it is tooled up to do the job, and its contractual readiness, whereby it has all the paperwork in place to do the job and make the scheme work effectively. That is where the problem lies. Contractual certainty and clarity do not exist, and I do not see how the market can work without them. In fact, by general confession, in place of contractual certainty and clarity is something tantamount to a bureaucratic nightmare.

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People who ought to know, because they are intimately involved with the regulations, tell me that the contractual uncertainty and lack of clarity are leading to the collapse of many pre-existing arrangements and the rise of mutual suspicions among all elements of the network. Producers fear over-billing; local authorities fear being left holding the baby, because the equipment will not be removed; and recyclers worry about the predatory activities of the black or grey markets.

Many councils have not signed up to a producer-compliance scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) just said that they number 250. Recyclers and producers are struggling with the critical evidence notice, which is the basis for the financial part of the transaction and crucial to the producers. Many people who are responsible for the recycling stations do not have the required permits from the Environment Agency, and although guidance was issued by the Department of Trade and Industry, it is widely agreed to be confusing. That is not my declaration; it has been passed on to me by people who have to use the guidance. Everyone is buried in paperwork, and that view seems to be the consensus. Some of the people implementing the process are not particularly sophisticated in handling complex paperwork.

If such chaos characterises the arrangements between people who are willing to be responsible partners, one has to wonder what chance the Government have of dealing with the trade’s less reputable element—the people who work on the grey and black markets. If we cannot run a straightforward system, how will enforcement be run any better? They have the capacity to frustrate almost all the objectives of the WEEE regulations.

The market figures are massive. Apparently, we export 150,000 fridges per annum; 150,000 washing machines and cookers; 500,000 televisions, which is equivalent to 10 per cent. of the UK’s electrical waste stream; 150,000 videos, with presumably many more to go; and 1.3 million monitors. It is a phenomenal but, by and large, unregulated trade. We are poorly equipped to run a satisfactory WEEE market, and we are vulnerable both to administrative chaos and to exploitation by people who work in a less regulated market.

If that characterises our current efforts, I am somewhat sceptical about what we will do when we aim for a more fine-grained implementation of the directive—when we get down to making individual producers responsible, as the best of them want to be, for their products and not anybody else’s. Unless we do something like that, we will not encourage the improvement in design quality and general recyclability to which the directive aspires. The EU will definitely review the legislation and how it works in the round throughout Europe, but what we need now from the Minister and the Government is hands-on action to alleviate the administrative chaos and to make this worthy directive work properly.

11.20 am

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing this debate on a matter that is important to the vast majority of people in this country and to businesses, as has been mentioned.

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We live in a dynamic world. I suspect that if a number of us looked around our houses to see how many bits of electrical equipment are fast becoming obsolete due to new technology, we would all have our own mini-mountains, irrespective of the 35 million to 40 million houses in the United Kingdom and the 60 million people living within our shores. Another aspect, which has not been mentioned, is the fact that our population is ageing. We must pay due regard to that ageing population to ensure that they are given as much assistance as possible in disposing of their electrical items safely and securely.

I mentioned my worry, although the hon. Gentleman did not dwell on it, about fly-tipping. It concerns me greatly. If an individual has to pay to dispose of an item that they always assumed somebody would get rid of, and if the cost is too high or the bother too great, they might be tempted to tip the equipment either in the countryside or somewhere in their community. That would be awful, and it is clearly something that we do not want. Local authorities have a huge responsibility, as do the businesses that sell the items in the first place. We must ensure that electrical items are designed and manufactured to be as recyclable as possible.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned mobile phones. I am waiting with bated breath to get my hands on an iPhone, the wonderful new Apple product. No doubt if I wait another six months I will want something else, because I am a bit of a gadgets freak, but that will mean, of course, that the old phone will become obsolete. A number of places—Tesco operates a scheme, as does Carphone Warehouse—say, “Please hand back your mobile phone, and we will make sure that it is recycled,” and provide an incentive to do just that. We all carry such items as fashion accessories—I suspect that a number of us could not live without them. What will happen to all the old ones? I was speaking last Friday to a group of schoolchildren in my constituency, and I told them that when I was their age, we did not even have mobile phones.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): Or telephones.

Mr. Evans: We had telephones, but we did not have mobile phones. I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to speak for himself on that matter.

Since mobile phones have been around, I have probably gone through about 30 of them. Some of them have been lost; goodness knows where they have ended up. We want to ensure that they are recyclable, and that we are not storing up mountains of mobile phones, to name one specific item, for the future. Landfill is a wasting asset in our country. We must look at ways of ensuring that we recycle as much as we possibly can.

I mentioned the digital switchover, which will be completed in 2012, alongside the fact that LCD and plasma-screen TVs came on the market at roughly the same time. People are now looking again at their electrical items. A TV has a shelf life of about 10 years before it needs to be disposed of, but I suspect that as far as the technology is concerned, most TVs’ lifetime is a lot shorter than that. In the past five years, high-definition television has been introduced, and those who bought LCD or plasma-screen TVs five
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years ago might be thinking, “Shavings! If only I’d waited, I could have had a high-definition television now.” Well, to use a high-definition television, they will need a high-definition Sky Plus box or its equivalent. What will happen to all the old equipment, as well as to the obsolete TVs and video recorders that we discussed earlier?

The hon. Gentleman mentioned video recorders, which themselves are becoming obsolete as people move to DVD players and recorders. My family was peculiar in that we chose neither Betamax nor VHS; we were one of the few families in Britain with a Grundig V2000. I think that it was obsolete when we bought it. It is just as well, because nobody in the family could work it—it was Jodrell Bank technology. It did a lot of things that we could not work out whether we wanted it to do; all we wanted was a simple video recorder. A number of such items must be disposed of.

When my washing machine broke down the other day, I went out and chose a new one. I asked the person who sold me the new one, “Of course, you will take away the old one, won’t you?” They looked horrified, and said, “I’m not so sure we can do that any more.” It comes down to businesses’ ignorance of what can and cannot be done. I said, “Well, it’s going to be a bit awkward for me, because I don’t have a garden at the front where I can put it for a few days while I wait for the local authority.” Because of many people’s lifestyles—both parents often work, for instance—we must make it as simple as possible. We certainly do not want gardens littered with electrical items while people wait for the local authority to come around. I must say that the Ribble Valley council is very good, with a keen department that takes away items and ensures that they are recycled where possible. That is important.

In the end, the company from which I bought the new washing machine said, “For a small fee, Mr. Evans, we will take away the old one.” Thank goodness they did, but I worry about elderly people. If they turn up asking for a new electrical item and are told, “You have to dispose of it yourself,” that will add an extra problem. They will think, “I’m buying a new one, but in the good old days the company would take the old one away and dispose of it.” That is what needs to happen now.

I remember some of the newspaper articles published at the time of the fridge mountains—there were amazing photographs of fridges being stockpiled. That is why we must ensure that there are businesses specialising in recycling. The hon. Gentleman mentioned his surprise that the industry was geared up far better than even he thought it would be. There must be best practice in other countries that do such things better than we do. I hope that, in connection with the directive, we can see which countries do.

Mr. David Drew: To be fair, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee considered both the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive and the end-of-life vehicles directive some years ago. Although we were critical of both, the ELV directive has worked well. If the hon. Gentleman wants expertise to see how we could recycle many waste products, I suggest that the ELV directive is the place to go.

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Mr. Evans: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s advice. I am a carless person now. I tried to sell mine to a friend, who had it checked out to see what was wrong with it—he calls himself a friend. He phoned me up and said, “Do you want the good news or the bad news?” I said, “Give us the good news.” He said, “There’s nothing wrong with the exhaust.” I contacted the people at the garage that he had taken it to, and fortunately they took the vehicle back; I hope that they stripped it of everything possible.

Best practice needs to be adopted and spread throughout the country. It all comes down to the fact that everything done with good intentions has unintended consequences. I hope that we can consider the unintended consequences of this issue and try to iron them out at the relevant legislative stages. I am sure that the Government are considering how we can make things a lot easier for people and go without a lot of the bureaucracy and paperwork that dog our daily lives. The vast majority of people do all they can to ensure that the generations to come have a future and that we do not leave them a planet full of electrical rubbish. We need the legislation that will help those generations.

11.31 am

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing this important debate. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said in his most amusing and illustrative speech, the legislation has a lot of unintended consequences. While we are still at the beginning, I want not only to pick up some of my hon. Friend’s points, but to make some additional ones. I should be grateful if the Minister addressed them.

On consumer awareness, a recent poll found that only 2 per cent. of people knew about the WEEE directive and their responsibility. My first question for the Minister is about what the Government are doing to make the consumer aware of what is required in respect of returning electrical goods. A similar study found that 76 per cent. of people shown the symbol of a wheelie bin with a cross on it could not work out that that meant that they were not supposed to throw the article away, but take it back and recycle it. Some people thought that the symbol meant, “No wheelie bins around here” and there were various other misunderstandings. I ask the Government in all seriousness to ensure that such messages are clear. I do not watch much television, but I do not know of any advertising campaigns on the subject. Perhaps the Minister could tell me of one.

Dr. Pugh: The symbol is hard to spot on many goods. In preparation for this debate, I went round my house looking at my electrical products to see whether they had the symbol. I had never previously noticed, but there it was on the DVD recorder and laptop. However, I had to look for it; I had never noticed it before.

Lorely Burt: The symbol has to be seen before it can be misunderstood, so that is an important point.

I turn to the problem of enforcement. What have the Government been doing in the four years that they have had to make the regulations workable? My hon.
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Friend talked of the mountain of paperwork to which companies have been subjected. The Government have pushed back the introduction of the regulations several times because of the complex requirements of the law. Why have they seemed to make things more complex instead of simplifying them, particularly in respect of small businesses, which need to understand and to comply with the regulations?

The regulations give business opportunities. It has been estimated that an industry worth in the region of £400 million a year has been created through their introduction. That industry is welcomed in this country by all concerned. However, small businesses could face thousands of pounds in fines because of their failure to register according to the rules. I should be grateful to know what the Government are doing to ensure that businesses, particularly small ones, understand when and whether they have to register and the implications of that registration.

I turn to computers. It has been estimated that between 28 and 93 per cent. of a computer, by weight, can be recycled, depending on the type. The problem for compliance is the erasing of the information on the hard drive. Many non-experts do not know that information cannot be fully erased from the hard drive without specialist software that guarantees full deletion. There are a lot of implications for data protection legislation and commercial confidentiality. I should be grateful to know how the Government are helping businesses in that respect.

Have the Government taken the cost of such software into account when calculating the regulatory impact assessment of the regulations? What steps have they taken to advise businesses of the implications of not fully erasing confidential data?

Mr. Evans: Does the hon. Lady think that it would be a good idea if all computers came with a disk that could wipe all the information? People sometimes want to change their computers for newer models. Some charities will transport their old ones to African countries and other developing nations, which will benefit from those computers.

Lorely Burt: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, which ties in nicely with my next one. The whole point of article 8.2 of the WEEE directive was to ensure that manufacturers would build recyclability into their goods. However, a joint statement by a group of companies and non-governmental organisations on producer responsibility for waste electrical and electronic equipment stated that Britain and 10 other EU member states have not incorporated article 8.2. As they do not make producers directly responsible for the recycling of their own products, those producers can elect to pay a levy and someone else will pick up the tab.

The whole purpose of article 8.2 was to incorporate recyclability into design. By not addressing the article, the Government have missed the whole point. Why did Britain not fully implement article 8.2, as 12 other EU countries have done? What are the Government doing to remedy that and to encourage manufacturers to place a strong emphasis on design and recyclability, so that companies can divest themselves of goods in a way that will not compromise their confidentiality and commercial information?

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Finally, I should like to raise the strange story of Benji’s in Llanidloes—I apologise to residents of the town in case I did not get the pronunciation right. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has raised the issue with the Minister before, but he has not yet been favoured with a reply. The problem is as follows. I buy a kettle and decide that I do not like its colour, so I return it to the retailer. As I understand it, the kettle cannot go back on the shelf for health and safety reasons; I might have gone into the workings of the kettle and interfered with it. Under the WEEE directive, that kettle would be designated as waste. Benji’s has made a good living doing exactly what the WEEE directive is trying to promote. When goods are returned from major high street retailers, the company tests them, checks that they work and resells them. If there is a fault, it repairs them and then resells them.

The problem is that the factory where the company does all the repairs is in Poland. As the products are not included in any of the three specified types of list under the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations 1994, they go on the red list, which is the same category as toxic waste. Every country that Benji’s has to send the goods through to reach Poland takes a mountain of paperwork and a three-day delay. If they go through France, Austria and Germany, which would be the normal route, that causes a major problem for Benji’s and for many other companies that wish to transport electrical goods across frontiers and are unable to do so purely because of the amount of paperwork. That is extremely unfortunate, as the biggest hazard from 99 per cent. of those goods would be that someone could drop them on their foot. I would be grateful if the Minister considered that.

The major problem that Benji is experiencing is that every two to three weeks Environment Agency officials descend on his warehouse with search warrants to check his premises for waste. As I understand it, any items that have not yet been sorted as fit for resale or needing repair are designated as waste and Benji receives an order that requires him to throw into landfill hundreds of tonnes of goods that could be reused, repaired and recycled. I would be grateful if the Minister looked into that specific matter as a point of urgency. The company’s livelihood is threatened and I wonder how many more misunderstandings and overzealous interpretations by Government officials are causing a hazard and thwarting the reasons why the regulations were created in the first place.

My hon. Friend has been working with Government officials to attempt to solve the problem, but we need the Minister to show agreement in principle to ensure that the WEEE directive does not have the unintended consequence of hindering the reuse and repair of damaged goods.

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