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10 July 2007 : Column 385WH—continued

Let me say something about reuse, which is related to sustainability. Some discarded appliances can be reused as whole appliances either here in the UK or possibly overseas. The WEEE regulations encourage such activity by allowing legitimate reuse to be included as evidence of producers discharging their obligations. That approach has been widely welcomed, and I am encouraged that many reuse organisations are building even stronger relationships with local authorities, their communities and producers to ensure that a piece of equipment that can be reused as whole is reused. In my borough of Croydon, I have seen that in action. There is an organisation that will take certain white goods,
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clean them up, repair them, make them fit for purpose and then sell them at reasonable cost, often to low-income groups. We need more schemes of that kind.

The UK waste management and treatment industry also has a key role in ensuring that the WEEE that is collected is treated, recovered and recycled in accordance with the regulations. The sector is rising to the challenge with 230 approved authorised treatment facilities in place and a number of significant new investments totalling more than £15 million throughout the UK announced since the WEEE regulations were made. The investment includes plants in south Wales, Bedfordshire, Kent and Birmingham that will be capable of handling in excess of an additional 250,000 tonnes of WEEE material.

Dr. Pugh: On the reuse point, there can be genuine reuse and there can be warehousing or landfill disguised as reuse, regardless of whether the goods go abroad or are kept in this country. What measures will be taken by the Department of Trade and Industry or by anybody else to police reuse and ensure that it is genuine reuse rather than exploitive activity by some shoddy trader?

Malcolm Wicks: We are discussing that important matter with the environment agencies. All I can do is assure the hon. Gentleman that we are very concerned about it. If I can provide more information, I will write to him, if that is acceptable.

Let me say something about the position of consumers. The regulations are, of course, business regulations. They are aimed at ensuring that businesses that are part of the electrical waste problem are also part of the solution. However, we recognise that the engagement and support of consumers are crucial in securing an effective long-term solution to the problem of waste electrical equipment.

From 1 July, consumers will start to see changes in the information that is available to them when buying a new electrical product. The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) made a point about communication. Consumers will be advised on how and where they can best discard their waste equipment to protect the environment. Indeed, I saw a leaflet in the Croydon branch of Currys only this past weekend. Because I am more shy than my colleagues, I shall not say what bit of electrical equipment I was buying at the time and I shall refuse any freedom of information requests. Actually, in case I raised false expectations, perhaps I should say that it was a radio.

Many consumers will be unaware of the significant contribution that they are already making. In fact, some 80 per cent. of electrical goods returned to local authority civic amenity sites are already being separately collected and treated: fridges and freezers, TVs and computer monitors, and fluorescent tubes because of existing hazardous waste legislation, and large household goods because of the value of their scrap metal content. We are doing better than many people think.

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Before I make my closing comments, let me deal with some of the issues that were raised, notably about small businesses. The directive does not exempt small businesses from its requirements, so neither do the UK regulations. The Government have made extensive efforts to consult small businesses via their representative bodies. I was asked a question about this by the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry). As a result of the latest public consultation, the annual registration charge and the financial burdens for small producers have been addressed through a graduated-fee structure based on the turnover and VAT status of the business. The distributor take-back scheme offers an easy way for small distributors to comply with the regulations if they would find it difficult to perform in-store take-back. The scheme offers tiered membership charges for distributors.

There was a question about mobile phones. I am advised that the vast majority are already reused via schemes run by phone companies and retailers. Reuse is actively promoted by WEEE regulations, and the industry widely welcomed our approach to reuse, which would further support its activities to promote reuse.

Mr. Evans: Will the Minister give way on that point?

Malcolm Wicks: Yes, but may I just add this comment, which I believe the hon. Gentleman touched on? There is a scheme called “fonebak”, which is unfortunately spelt with an “f”. I hope that it is not a misspelling by my officials; we are not the Department that deals with education, but we do like high standards. The scheme is organised by The Carphone Warehouse and other major organisations and many of the phones are sent to the developing world.

Mr. Evans: Will the Minister talk to industry about plugs and interfaces because if there is a good technological reason for different interfaces, at least we will have asked the question? If companies talk to one another and have a common interface—even within a company—when we change our phones, we could keep the old plugs. That would do away with many of the drawers that are full of plugs that will otherwise be thrown away.

Malcolm Wicks: Indeed. Is the hon. Gentleman also calling for greater EU standardisation in relation to that?

Mr. Evans: No.

Malcolm Wicks: That would be a consistency too far, even for the hon. Gentleman—albeit environment in one nation. I will raise that issue with the producers because I, too, understand its importance.

I was asked about digital switchover, which we are obviously phasing in across the UK. The switch from cathode ray tubes to liquid crystal displays means that many traditional televisions—as we now think of them—have already been disposed of. I am advised that a study by my Department—now called the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the impact of switchover has indicated that there should not be an overall increase in
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volume, but that there may be a slight acceleration in disposal. That is certainly an issue of which we are very aware.

I was asked about security issues in terms of computers. I am advised that a number of professional businesses in the UK deal with waste information technology and communication equipment, including personal computers. We will certainly ask our new advisory body on WEEE to introduce recommendations on what, if any, further steps are needed to ensure that such data is protected as part of the new WEEE system.

I was also asked about individual producer responsibility. In an ideal world, one could say to the producer, “You are absolutely responsible for what you have produced”, and, as I have implied, that would make producers responsible. In the UK, we, along with many other member states, face difficulties in identifying practical, workable, solutions for the enforcement of individual producer responsibility. Again, as part of its remit, the new WEEE advisory board will be asked to examine individual producers’ responsibility and to make recommendations on how the system should be introduced here. I am advised that, for understandable technical reasons, no member state has a full workable system at the moment.

The hon. Member for Solihull asked me about a particular case that I think related to Benji’s—see I can pronounce it.

Mr. Evans: Llanidloes is the problem.

Malcolm Wicks: I thank the hon. Gentleman for helping me to emphasise a rather poor joke. I am advised that the hon. Lady did not refer to the WEEE regulations, but to regulations from our sister Department—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In any case, it would not be right for me as a Minister to comment on that in public, but I will pass on her concerns to colleagues in DEFRA.

Lorely Burt: The issue is at what point the return of a good, either because it is damaged or for no better reason than someone has decided that they do not want it, is designated as waste under the WEEE regulations. That is the fundamental problem experienced by the company that I mentioned. If I write to the Minister, I will be grateful he looks into this specific case.

Malcolm Wicks: I will, of course, be happy to do that.

I think that there is just one more point to cover, but we can check the record and if there are others, I will write to colleagues. I think that I was asked by the hon. Member for Wealden whether there is a like-for-like function and what the obligation is. That is a matter of equivalent functions, and whether, for example, a DVD player could be exchanged for a VCR. I hope that I have covered that, but I will write to the him to provide more information.

I will perhaps make a final point about charges for collection. Yes, companies can charge for collection, but there are different options for individuals who wish to dispose of waste electrical and electronic material. If there is in-store take-back, the store will by definition take the item back. If someone is buying a new white
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good, typically not all companies will charge, but they have an obligation. The consumer would be advised to shop around, and I hope that more companies will look critically at any charges that they levy. There is also a local authority system. If someone cannot take an item themselves to the local authority recycling centre, many local authorities offer a free service and will take away items a few times a year. There are different ways of tackling this issue, but I hope that companies will look self-critically at the charges.

We have had a useful debate; it is an interesting subject. Many issues relate to the processes involved in setting up new schemes. We will learn lessons and the system will not be 100 per cent. perfect in the early weeks. However, I do not recognise the term chaos in relation to the issue. Everyone expects schemes such as this to be chaotic as it makes a good headline, but I see no chaos, and I am not putting my hands over my eyes. What I do see is a scheme that has been delayed because we wanted to get it right. We are now getting it right and I am pleased about the way in which producers and the recycling industries are fully involved.

The scheme will create new commercially profitable industries and businesses in this country. Local authorities have risen to the challenge, but more consumers need to know about the scheme. The communication strategy will improve and more people will know about it. The scheme is a significant step away from the throw-away society of yesterday to a society that is led by consumers—our constituents—who want to be more responsible for the environment and recycling.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): The sitting is suspended either until 12.30pm or until Mrs. Gilroy and the relevant Minister are present.

12.17 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Naval Base Review (Plymouth)

12.28 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Devonport naval base provides support services to the Royal Navy and has done so for hundreds of years. Devonport is the largest marine complex in western Europe: the site covers 330 acres, with 11 operational dry docks, five outfitting basins, 5 km of deep-water berths and a wide range of support workshops. Devonport Management Limited is Devon and Cornwall’s largest private sector employer, and is almost double the size of the number two company. I know that the Minister is aware of the arguments for Devonport continuing or, indeed, growing that role, which we have set out in “The Case for Devonport”. That is our submission on the socio-economic impact of the review options and our input to the strategic sustainability appraisal carried out by his Department.

We have a long and proud record over the centuries and in recent years, which is relevant to the future, but we cannot rest on our laurels in this era of fast-moving global change. I want to set out why we believe that it is in the interests of the Ministry of Defence and UK plc to ensure the continuation of and to build upon the naval base in Plymouth. I do not, of course, expect the Minister in his response to say, “Yes, of course Linda, everything you say is true and the conclusion of the naval base review will go in Plymouth’s favour.” However, I shall provide some background and hope that he will respond to a series of questions that I have about what has become a more complex process than certainly we in Plymouth originally envisaged. We hope that that will help all of us to understand more about how the various ducks will line up in respect of the important decisions that lie ahead.

How that happens has implications not just for obtaining a reliable and high-quality support service for the Royal Navy, and for realising important value-for-money considerations—it has potentially huge implications for communities that support that activity and related activity, and for cross-Government impacts. Those potential impacts have been described locally as “hospital passes” because of the expenditure that other Departments might have to pick up if there is not full transparency about the basis for decisions on the future of the naval bases. We also want to understand what consultation there might be on any proposed decision, and the timing and transparency of any such consultation.

I am sure that the Minister understands that such clarification is absolutely vital to a city that has the proud history that I outlined earlier. We are very ambitious for the future of our city and its people. We have an urban plan—the Mackay vision—and an economic development strategy that we do not want to see suffer from the setbacks of former years. We are still recovering from the devastation of previous, poorly thought out cuts to the defence budget in the 1990s. Only one area in the UK is in receipt of convergence—formerly objective 1—funding, and our state of recovery is demonstrated by the fact that we receive regional aid as the key city on the edge of it. As the MP who inherited the poorest ward in England
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from my predecessor, I will fight tooth and nail any proposal that threatens the progress that we have been making in recent years.

In its terms of reference, the naval base review set out the need

In Plymouth, we believe that we can offer a great deal to the future support of the Royal Navy in a way that complements and supports the important work that we do to maintain the UK's submarine fleet. The skill base needed for that is fragile, as was clearly demonstrated in the Defence Committee report on that subject. One of the reasons why Plymouth has managed to maintain such a skills base is the synergy that has been realised between submarine work and work on the surface ship fleet. Like cars, new generations of subs have longer periods between service requirements, so it is essential for young submarine engineers to use their skills, to develop them and to have work that retains their interest. That is currently achieved primarily by enabling them to deploy their skills on surface ship work. Engineers who are skilled to work on submarines can turn their hand to work on ships. However, the training for work on submarines involves greater skills, so the reverse is not true for those trained to work on ships. If, under the naval base review, there were a reduction in base porting at Devonport, the successful recipe that has been developed in Plymouth for regenerating the skills base would be at high risk.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I appreciate the hon. Lady’s remarks and I congratulate her not just on obtaining the debate but on chairing the taskforce in Plymouth that has been spearheading our campaign to ensure that the Government take our arguments seriously. Is not one of the most important points that she is making that of the collocation between the naval base and the dockyard in Devonport, which gives the greatest strength to her arguments? It is vital to maintain the skill base in both those operations so as to ensure that the city has the core of trained men and women that can take us forward.

Linda Gilroy: The hon. Gentleman knows a lot about these matters and has contributed to the strategy group during the period in which it has been meeting—since the naval base review was announced. He is absolutely right and he was almost reading my mind, although he has not seen my speech. I was about to say that decisions on the naval base review are integrally connected with the wider industry restructuring and with the timing of the decision on the future carrier, which itself appears to depend on the outcome of defence spending proposals in the 2007 comprehensive spending review.

The spending review outcome is expected in the autumn, which suggests that a decision on the naval base review may not be made until then, although I understand that it could be earlier. We sense that, if the future carrier proceeds, Ministers will be recommended to agree naval base review option 4, which involves finding further efficiencies at all three bases. Without a
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positive decision on the future carrier, there might still be a preference in some quarters for a three-base outcome, even though we believe that there is an investment case for a more radical solution.

The Minister will be aware that, within option 4, a number of alternative surface ship base porting and support scenarios have been considered. From a naval base infrastructure perspective, which is the focus of the naval base review, there might well be no significant cost benefits in pursuing any of those variant options. However, although they might not come about as a result of the immediate naval base review process, they could emerge over time through Navy decisions on base porting or as a result of industry proposals or pressures.

That seems a rather fine distinction. The implication is that any consultation on the naval base review options will only, in respect of option 4, be about keeping things broadly as they are in relation to base porting and work load. Our concern is that consultation will not take place on the option 4 variants, which, at one extreme—with transfer of type 23s and other ships to Portsmouth—are virtually the “minimise Devonport” option, with all the consequent impact on the city, and at the other extreme shift the centre of gravity over time to Devonport. In any consultation held with the communities—there is talk of that consultation occurring over the summer recess period—option 4, which involves retention of all three bases, must not become a default position without proper acknowledgment and analysis of the long-term impact of the decision.

We very much welcome the commitment that the naval base review team has made to assess the mitigation costs associated with some of the naval base review options and their potential impact on other Departments. The process involved in that has, however, been unsatisfactory. The key issue for the MOD is whether broad-order costs to other Departments are such that they largely or wholly outweigh the MOD's cost savings, but the assessment must also satisfy other Departments at a finer level of detail.

Work that Plymouth and Portsmouth were encouraged to carry out independently and in short order on a “quick and dirty” assessment of mitigation costs has, not surprisingly, exposed major inconsistencies in assumptions and in approach. A quick and dirty figure that meets the MOD's requirement to show that there are no showstoppers is therefore unacceptable unless it is done on a consistent basis and with some independent oversight. I understand, and very much welcome, that the naval base review team has recently agreed with regional stakeholders and other Departments that the Department for Communities and Local Government will take the lead in setting a common basis for carrying out that work, that regional partners will contribute, and that independent validation of data that are submitted will be provided.

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