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6 Feb 2008 : Column 260WH—continued

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): I congratulate the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) not just on securing the debate, but on the
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measured way in which he has put his points across, not just today but when I met him and many of his colleagues who were able to attend on 18 December; it was an all-party delegation, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners was there.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr. Cook. I know that you take the matter seriously with regard to the fire authority in your part of the world. I regularly read your comments on fire service settlements in your local media.

I turn to funding for Dorset fire and rescue service. It will receive grants of £10.8 million in 2008-09, £10.9 million in 2009-10 and £11 million in 2010-11. As the hon. Gentleman said, those are increases of 1.5, 0.5 and 1 per cent. The floor mechanism that protects authorities from low settlements will enable Dorset to benefit in the first two years from upratings of £296,000 and £80,000. The hon. Gentleman will understand that there have been many submissions from around the country about whether the floors should stay where they are or be raised or lowered, but they will benefit Dorset in that respect.

Mr. Ellwood: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Dhanda: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, but I was just going to comment on his point about retained firefighters, who are important professional members of our community, not volunteers. It is important to get that point across. I shall also go into a little more detail about the budget increase. It is not a cut; it is an increase. As I have said to the hon. Gentleman, I accept that it is a tight package to deal with in the next three years, although I hope that the three-year settlement will provide some stability.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful to the Minister, but “tight” is not the right description. “Unworkable” and “wrong” are better descriptions. Will he explain what Dorset could have done to copy Nottinghamshire, which will have an increase of 17 per cent.? What did we do wrong not to get that sort of increase? Why have we been hit with a simple increase of 2.5 per cent., which is completely unworkable, as we have heard?

Mr. Dhanda: I shall explain the system that is in place and the measures that are taken into account in the formula. On cuts versus increases and the three-year programme, I shall not revisit the arguments of the past about the effective 45 per cent. increases, from when the Government came to office until 2011, compared with the real-terms cuts before then. I want to make progress and say some positive things to the hon. Member for Poole about how to take matters forward, not least on the Olympics.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Dhanda: I shall give way, but then I need to make a little progress, because it is important that we get into some of the detail.

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Mr. Walter: Absolutely. Will the Minister tell me why a combined fire authority, such as Dorset, gets a much lower percentage increase settlement that one such as his own in Gloucestershire, which is a county authority?

Mr. Dhanda: I shall happily come to that when I talk about the formula in a couple of moments.

The authority has benefited in the past from additional resources from the new dimension programme. As a result, it has been provided with an instant response unit and a high-volume pump. The programme is worth about £200 million across the country and is additional to everything else that is happening for our fire and rescue services. That piece of kit has been particularly useful in recent months, as our fire and rescue service meets some of the new challenges that we are likely to see more of, not least flooding.

In addition to the significant investment made through the new dimension programme to equip fire and rescue authorities to deal with major incidents, Dorset has received more than £375,000 in grant funding to support training for and the accommodation of new dimension equipment. We anticipate that there will be further funding of that nature for Dorset.

Dorset fire and rescue service is also set to benefit from Government investment in the Dorset emergency services partnership initiative. That is an excellent example of partnership working between local fire and police authorities. I understand that the project is well into its construction phase. It will provide a police headquarters in Poole, a fire and rescue headquarters and fire station at Poundbury, near Dorchester, and a further fire station at Marshes End. In all, a £57.38 million private finance initiative credit has been allocated by the Government to fund the capital elements of that scheme.

We are providing fire and rescue services with additional funding on top of their allocations of formula grant. Dorset and the other authorities will receive shares of £35 million and £45 million of capital grant in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Obviously, the breakdown of that money has still to be calculated, but it is important to remember that, as tight as the settlement is, capital resources make a real difference on the ground.

In addition to the funding that I have outlined, we are providing about £1 billion in additional investment to assist fire and rescue authorities through national projects such as Firelink and Firecontrol, which will deliver a more resilient control system. They will also deliver a wide area radio network across the fire and rescue service that supports the service in responding to major emergencies, including natural disasters, industrial accidents and terrorist incidents.

I made a commitment to the hon. Member for Poole when we met in December, when he referred specifically to the Olympics. I have asked my chief fire adviser, Sir Ken Knight, to engage with the chief fire officer in Dorset to consider resilience issues in relation to the Olympics. He is quite happy to do that, and I look forward to seeing that engagement soon.

We are committed to funding any net new burdens that arise from the fire and resilience programme. We expect all authorities to continue to make efficiency savings to improve service and provide value for money. Like all public services, the fire and rescue service must
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meet the expectations of taxpayers and Parliament on continued improvement and value for money. We have set the fire and rescue service a different efficiency savings target from the rest of local government. It is expected to achieve savings of £110 million over the three-year spending review period. That is about 1.6 per cent. a year, compared with 3 per cent. a year for local authorities. The target recognises that the fire and rescue service does not have large administrative functions that can achieve efficiencies through business process re-engineering in the same way that local government can. Dorset fire and rescue authority reports that it achieved cumulative savings of £411,000 in 2005-06 and £985,000 in 2006-07.

Mr. Ellwood: The Minister has been generous in allowing Members to intervene, but he still has not answered my basic question about why Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire are receiving increases of 5.8 and 17 per cent. respectively, whereas Dorset, which is the most efficient fire and rescue service per head of population in the country, is getting an increase of only 2.5 per cent.

Mr. Dhanda: I was coming to that. The formula takes into consideration population, poverty indices and coastline. I appreciate the comments of the hon. Member for Poole about its being a holiday destination and about the difficulties and challenges attached to that. That consideration has benefited Poole. I have looked at the increases of recent years. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) talks about Gloucestershire, but I am sure that it, like every other authority in the land, would like an even better settlement. In recent years, the Dorset settlement has been 3.75 per cent. in 2004-05, 4.1 per cent. in 2005-06, and 2.7 per cent. in both 2006-07 and 2007-08. Those are all above-inflation increases, but it is a tight settlement.

Sir John Butterfill: Will the Minister confirm that the formula is devised on statistics produced by the university of Warwick that are regarded locally as being badly out of date and as not taking into account the cost of living in the conurbation in particular? In the statistics, Dorset is considered as though it is part of the whole south-west, thus distorting the figures that apply to us in the south-east Dorset conurbation.

Mr. Dhanda: I understand that Dorset is taken into account as a locality, but, as with every formula, there will be people who approve of some aspects and disapprove of others. It is right and proper for us to
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review the formula, and later this year, we will start a process, with the Local Government Association, to consider the formula for future years. I am sure that Dorset and other authorities will want to be part of that process.

The recent Audit Commission report on the performance of the fire and rescue service found that all authorities are achieving efficiency savings, but that no service is achieving its top rating in providing value for money to the communities that it serves. Fire services need to address more complex efficiency issues, such as matching resources to risk and demand.

Mr. Walter: I am pleased that the Minister mentioned the Audit Commission’s report, because it said that Dorset fire and rescue service

It was also the commission’s No. 1 case study for high performance and good customer satisfaction. Is that not worth something?

Mr. Dhanda: It is worth a lot in my book, but it is not an aspect that is utilised for the formula. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have had a range of representations from across the country on the best fit for the formula. Some authorities will be happy and some will be less happy with how the cake is cut. The right thing for us to do is to review these matters over the years. We will go into a process of doing that with the LGA, and I am sure that Members of Parliament and their local authorities will want to be involved and will make submissions and representations.

I am pleased that Dorset is making good and sustained progress in delivering positive results for its communities, particularly for people with disabilities and for children and young people. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) mentioned Streetwise; he has mentioned it to me before, and I know that it is a good initiative. We want to change the fire and rescue service, so that it does more of that kind of community work. In recent years, it has undergone a transformation and modernisation. We now have the lowest number of fire deaths since 1958, and there have been massive reductions in house fires in recent years not only in Poole, but right across the country. We must continue to reform the service and to work with our hard-working firefighters, whether full-time or retained, to continue to make those improvements for the long-term.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

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Waste Recycling

2.30 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): It is a delight to be speaking under your tutelage again, Mr. Cook. I am sure that you will keep us in order and tell us when to stop talking and move on.

Waste recycling excites the membership of the Norwich Labour party general committee much more than issues such as the bugging of the odd MP’s conversation or MPs’ expenses, on which we go rather quiet. If someone mentions recycling, everyone is an expert. Everybody uses it and knows something about it—people know where it is done better or worse, which country is best and so on. That is exciting, because it means that people care about how society gets rid of its waste, and, gosh, there is a lot of it around. We see packaging outside supermarkets—we saw it strewn all over College green yesterday afternoon—and wherever one looks, there is waste paper, waste resources and packets, so we have taken up the issue of how to prevent it.

I shall not go back to 20,000 BC, when activity was first recorded in this area. I shall not give a 20-lecture course on the subject, although once I got into it, I could see 20 lectures looming. Who knows, if things go wrong at the next election, that is where it might all end up—a nice little lectureship somewhere, perhaps Oxford, talking about waste recycling.

The passion is there, and it has been much amplified by the Government in the past few years. We have recognised that landfill is not sustainable. There are various estimates of how long landfill space will last in this country; for example, the Local Government Association has said that it will last for less than nine years.

There is real concern about recycling hazardous material. If toxic materials are dumped, it is easy for them to cause environmental problems. It was only in 1970 that recycling and its relationship to the environment were highlighted in the political life of this country. Mobile phones should be discarded in the right place and not just thrown behind a hedge. The batteries contain substances such as cadmium, palladium, beryllium and lead, all of which could be deposited in landfill and would, of course, contaminate the soil and cause various environmental dangers.

I want to pay a compliment to the Royal Society of Chemistry, which has probably inundated hon. Members with information about the research that it is doing on green product design, domestic waste, water waste, electronics waste and energy production waste, and the kind of research and technology that it is developing through its skilled membership—chemists and others—to try to handle these problems. This is a growing field with lots to learn and lots being done, and I shall amplify that point.

Of course, the key issue is the effect of waste on climate change. Most countries now accept that reducing carbon dioxide emissions is absolutely important to people’s welfare not only in the next few years but now and very much in the future. That has contributed much to the recycling debate. Whenever one talks about recycling, it is not long before somebody talks about climate change.

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Recycling old materials obviously uses less energy and creates less CO2 than extracting new: 1 kg of aluminium saves approximately 11 kg of carbon, and 75 per cent. less energy is needed to make something out of recycled steel than to make it out of new. All in all, it is said that recycling in Britain reduces the nation’s carbon emissions by about 10 million to 15 million tonnes, which is no mean feat.

The United Kingdom dumps more waste in landfill sites than other European countries—it has been estimated that 22 million tonnes are dumped. Our record is not as good as that of other European countries, but recording the data develops arguments about how we measure progress. I was excited by this debate and went with two of my workers in the Norwich office to look at a site just outside Norwich, at a place called Costessey—they pronounce things differently in Norwich. We saw how the council is surging ahead and improving its percentage standards; we saw the lorries coming in with the rubbish and being weighed; and we saw bales of recycled paper and so on being transported not only to other parts of the United Kingdom but to the world.

We now recycle more than 23 per cent. of our household waste, which we have been very positive about, but it has been estimated that 60 to 70 per cent. of all household waste could be recycled. According to official figures, we still lag behind Germany, Holland and Belgium, where more than 50 per cent. of household waste is recycled, but that does not mean that we will not catch them up very quickly.

Of course, people have questioned certain practices. There are numerous examples of councils sending waste to China and India, which involves CO2 emissions. Some of those ships have come from there and would have to go back, so we are not adding to emissions in that sense, but we are certainly not handling the problem here in the United Kingdom. We want to know whether waste is recycled once it reaches those countries, and whether the quality of the recycled material is low or high. That factor must be considered in any assessment of how well we are doing, or in comparing ourselves with other countries or comparing different parts of our own country. Once markets develop in areas such as China and India, there will no longer be a demand for poor quality, contaminated waste, and we will have to do something ourselves about the problem. The future will be challenging on that front.

The Government have taken a positive approach and have ambitious targets—40 per cent. in 2010, 45 per cent. in 2015 and 50 per cent. in 2020. We want to ensure that support is given to local councils, which handle such matters, so that they can reach the targets. There are no penalties involved, but there is incitement to do something, to take up the challenge and to see how recycling can be done. That requires local leadership and looking at best practice in different parts of the country. Of course, I would say that Norwich is well up there in the top three. It is in bronze position, but aiming for the gold standard. That approach involves not only Norwich, but all the councils in the Norfolk area—all seven of them—working together in a kind of partnership, which I shall discuss later. The forthcoming Climate Change Bill will give us a chance to look at the issue in depth, and to use financial incentives at council level to encourage greater recycling. There are examples of that in Switzerland.

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In this country, the landfill tax has been a major incitement to getting on with the job of recycling. It went up by £1 a year from 1999 and £3 a year from 2005, and it is due to increase by £8 a year from this April, which was announced in the last Budget.

Mobile phones are being added to the waste electrical and electronic equipment regulations to prevent phones from ending up in landfills and thereby polluting the environment. Those are some of the positive things that are happening. If one wants to dispose of a mobile phone, there is now a mechanism that involves phoning the local council to get rid of it. Of course, some of our young people want to get rid of a phone every week, which is a problem in itself. I just have to say quickly that I heard somebody the other night around the corner from their home phoning their Mum to run the bath water. Mobile phone conversations reach great heights, and one can understand the necessity of people changing their phone every week to ensure that Mum gets important messages.

The Minister said on 2 January that councils are

with their recycling efforts. On 15 November, she stated:

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