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6 Feb 2008 : Column 280WH—continued

I assumed that that meant that the Minister simply did not know about the issue at the time, but in the light of the meetings that are taking place today—the Secretary of State must have been briefed on the situation—perhaps she will clarify the funding situation for WRAP, NISP and the BREW programme as whole, because I am sure that the figures exist.

Where has the sharp downturn in funding come from? It was not flagged up in last year’s waste strategy, which mentioned continuing support for the BREW programme, and it was not flagged up in the DEFRA annual report. DEFRA has a £3 billion budget, but it is difficult to spot any specific plans for BREW organisations in the report, which does not include specific projections on landfill tax revenue. There was a clue in the Budget in March last year, which said that there would be an increase in landfill tax revenue. The Budget included lots of bold environmental claims, and it gave the impression that everything in the garden was rosy in relation to Government support for environmental initiatives. Nowhere was the crisis in funding anticipated, and the sector was not prepared for it, so where has it come from?

An article that appeared in The Guardian seems to answer the question. It said that there was potentially a £1 billion hole in the DEFRA budget over three years and that DEFRA and its agencies

including those that are planned within the BREW programme. The reason is not difficult to find, and
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there are some reasonable excuses. The EU single farm payments have been more expensive than expected, and DEFRA had to set up contingency funds to cover the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, bluetongue and avian flu. Those things were obviously necessary, but why can the Government as a whole not provide contingencies for such unexpected developments?

There is a parallel with the crisis in the NHS two years ago, when it was decided that deficits had reached a critical point and had to be cleared within one year. For some reason, that unexpected development had to be funded from within the Department of Health, and there was no possibility of transferring funds from other Departments. There seems to be a complete lack of joined-up government and contingency planning for unexpected developments. Perhaps that reflects a view in the rest of Government that waste recycling is an optional extra and a bit of a luxury, which translates into a lack of ambition in DEFRA.

That might be unfair. Last year, the waste strategy had much to commend it, but it also had many gaps. Most dramatically, reduction, as has been highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), which is absolutely at the top of the waste hierarchy, was left out. We need not only to recycle more, but to reduce the need to recycle. The waste strategy promised a progress report in spring 2008 on actions and target solutions to reduce the impacts of products across their lifetime. Thanks to global warming, spring will reach us earlier than expected this year, so perhaps the Minister will tell us that the report is imminent or when it is due. Perhaps she will even tell us what will be announced in the report.

I suggest that the report should contain a few measures to tackle the producers and manufacturers of packaging and some of the packaging waste that we see in our waste bins every week. Why not attack some hard-to-recycle materials to reflect the cost of carbon at manufacturing level? Why not introduce a tax on plastic bags, perhaps learning from the Irish example and the risks associated with that approach? There are plenty of examples around the world of economies that exist without so much plastic bag packaging, including the United States of America, where paper bags are much more the norm. Frankly, if George Bush’s America can manage that, I do not see why we should not be able to shift in that direction. To give them credit, retailers such as Tesco seem to appreciate the problem and try to reduce the billions of plastic bags that they use.

Mr. Illsley: I do not think that the United States’ record under George Bush on climate change is the best that the hon. Gentleman could have selected. If one looks at the carbon footprint and energy used in the production and transportation of paper bags, one sees that they exceed those of plastic carrier bags. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but we must find a way to reduce the amount of plastic or the number of carrier bags, but in doing so we must not end up affecting climate change in another way.

Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. The matter is not only about carbon, because we are talking about waste that is going into
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landfill sites, the countryside and the environment around us, which will take many years to degrade, if it degrades at all. That one supermarket produces 4 billion plastic bags each year is an environmental disaster.

Other ideas could be included in the report, such as the right of return, which would mean that retailers and manufacturers should be required to take back packaging from customers. There are examples of good practice, such as that of Sony. I am looking at you, Mr. Cook, but I thought that I had 10 minutes. I hope that I am right.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): What is your query?

Martin Horwood: I detected that you were impatient for me to finish, Mr. Cook, but I thought that I had a full 10 minutes left.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): I am trying to indicate that you have already taken more than a third of the time available.

Martin Horwood: I apologise for that, Mr. Cook, and I shall finish shortly.

The two examples of best practice are the Sony initiative, which involves using what are effectively the equivalent of cardboard cartons to package things such as mobile phones, and the Dual System Deutschland scheme, by which people can package excess packaging in a bag and have it collected. That scheme was launched in 1991; it uses only 300 staff in the whole of Germany, and it has been very effective. We need to expand waste recycling and reuse programmes, not cut them back.

3.37 pm

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): I shall endeavour to be as brief as possible. This has been an interesting and stimulating debate and good ideas have come from hon. Members both sides of the House. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate.

Waste is a complex and diffuse issue—it does not lend itself to simple answers. There are so many different elements to the waste sector, and it is difficult even for politicians to generalise. To summarise the main issues that came out of the interesting speeches from the hon. Members for Norwich, North, for Southport (Dr. Pugh) and for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), and the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), we need the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to do more. There is a clear requirement for leadership. Progress has been made, but, across the board, we are not moving at a sufficient rate, and there is no strong line from DEFRA, to quote the hon. Member for Southport, to pull all the different threads together. We need that and a real sense of vision and leadership at the centre.

Weighed against that is the fact that local communities must be able to forge their own solutions that are right for them in their part of the country. However, that does not negate the need for a compelling and ambitious vision at the centre.

As has already been pointed out, rather than work on an ambitious vision and providing that leadership, DEFRA is not meeting urgently today to hammer out a plan to
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tackle our nation’s waste, yet it has prime responsibility not only for waste but for the whole climate change agenda, which we all agree to be the most pressing and important problem facing humankind in the 21st century.

Today, the Secretary of State has convened a crisis meeting to address chronic mismanagement and overspending in a Department that, from media reports, appears to be falling apart. Despite making cuts of almost £200 million since April last year, DEFRA needs to cut a further £100 million from its budget in the coming weeks. That is not a sign of a Department rising to the huge challenges that clearly face it. Given the growing awareness of climate change, it is extraordinary that the Department should be trying to cut its cloth in that way, but in many ways the fault lies within.

We should not be allowed to believe that the majority of last year’s cost overruns were simply the result of unavoidable acts of God such as flooding, or bird flu. Much of the overspend was avoidable; it was the direct result of Government mismanagement. We learned this week that the waste and recycling sectors will bear the brunt of much of that DEFRA incompetence.

For instance, the business resource and efficiency waste partnership has already been mentioned. It seems likely that its spending will be cut by more than half, despite the fact that it has been responsible for more than 2 million tonnes of landfill diversion, 1.8 million tonnes of CO2 reduction and cost savings of £40 million last year. WRAP, which promotes recycling measures to reduce the use of landfill, confirms that its funding is to be cut by 25 per cent. Indeed, this week it issued more than 30 compulsory redundancies.

That is not the work of a Department that is in charge of its agenda and forging ahead. It is the work of a Department in retreat and in disarray. Although the Government are making much of their international leadership on climate change, they are undermining some of our most effective and efficient emissions reduction programmes.

Across the waste agenda, the Government are getting things wrong, and the results are plain to see. For example, the number of recorded incidents of fly-tipping has increased by 290 per cent. over the past two years. The United Kingdom has one of the highest levels of landfill in the EU, and 22 per cent. of our methane emissions, a gas that has 23 times the greenhouse effect of C02, is emitted from decomposing landfill. Why is more of that pollutant not being trapped and used for energy generation? It is not good enough to make the renewables obligation available for methane. Companies that are polluting in that diabolical way should not be rewarded with renewables obligations. They should be penalised for allowing those gases to escape.

Thus we see that the climate change agenda is becoming ever more closely wedded to the waste agenda. It is increasingly clear, in part due to the good work being done by DEFRA and the Minister to raise public awareness about climate change, that the British people not only care about climate change and want to feel informed about it, but want Ministers to take action.

It is clear that people care about the environmental impact of their lifestyle, which means that they want to produce less waste and recycle more. It is appalling that 20 tonnes of waste are produced for each tonne of
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consumer goods sold in Britain. However, we have seen a gradual but steady improvement in domestic attitudes to recycling and composting. I believe that people are trying to make a positive change in the teeth of often unhelpful and certainly indecisive Government policies

We rightly worry about waste because of its impact on the immediate environment, the global environment and climate-changing emissions. However, that increasingly obscures another issue—that of the unsustainable and inefficient use of resources in the first place. We must start seeing waste not as a problem to be solved only at the end of the pipeline, but as one that needs to be dealt with much farther upstream. The life-cycle of raw materials and products, how we design, make and use the consumables that we enjoy and how we dispose of them need to be addressed.

We need to take a far more holistic view of waste. That means reducing the amount of waste that we generate. We should be looking for ways to reduce packaging and to tackle poor product design so that product life spans dramatically increase and recyclability is enhanced. The reuse of waste is also vital. Useful and valuable items, such as building materials, furniture, white goods and computers should be taken out of the waste stream and reused. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East raised the issue of Government action to prevent the incineration of recyclable materials, and I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in response. He certainly hit on an important thread.

I give a topical example of how an enlightened approach to waste can deliver a cost-effective and easy win. The London fire brigade is moving its headquarters to new offices in Southwark. Faced with the challenge of what to do with 6,000 items of furniture, weighing over 300 tonnes, which had to be removed from its old offices on the Albert embankment, the brigade developed a sustainable waste strategy that resulted in 69 per cent. of its furniture being reused, 27 per cent. being recycled and 4 per cent. being used for waste to energy—and 0 per cent. being sent to landfill or incinerated. That resulted in the brigade making savings of about £100,000, which illustrates the fact that saving on waste can mean financial savings—in this case, money that will be better spent helping the fire brigade to protect people and the city that it serves.

Most important, however, we must convince business and local government to see all waste as a potential raw material in an increasingly resource-scarce world. We should be providing a framework in which innovators, entrepreneurs and companies can find ways to convert waste into new and valuable commodities. The economics of recycling are clear. If we simply meet European directive objectives, we will need to treble the recycling and composting of waste. That raw material is estimated to have a market value of £590 million a year to the UK economy if it is recovered from the waste stream. We want the Government not to dither, but to start providing clear leadership.

Local empowerment and public consent are the key, as is the empowerment of business. The Conservative party appreciates the huge part that the market, industry and technology have to play in revolutionising the waste sector. The Government will solve our waste recycling problems—in tandem with the private sector, entrepreneurs and industry—only if they set out long-term policies to give business and local authorities the confidence to take new approaches and to make long-term investments.

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Waste companies should be recognised as innovative businesses that create useful and valuable products out of waste. Regulations should be streamlined to reflect the changing attitudes to waste. For example, as soon as the regulations on waste management handling were changed under the waste management licence, industrial composting grew by between 40 and 50 per cent. The waste industry should not be restricted by the cumbersome over-regulation of waste disposal that does not recognise the value added by the industry. We need a clear, long-term objective.

Why cannot the Government see waste recycling as an opportunity to make Britain safer and greener, and an opportunity to generate new wealth and economic health for Britain in the process? We all need to recognise the opportunity to find profit and growth where previously we saw only waste and rubbish. In an increasingly resource-scarce world, where climate change is the overwhelming imperative, we desperately need DEFRA to get a grip on itself, and to provide the leadership that we all deserve.

3.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Joan Ruddock): I have only a few minutes to answer all the questions posed by the six Members who spoke, so I shall write to any whose questions I do not answer.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this debate and for the great enthusiasm with which he presented his case. If one becomes a keen recycler, I know that one really wants to do more. Many of the points raised by right hon. and hon. Members will be extremely helpful to the Government, and I shall take account of all that has been said—although perhaps not the criticism of our waste strategy made by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker). I can tell him that our waste strategy for 2007 was enormously and enthusiastically received by all who were consulted. Indeed, it is moving on the way in which we deal with waste at a tremendous pace.

As we know, each year, we generate about 100 million tonnes of waste from households, commerce and industry. Most of that waste ends up in landfill, where the biodegradable part of it causes emissions of methane, which, as others have said, is a potent greenhouse gas. However, the overall waste is greater than that amount; there is also the absolute waste of those raw materials and, of course, the valuable energy that has been used in extracting, processing and making goods.

Therefore, when we published our waste strategy 2007 document, we put that strategy firmly in the context of climate change. Reducing waste is part of the contribution that we must make in our great mission to hold back dangerous climate change. Our aim must be to reduce waste by making products with fewer natural resources and therefore break the link between economic growth and waste growth.

Therefore, minimising waste is even more important than recycling itself and it is the next step that we all need to take in tackling waste. To that end, DEFRA has adopted a challenging new target of reducing our residual waste per person to half what it was in 2000 by 2020.

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I am glad to say that residual waste has decreased and less waste is going to landfill. However, there is still a very wide gap between the best and worst performing authorities. The lowest percentage of municipal waste landfill in 2006-07 was just 7 per cent., but the highest was 93 per cent. The gap between those figures demonstrates what the challenge is.

Let me turn now to Norwich. Its recycling rate, according to the latest statistics that I have for 2006-07, was just 18 per cent. As the overall rate in England for that year was 31 per cent., I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North that Norwich was not one of the best performers. However, what is important is that that figure of 18 per cent. represents an increase of 3 per cent. Furthermore, from what my hon. Friend has said today, the most recent figures for Norwich, which of course have not yet been validated by the Department, will show a further increase in that rate. So I congratulate the local authority in Norwich on that and I am delighted to say that the way in which it is progressing, with alternate weekly collections and collections of new streams of waste, is very important indeed. I say that because we know that, of the highest performing councils on recycling in the country, the vast majority collect residual waste one week and recyclable waste the following week.

Dr. Gibson rose—

Joan Ruddock: I will not have time to address the other questions if my hon. Friend intervenes now. Let me just say that the local authority in Norwich is making the right type of progress and taking the right kinds of action, and we are very appreciative of that work.

It was suggested earlier that there was a financial pressure coming from the centre to get councils to adopt alternative weekly collections, which I think should not be called “alternate weekly collections” because the councils collect every week; they just collect different things each week. There is not financial pressure from the centre; instead, there is a sensible desire for business efficiency on the part of the councils themselves. Clearly, if the councils have less residual waste to take to landfill, they will save on the costs of landfill. That is why that efficiency drive makes a great deal of sense. I am also delighted to learn about the Costessey plant, which I understand will turn food and garden waste into compost.

Let me now answer some of the questions that were put to me. A number of hon. Members raised questions about plastic bags. I can tell them that the desire of the Government is to end the free giveaway of the single-use bag. We do not believe that a tax is likely to be the best way forward. We are consulting; we have a forum coming up with all the retailers, in order to have a further discussion with them. The progress that has been made to date, which people may have noticed and commented on, has been made as a result of the Courtauld commitment, whereby we have reached an agreement with 92 per cent. of the grocery chain to reduce the environmental impact of those plastic bags.

Paper is not a substitute for plastic, and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) explained why that is the case. It is the single use of the bag that is the problem. It is symptomatic of a throwaway society and we must end that practice.

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