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28 Feb 2008 : Column 326WH—continued

Food waste, along with disposable nappies, is the problematic bit of residual waste. Food waste is problematic because it is smelly and attracts vermin and other problems and because when it gets into landfill it, above all, generates methane, which causes enormous problems
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in managing landfill sites. We recommended that food waste should be collected weekly. I am glad that the Government accepted that that recommendation was the right way forward.

The Committee also considered the evidence on health risks from alternate weekly systems. There is no credible evidence that there are health risks, although the public prejudice is that there are. We had a terribly interesting discussion about the life cycle of maggots, which demonstrated that even a weekly collection is too slow for the average maggot. We probably do not wish to go into that subject any further. However, that shows that even a weekly collection may not come often enough to deal with that problem. In addition, individual householders need to take some responsibility for wrapping their waste so that it is not so easily accessible to flies, foxes or magpies, which seem immediately to distinguish which colour bag has all the goodies in it and leave the recycling bags well alone.

I want to mention financing refuse collection and unofficial charging, which some councils seem to be pursuing at the moment, then I shall deal with a number of other points. Financing refuse collection is the issue that is concentrating everybody’s minds. As I pointed out at the beginning, costs are inevitably rising due to the pressure on landfill. Sir Michael Lyons, in his report on local government finance, recommended that councils should be able to charge for waste collection and disposal and that that should be done separately from council tax, so that householders could see what they were paying for. Of the original 15 members of the European Union, the United Kingdom is the only one that does not allow local authorities to charge for refuse collection.

The Government initially decided to introduce a limited power for local authorities to charge for waste collection, but hedged that in a number of ways. First, the incentives to households that reduced the amount of waste for landfill had to be balanced exactly by the fines on other households. The scheme had to be self-financing, so that there would be a redistribution of money from households that were not reducing waste to those that were. Secondly, the administration costs of the scheme could not be included in that self-financing envelope, and would have to be borne by the council. As I understand it, it was argued that that was acceptable because the point of introducing incentives and fines was to encourage households overall to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, so the overall cost to the council of disposing of waste would be reduced, and that reduction could then be offset against the cost of administering the scheme.

The Government were so concerned about the bin charges argument that the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas)—the predecessor to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock)—indicated in Committee that the maximum incentive, and therefore the maximum charge, could be of the order of only £30 or £50 a year. The Committee felt strongly that such a sum was so small that it was unlikely to encourage householders to recycle more and to reduce waste, or to be a sufficient penalty on those who were not bothering, particularly as that sum in the context of their overall council tax was not very large.

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We felt that local authorities should be left to decide, that every local authority should be given the freedom to charge if they wished, that it could be done through the council tax if councils wished to do so, and that it should be for councils to decide how big or small the incentive or charge should be. We are obviously disappointed that the Government have subsequently decided not to give the power to all councils, but to go ahead with only five pilots. We are particularly concerned about the timing, because the pilot schemes will not come in until 2009 at the earliest, yet the thresholds that councils must meet for the landfill allowances trading scheme will come in in 2010. We think that the pilot schemes are just causing delays, because they will last three years, and then be reviewed and brought back to Parliament, when Parliament may decide to give the power to all councils. That will be well past 2010. If charging works, many councils will copy the few that act as trailblazers, and if it does not work, most will think, “Thank goodness we decided not to do that and left the council next door to try it out.” That is how it should be taken forward.

Dan Rogerson: I am following with interest the hon. Lady’s comments about variable charging. Did the Committee look into how those incentives on local authorities might differ between unitary authorities and two-tier systems in terms of the different responsibilities for disposal and collection, and whether there are any differences in the way in which those costs might filter through the system, and act as more of an incentive in some areas than in others?

Dr. Starkey: No, we did not. We looked at the way in which decisions by the waste disposal authorities reduce the options available to waste collection authorities, and I shall give one example. There is a great debate about whether the amount of recyclables that people put out are maximised by making it simple and asking them to put out all their recyclables in one bag, which the council subsequently sorts, or whether householders should be required to do some of the pre-sorting. Making it simple so that the amount of recycling is maximised means that the recyclable products are more mixed up, so the quality of the end product, which is then recycled or sold to someone who recycles it, is poorer.

Those options are closed down, depending on the infrastructure in which the waste disposal authority has invested for dealing with recyclables. Some waste collection authorities have fewer choices available to them than others because of waste collection costs. The Committee thought that there should be a lot more co-operation between councils to obtain economies of scale, and we endorsed the proposal to allow joint waste authorities because there is a lot of merit in that, although, again, it should be left to local authorities to decide whether they wish to do that. We are pleased that that option is available for them.

I want to touch on unofficial charging. At the moment, waste collection authorities are not legally allowed to charge for refuse collection, which is why the Government are proposing the pilot schemes, although they can charge for collection of bulky items. They can refuse to collect waste that has been left outside the containers provided, or to introduce an additional
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charge. In fact, some local authorities have tried to limit the amount of refuse that householders can throw away by restricting the amount that can be put out each week, or by introducing charges for additional waste.

I believe that Broxbourne in Hertfordshire is piloting a scheme under which it issues households with one purple refuse sack a week, and then charges, but only 28p, for each additional sack if required by the householder. North Dorset, more realistically, charges £1 for additional sacks. The Committee thought that that was a good idea, but was slightly doubtful about whether it was legal. DEFRA apparently wrote in the autumn to all local authorities reminding them of the current legal position, but it is obviously still a grey area if Broxbourne feels safe about going ahead and charging for a service that it could be argued it should provide out of the council tax. That is an interesting way in which councils are, effectively, already using charges as a mechanism to try to encourage householders to produce less waste. The Broxbourne scheme is reducing waste by charging on volume, and there is the alternative of doing that by weight. The simplest way is through wheelie bins with a chip in them, which weighs the waste when it is tipped into the refuse lorry. Many councils have already introduced that so that they know how much waste is in the van and how much they are taking to landfill. The technology is not new; it would be used for a different purpose.

I want to draw attention to a couple of other points that came up during our inquiry and that relate to what might be deemed to be slightly perverse incentives that have arisen from the systems that have been put in place to encourage more recycling, particularly more diversion from landfill of biodegradable waste.

First, it was pointed out to us that councils that encourage households to compost garden and kitchen waste on their own properties are removing green waste from the waste stream that the council picks up to be recycled or put into landfill. That means that the council’s ability to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill has been reduced, because the waste is out of the system. That creates a perverse situation, in which councils that have encouraged home compositing make it more difficult for themselves to reduce the proportion of biodegradable waste that they divert from landfill.

A side argument was made by some urban authorities. They said that where people have big gardens it was easy for authorities to reduce the proportion of biodegradable waste that goes to landfill because most of the biodegradable stuff is garden waste. Such waste is easy to handle, because it can be collected in a separate bin and taken away, which leads to a big reduction in the biodegradable waste that goes to landfill. In urban areas, however, nobody has big gardens, so they do not produce garden waste; all the biodegradable waste is food waste, which is much more difficult to divert. I merely repeat the arguments.

Mrs. Lait: Good gardeners, whether in urban, suburban or rural areas, would not put anything that could be composted into the system. Did the hon. Lady have any evidence to indicate whether local authorities in such areas had already had biodegradables discounted from their totals? If so, we would be talking about a reduction in what they were already collecting—rather than a notional increase—caused by the fact that people in
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their areas had gardens, leading to a higher target quantity of biodegradables. I hope that that makes sense.

Dr. Starkey: I think so. Nobody produced the numbers to demonstrate that point, but I know from my own council—I am not criticising it—that it collects garden rubbish and gives out free compost bins. The issue is how we strike the right balance, and I wonder whether there should be a greater concentration on getting people to compost in their own gardens, rather than seemingly encouraging them just to think that garden waste is like any other waste and that they can stick it in the bin to be taken away. That is a difficult balance for councils to strike.

The point that I was trying to make earlier, however, is quite difficult—I had to write it down. The perfectly reasonable incentives that the Government have introduced to get councils to reduce biodegradable waste give rise to a slightly perverse incentive, in that they encourage councils to collect garden waste and compost it themselves, rather than letting the individual householder compost it. That also increases transport costs, which is not environmentally sensible.

Another issue related to London. At this point I need to declare a constituency interest. The Mayor of London has criticised a number of London boroughs for shuffling off responsibility for commercial waste in a way that makes them appear to have reduced the amount of refuse that they send to landfill. That also highlights the fact that a great deal—two thirds—of London waste goes to landfill in the south-east, not in London. One of the landfill sites used is in my constituency, which explains my constituency interest.

The Mayor of London provided us with a great deal of information to try to back up his claim that a number of London boroughs that had previously collected a lot of commercial waste, as well as residential waste, had deliberately reduced the amount of commercial waste that they collected either by putting up their charges so that businesses went elsewhere or by stopping collections. They therefore diverted away from themselves a lot of the landfill waste that originated with businesses, and the waste went instead directly from those businesses to a commercial operator and into landfill. In other words, there appeared to be a reduction in the amount of waste from London boroughs going to landfill, but that was simply because authorities had removed it from their collections from businesses and encouraged those businesses to deal with it through the private sector and to let it go to landfill without the council’s mediation.

It is a contentious point, and the data we received, which are reproduced in our report, do not prove the case one way or the other. Clearly, a debate is going on, because I have seen correspondence between the Mayor, the Department and, indeed, the European Commission. The Mayor is continuing to try to make his point and is pressing the Environment Agency to audit more closely what the London boroughs are doing. All that the Committee said was that as we could not work out what was going on, it would be a good idea if the Environment Agency made a proper audit so that people could be clear about whether such practices were occurring.

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That issue pointed up the fact that we need to look at both commercial and domestic waste when talking about the waste that goes to landfill. The only disincentive for sending commercial waste to landfill is the landfill tax escalator—such practices are not governed by the LATS threshold.

Speaking as a south-east MP, I can tell Members that the issue of London waste going to landfill in the wider south-east is extremely unpopular with people who live near landfills in the region. My constituents may accept that we have to provide a hole in the ground for our own waste, but they are not particularly keen on lorry loads of London waste coming to landfills near us, with the problems that that causes. They are certainly with the London Mayor on the issue and want to persuade London boroughs not only to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill, but to deal with that waste within their own boundaries, rather than exporting it to the wider south-east.

I have reached the end of the major issues that I wanted to raise in relation to our report. The Committee has carried out quite a number of interesting inquiries recently, but this one was particularly interesting, and all the members of the Committee have become much better informed about the various issues relating to refuse collection. It is extremely important that councils across the country do their best to ensure that their refuse collections not only meet the needs of their local populations, but help every local community to think seriously about the amount of waste that we generate. Councils must work together to reduce the amount of waste we create, to ensure that waste is recycled as much as possible and to reduce the amount that goes to landfill. I will be very interested to hear the contributions of other hon. Members.

3.18 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): It is disappointing to see so few hon. Members in the Chamber to discuss this important subject. Individually, and leaving aside the communities to which they belong, every Member of the House of Commons generates a fair amount of waste.

This is an important debate, which has been politically highly charged, although it may be on the cusp of becoming a little more sensible. When we talk about the various strategies for disposing waste, I can think of a political party somewhere that will have opposed them, while the same political party will have proposed them somewhere else. A lot of political opportunism is riding on the back of what is a serious issue for us all.

The report is good in part, but I have to be slightly critical of some of its conclusions. If people consult the document, they will see that I was not present at the final stage when the text and the press release were agreed. In retrospect, I felt that a sensible report was slightly distorted in the press.

The prelude to the report is fairly well understood. There has been considerable churn in refuse arrangements throughout the land, brought about by the landfill tax and the escalating burden that it imposes on local authorities, by the very genuine and serious environmental concerns relating to methane emissions and the shortage
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of landfill and by our horrific record of generating rubbish, because our society is extraordinarily wasteful by European standards. I think the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) described our recycling rate as rather poor. It is actually disgracefully low.

Some authorities have responded with what is now referred to as the alternate weekly collection, which they couple, by and large, with an increased recycling push, generally collecting such things as bottles, paper and compostable material, which are heavy and save an appreciable amount in landfill tax for council tax payers. I accept that the option is entirely up to local authorities, in their particular circumstances, and the communities that they represent, but I must record that the strategy has been going on for some time. It dates back to 2004 and 2005. However, the debate over it really lit up when the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph weighed in and took up the issue in 2007.

I concede that the Daily Mail is a brilliantly laid-out newspaper. It has an intelligent mix of articles and is very clever in what it does, but ostensibly—in fact obviously—it has agendas, and it has a particular agenda on the issue that we are discussing. As with most of the media, when there is an agenda, the facts and reporting are subsumed into it. The Daily Mail was solidly against alternate weekly collection and these days where the Daily Mail goes the BBC supinely follows, so the issue went up the political Richter scale.

The Minister, when interviewed, was obviously acutely sensitive about the issue, and was hard pushed to say anything positive about it. I asked him a simple question about whether research showed as a general trend that alternate weekly collection boosts recycling. The somewhat evasive answer was:

I emphasise that I do not mean the current Minister, to whom I apologise; I am sure that she will be absolutely frank and forthright on the issue. I asked the then Minister, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw):

He replied:

Then quite touchingly he added:

He was obviously conscious of the effect that he might have on the media.

The Committee concluded—perhaps following the Minister’s evidence—that there was no direct causal link between the AWC and high rates of recycling. We said that such a direct causal link was unproven. It would not be unfair to say that the Committee’s conclusion mystified the waste industry, the experts and people from organisations such as the Waste and Resources Action Programme, to whom I have spoken. Why? Because the evidence seems to show that 19 of the top 20 recycling councils use alternate weekly collection.

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