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28 Feb 2008 : Column 332WH—continued

I do not want to deliver a lecture on causality. I could, but it would detain Members for too long, and with few speakers present there is a good chance of our
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all getting away a little early. However, the AWC is not a necessary or sufficient condition for a high recycling rate. It is not necessary because the odd borough—usually a very middle-class borough—sometimes has high recycling rates, without the alternate weekly collection. Those are the exceptions, however. The AWC is not a sufficient condition because some local authorities introduce it so badly that it does not significantly boost recycling rates; the expected jump in rates does not happen.

That is the fact; but the same is true of the connection that can be made between lung cancer and smoking. People do not need to smoke to get lung cancer; it is not a necessary condition. Furthermore, some people who smoke, such as my 86-year-old aunt, who has smoked 20 a day since she was about 16, do not get lung cancer—at least, as far as we know she has not got it. Nevertheless, smoking increases the probability of lung cancer, and the evidence seems to suggest that AWC increases the probability of higher recycling rates, because it influences choices.

We can all choose to be environmentally virtuous and recycle as much as we can, but we do not invariably do so. I have bins in my room for recycling materials, and I have bins for other stuff, as do all Members. It would be nice to think that I and my staff always put recyclable material in the recycling bin, and that we do not follow the path of inertia and throw it in the nearest bin. However, from observation of my staff, myself, and other Members, that is not invariably the pattern. Our choices are influenced by our opportunities, and if our opportunities to recycle exceed our opportunities to dump, we tend to recycle more. That is usually, although, I rush to add, not invariably, a feature of the AWC.

Sensibly—and this is a point on which I agree wholeheartedly with the Committee’s conclusion—AWC should be part, as I am sure the Minister will say, of a package of measures including education and the opportunity to recycle, rather than the opportunity to get one’s rubbish picked up less frequently than before. As the Committee said, the system must be variable according to local circumstances. Members with constituencies where there are large numbers of flats or houses in multiple occupation—or areas in their constituency with lots of flats or HMOs—will know of the necessity for tailor-made solutions for those areas and the environments where rubbish is collected.

We have moved on in our understanding of what makes AWC work better, to insist that it should include food waste. We do not want people to put all their food waste down the sink, which might be the alternative to leaving it lying around for another week. We should prefer that it be collected weekly, and in the best schemes it is. We do not want it pushed down the sink or hanging about rotting—although, as the report states, we did not find evidence of increases in maggot and vermin infestation. The Committee called for more research, and it will be interesting to see what research reveals, but so far all we have to go on is anecdotal evidence. On the basis of that, we called for more research. I venture to suggest that wheelie bins present greater challenges to rats, in many areas, than the old black-bag system did. I do not know a great deal about the psychology or abilities of rats, but that is my supposition, and wheelie bins are normally part of the AWC system.

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I want to turn briefly to a real problem with current AWC regimes. Often, although not always, they exclude adequate arrangements for plastic and cardboard, which are big elements in the residual waste stream and are rarely collected door to door. Normally, people must travel to dump them somewhere, but they are of course by and large recyclable—not all, but most, plastic can be recycled, and certainly all cardboard. A feature of the situation is that those materials are light, so their contribution to a council’s reduction in the landfill tax is relatively small. They take a lot of transporting around. If someone is carrying plastic bottles about in a lorry, they are driving a lorry full of air with not much material. There is also the environmental argument that a plastic bottle has the advantage of being chemically inert, so that it does not degenerate and give off carbon dioxide and methane emissions in landfill.

The problem is a serious one for the householder, but is not so serious for the council, which is not affected in the same way as it would be by failure to recycle bottles, compostable material or other heavy stuff; although, self-evidently, compostable material need not be transported to be dealt with in an environmentally sound way. Plastic and cardboard are a transport headache for the council, requiring many lorries to shift not much, by weight, plastic and cardboard. They are a sorting headache at the end of their journey, because there are various perplexing kinds of plastic that need to be sorted by type before they can be usefully recycled and reused. They are also a disposal headache, because people do not always know of an end use for some of the products. In other words, the markets are relatively immature and insufficiently developed at present.

Facilities need to be developed—I think that the Under-Secretary was alluding to this—on a sub-regional basis, so that a number of local authorities can have access to adequate ways of sorting out and making further use of unwanted plastic in particular. Encouragement is also needed from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for the end-use market. Various things are thrown out in very large quantities—for example, CDs and DVDs—that do not at present have a valid alternative use but can have one, given the right circumstances.

The report is largely about collection policy and how it is carried out, but collection policy cannot be divorced from a sub-regional environmental strategy that encompasses both facilities to make use of what councils collect and end uses for the products of collection. There is a need for massive co-ordination—a job for DEFRA or whoever. If there is local decision making—a good thing which I am in favour of—but an absence of sub-regional co-ordination, the whole process will become infinitely more complex and less worth while.

3.30 pm

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I reiterate my compliments to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) and her Committee on putting together the report and at least considering the issue that we are debating. In addition to speaking for my party on local government issues, I am a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and I dare say that in due course that Committee
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will examine waste issues in general. Perhaps the EFRA Committee will consider disposal issues to a greater extent than this report does, but it will inevitably inform any work that the Committee chooses to do, so it is very valuable from that point of view.

I am also engaged in a fellowship with the Industry and Parliament Trust. Unlike other Members who may have had sexy assignments in different industries, I have been doing mine in the waste industry, but it has been fascinating working with the Waste Recycling Group of Northampton. I thank Mike Snell and all the other people at the company for giving me an induction into the culture of the waste industry. Every sector has its own language, history and culture, and it has been interesting getting to grips with some of the issues. The company focuses more on disposal than collection but, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West and my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), the two are inextricably linked. Perhaps further research and work by the Government will explore ways in which that relationship can be made even more beneficial in terms of recycling rates and landfill diversion.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West focused on a number of key issues in the report and, through interventions, was drawn into other areas, too. Before I consider the report’s recommendations and the Government’s initial response last autumn, I note that some of the points that she raised are crucial; for example, we must recognise that municipal waste is only a tiny part of the total waste burden that we have to address. The last recommendation needs much more exploration with a view to the contribution that could be made to giving small and medium-sized enterprises a greater opportunity to recycle in a way that is affordable for them and accessible to them.

Mrs. Lait: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s view that small and medium-sized businesses should be given greater encouragement to recycle. Is he aware that the Government and DEFRA have cut the budget for WRAP, which has now withdrawn all the work it was doing with small and medium-sized enterprises?

Dan Rogerson: I am aware of all the problems that the various agencies that work with DEFRA and rely on it for their funding have experienced. I know that you will not want us to step outside the bounds of the debate, Mr. Amess, but we could talk about the Rural Payments Agency and various other things that have affected DEFRA’s budget. As the hon. Lady focused on WRAP, I will mention the work that NISP—the national industrial symbiosis programme—is doing with larger bodies, too. It would be a great shame if that work, which has been undertaken, is not allowed to be pushed forward to effective conclusions.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West raised issues relating to integration of the strategies of disposal authorities and collection authorities. That is a crucial question. I have had the opportunity to visit some disposal facilities, so I have seen where recycling is sorted, in fairly unpleasant circumstances. Companies such as WRG and others are excellent employers and do a great deal to look after the work force who carry
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out the sorting, but inevitably it is not the most glamorous of jobs. Other authorities have concentrated on encouraging the sorting of materials at source—in other words, by the householder—which leads to an easier process further down the chain, so the hon. Lady was right to focus on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southport, a member of the Communities and Local Government Committee, spoke strongly about his belief that alternate weekly collections have a significant role to play in meeting our targets as a nation and in terms of improving recycling rates. He made a very powerful argument for that. Although he is a philosopher, he did not delve too deeply into causality, but he made it clear that he believes that there may be a stronger link between the two than the final report or debate on it in the media may have indicated.

I shall deal with some of the recommendations. There are a great number of them and although time is available to us, I sense from other Members that they may wish me not to explore every recommendation in detail, so I shall pick out just a few. The first issue is local authority targets and whether, under the new regime for local authorities, waste should automatically be one of those targets. My party welcomes the approach that the Government have taken to simplifying targets, although it remains to be seen how it will work in practice. The targets ought to be agreed as part of a bottom-up process. There are difficulties with insisting that, in all circumstances, waste ought to be one of those, although in most cases, as waste is moving up the agenda, waste issues are likely to be key targets for local authorities through their own priority setting, rather than having to be imposed from above. I think that was the Government response: they were cautious about imposing a target on all local authorities.

Recommendation 3, which relates to the clear and straightforward guidelines that should be provided to householders to encourage their participation and co-operation in recycling, is very important. The Government response is that through work with WRAP they are encouraging good practice on collection systems, including advice on engagement with residents. That is important, but it does not go quite far enough in terms of providing that information.

The report talks about our historical problems. Now that many flowers bloom across the country in terms of systems, it is difficult to turn the clock back and simplify things, but I hope that the possibility exists of building on WRAP’s work, as the report suggests, in relation to colour coding and so on to make the system easier for people to understand. The Government response to that recommendation may not go quite far enough to meet what the Committee said about guidelines and providing clearer information to householders.

The knotty problem of food waste is, in many cases, one of perception. As part of the IPT fellowship, I had occasion to visit Bracknell council and talk to the council leader—who speaks for the Local Government Association on some of these issues—about Bracknell’s experiences with AWC. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southport said, if there is effective communication with local residents and people are made aware of the benefits, that will address some of the perception problems, which I think have informed some of the rumours about what might happen—the horror stories
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about vermin and maggot infestations and so on. People occasionally see the worst in a system if they are told that that is the likely outcome. Councils that have invested significantly in winning people over to a system before its introduction seem to have had far better results in terms of people’s acceptance. That is an important lesson to be learned, whatever changes occur with waste collection. Waste is one of those services where, as long as it is working well, no one wants to talk about it or consider it. On the other hand, if there is a problem it moves quickly up the agenda. That is part of the problem.

The report makes several recommendations about the need to allow local authorities flexibility to develop their own schemes. I have already referred to the need for principles that people can get used to, so that when they move from one area to another—people change jobs far more often, they move around the country more and are more mobile—they can expect to find some basic ideas in operation.

My local authority of Restormel is in a rural part of north Cornwall; our circumstances are very different from those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). We should not expect the circumstances of collection to be the same. That is an important principle, and I am glad that the report focused on it in some detail.

The issue of minimum standards is interesting. The idea that core definitions of what householders should expect from their refuse collections is to be found in recommendation 15. Encouraging people to think more about what they receive from the waste service and what contribution they can make to develop the service and make recycling more useful and effective would be most beneficial. The recommendation on incentives is a crucial part of that engagement.

I turn to the question of varying charges. Unlike alternate weekly collection and promotion schemes, in which people are encouraged to look creatively at what they can do to increase recycling, the moment one starts to raise issues of finance a negative connotation is unfortunately put on it. People think that they may be worse off rather than thinking that they might be better off if they were to adapt to such a system. We should recognise that people may be able to take advantage of the system in different ways, so we must ensure that taxation does not become more aggressive. The report also deals with the small amounts involved and whether they will be significant enough to effect change. That is an important point.

Treating waste as a utility is a fascinating idea. In my part of the south-west, water charges are a huge issue, but the fact that they are separate from other household charges focuses people’s attention on them and has pushed people into using water meters, because they think such things are efficient. Considering waste as a utility is a tempting prospect; it could encourage people to consider how to be more efficient and thus become part of the solution, and educate them on how little we spend on waste. We have heard about the recycling rates in other countries, but in many countries people pay far more for waste collection and waste disposal than we do. We have been somewhat spoilt by the availability of landfill and the low costs that councils have managed to
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achieve. Although we congratulate them on the efficiencies they have been able to achieve, people have been somewhat spoiled in that respect.

I would prefer councils to make more of an effort to say how little of the council tax is spent on waste. As I said earlier, it is a visible service when things go wrong, and people tend to see it as a core service and assume that a vast amount of their council tax goes towards providing it, but we know that is not the case. In fact, when I was a member of Bedford borough council, the chief executive often said that whenever he spoke to local organisations and groups that were concerned about costs, he used to lay out just how much of their council tax went on some of the key services, and they were stunned to find that they were getting such good value for money.

The idea of considering waste as a utility is an interesting one, but I would be cautious about fettering councils in that way. It could take away another function from local authorities, rather as education funding is now entirely discrete. It might undermine the flexibility of local authorities in that respect and I hope that the information could be provided to local residents without necessarily saying that waste collection had to be treated as a discrete system.

Finally, I return to the question of recycling for small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly for new businesses and for people who have not been involved in business before, whose only experience of waste has been dealing with domestic waste. They are often surprised at the lack of accessible services for commercial recycling. There are huge gains to be made; for instance, in my constituency glass bottles could be far more effectively reused or recycled.

There is more work to be done. The Communities and Local Government Committee may return to the question in future, although I know that it is considering a great many other inquiries, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West said, or another Select Committee may consider the matter. As well as giving answers, the report raised some interesting questions, and I certainly welcome it.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in expanding on the issues raised in the Government response in October, although on some issues they seemed not quite to have got the point that the Committee was making and they could go a little further in providing a way forward.

3.46 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I reiterate my congratulations to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) and her Committee on two excellent reports on refuse collection.

As a child of parents who lived through the second world war, I find an awful lot of the comments made on waste seriously familiar. All my life I have recycled; my pocket money used to be made up of returned penny deposits on bottles. In a sense, much of this is familiar in a personal way. However, as a reaction to the second world war, as we became richer we became more profligate with our waste. We are now trying to re-impose a regime of frugality in the midst of wealth, which is not the easiest thing to do. I therefore have enormous sympathy with local authorities, which have
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responsibility for waste collection and disposal, in trying to change what has become a fundamental aspect in people’s psyche—as we got richer, it became an indicator of greater wealth that we could throw our waste away.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) is right: this may not be a pleasant topic, but it is fascinating because it is an industry in the midst of innovation. We see new thinking and new science being brought to bear on how to deal with our inevitable waste.

From the 1960s onwards, being relatively young then, I remember being chastised by older people, who said, “Why do the supermarkets pack everything in so many layers?” or, “Why can’t we have loose biscuits?” I had to tell them about health and safety and keeping the germs away from the tins of biscuits, and tell them that the packaging was necessary because people would buy the biscuits only if they looked pretty. Even then, they said, “This is nonsense. We don’t need all this packaging.”

There is a real and very human response to what is seen as wasteful. It is encouraging that the whole of society is now coming to recognise that waste is a problem that has to be dealt with, and dealt with intelligently.

Dr. Pugh: I hate to put in a good word for those involved in the packaging industry, but they would probably make the point that an awful lot of stale biscuits were wasted under the old regime. Therefore, as the hon. Lady says, an intelligent approach is required.

Mrs. Lait: The hon. Gentleman is right. I remember being able to buy bags of broken biscuits. Those who are old enough—I suspect that he possibly is not—will remember that bags of broken biscuits were a wonderful thing on a Saturday afternoon. However, even in that heyday, there were difficulties.

Dr. Starkey: To put a counter point, does the hon. Lady accept that one reason why there is so much food wastage is because much food is pre-packaged, and therefore individuals have to buy quanta of food. If the food is perishable, there may be more than they can consume within the time available. That is another reason why returning to people being able to choose how much they buy might be more effective.

Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. At some point, I was going to congratulate the Government—which, as she knows, is rare—on responding to the pressure for proper cooking to be taught in schools, because that is how we will fundamentally reduce the amount of food waste.

There was a time when people had roast on Sunday, cold on Monday, shepherd’s pie on Tuesday, sandwiches on Wednesday, soup on Thursday and fish on Friday. Where is the waste in that? We should all start to apply that mental regime, as it is common-sense management of the family larder—I will sound like Mrs. Thatcher soon. There does not have to be food waste, although I am grateful to have food waste for my garden because I compost it. That is enough home-grown philosophy.

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