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If we can move our society much more in that general direction, we will be able to deal with an awful lot of issues concerning waste in general and food waste in particular without having to put in place enormously expensive recycling and disposal systems.

I am feeling slightly schizophrenic. Long before I became a Member of Parliament, my constituency had a weekly recycling collection. All waste is collected once a week and is divided into non-recyclables, bottles, plastic and cans, and paper. That has been happening in the borough of Bromley for more than 10 years, and it has worked very effectively. As a London borough, Bromley has long been at the forefront of recycling.

I also live in Rye, as my husband is leader of East Sussex county council, which has just introduced alternate weekly collection. If there is one problem that I have on a Sunday night, it is remembering what is being collected that week. I am sure that I am not alone in that. I am conscious that, because this is a new system, it has taken a long time for people to adjust, although I give credit to the local council for providing first-class publicity and information. People knew what was happening, what they had to do and how they were going to do it, and the boxes were broadly delivered in good time.

The fact that the new vans were the wrong size and could not get down the lanes in rural areas was a management problem for the company that took the job on, and it had nothing to do with the publicity programme of the local council, which I thought was first class, even though I looked at it with a critical eye.

However, the information that we extracted from DEFRA, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, on the responses to its consultation shows that many issues have emerged in relation to the knock-on effects of the complexity of AWC. Whether people have a fortnightly or a weekly collection, evidence is emerging that there is a big increase in fly-tipping. We are very lucky that last summer was cool. We cannot use last summer as an indication that there is unlikely to be greater infestation by animals. In cooler weather, the attraction of food smells is less than in a hot summer.

Some years ago, during a hot summer, I remember carefully wrapping up some prawn shells, which even I cannot recycle or cook with. When I got home a week later, the shells were a mass of maggots. I knew what I had to do; I did it and it did not work. We have not had a hot summer. I hope that we have a hot summer, but people who live in the country will be hoping and praying that we do not. In terms of infestation, it is unproven that a weekly food collection will not cause health problems.

The other factor that irritates so much is the sheer volume of food that goes into plastic containers, which has been mentioned. Few of those containers are recyclable. I am sure that every Member in this Chamber looks for the number on the bottom of such containers. If they can spot it, often it is not 1, 2 or 3. That is grating for everybody. We must do more work with the supermarkets, which are the prime users of plastic containers, and the packaging industry to ensure that we have many more recyclable containers.

What concerns me more than anything is ensuring that council tax payers do not have to be charged further for the collection of waste. I heard this morning
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that, on average, band D council tax will be about £1,400, which is an enormous increase in what local people have to pay. We are already on the cusp of a council tax payers’ revolt and people do not want to have to pay even more for their waste collection, which many people regard as about the only service that they get from their local council. We should ignore the fact that people have access to social services, because many people do not use them. If people do not have children, they feel that they are not using the education service. In many cases, the only thing that people think that they pay council tax for is waste collection.

I sympathise with the views expressed in the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph: if people feel that they will have to pay more tax because of waste collection, there will be a revolt. The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail do not run articles that do not chime with their readership. If they believe that their readership is not interested in the issue of extra taxation, they will not run articles about it. Yes, that is a circular, chicken-and-egg argument, but we cannot blame those two newspapers for highlighting the bin taxes. They would not do so if they did not believe that their readers were very likely to revolt against any form of bin taxation.

Joan Ruddock: How does the hon. Lady regard an article that appeared in the Daily Express suggesting that the charges proposed by the Government for the incentive schemes would be up to £1,000 per family?

Mrs. Lait: That could well be what the Government plan to impose; we do not know. We have been told that the amount could be £30 to £50. I am no expert in the economics of the waste industry, as I hope I have made clear—the hon. Member for North Cornwall might be able to talk us through that topic—but if one were to work out the total cost of disposing of the extra waste, including the new investment in incinerators, anaerobic digesters and gas plasmification systems, that might well be the genuine cost.

Joan Ruddock: The hon. Lady is being disingenuous. She knows that the indicative amounts, which my predecessor quoted, were in the region of £30 to £50. I am on record as saying that the point of piloting is to see what would be the appropriate amount. I suggested that it could be as high as £100, but does the hon. Lady really think that it could be £1,000—that any local authority would wish to charge that amount, when, as she says, it is the entire cost of the council tax?

Mrs. Lait: Who is being disingenuous? The hon. Lady said that the Daily Express reported that the charge would be £1,000; I said that that could be the true economic cost. I did not say that it was what councils would charge. I referred to the genuine economic cost.

Joan Ruddock: I asked the hon. Lady, as she defended those papers and what they said, how she accounted for, and her opinion of, an article that said that the charge to the average family could be as high as £1,000.

Mrs. Lait: We are not going to get much further with this argument. I replied in terms of the potential true economic cost. It would be up to each local council
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whether they took it on the chin. I do not know the true economic cost, but I would be interested to know—perhaps the Minister can introduce this to her remarks, rather than have our debate turn into a dialogue—the potential for the Government to get on stream the anaerobic digesters and gas plasmification systems, quite apart from the incinerators, that will fundamentally deal with the waste in an environmentally friendly way.

On the continent, anaerobic digesters are going into full production, so why do we not have them in this country? In East Sussex, we have just received approval for an incinerator, the community is being incentivised by a reduction in electricity prices and there is the potential for an anaerobic digester to go into East Sussex. That is part of the contract with the provider.

Dan Rogerson: The hon. Lady referred to the chicken-and-egg situation regarding the whipping up of concerns and whether concerns about charging come from the readership or the newspapers. There is a chicken-and-egg situation, or a problem, with initiating those new technologies, because companies tend to undertake them only when they are proven and those companies are entering into contracts with local authorities. Does she agree that the Government have a role in encouraging pilots with companies to develop such technologies? Once the first is up and running and shown to be effective, others may follow.

Mrs. Lait: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I was encouraging the Minister to commit herself to that. I hope that she will be able to do so, because the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West referred to the— I must apologise; I have lost my thread.

Dr. Starkey: Give us a clue.

Mrs. Lait: I am in the middle of some waste disposal, I am afraid.

I am concerned about the time it will take to introduce the bin tax pilots, which have been referred to. I am concerned that, by then, people will have made up their minds about being charged for waste. They probably do not believe that they will ever be rebated, and there will be deep scepticism about bin taxes. As they already pay council tax in full, they do not believe that they should be charged further for their waste, so we do not wish the pilots to go ahead.

We believe that well introduced and variable forms of waste collection will work, and that there is a clear correlation between the collection and effective disposal of waste. Until we get a genuine system of modern waste disposal, we will not see the full impact on household collection. There will be many unforeseen changes in people’s waste disposal habits long before the introduction of bin taxes, so I would be much more comfortable if the Minister reassured us that there will be a serious and connected examination of investment in waste disposal, involving the highest levels of new technology, so that we can move forward much more effectively to ensure that we not only increase our waste recycling, but use disposable household waste much more effectively to compost, pelletise and heat homes.

There are many other ways of thinking of waste as a commodity that can be used, rather than as something to be disposed of.

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Dr. Starkey: I am trying to follow the hon. Lady’s argument, but I would be grateful if she clarified it. Am I to understand that she thinks that the way forward—I am paraphrasing—is to use waste as a resource, and to try to extract energy from it or recycle it? Is she not interested in measures that would encourage householders to reduce the amount of waste that they generate?

Mrs. Lait: I would have thought that our earlier exchanges demonstrated that I am keen to reduce the amount of waste that is produced. I am very keen that it should as much as possible be recycled, but I want investment in modern technology so that waste that cannot be recycled may be used more effectively and profitably for the benefit of communities. That technology includes anaerobic digestion, which produces further compost, and incineration, which produces heat. We should not be morally dismissive of the opportunities to add value to waste, and we should not regard it purely as waste.

We want to hear from the Government that they have decided that bin taxes are a waste of time and effort, which is what the evidence from most local authorities and many organisations shows, and that the Government are much more focused on the effective disposal of waste using modern technologies. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

4.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Joan Ruddock): I am grateful to the Communities and Local Government Committee and to the Liaison Committee for the opportunity to debate the vital matter of waste collection, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), for the manner in which she presented the report.

Since the publication of the report and our response to it, there has been a second report. In between, we responded to further requests for information. Most of the points made in the reports and in further questions have been repeated in the debate, and I need to repeat some of the Government’s responses, which are already on record. I shall also attempt to respond to the points that have been made in the debate and update Members on recent developments.

Recommendations 1 and 9 in the report endorse the Government’s plans for local authority indicators on waste and recommend that they should be prioritised by local government. The three main waste indicators that we said we would bring in have been included in the new performance framework, and we have given particularly strong encouragement to poorly performing authorities to include them in their area agreements. A technical consultation has been completed since we last corresponded with the Committee, and the final indicators are due to be published tomorrow.

Recommendation 2 endorsed the Government’s recognition of local authorities’ autonomy, but recommended that the Government commission research and evaluate best practice. DEFRA’s waste and resources evidence programme has funded the Waste and Resources Action Programme to undertake such work, and its report will be published at the end of next month. We expect it to include new advice to local authorities on food waste and related matters.

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Recommendation 4 relates to WRAP’s “Love Food Hate Waste” campaign, which I helped to launch some time ago. I am pleased to report that the campaign is already identifying early indications of measurable behaviour change. A growing number of local authorities are actively engaged with the campaign, and although figures will not be validated until April, indications are that well over 1 million additional households are committed to reducing the amount of food waste that they produce.

Recommendations 3, 5, 6, 7 and 12 are all on the type and frequency of household collections—a matter, as we have heard, of some controversy in the media, but on which, I am glad to say, the Committee and the Government substantially agree. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West, will probably agree that whoever coined the phrase “alternate weekly collections” did a huge disservice to waste management. It implies that services are reduced. Far from it; the changes would better be labelled “alternating collections” or “multiple collections”. As hon. Members are aware, and have said today, they are designed to give a better service through the collection of dry recyclables one week and residual waste another, thus preserving a weekly service. As the Committee recommended, it is crucial that they are introduced properly. Comprehensive advice on them is available from WRAP.

Although my hon. Friend expressed the Committee’s finding that there was no direct correlation between alternate weekly collections and an increase in recycling, it is a fact—the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) mentioned this—that of the top 20 recycling authorities in England, 17 have such collections. I think that he said 19, but 17 is the up-to-date number. In the other three, which are county councils, the majority of districts have alternating collections.

Cost-cutting has been mentioned in the debate. I can assure the Committee and its members that that is not the motivation of local authorities, and there is no direction about it from the Government. Of the total efficiency gains that local authorities have reported, they put about 0.1 per cent. down to alternating collections.

Dan Rogerson: The Minister makes the point that local authorities have invested any savings in developing services, which is good. Will the Government take a similar approach to the landfill tax that goes to the Treasury, by ensuring that it is spent on waste minimisation?

Joan Ruddock: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows full well that the initial increase in landfill tax of £3 was hypothecated and has provided considerable sums to support a range of waste minimisation and other waste strategies. That programme was designed, through the business resource efficiency and waste programme, to last three years, and it has done enormously good work. Although there is to be a substantial increase in the tax, the money from it will not be dealt with in the same way. It is important to remember that the increase will be the major driver of diverting waste from landfill. We have talked a lot about household waste, but commercial and industrial waste represents the majority of waste, as hon. Members have said.

Lurid reports of vermin infestations as a result of alternating collections continue to be reported in the media. We cannot find evidence of such infestations,
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and the National Pest Technicians Association has just reported that there has been a significant decrease in rodent numbers. Its belief is that the use of rodent-proof wheeled bins is the probable cause of that. That bears out what WRAP, the Committee and the Government have said: that there must be appropriate receptacles if food waste is to be collected and waste left for longer than we have been used to. That is an important lesson, and the Government continue to say that good management is the key. Clear information and education for householders, and particularly the provision of sealable containers for food and kitchen waste, must be at the heart of a successful programme.

In that context, I am delighted to report that 19 councils are participating in the DEFRA-funded weekly food collection trials that are being carried out by WRAP. Early results of the trials have shown that separate collection of food waste is popular, with 60 to 80 per cent. participation and about 3 kg of food waste collected per household per week.

I turn to the most contentious issue in the first report and the subject of the second: the Government’s proposals to remove the general prohibition on charging for waste. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West, noted, the UK is the only country in the EU15 that has that rule. In recommendation 24, the Committee asserts:

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) mentioned that point. If our plans are judged against such a radical departure from current practice, of course they will not find favour—that is absolutely clear. But there is no evidence, including from the Committee, to suggest that such a dramatic change is supported in local government, or even less by the public. I make no apology for restating the Government’s intention to go ahead with piloting waste incentive schemes.

Let me be clear about taxation, on which hon. Members had a little sport at my expense in the report, although not in the debate. There could be reward-only schemes—those based only on rewards, not on charges. Deciding on such things is the point of having pilots. Where charges are applied, they will not behave in the same way as traditional tax. When I gave evidence to the Select Committee on 17 December last year, I had not been advised that the charges could be deemed to be a tax. The Treasury has now clarified that they will, and that information was conveyed to the Committee by the Department for Communities and Local Government in a letter on 20 February.

Unlike other taxes, no revenue will accrue to the Treasury or the local authority, because the schemes will be revenue-neutral. Money collected from those who fail to recycle will be paid back to all those who do. We have found in our consultations that people believe that that is intrinsically fair. It is accepted that if people do what society requires of them, they will get that service free through their council, but that if they do not comply, it is reasonable to be charged.

Mrs. Lait: The Minister says that the schemes are revenue-neutral, because charges are recycled back to those who should be repaid. Who pays the administrative costs?

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