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22 Apr 2008 : Column 367WH—continued

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10.25 am

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Chope; it is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), not just on securing the debate but on his continued interest in all environmental matters, and I pay tribute to his expertise.

This has been an interesting debate. It finally puts paid to the spectre of “Steptoe and Son” and shady business, which once came to mind as we looked on the industry with affection. It is interesting to see that the turnover of the top three companies is £3.8 billion, £1.1 billion and £175 million respectively, so they are by no means the poor relations of the recycling industry.

The Conservative party is heavily committed to the concept of zero waste. I commend our quality of life report, which runs to 550 pages and is available on the Conservative party website. With recycling in mind, and wishing to save paper, I shall resist the urge of copying the report to all hon. Members assembled in the Chamber, but I commend it to them. Conservatives are committed to the concept of zero waste and recognise that we have need a new mindset, moving away from the least-cost compliance to a recognition of the fact that metals are a valuable resource, as hon. Members, led by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, have made clear. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, that resource is a big earner for UK Ltd and a big employer, too. We are looking at policies dealing not just with landfill bans on metal, but with packaging reduction regulations and incentives for returning cans and bottles. That works successfully in Scandinavia: it gives people a vested interest in the issue, and we should explore it.

During the recent recess, while canvassing in the market town of Boroughbridge, I visited the little village of Milby Island, which is regularly flooded; although the flood defences have been improved in the rest of Boroughbridge, that is the one area that still floods. There is, regrettably, in the strategic overview for waste disposal at county level, a possible site for industrial waste disposal in this village, which would seem the least appropriate place to site it anywhere in the county because of the problem of road access and because it is prone to flooding. Obviously, all the villagers at Milby and all the residents of Boroughbridge are opposed to such a site. However, when I asked whether there were any other issues that concerned them, they said that they would like more recycling, particularly of plastics, including plastic bottles. I said, “You do not wish to see an industrial recycling plant in your own market town, but you would like to see a plastic bottle recycling plant in some other little village in the Vale of York or elsewhere in north Yorkshire.”

Perhaps there is a way forward that would cause less grief. Inevitably, recycling sites tend to be based in the little villages of North Yorkshire. Such a situation raises many planning issues not faced by other European countries, which have a much bigger landmass. The Minister and all hon. Members are apprised of this challenge. In respect of the concept of zero waste, we are wedded to the concept of revising our thinking on powerful consumer culture. For
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example, people expect a new mobile phone every year, so recycling should start in the home. I visited the local tip at Rufforth when an application was being considered to extend it, and I know that glass from household waste and wood from building materials such as wood frames are two of the most difficult products to recycle. However, in the present market, metal should be easier to recycle.

I want to throw two challenges down for the Minister. First, in reply to a parliamentary question she stated:

The arguments for recycling metals are compelling, and we are all aware of the high price of not doing so. Japan is growing increasingly prosperous, and is increasingly hungry for metal, which fuels illegal activity and theft. My first challenge for the Minister concerns EU regulations on the transhipment of waste, to which hon. Members have referred. When the regulations were going through, why did her Government not oppose those transhipments? Her predecessor, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), replied to questions about the details of the measures, particularly the commercial confidentiality of some of the information on the form. What we have learnt today flags up one of the greatest difficulties with regulations, and I submit that this debate would have carried more weight and produced more action if it had taken place in the European Parliament.

If the Government had opposed the regulations or sought to revise them, I submit that we would not be in the present position. I challenge the Minister to explain why the Government did not oppose the regulations when they were being considered. From what the hon. Member for Southampton, Test so eloquently and passionately argued, that is at the root of our difficulties. I also submit that the debate has flagged up a general problem with the scrutiny of EU regulations in Parliament. We can vote only for or against them, and I plead with the Minister and, perhaps more appropriately, the Leader of the House, to enable us to amend regulations as they go through the House. It is not sufficient merely to vote for or against them.

On comitology as opposed to co-decision, I am afraid that I am a bit of an anorak, or a macintosh, because not only did I spend 10 years serving as a Member of the European Parliament, I worked for the Conservatives in the European Parliament, and prior to that I practised European law in a very humble capacity. My understanding of comitology is that it is left to national officials and experts, who are well meaning and well qualified, to meet behind closed doors and agree to regulations on which Members of Parliament and MEPs, who are the real experts, do not have the right to be consulted. They may impose—I say this sincerely to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test—additional burdens on industry, particularly UK industry, of which we are not aware until the decision has been made. We should not rush through the regulations, because they may end up like the transhipment regulations to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Would it not be better to have a co-decision procedure, which is transparent, with an element of parliamentary democracy at two levels? Ministers
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appear before European Committees and perhaps the European Scrutiny Committee, and we could improve the scrutiny and the remit with which we task Ministers to negotiate at co-decision level before they negotiate at the Council of Ministers. We also have our own Members of the European Parliament to whom we can speak, and whom I am sure the industry will lobby before going into battle. It is not necessarily in the best interests of the UK industry to agree to comitology just for speed. I do not know many hon. Members who want the measure to go through by comitology: Conservative Members would be appalled if that happened, when we could have co-decision.

I entirely support the urgent need for a redefinition of waste, and I want to challenge the Minister further. Hon. Members who have spoken are at one in wanting that redefinition, but that will not happen unless member states support us. Will the Minister tell us which member states will support us? Without that support, there is not a prayer of the measure going through, even with the greatest will in the world—and we want to give UK industry experts the greatest support—because, from what the hon. Member for Southampton, Test said and from the tone of the debate it strikes me that everything is conspiring against us. Extra regulations are required covering export to non-OECD countries such as China. We are the major exporter and beneficiary, but where will support come from if we want the redefinition to proceed sooner rather than later?

We need a definition of waste that is less restrictive or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said, more proportionate. Fully recovered metals must be recognised as a secondary raw material, not waste, if we are to build on, and not just maintain, the world market export position that we enjoy. I hope that after today’s debate we will all contact our colleagues in the European Parliament to ensure that all the parties in that institution are singing from the same hymn sheet. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what progress has been made in the negotiating procedures.

I support entirely what has been said about the burden of regulation: the one-size-fits-all approach to generic waste sites and regulators does not necessarily fit in with the market. We must provide greater clarity, and we must remove the confusion and the administrative burden and costs on the industry. We must ensure that illegal operators are rooted out, and that legitimate operators are allowed to develop this lucrative and legitimate trade. Metal recyclers should have a full review of the effect of the regulations on the industry, leading to streamlined regulation. The new environmental permitting programme and the DEFRA exemption review threaten to add to the regulatory burden, so perhaps the Minister would put our minds at rest on that. The Government have demonstrated—I say this somewhat reluctantly—a lack of a joined-up approach in the Department, as well as in other Departments. The Minister is on record as saying that there could be huge savings in CO2 emissions and natural resources through increased metal recycling, with gains for British business and, as a result of lower emissions, reduced pollution. There is no co-ordinated UK strategy to promote the industry, but is the Minister minded to produce one?

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In conclusion, I invite the Minister to tell the Committee why the Government did not oppose the regulations when they were being considered. What is the status of the current negotiations, and, if we are to succeed, which member states will support us? On the points that have been made about where metal and other recycling plants will go in future, is she mindful of their impact on the countryside? Such plants are a blot on residential and completely green landscapes, and can have an impact on house prices and on the general quality of life. On my canvassing excursions during the recess, great concern was expressed about where industrial waste and recycling plants are to be located. I am not going to mention it publicly, but I am negotiating on that matter and have a site in mind in the Vale of York that is more appropriate than the sites that have been given as examples. On that point, I urge the Minister to put our minds at rest, and reassure us that she and her Government will do everything in their power to support a hardworking, lucrative industry.

10.40 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Joan Ruddock): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) on obtaining this debate and on the way in which he presented his case. I also congratulate other hon. Members on their contributions. As they have said, this has been an extremely useful debate that has left me with many points to which I must reply.

I share my hon. Friend’s view that the benefits of metal recycling are considerable. Such materials can be used time and again, and in doing so we use our natural resources wisely and avoid using the energy involved in extracting raw materials. The industry is vital to our achieving our EU targets on packaging, on end-of-life vehicles, on batteries and on electrical and electronic equipment.

The industry is a significant export earner, and about 60 per cent. of the metals it handles are exported. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) made a case for more recycling at home and less export. May I say to him that a balance needs to be struck on that issue? It is not necessarily absolutely right to recycle everything at home, and if emerging economies can reuse our material, they do not then use raw materials and huge amounts of energy. A balance needs to be struck, and it is useful for the most developed countries to make materials they have used available to those who wish to recycle to benefit their emerging economies.

My hon. Friend and others by implication have paid tribute to the British Metals Recycling Association, and I recognised some of its memorandum when it was quoted by hon. Members today. Metal recycling makes an important contribution to the economy and I add my tributes to the work being done. As hon. Members have said, 2 million cars, 5 billion food and drink cans, 3.5 million white goods and some 8 million automotive batteries have been recycled. Therefore, an extraordinary amount of metal recycling is taking place.

Aluminium is a case in point. The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) referred to something that I have said before on the subject—indeed, the topic of aluminium is an extraordinary story. If recycled,
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aluminium takes just 5 per cent. of the energy that would be needed to produce primary aluminium. As the hon. Lady said, that is equivalent to saving 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide for every tonne of aluminium produced. Recycling aluminium also reduces the use of chemicals, eliminates the need for 5 tonnes of bauxite ore to be mined and prevents the generation of nearly 2 tonnes of red mud as a by-product.

The benefits of recycling are substantial and global recovery is impressive. It is said that 70 per cent. of all aluminium ever produced is still in use today, but there are challenges. For example, it is difficult to capture—we are failing to do so at the moment—most of the aluminium used in drink cans in this country because they are consumed and disposed of away from home. I am determined to do better on dealing with such metal packaging, and I have asked officials to meet stakeholders tomorrow to explore ways in which we can increase the amount of aluminium recovered and recycled from that source.

Led by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test, hon. Members raised a number of issues relating to how environmental regulation affects the metals recycling industry. He referred to the European Court judgment by which we are all bound. Possibly the most significant issue relates to the question of when waste stops being waste. The revised waste framework directive, to which a number of hon. Members referred, addresses that question. The common position agreed by the Council proposes the development of end-of-waste specifications and criteria. That position identifies scrap metal as one of the categories of waste for which such criteria should be developed.

My hon. Friend felt that we were not active in the field of protocols, but we have led the way in developing end-of-life criteria and we have been working with the BMRA on that. The aim of the proposal is to facilitate the use of waste that has undergone recovery, while continuing to maintain high levels of environmental protection. The common position provides that waste that ceases to be waste under that procedure would also stop being waste for the purpose of the recovery and recycling targets in other EU waste legislation. Of course, that would make it easier for the industry to demonstrate that its targets were being met.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned waste shipments regulations. Of course, while metals remain as waste, they are bound to fall under those regulations, but the UK has taken steps to try to ensure that there is positive entry to the non-OECD countries where that is an issue. Despite initial problems, those markets are pretty much secured in China and India. None the less, these issues must be explored and we are continuing to work as hard as we can on that.

The hon. Member for Vale of York asked which member states supported us. I am afraid that I am not in a position to respond to that today. If I can obtain more information about that, I will happily write to her. As she will know from her long experience in the European Parliament, these matters are complicated: deals have to be done and it is not always obvious until the last moment how much support can be organised. I reassure all hon. Members and the industry itself of our commitment to this issue. We recognise the
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importance of metals and that those used for proper recycling purposes are an incredibly valuable resource. Obviously, we want to ensure that that is enshrined in law.

Miss McIntosh: I would be grateful if the hon. Lady wrote to me on this issue. Will she respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) about the time scale and whether the matter will be resolved by comitology or co-decision? Will she also explain why the Government did not vote against the European trans-shipment directives? Doing so would have made life a lot easier for her, too.

Joan Ruddock: I am not in a position to say why we did not vote against those directives. Obviously, at the time I was not the Minister involved, but I will see whether there is anything useful that I can tell the hon. Lady. What really matters is that we try to overcome any existing problems. There have been problems but we have made great efforts to deal with them, and as I said, the important markets of China and India have been secured.

The hon. Lady has anticipated my comments on how we should proceed in changing the legislation. She will know that the industry is concerned that EU procedures should not delay agreement on end-of-waste criteria, and we very much agree. As she anticipated, I must be frank and say that there is some way to go before the revised directive can be adopted. The European Parliament’s environment committee recently voted to adopt 81 amendments to the common position. The Second Reading in Parliament has not occurred and is scheduled to take place in June.

This is a difficult issue, and the question is whether it should be resolved by comitology or co-decision. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test and the hon. Member for Banbury both favour comitology, but the hon. Member for Vale of York disagrees. I have to tell her that although we all appreciate the importance of transparency, there has to be some trade-off. In this case, we are concerned to make more progress, and we believe that that is what the industry is demanding of us. The Government therefore believe that comitology is the way forward.

My hon. Friend asked about off cuts of metal, which is an important question. It is obvious to all that off cuts that are not polluted in any way remain the original resource, so we clearly ought not to classify them as waste. I can give my hon. Friend some good news. The Environment Agency will shortly publish guidance on when clean off cuts can be reused without regulatory control. I am sure that that is what he wants; it is obviously common sense to do so.

My hon. Friend went on to praise the end-of-life vehicles directive, the success of which we all very much appreciate. My constituency used to be littered with abandoned vehicles. They were removed by the local authority, which did the job efficiently and effectively but at great cost to the council tax payer. However, it is a success story, because much of that blight has now been removed from our streets. The majority of materials in such vehicles are metal. As my hon. Friend said—we all agree—they are successfully being recycled.

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Over the next few years we face challenging EU targets on recovery and recycling. The target to reuse, recover or recycle 95 per cent. of the materials used in a car by 2015 is demanding by any standards. The metals recycling industry is vital to meeting those demands. However, only approximately 75 per cent. of a car is estimated to be made of metal. The question raised by a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, is how to recycle the remaining materials. One option suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test concerned energy from waste. We expect there to be an increase in the provision of energy from waste facilities; for example, by 2020 energy recovery is expected to account for about 25 per cent. of municipal waste.

A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Banbury, asked whether we would support a recycling taskforce. I shall need time to consider the matter further. The question was asked also by the British Metals Recycling Association. The local provision of recycling and recovery facilities must be decided locally, and the hon. Member for Vale of York illustrated why. Nationally, a long-standing consultation group on end-of-life vehicles, including the BMRA, meets regularly.

This year, a new advisory body was established on waste electrical and electronic equipment. There is also a waste strategy stakeholder forum. The House will see that a plethora of bodies is involved in recycling those materials that concern us today. We believe that together, those groups will provide the long-term strategic approach needed to enable us to achieve our targets. However, I would be happy to meet the BMRA to discuss the matter further.

Mr. Drew: Does my hon. Friend accept that the Environment Agency, which has specific responsibility in this area, is under significant pressure because of the wider remit of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? Is it not right that we should ensure that the agency is properly capable of meeting the tasks that will increasingly become its responsibility?

Joan Ruddock: Absolutely. I have regular meetings with the Environment Agency. I assure my hon. Friend that if there are matters that the agency wishes to raise with me, they will be given proper attention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) intervened on the issue of planning earlier in our debate. DEFRA and the Department for Communities and Local Government are jointly consulting on ways to make the interface between planning and permitting more effective. Indeed, a protocol for planning authorities and the Environment Agency is under preparation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test questioned the capacity of treatment facilities. There are 1,500 authorised treatment facilities in the United Kingdom, 1,250 of which deal with passenger cars and light vans—the subject of the ELV directive. All have been permitted by the Environment Agency, and we believe that capacity is more than adequate.

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