Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Steve Webb: As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman’s amendment No. 108 would prevent authorities that do not have weekly residual waste schemes from running pilots. Although the boundary of pilots is that they must be revenue-neutral, they could be net give-aways. A council could run a scheme that did not penalise anybody but just rewarded people, but his amendment prohibits authorities that do not have weekly collections from running such pilots, which I thought he would approve of.
Gregory Barker: I should point out that the amendments are not mine but those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border. However, I wanted to put them before the Committee so that they could be properly discussed. The hon. Gentleman raises a sensible point, but the amendments’ main purpose is clear—to allow the Committee a full discussion of the issues. I shall speak clearly to my own amendment.
We do not think that it is in the interest of the recycling agenda to talk about criminalising people who simply fail to change their waste habits sufficiently. I cannot imagine a better way to get people’s backs up against something that they are naturally predisposed to do than to tell them that if they do not do it, the Government will regard them as criminals. There is a lot of merit in amendment No. 107.
The vital issue of public support and engagement leads me to new clause 18. I have spoken to the Committee about the public suspicion that stealth taxes are being dressed up as green taxes, and the danger that that poses of putting an otherwise enthusiastic public off greening our country. We must tread carefully around the issue of pay-as-you-throw bin taxes. My party agrees totally with the Government that if we are to reduce the amount of domestic waste that we produce, it must first be measured—we cannot reduce something unless we know how much of it we are dealing with—but how to incentivise the reduction of waste to landfill is where we part company.
By all means, we should offer people incentives: “Yes, you will pay less on your council tax if you send less waste to landfill.” That is our common aspiration and the ambition of new clause 18. However, my party does not wish to shake a stick at the public and say in the same breath, “But if you don’t comply with this regulation, we’ll fine you through an additional charge on your council tax.” There are a number of reasons for our opposition to such a penalty system.
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman explain how the incentive is to be funded without a corresponding mechanism for raising income?
Gregory Barker: From the council tax. If somebody produces less waste and instead produces recyclates, which have an economic value, that should generate income. Currently, we have a standard tariff for council tax. Encouraging more people to recycle will result in over-achievement of targets. It should be revenue-positive.
It is a different sort of cash planning that assumes all the differentials and incorporates into forward revenue planning and penalties for non-recyclables. We think that that is the wrong way to go. If more people recycle and reduce their waste, that will in itself create surplus value, which should be retained. We should not create surplus value by penalising and fining people at this stage. If we are to get people into the recycling habit, we should be talking about carrots, not sticks.
As I have said, the Government’s approach is a good way to turn people off doing the right thing. The cost of living has already risen dramatically in the past year, so we must be careful that the measures are not seen as another way for this Government to extract money from the public, as they have done in so many other matters.
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman about the need for public reassurance that the new and innovative schemes are genuinely about waste reduction. He made the point about more carrots and no sticks, and said simultaneously that the scheme would be funded entirely from a council’s own budget, but surely the incentives to those who increase their recycling will be paid for by a significant increase in everyone else’s council tax. The stick will be a disproportionately higher increase in council tax.
Gregory Barker: I do not agree. If we were saying that there was no economic value to recycling and no benefit to be gained from reducing the amount of rubbish that is collected, the hon. Gentleman would have a point. However, as is recognised with benefit incentive systems that operate in north America and in some parts of Europe—certainly in the United States—there is an economic value to people recycling. Someone will reap the benefit. By and large, recyclates have an economic value, and if the council has to collect, through its contractor, less rubbish as a result of people recycling more, an economic surplus should be generated in the system. We are saying that that surplus should be distributed back to those who helped to generate it. It is not the zero-sum game that the hon. Gentleman and the Minister have implied.
Mr. Chaytor: I appreciate the logic of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. In time, with a mature and fully developed recycling industry, that might happen, but at this stage in Britain’s recycling process, the flaw in his argument is that he is assuming that the value of the recyclate that is created is equivalent to the level of incentive needed to encourage more people to recycle. Given the legacy of the low levels of recycling that the Government inherited, that is just not the case. He is describing an ideal model, but one that is completely unrelated to reality.
Gregory Barker: Absolutely not. If the hon. Member for Bury, North wants to talk about the low levels of recycling that the Government inherited, let us examine the levels of recycling that the previous Government inherited from the Government before them. We must start looking forward. Historical parallels and analogies do not get us anywhere.
The hon. Gentleman is knowledgeable in such matters and, as a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, he does a lot of work. I encourage him to consider some of the recycle bank work in north America. Dramatic results have been achieved, simply by the use of incentives. That was pioneered not by public money, but private finance. Within one financial year, it has been possible to generate significant amounts of value, which have been returned to the local residents. If the will is there, such results are possible. If we do not allow councils to have a fall-back in the first instance of large sticks as well as carrots, we will end up devising a much more entrepreneurial, incentive-driven system.
I am not arguing that we would rule out a philosophical moratorium whereby, if the process did not work, we would not go down the road of financial penalties. However, given where we are today in 2008 with a sceptical public, with people uncertain about how they view the Government and local government when it comes to imposing additional burdens, it is really important that we take the public with us and do not accept underperforming councils or those local authorities that are more likely to rely on the additional revenue raised from sticks and do not concentrate on extracting the value that the carrots would produce. To win the day, we must first go down the road of incentives.
Martin Horwood: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman about incentive schemes and their potential. It is much more important to concentrate on carrots, not sticks. However, I am having difficulty relating his argument to the amendments. I am trying to work out where it is that a scheme that focused on incentives rather than penalties is actually prevented in the Bill. Is the hon. Gentleman arguing against the permissive powers to run the pilots that might test these incentives in the United Kingdom?
Gregory Barker: That is exactly what I am doing. I am saying that I am against permissive powers that would allow councils to penalise those who do not recycle; that is exactly what I am doing. I thought that I had made that clear.
Martin Horwood: I am sorry, but that is not my question. My question is where does it say in the Bill that incentive schemes are prevented.
Gregory Barker: I did not say that the Bill is preventing incentive schemes. I am in favour of incentive schemes, and I am not discussing an amendment on incentive schemes, but I am against financial penalties. Amendment No. 107 states that the Bill
“does not include a power to create a criminal penalty on any householder for non-compliance with any aspect of a waste reduction scheme.’.”
That is my point.
New clause 18 would remove the ability to levy penalties charged on waste and instead encourages positive public engagement through the offer of rewards for waste reduction through council taxes.
There are a couple of other points that I want to make very briefly. Variable charging can be regressive, and it is easy to forget the impact that it can have on larger families who have to produce more waste than a childless couple. Also, it is not as easy for people living in flats and apartments to recycle as much as those living in houses, who have plenty of storage and access to multiple separate bins.
These issues must be carefully considered, and I do not think that anybody has come up with a really satisfactory answer as to how we encourage recycling in buildings of multiple occupation and large blocks of flats. Before the Government race off down the track of giving councils the power to levy penalties, we ought to think through solutions to those problems first—those problems are largely responsible for the very poor performance of our largest metropolitan areas in recycling tables. So I would appreciate the Minister’s assurance that the Government are working hard on researching solutions to those problems, as well as falling back on financial penalties.
Also, there is worrying evidence that imposing waste charges may in fact have a detrimental effect on the local environment, due to an increase in fly-tipping as people move to avoid the new financial penalties. We have all spoken about the dangers of fly-tipping and how it is totally unacceptable; the Minister herself spoke with particular passion on the subject on Tuesday. Since variable charging was introduced in the Republic of Ireland, 40 per cent. of households now admit to burning some of their own rubbish, which has a significant effect on local dioxin emissions.
So we must be certain that, if we were to introduce such a charging scheme in the UK, we would not be indirectly either increasing the cost of living for certain families, unintentionally damaging the local environment or generally putting the public off recycling, which is a project that I believe the vast majority of British people are positively predisposed towards. However, if we jump in and dominate the recycling agenda, as it will be given the media’s interest in the issue, with financial penalties and fines, we will be sending out the wrong messages to a public who are otherwise predisposed towards being constructive and working with us.
That is why new clause 18 would remove the ability to levy penalty charges on waste and instead encourages positive public engagement through the offer of rewards for waste reduction through council tax.
Debate adjourned.—[Siobhain McDonagh.]
Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o’clock till Tuesday 8 July at half-past Ten o’clock.
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