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Clinical Waste Disposal 320 Pm

Volume 570: debated on Thursday 14 March 1996

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Whether they will tighten the law on the disposal of clinical waste, following the allegations in the Sunday Times of 10th March about the dumping of medical waste in lay-bys, car parks and warehouses across the country.

My Lords, Part II of the Environmental Protection Act provides stringent controls on the management and disposal of all controlled waste, including clinical waste. It is illegal to dispose of waste without a waste management licence or in a way which causes pollution or harm to human health.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Would it not be a good idea to strengthen the duty of care so that waste producers, such as hospitals, have a duty to inform themselves of the ultimate legal destination of waste, not merely the proximate destination? When will the Government issue the final text of the waste management paper, which I understand to have been in preparation for several years?

My Lords, it is not necessary to strengthen the duty of care. That was done in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which lays a responsibility for waste material to be taken, and to be known to where it is being taken, from the cradle to the grave, as it is said. That is done in a way which does not pollute or cause harm. Under the duty of care, waste should be transferred to someone who is legally authorised to accept it with a transfer note. There is no question that when the waste is removed its passage is known from collection to the location of the incinerator.

With regard to the second part of the noble Lord's question, I shall ascertain the precise date of publication and shall write to him.

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether the story in the Sunday Times was true or false? If it were true, is there a way in which the authorities could check the rubbish to discover who perpetrated the offence?

My Lords, it is always dangerous to say that something which appears in the press is true, but it is based on fact. The facts have been known since last November and are under investigation by the Hertfordshire waste regulation authority. The authority has three people investigating the matter full time with a view to prosecution.

My Lords, do the Government believe that the existing maximum penalties for those convicted of such a deplorable crime are adequate? Indeed, what are the existing maximum penalties?

My Lords, I believe that the existing maximum penalties are adequate. If one disposes of waste without a waste management licence, one is subject to an unlimited fine, which could have a deterring effect, or to imprisonment, which could have an even more deterring effect. For breach of the duty of care there is an unlimited fine. The transport of waste by someone who is not registered as a carrier is subject to a fine of £5,000.

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that hospitals are well aware of the proper ways of disposing of clinical waste? If not, can that be remedied?

My Lords, hospitals are well aware of the correct method of disposal. They dispose of the waste to a carrier who is registered by a local authority. In this case, the hospitals concerned correctly handed over the waste to the carrier. I understand that waste was taken from about 20 hospitals on behalf of Green Environmental, which is alleged to have contracted with the carriers to incinerate waste in a new incinerator in Cambridge. However, the incinerator was not then complete and the company was alleged to have satisfied the waste carriers, under the duty of care, about its intention to deal with the waste properly by suggesting that it went on to Cannon Hygiene at Enfield. False documents showing that the waste had been properly dealt with were produced. The regulations are adequate. One cannot prevent people breaking the law, but one can discover when they do so and punish them appropriately.

My Lords, the Minister said that the facts in the Sunday Times' article were correct. Is it the case that investigators now believe that up to 400 tonnes of clinical waste may still be missing? Is it also the case that clinical waste is defined by the British Medical Association as human or animal tissue, blood or any other body fluids, excretions, swabs, dressings and needles and other sharp instruments, and that the British Medical Association warns that such waste may cause infection to any person coming into contact with it? If those are the facts, this is a very serious matter which goes way beyond Hertfordshire. What action are the Government taking to ensure that the law, which as the Minister said is perfectly clear, is being enforced?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, inadvertently misconstrued what I said. I did not say that the facts were correct; I said that it was based on facts. The noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip laughs—

My Lords, that is even worse. It must have been one of disbelief, which I regard as very offensive! There are facts which newspapers can embellish as they wish. The article was based on facts. I understand that a number of tonnes of waste have been missing but I cannot tell the noble Lord how many because the matter is under investigation and is being dealt with correctly. Three bodies can prosecute: the police, the waste regulation authorities and the Health and Safety Executive. Until matters have been investigated properly it is impossible to say who or how many people will be prosecuted.

The noble Lord referred to the BMA's description of clinical waste, which is similar to a description that I have seen. The materials are very toxic, and in this case random samples of the waste were tested at the public health laboratories and were found to be an extreme risk to any person coming into contact with them. I can only assure the House that the greatest effort is being made to discover why things went wrong and who were the wrongdoers.

My Lords, did the private contractor which received the contract for disposing of the waste obtain the contract through compulsory competitive tendering, or competitive tendering, compulsory or otherwise?

My Lords, it is up to the hospitals to make arrangements as regards the removal of their infected and highly dangerous material. I understand that in this case it was given to a perfectly legitimate carrier who had a perfectly legitimate carrier's licence. He took the waste to where he believed was a perfectly legitimate incineration station. The incineration station had not by then been built and at that stage the incinerator operators were responsible for what happened thereafter.

My Lords, can the noble Earl confirm one of the facts on which this article is based: that up to 400 tonnes of waste is still believed by investigators to be missing? Is another of the facts correct on which the article is based; namely, that the investigation has since spread to Manchester and Wales, where more waste is believed to be hidden? Are inquiries also being made in London, Essex, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and the West Country?

My Lords, I cannot confirm the facts contained in the article until a thorough investigation has been carried out. Whether or not it is 400 tonnes, I am not in a position to say. Certainly other investigations have been taking place in, for example, Wales and Manchester as a result of what has been said.

My Lords, if the incinerators have not yet been built, how can the site have been a legitimate site to which to take the waste?

My Lords, the firm to which the carriers were undertaking their responsibilities for carrying waste was called Green Environmental which had built or was building an incinerator. It was not ready at the time that the waste was delivered. The noble Lord looks querulous and I do not blame him. But the carriers of the waste were then told to take it to Enfield in Middlesex, which is a site operated by Cannon Hygiene. They were told that that was where the waste would be incinerated properly. There were false documents to show that the waste had been incinerated when it had not been.