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Waste Management: Refuse Collection

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take regarding the reduced frequency of domestic refuse collections and the resultant increase in rat and mouse populations.

My Lords, any waste collection scheme, including alternate weekly collection, should be designed to minimise the risk of attracting vermin. Independent research published by my department has shown that, as with all types of household waste collection, simple, common-sense measures such as keeping waste tightly wrapped and bin lids closed should prevent any rodent problems.

My Lords, I am greatly obliged to the Minister for that reply, as always. In addition to the homespun advice in the second part of his Answer, which I am sure is very much appreciated by all householders, can he say what we now do about the increase in numbers of rats and mice, which is a significant problem?

My Lords, I am glad that the homespun advice of my department found such favour with the noble Lord. One has to understand that the rodent population tends to go up and down. The latest report shows an increase, but this is mainly due to the exceptionally mild winter of 2007-08 and good breeding conditions in the following early summer. Of course, local authorities are responsible for ensuring that appropriate measures are taken. Many of them provide services for the destruction of such vermin, and we shall make sure that they continue to do their job effectively.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that rats can chew through stainless steel, which means that shutting the lid on a plastic bin and wrapping your stuff in plastic bags is not very effective? Does he agree that bin collections were introduced as a public health measure? Rats and mice spread disease and, if we get too many, a lot of contagious diseases will be spread. Is the Minister’s department aware of this—Defra is often unaware of things such as disease—and what is it doing to prevent disease from spreading to members of the public?

My Lords, I am not sure that I accept what the noble Countess says about Defra’s awareness of disease; it is only too well aware of some of the major problems caused. Of course she is right about the impact of rats and mice spreading diseases, but that is why having effective rubbish collections and giving effective advice to householders is the way to tackle this effectively.

My Lords, the Minister prayed in aid climate change, but was he able to help on the Climate Change Act, which provided the Government with powers to give five local authorities the possibility of developing refuse collection schemes as exemplars? What has happened? What authorities are involved and what lessons have the Government learnt?

My Lords, I am not sure that I gave a climate change Answer to the Question. Whatever the impact of climate change, which is certainly happening, there will also be variations in winter temperatures. If you have an exceptionally mild winter, it is likely that the rat and mice population will grow. The noble Lord is absolutely right to refer to the ability to develop pilots. We have invited local authorities to put their names forward. None has yet done so.

My Lords, local authorities have a duty to give and receive the best value for council tax payers’ money and there is growing capacity in the economy. What advice and encouragement are the Government giving to local authorities to renegotiate and improve services such as refuse collection, which they contract for on behalf of local taxpayers, and what are councils doing to improve competition by encouraging smaller, local businesses to tender for this work?

My Lords, that is very much a matter for local authorities; it is not for the Government to dictate what they should do in this area. I am surprised that that suggestion has come from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench given the number of amendments on local government that noble Lords from that Bench have tabled to the everlasting marine Bill over the past few months. Of course, the point is well taken that local authorities should seek value for money in their contractual relationships with the private sector. Certainly, as regards sustainability, local suppliers may be one option that they wish to use.

My Lords, has the Minister allowed for the ingenuity of the rodent population? When I suffered an infestation, the rats were looking through my drawing room window to see either me or the television, and it took weeks to get rid of them.

My Lords, now that regulation is back in vogue, why do we not regulate the thickness of black plastic waste bags, as thin bags leak and attract rats?

My Lords, there is regulation and there is regulation. I hesitate to say that we should regulate the size of black bin bags, but I understand what my noble friend is saying. Undoubtedly, very thin bags tend to break easily and can cause a major problem if they are left outside for a long period. That takes us back to the whole point of this Question, which is that it is up to individual local authorities to sort this out and to have effective strategies for rubbish collection.

My Lords, can the noble Lord give any advice on the increase in the number of moles, although that may be rather a long way from the Question?

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is a feeling of great unfairness about the fact that some people get their bins collected every week but others do not and have to wait for a collection every two weeks? Although he suggests that this is solely a matter for local government, will he please have a word with it not only about this unfairness but about the health dangers?

My Lords, I am not aware of any research that suggests that alternate weekly collections have had a damaging impact on health. I make the point that these are alternate weekly collections. The normal local authority process is to pick up recyclable waste one week and to pick up the remaining waste the other week, so it is not a fortnightly collection. When done well, it can enhance the environment: the amount of recyclable waste goes up while the amount of waste going to landfill goes down. Therefore, there are considerable advantages in local authorities doing the right job here.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the upset in household collections is due to the EU landfill tax? I am sure that he will not be surprised to learn before long that rats are decreasing rather than increasing in number as they leave the EU economy and the British economy in particular, as it sinks under the burden of excessive and unnecessary EU regulations.

My Lords, the fact is that as a result of landfill tax and other measures we sent a quarter less waste to landfill in 2007 compared to 2001. Household recycling rates have quintupled in the past 10 years, up from 7 per cent in 1997-98 to 35 per cent in the last year of complete data, ending July 2007, which shows that the combination of policies developed by this Government has proved very effective indeed.