Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, these regulations are being made to transpose in England and Wales Directive 2008/98/EC on waste, which is known as the revised framework directive.
The Waste Framework Directive is the foundation stone on which all EU waste legislation has been built. It was originally adopted as far back as 1975—a date which many of us in this House can still remember—in what was then known as the Common Market. At that time, most waste was disposed of by landfilling or incineration.
However, the Waste Framework Directive has developed over the years as our awareness of the environmental consequences of waste disposal, and the unsustainable use of resources, has grown. The directive was substantially revised in 1991 and its scope extended from disposal to include also the recovery and recycling of waste. In recognition of the increasing international trade in waste for recovery, the 1991 revision also introduced an EU-wide definition of waste.
The latest revision of the directive builds on those solid foundations. Its aim is to place much greater emphasis on the sustainable use of resources by taking measures to prevent the production of waste, and by making better use of the waste that continues to be produced. It also simplifies regulatory controls by incorporating the Hazardous Waste Directive into the revised directive and repealing most of the Waste Oils Directive. However, protecting the environment and human health remains a key objective.
The fulfilment of the directive’s objectives is of interest to everyone—householders, local authorities and businesses, big and small. We have developed our proposals to transpose the directive in close consultation with these customers and stakeholders. The process was begun by the previous Government, which consulted on the transposition of several key provisions. The coalition Government took this forward and consulted last year on a draft of the transposing regulations. In transposing the directive, we have sought to keep costs to businesses, local authorities, regulators and taxpayers to the minimum. Many of the directive’s requirements can be met without additional measures or burdens and do not involve additional costs. Where new controls are necessary we have adopted a light-touch approach. I can assure the Committee that the transposing regulations do not gold-plate the directive.
A key new provision of the revised directive is the five-step waste hierarchy, which is to apply as a priority order in waste management legislation and policy. Our proposals for implementing the waste hierarchy through minimum changes to the planning, permitting and waste transfer note arrangements were well supported in consultation. They were widely recognised as representing a light-touch approach. The revised directive also sets two new targets for 2020: first, to recycle 50 per cent of waste from households; and, secondly, to recover 70 per cent of non-hazardous construction and demolition waste. The regulations impose no new measures to meet these targets. Current projections are that existing policy measures, including the landfill tax, should be sufficient to ensure that we meet them. There are no requirements in the transposing regulations that directly affect issues such as the frequency of local authorities’ collection of household waste, charges to householders or the enforcement of waste collection services.
The revised directive also requires member states to introduce separate collection of wastes, where practicable, by 2015. The previous Government obtained clarification from the European Commission that what is known as co-mingled collection—where recyclable materials are collected together for subsequent separation—is an acceptable form of separate collection under the directive, provided it results in materials of sufficient quality to be recycled. The Government are satisfied that co-mingled collection is capable of providing the right quality of recycling material, so the transposing regulations we have laid before the Committee confirm that co-mingled collection is a valid form of separate collection. The regulations therefore contribute to the coalition Government’s policy on localism by ensuring that decisions on the best ways to collect household waste remain a matter for local authorities. The regulations would allow local authorities to make those decisions and to provide the waste and recycling services that their residents want.
The regulations also provide scope for residents and local groups to contribute to the big society—for example, by setting up local re-use networks and helping to prevent waste, both of which come much further up the hierarchy and are to be applauded. I commend the regulations to the Committee. I beg to move.
My Lords, my noble friend was kind enough to refer to my noble friend Lord Greaves. I must confess that I am standing in for him with even more trepidation on this set of proposals than I did on the previous one, where I had had some role in the passage of the marine Bill.
I think that the first thing that my noble friend would have said is that it is rather unfortunate that all this paper before us appears not to be recycled. I do not know whether my noble friend the Minister can confirm this. The symbol that usually appears on documents of this sort to show that they are on recycled paper is not present. It may be that the emblems have been mistaken, but we all have an increasing responsibility to try to make sure that we practise what we preach.
I have one or two questions. First, will my noble friend confirm that the long period since the European Court of Justice decision of, I think, 2005 that is referred to in some of the notes before us has been put to good use in dealing with the issues then raised? It is quite a long delay. I accept that these regulations deal with the directive on waste of 2008-09, but it should surely have been the concern of the previous Administration to deal with the ECJ judgment previous to that.
Secondly, I am sure that my noble friend Lord Greaves would have been able to cope with the concept of co-mingled collection much more adequately than me because it is new to me—I have no doubt that the Minister is all too aware of it—but there is a real dilemma here, of which I shall give just one illustration. My own local authority insists that the transparent windows on window envelopes are detached from the envelopes and disposed of in a completely different way. It is the first time that I have come across that anywhere in the country. It may be perfectly acceptable under these regulations for co-mingled collection, but in my locality it is not. A huge number of envelopes have such windows, as I am sure other Members of your Lordships' House will know from the mail that they receive. Every time I go home, I find myself spending quite a long time detaching windows from envelopes. The regulations do their very best, with what is described as a light-touch approach, to marry the objectives of consistency through the whole country with localism—my noble friend the Minister has referred to that. However, it is a real dilemma for the householder who, perhaps like Members of your Lordships' House, has to dispose of refuse in different parts of the country on completely different bases. Co-mingled collection is obviously an interesting issue.
I understand from what the Minister said, as well as from the briefing that I have received, that the Government are very properly insisting on trying to avoid overregulation and on giving local authorities the opportunity to take their own decisions. However, on these matters, it makes for a postcode lottery, with businesses and households through the country faced with quite different concerns and costs. It should be a constant concern of any Government to try to get that balance right. I would like to be reassured that, under the regulations, the avoidance of gold-plating and the insistence on a light touch will not result in a plethora of quite different policies in different parts of the country. That is an inevitable dilemma.
I have one other point, on timing. I note that, under the directive of November 2008, it was intended that the Government should achieve this transposition by 12 December 2010. I understand that, as a result of their failure to do that on time, an infraction letter was issued which I presume the Government have had to take note of and respond to. I just wonder where that matter stands and whether the Minister is confident that the Commission will not be able to, or will not wish to, take further action since we are some two or three months behind time on that.
I cannot pretend to be a great expert on these regulations, and no doubt I will be subject to the inevitable scrutiny of my noble friend Lord Greaves afterwards, but he would at least be concerned that these proposals seem to have been quite a long time in gestation. It so happens that they appear to have been printed on paper that has not been recycled, but I trust that when it is collected in waste bins around your Lordships' House will be appropriately recycled in the future.
My Lords, these regulations are important. As the Minister pointed out, they transpose the Waste Framework Directive. Indeed, as the Explanatory Memorandum points out, in one way or another the fulfilment of the directive's objectives is of interest to everyone in the country—householders, local authorities, businesses, including small and medium-sized enterprises, NGOs, consumer groups and so forth. I am grateful that we have had the opportunity today to look at these regulations. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for representing the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, whose knowledge we miss on these occasions. I know that he has taken a deep interest in these issues for a long time.
Despite the fact that not many noble Lords are present for this debate or have spoken, these matters are of ongoing concern. I am sure that we will return to them at many points in the future on the Floor of the House and in Grand Committee. Certainly, the Opposition will be watching progress on this important matter carefully.
We are fortunate in that the Minister is in charge of this subject within the department. He is smiling—I hope that he is pleased to be in charge of it. Therefore, we are able to ask the relevant Minister the pertinent questions that need to be asked today and as this matter progresses.
The Minister reminded us that the regulations re-enact, repeal or revise three predecessor directives. With the EU, it is not always a case of adding new regulations. Sometimes, it involves repealing and scrapping previous regulations. I welcome the way that this has happened.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, mentioned that we were somewhat late in not complying with the deadline. He mentioned the infraction letter. I note that the Minister in the other place said that this was partly due to wanting to have as thorough a consultation process as possible. Obviously, I welcome the fact that a consultation has taken place. I note that the Minister in the other place also mentioned the point that was reinforced by the Minister here: that they had not wanted to gold-plate the regulations. However, I somewhat share the concern raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. We are really just introducing the minimum requirements under the directive and keeping a light touch, as the Minister said. But we need to be assured that that light touch will be effective. We also want to be assured that encouragement to go beyond these requirements will be part and parcel of the system.
The last time that the Minister and I discussed environmental issues, his noble friend Lord Deben was present. He gave the Minister a hard time in terms of wanting an assurance that we could move faster in future. Many of the points that he made in the debate on the draft producer responsibility regulations should be borne in mind for this debate, such as the possibility of an earlier review if necessary.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Deben, the Minister said in the previous debate that the timing and circumstances of the waste review meant that two years was an acceptable period. None the less, if there are ways in which standards can be raised more quickly, that would be of great interest to us.
My honourable friend the Member for Copeland, Jamie Reed, quoted the CBI in criticising the Government’s timidity in some respects. He said that the CBI,
“rightly identified a series of quick wins that the country could secure if the Government were bolder and more ambitious—from providing massive business opportunities to helping to meet climate change targets, bolstering our energy security capability and helping to unlock infrastructure investments from the private sector”.—[Official Report, Commons, Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee, 8/3/11; col. 4.]
Obviously, the CBI’s concerns go wider than these particular regulations, but none the less it was right to stress the opportunities there are in greening the economy and getting ahead in the business of tackling waste effectively. We do not want a loss of momentum, as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, pointed out in the earlier debate. We want to keep momentum going and accelerate whenever possible.
We have examples elsewhere in the EU of economies seeming to do better with environmental issues and tackling waste. The Federal Republic of Germany has a good record in this respect. It would be good to see us going up in the European league table in this connection. I do not know whether the Minister has any further update on the timing of the Government’s waste strategy. In our earlier debate, he said that it might come forward in April or May. It was not clear whether it might come forward before the local elections but, since local authorities are very much affected by these proposals, it would be interesting if the Minister could give us an indication of a precise date for the waste review. There are huge resource implications particularly for local authorities in these measures, and in that respect the impact assessment is very helpful in showing how local authorities are likely to be affected by particular aspects. But local authorities have a lot of choices in implementing these regulations and, while I can understand that it is good for them to be able to judge how best to respond to these requirements—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler—we do not want that to be at the expense of sacrificing overall standards in making progress. So there is a bit of a dilemma, on which it would be good to hear the Minister comment.
I also recognise what the Minister said about co-mingling, but evidence points to the kerbside recycling system as being better economically and environmentally. I am slightly worried that the achievement of the Government, if I can call it that, in getting co-mingling accepted at European level, might act as a disincentive to local authorities to go to what seems to be the more effective, separate kerbside collections. In separation policies there is the choice between kerbside collections and the bring-bank system—in other words, the separate banks held in a central location in a particular local authority area. I also note that the impact assessment has a variety of costs included with each of these choices. Indeed, the cost ranges are quite large, and I wondered what discussions there were with local authorities to identify ways in which to recycle most effectively but not necessarily at the higher end of the cost scale, as mentioned in the impact assessment.
The target for England by 2020 is, I think, 50 per cent recycling, but the Government expect that target to be exceeded. I note that in Wales the target is 64 per cent. Does it not make sense to consider a more ambitious target in England, particularly if the Government feel that the existing target is likely to be exceeded in any case? I do not know what experience the Minister in charge has of how other countries are tackling these issues. However, it would be good to have an assurance that we will seek to learn lessons from the best-performing countries in the EU regarding this system.
Having said that, these are not at all regulations that we would seek to oppose. However, there are several concerns about how we will move forward in the years ahead, which the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and I have raised, and to which it would be good to get the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her remarks. She asked whether I was pleased to be in charge of waste. My Secretary of State the other day accused me of having become, after just nine months, what she described as a “waste nerd”. I had to say yes and took pride in the fact that I had become a waste nerd; it is a subject of great interest to me and should be of great interest to all of us. I hope that this is a matter we will come back to in due course, when the waste review comes out in May. That is our current estimate; the trouble is that May seems very close at hand now but that is when we hope to get it out. It cannot come out in April because of local government elections and the purdah that goes with those. This is a matter that affects local government to a great extent. However, we hope to get it out in May. I hope we will have considerable discussions on the whole subject of waste—on how it should be seen as a resource and not just as waste; how we should dispose of waste; and how we should meet all our commitments. We will deal with those matters at that time. I am not sure that tonight is necessarily the opportunity to go through all that. If we do, I suspect all those waiting to debate Manchester might get somewhat irritated with me because I would take up too much time, having become a waste nerd.
The noble Baroness also referred to my noble friend Lord Deben, who said that he wanted to make sure there was no loss of momentum. Following that, she referred to various EU comparisons. It is always worth looking at what other countries in the EU are doing and how they deal with these matters. Looking downwards, it is always worth looking at what different local authorities do. By pursuing a policy of localism—which might mean that some authorities do better than others and that there is an element of postcode lottery—rather than trying to impose the same system from above, we can learn new things. Certainly, we look at what is happening in Europe.
It is also worth pointing out that we are not necessarily doing worse than many of our European comparators. Only today I saw some representatives of the packaging industry. They explained to me how well we had done in reducing packaging. After all, reducing waste is the most important part of the whole waste strategy. We have seen virtually no growth in our packaging waste over the past 10 or so years, despite the growth in the economy, whereas most other countries in Europe have. I do not know whether those figures covered England or the UK, but that is an area in which we are doing very well indeed and of which we should be proud. I pay tribute to what the previous Government did and what we shall continue to do when we come forward with our waste review, which I hope the noble Baroness will welcome in due course.
I will deal with one or two of the points that have been made by both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on this. I can say only mea culpa—or somebody culpa—for what the noble Lord said about the document produced by the Stationery Office not necessarily being printed on recycled paper. That is probably a matter for the Stationery Office. However, I will ask officials to take it up and ask what the Stationery Office is doing about the use of recycled paper. That is important because it is something that Defra is very keen to do, not only by example within the department but by encouraging it throughout the whole government estate, to make sure that we do the right thing. Dare I say at this stage—two or three months before we produce our waste review—that I will give a guarantee that that will be produced on recycled paper and will be as environmentally friendly as it is possible to be?
The next important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, is on this very difficult question of co-mingled waste collection. I appreciate that there are concerns about this. Speaking from my own experience of having been a Minister for Waste for all of nine months, and the number of visits I have made to materials recycling facilities—MRFs, normally shortened to “Merf”—I can say that the technology gain with MRFs is improving by the day. They are getting much better at separating the different recyclables from a co-mingled collection. That is very important, because only some authorities can pursue a policy of having a good kerbside separation which is appropriate for that particular authority and which seems to be the best at giving purer recyclables at the end. Technology will move on and will make MRFs even better at separating things. In the mean time, we have to accept that different authorities have to do different things.
That is one of the reasons why I am a great believer in localism. I appreciate that my noble friend Lord Tyler said that there were real dilemmas in localism. One point that people always make is that it leads to what is called a postcode lottery. I do not think that that particularly matters, provided that the postcode lottery means that the best ones always get better and encourage the less good ones to follow them upwards. The other advantage of the so-called postcode lottery and of the localism view, which is particularly true in waste collection, is that any idea that the Government imposed their own rules top down would be wrong. We would get it wrong. Different local authorities pursue different ideas—it is almost the Maoist approach of letting 100 flowers bloom. I see the colleague of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, laughing; he hears a Tory talking about flowers. However, having different approaches coming from different authorities allows different ideas to be developed and I believe that that is good.
When I started visiting local authorities and watching the whole collection and disposal process, the first one I visited, not far from me, was Richmondshire in North Yorkshire. It is a very different place from the London borough of Richmond. Similarly, I live in Carlisle, partly an urban and partly a rural seat. It is very different from the other place I live in, Westminster. They offer very different services because of their different nature: the houses are high-rise, or whatever. Local authorities have to do different things, and some will want to pursue the co-mingled route and some another. The assurance we sought from the EU—which I gather the previous Administration also did—is that co-mingled will be satisfactory in terms of dealing with whether this is genuinely recyclable. But that is a matter that will have to be kept under review.
Lastly, may I deal with the question of timing to which my noble friend, Lord Tyler, referred? I appreciate that it is a matter that should have been dealt with by December 2010. However, as I think my honourable friend Mr Benyon made clear in another place, we thought it was better—as did the previous Government—to overplay the consultations to ensure that we got these matters absolutely right, that we were not going to gold-plate the directive and that all our measures were achievable. I hope that with that in mind, as well as the fact that in due course we will be producing our waste review, which I look forward to debating with the noble Baroness and others, the Committee is prepared to accept these regulations.