HC Deb 27 June 2002 vol 387 cc943-7
6. Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

If she will make a statement regarding her Department's strategy for recycling electrical goods. [63007]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

The Government are committed to increasing the reuse and recycling of all types of waste, including electrical goods. We welcome the EU waste electrical and electronic equipment directive—the WEEE directive—which may be adopted towards the end of this year, as its objectives are in line with our national strategies on waste.

Mr. Randall

Has the Minister made any estimate of the costs to local authorities of implementing the directive?

Mr. Meacher

The additional costs, over and above current practice, are estimated at between £190 million and £390 million. I hasten to add that the higher figure is entirely dependent on the adoption of the most expensive form of implementing the directive, which would come about if one of the requirements set down by the European Parliament in its vote on this issue were to be adopted—namely, the banning of the disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment in the household waste stream. That has yet to be discussed, and there will be conciliation on this matter. The directive is still in draft; it will probably not be decided before the end of the year, and it remains to be seen whether that option will be adopted. It might be better to regard the additional costs as of the order of £200 million, and that will, of course, be taken into account in the current spending round.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

The Minister will be familiar with the refrigerator situation. This week, we have learned that television sets might also be caught under the toxic waste provisions of the landfill directive that will come into force shortly. The recycling of television sets might seem rather strange, but, bearing in mind the change from analogue to digital, is any work being done to find out whether, rather than disposing of lots of television sets, some of them could be recycled as part of the digital switch-over?

Mr. Meacher

I presume that the hon. Gentleman meant recycling television sets, not recycling programmes, which goes on already.

The aim of the directive is not just to achieve a more environmentally sustainable form of disposal. The objective is to secure the recycling and reuse of component parts. That is what the directive is designed to do, and I believe that it will have a considerable effect.

As the hon. Gentleman was good enough to make the refrigerator comparison, let me again make it absolutely clear that the circumstances involving fridges were unique. We were given only seven months to implement an arrangement for which we did not have the technology. It consisted of a regulation that came into force in exactly the same form everywhere in the Community. Member states have greater flexibility in transposing WEEE because it is a directive. The current position is very different from that involving fridges, and I do not believe that those problems will occur again in the case of the WEEE directive or those relating to the end of life of vehicles, hazardous waste or landfill.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I wish the industry and the general public could share the Minister's optimism, but his record to date does not encourage such an expectation.

Will the Minister confirm that from next month European law will require every one of the 2 million television sets that are disposed of annually in this country to be treated as hazardous waste? That will require their collection and disposal by specially licensed operators. Is the Minister confident that the new arrangements for licensing and disposal will be ready on time—or was the spokesman for Dixons right when he said earlier this week that televisions could start mounting up like fridges?

Mr. Meacher

I should be very surprised if a representative of Dixons, which is a very responsible company, had made such a loose and idle comment. That is certainly not the case.

Before I answer the hon. Gentleman's question may I, with grace and enthusiasm, welcome him to his new position? I am sure he will do very well as Opposition spokesman, and I am sure he will maintain that post for a very long time.

As I have said, the WEEE directive is still in draft. We do not know the final details, and probably will not know them until the autumn. The hon. Gentleman, however, also referred to the hazardous waste directive. There has been a delay in the determination of exactly what the waste acceptance criteria are, but the Commission recently completed that determination—rather late, but not as late as previously—and the criteria will of course be adhered to.

I believe that the criteria are manageable, and that there will be no special difficulties. The WEEE directive will not come into operation until 2004, so we have nearly two years, and I am sure we can manage the criteria satisfactorily.

Mr. Lidington

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his gracious words of welcome, but I feel that the phrase he used earlier—"loose and idle"—in connection with the statement by the Dixons spokesman could serve as a summary of the Select Committee's verdict on his policy on refrigerators, which can be found in its recent report.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) asked about the costs of the WEEE directive, which, as the Minister says, is due to come into force in about two years and will affect everything from freezers to electronic greetings cards. It will be complicated and expensive to administer. The industry and local authorities are asking the Government to make clear whether Ministers expect the costs of administration and recycling to be borne primarily by manufacturers, retailers or local authorities. The Minister has two years in which to give people time to plan. Will he now state clearly on whom he wishes the burden of those additional costs to fall?

We are currently hearing statements from the industry like that of the director of development at Biffa Waste Services, who said—again, earlier this week If you thought the fridges were bad, you wait until all these other things come through. We haven't got a strategy, we haven't got a plan, there's no consultation with industry and no communication with the public. Instead we are standing around in the corner of a field with our hands in our pockets. Is that not an accurate description by an industry spokesman of the lackadaisical and complacent approach that the Minister and his colleagues are taking?

Mr. Meacher

I did see that alleged quotation from Peter Jones of Biffa Waste Services, and I was extremely surprised by it because I have always regarded him as a thoughtful representative of the industry. It was an extremely loose and rather silly statement, and when I see him I shall make that clear.

The truth is that the directive requires member states to set up a system for the separate collection of waste electronic and electrical equipment, with a target for private households of 4 kg on average per inhabitant per year. We have two years to implement that, but as I have already made clear, changes could be made in the common position as it was left by the European Environment Council. In particular, the European Parliament has proposed that there should be mandatory individual producer responsibility, or collective producer responsibility if the former is disproportionately costly. That is one unknown. Secondly, it is proposing a higher collection target of 6 kg per head of the population and, thirdly, the banning of the disposal of waste electronic and electrical equipment in the household waste stream. That would certainly be very costly.

It is impossible to calculate the final costs until the exact form of the directive has been decided. It is certainly not true that there has been no consultation with the industry. I cannot understand how any responsible industrial representative should say that. I have had discussions with the industry about this matter and my officials have had many more. I expect to have still more in future. We are prepared to look at the matter and to consider industry's requirements. Indeed, we want to do all that we can to assist industry, but comments such as that from Peter Jones are not helpful and not accurate.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Minister agree that when Mrs. Thatcher was Prime Minister, she was the one who laid the basis for all these tinpot directives that he is having to deal with now, backed not only by the Tories who were in the House at the time, but by those tinpot fanatical Liberals? This lousy, rotten Common Market has a lot to answer for. There are a few moments when I have the desire to rush across there and tell them to get stuffed. Then I get back to reality and say, "Thank God I voted against it all."

Mr. Meacher

The only point where I can agree with my hon. Friend is that I also voted against in 1974. I have changed my mind, and quite strongly, particularly with regard to the environmental acquis.

Whatever one feels about the details of some of these directives, and I agree that they are contentious and we contend many of them, the thrust of the range of recycling and recovery directives has enormously improved the environment in this country. There is no question about that. The state of our water, air and contamination levels have significantly improved. That is largely due to Europe. That does not mean that everything it does is right—I certainly do not think that either—and we need to be much more active, and industry needs to be involved at a much earlier stage in producing the changes that we want. Change should not just be imposed by Brussels.