HC Deb 09 January 1990 vol 164 cc587-9W
Mr. Roger King

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the outcome of consultation on the discussion paper on the environmental labelling of consumer products.

Mr. Chris Patten

Yes. My Department received over 90 responses to the discussion paper from a wide range of interested parties and individuals. A list of responses received has been placed in the Library of the House. Copies of individual responses may be received through the Library. We are grateful to all concerned for offering their views.

Consultation has shown that there is overwhelming support for an official eco-labelling scheme operating on a European Communitywide basis which is simple, flexible, transparent and commands public respect. I was pleased that the Environment Council supported this proposal at its meeting on 19 September. We intend to work closely with the European Commission and with our European partners to maintain the momentum of this initiative, taking account of the views of interested groups in this country.

A very clear majority of consultees supported our proposal that participation by companies in a scheme should be voluntary, but concern was expressed about the adequacy of controls over the making of environmental claims more generally. Policy on the latter is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. On his behalf, I can confirm that we shall be considering these representations further, looking at the possibility both of a code of practice on environmental claims and of amending the provisions of the Trade Descriptions Act. The Department of Trade and Industry will be issuing a consultation letter for this purpose shortly.

Some useful comments were received on the approach which should be adopted in selecting product groups covered by the scheme. We agree with the view expressed by a number of respondents that the aim should be to get a scheme up and running as quickly as possible, and that it should focus on products with a significant environmental impact or where consumers most clearly need the guidance which an eco-label is intended to provide. We intend to look at the selection of product categories in line with these considerations.

Respondents were divided on questions of what product categories should be included in a scheme. We remain of the view that food and drink should be excluded, both because there are already extensive controls on misleading and false food descriptions, and because of the need to give a scheme a tight initial focus. We agree with the view often expressed by respondents, that it would be confusing to label packaging separately from products, but we consider that it should be possible for the assessment of a product's eligibility for an eco-label to take account of packaging considerations.

We are committed to establishing a scheme that is both credible and workable. These objectives are especially relevant to the assessment process which must underlie the award of an eco-label. Consultation has shown that confining that assessment to the direct environmental impact of a product during use and disposal would not be regarded as credible. We accept, therefore, that the assessment should be based on the setting of criteria reflecting the key characteristics of a product's environmental impact from cradle to grave. We also believe that the pass mark required to receive an official label should be set towards the top end of what technology permits, so as to give producers a real incentive to improve their environmental performance, but not so high as to distort the market or impose disproportionate costs on business. The aim must be to work with the grain of market forces, not against it.

There was some support among respondents for a graded approach to eco-labelling, under which progressively higher standards of improvement in a product's environmental impact could be recognised, for example, by awarding one or more stars. We consider that such an approach could complicate the process of assessment unacceptably, and that it would not have the same clear attraction for the market as a more straightforward pass/fail system.

Responses were divided on the timing of the award of an eco-label. We consider that manufacturers will need the certainty of a finite minimum period, after which the award of the label should be subject to review. We recognise, however, that the length of that period may well need to differ between product categories, depending not least on differing expectations of technological advance.

Consultation showed wide support for a strong national element in the development and implementation of a European Community scheme, and for arrangements which would involve interested groups on a continuing basis. We consider that these must be features of the organisation of a scheme.

It will clearly be necessary for agreement to be reached at the European level on the product categories to be selected, on the criteria to be used for their assessment, and on the standards to be set. It will be no less important to create national arrangements which ensure that opinion in each member state on these issues is properly represented at Community level. The practical operation of the scheme should also be nationally based through the determination at the national level of applications from companies for their products to be awarded an eco-label on the basis of the categories, criteria and standards agreed on a European basis. The award of a label to a particular product in one member state would be valid across the Community. We remain of the view that an organisation appropriate to these objectives would involve a single panel at the Community level advised by a series a national panels. We shall want to ensure that the organisation involves a minimum of bureacuracy and provides an effective response to the needs of consumers and producers. We re-emphasise our view that the scheme in operation should aim to be self-financing.

The consultation process has enabled us to take a view on the main issues that need to be addressed in getting an eco-labelling scheme under way. A lot more work needs to be done on the detail of a scheme, however. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I therefore propose to set up a small advisory group, to be composed of individuals with experience and knowledge relevant to the subject, to provide advice on the further development of the scheme. I shall make a further announcement shortly about the membership of the group.