Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 1240 - 1259)

THURSDAY 21 DECEMBER 2000

RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, MRS SUE ELLIS and MR TONY ANDERSON

  1240. I would like to get public expenditure down, I make no bones about that, but it is better that we should be honest, surely, in making those decisions and judgments about what is public expenditure and what should be publicly accountable and what is not.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  1241. Doing things de facto in the private sector when we as Government, you as Government, have set up all these controls over it, we are just deluding ourselves really.
  (Mr Meacher) I agree with you that we have to be clear as to whether this is a public expenditure project or whether it is a privately driven scheme, in which case the discretion as to the direction of spend must remain with the landfill operator. We have to decide which it is. I agree that we cannot, or should not, seek to meddle or confuse those two objectives. What we are doing, as I say, is to set up indicative guidelines. We would like to see more going into the collection and recycling for local authorities but we are limited to the extent to which we can secure that. One of the concerns about the Landfill Tax Credit Scheme, one of the inbuilt flaws, is that the last thing the landfill operator really wants to do is to have his money used to promote recycling which he is in competition with. Therefore, he is much more likely to put the money into environmental projects, which may be perfectly sound but which are designed to influence the local community to accept landfilling, which is not what we would wish.

Chairman

  1242. Can I just remind everybody that we have got limits on time.
  (Mr Meacher) I am sorry, I am doing it again.

Mrs Ellman

  1243. Would that not suggest that there is an inherent conflict in the scheme? Would it be better abandoning the Tax Credit Scheme and doing something different with the money?
  (Mr Meacher) Mrs Ellman, you have raised that question again. I have, I think, truthfully spelt out the latent conflict which is within the scheme. As I say, I think there are inherent difficulties in ensuring that it is used for the purpose that we would wish, but there are also major problems about switching it to an alternative funding base and at this point I cannot go beyond that.

  1244. I would like to move now to waste arisings which we did touch on before. Are you satisfied with the quality of the information on waste arisings?
  (Mr Meacher) On the question of information I know that there has been a lot of doubt about the projected aggregate figures. We do work with the Environment Agency to improve the range and reliability of data. The DETR Municipal Waste Survey is now in its fifth year and I understand that we had virtually a 100 per cent local authority response. I think the data is now substantially more accurate. Of course, we do assist the Environment Agency in terms of their Waste Production Survey. Our grant-in-aid to them is £102 million in this next year, of which around £30 million goes in waste programmes each year. The figures may not yet be accurate to a decimal point but I think we are getting much more accurate figures than we have had before and I think the rounded figures are a perfectly adequate driver for policy.

  1245. The Head of Waste Regulation at the Environment Agency told this Committee that he did not feel that the Environment Agency had sufficient resources to do a follow-up survey. Would you agree with that?
  (Mr Meacher) I suppose it is the fate in Government that whenever you meet anybody they want more money. I think the Environment Agency, in my view, has had some pretty good conclusions from the Spending Review. In the next year there is an extra in real terms of £7 million, in the next year £15 million and in the year after that £16 million.

  Chairman: Is it not sad that when we try to find out whether anyone has actually analysed what goes into the dustbin and made a comparison one year with the previous year, no-one has actually done that analysis. The most we can find is that someone has looked at about 100 dustbins and analysed what is in those, but there are no comparative studies. Surely in trying to work out how much extra waste is being generated it would be nice if we had some comparative studies between people's bins from one year to the next?

Mrs Dunwoody

  1246. It sounds disgusting to me.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, I agree. I do not know whether Tony Anderson could indicate the nature of the data. As I say, my understanding is much fuller, much more detailed data is now being produced than ever before. In answer to the Chairman's question, do we make comparative analyses year by year?
  (Mr Anderson) We do not, no. There are a number of studies that have looked at this and we can track changes on that. The difficulty is that actually looking at a household waste bin is difficult because there are variations between regions, there are variations between different housing types and so on and it is very difficult, I am told anyway, statistically to track changes like that. What we are looking at is trying to see what sort of overall waste is arising and the nature of that. We have, for example, a National Household Waste Analysis Programme that we are hoping will give us some results.

  1247. When?
  (Mr Anderson) Can I let you have a note on that?
  (Mr Meacher) Soon.

Mrs Dunwoody

  1248. That is an alternative to soon?
  (Mr Meacher) No, we are letting you have a note soon.

Mr Blunt

  1249. Minister, are you content that everything possible is being done to prevent fly-tipping?
  (Mr Meacher) I believe that it is an increasing problem in particular areas. The evidence is largely anecdotal. Again, I am afraid I do not think there is accurate detailed comparative data across the country. However, what is significant is that the Tidy Britain Group did find that actually domestic waste collected by local authorities was most likely to be the waste which was fly-tipped, which does suggest that it is not the Landfill Tax, as many people think, that is driving any increase in fly-tipping that may be occurring because, of course, local householders do not pay a variable amount for local authority collection, they pay indirectly through the Council Tax. It does suggest that if there is an increase in fly-tipping, which obviously I deeply deplore and I am very keen to try and suppress, it is not primarily the consequence of landfill tax. There is a fly-tipping forum which has been set up—

Mrs Dunwoody

  1250. A fly-tipping forum.
  (Mr Meacher) We could call it a committee.

Mr Brake

  1251. A task force.
  (Mr Meacher) I am told the title is a forum. This is a double F word. It includes Government, the Environment Agency, local authorities, the NFU and the Country Landowners Association. It has been particularly looking at fly-tipping on farms. I must say in the visits I have made around the country I have seen that there has been a very worrying increase in dumping on farms. If we can catch those responsible, possibly from an analysis of what is dumped, then I am in favour of the toughest penalties being imposed.

Mr Blunt

  1252. What does that mean? Minister, you are in a Government that yesterday announced that it was going to lock up people indefinitely who had done something wrong. Yesterday it put on the Statute Book legislation to criminalise over a quarter of a million of our fellow citizens. What exactly are the sort of tough penalties you have in mind for fly-tipping?
  (Mr Meacher) I think, Chairman, I should, for the sake of progress on this Committee, ignore that flagrantly provocative diversionary question and concentrate on the question of issues with regard to fly-tipping. I do not know immediately offhand what is the maximum penalty. What I mean by that is that I would hope that if that is an excess where there have been serious or repeat offences, where the magistrates court can only fine up to £20,000, that they would refer the matter to the crown court where there is the option of imprisonment for up to two years and an unlimited fine. Certainly I wish to give the message that we are getting very serious about fly-tipping.

Chairman

  1253. In your constituency and mine there are considerable numbers of people who put bins out early for collection. The foxes and other creatures get at them and they get distributed around the streets and they obviously look pretty horrible.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  1254. Are you seriously suggesting that people should be prosecuted for putting out refuse early for collection?
  (Mr Meacher) No, I am not suggesting that. Certainly I think that is a separate issue. It would probably be very advisable for local authorities, where there is evidence of that, in the leaflets that they do put out to people in their area, to request and advise them not to do it at a much earlier stage—

  1255. It does not work.
  (Mr Meacher)—or to do it the evening before because it is at night time that foxes will do this damage.

Mr Brake

  1256. Minister, are you happy that the Environment Agency have got the balance right in terms of the actions they are taking in relation to the fly-tipping. I have a case in my constituency where someone is operating a waste transit site illegally, and he accepts that, but he is going through the planning application process and the local authority has said he will get it. He has received indications that he will receive a waste management licence as well. He has been taken to court and fined and runs the risk of his business having to be shut until this business is sorted out. A hundred yards down the road an empty house and empty grounds were taken over by what happened to be travellers who left leaving tonnes of rubbish on the site. He has been through the courts and has been fined, they have departed leaving the site a real eyesore with no action.
  (Mr Meacher) Well, I am not going to comment on particular cases without knowing the full details. I accept you describe fairly accurately what has happened and I am sure this is replicated elsewhere. Travellers are notoriously difficult to prosecute although I think they should be, largely because even if they are found guilty it is very difficult, of course, to extract any significant penalty in terms of a fine from them. I am very keen that should be done. I would also be keen in travellers' sites being monitored, not waiting until they leave with all their rubbish but dealt with while they are still there. This is a difficult issue. There are no simple answers and resources are limited for the authorities. I am in favour of increased monitoring, better co-operation between authorities and prosecutions with significant penalties wherever possible.

  1257. Have you had discussions with the Home Office on this particular issue? In discussions I have had with my own local authority certainly it is very, very difficult for them to take any action swiftly against travellers because of the due process that has to be followed.
  (Mr Meacher) I have not discussed this with the Home Office. I cannot comment on the difficulties of local authorities in dealing with travellers. Travellers, of course, once they realise trouble is brewing can move on. They can up and move overnight and they are quite prepared to do so. Again it means collaboration between local authorities. I am very anxious, as I say, that public authorities do co-ordinate their activities. It is a real disfigurement for the countryside and for the landscape, for the rest of the population who do have decent standards.

Mr Blunt

  1258. Can I ask you a couple of questions about regulatory problems within your Department. There is one which concerns Community Composting who have the irony of being exempt from waste management licensing regulations for small composting sites which then makes it impossible for them to sell their products. I understand the Community Composting Network have received an assurance from you in January 1999, I think, that the exemption would be revised. They had an oral assurance from an official in our Department in September 1999 that the consultation document on exemption will be published in November 1999. That consultation document remains to be published.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  1259. Can I press you to publish it rather sooner than soon.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes. You make a fair point. I think we have been slow in doing this. I will ask Sue Ellis in a moment to speak about the process within the Department. We are reviewing composting exemptions, as we said. I agree with you, I get concerned when things take far longer than members of the public I think have a right to expect. We do want to encourage small scale Community Composting. There are problems, of course, about the question of leachate and also harmful bio-aerosols and odours. It is not a simple matter but I accept that the timescale that you have referred to does seem unduly long.


 
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