Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment

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Ms Hewitt: The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, and I shall certainly reflect on that. It relates to the hazardous substances directive, which has a foundation within the environmental provisions of European law. The electrical and electronic waste directive is grounded in single market law, and we want to keep it there, as we have done successfully so far. The waste directive predates the sixth framework programme and I am not sure how much sympathy there would be for the hon. Lady's proposal, particularly since not only is the Commission strongly committed to proceeding with both directives, but so are all other 14 member states. The proposal, although interesting, would not gain any sympathy from other member states. We would be better advised to continue our present negotiating strategy, which reflects our commitment to the directives' goals, but seeks to achieve them in a more sensible way.

Further to the earlier question of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill), I referred only to United Kingdom costs. However, we regard the Commission's estimates of the costs throughout the European Union as being far too low.

Mr. Gibb: The Minister is right. The hon. Member for Upminster raised a good point about the disparity between the so-called regulatory impact assessments prepared by the European Union and the more rigorous, but still less than adequate, regulatory impact assessments prepared in this country. In response to my question about how much that would add to the cost of a typical fridge or washing machine, the hon. Lady said that she had seen no well-founded estimates and said, ``I do not know''. What right does she have to come before the Committee, proposing such wide-ranging directives, without having an answer to that fundamental question?

Ms Hewitt: I shall not mislead the Committee and pluck figures out of the air. The two directives proposed by the European Commission enjoy widespread support. In the United Kingdom, as in other parts of Europe, the directives' goals are supported by manufacturers, retailers and the Government. However, we are not satisfied with the drafting of the directives, or with their analysis of costs and benefits, about which we are seeking more detailed information. There are equivalent requirements in Japan, which has a high-cost and high-price retail economy, and the evidence suggests that the cost is about £25 per fridge. It is difficult to draw accurate comparisons, and we believe that the cost will be lower in the UK, but it is not yet possible to produce detailed estimates for each of the items covered by the directive.

Miss McIntosh: The European Scrutiny Committee's first report states that

    ``waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is identified in the Community's Fifth Environmental Action Programme as one of the target areas for prevention, recovery and safe disposal''.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that, regrettably, the Commission occasionally gets things wrong. For instance, with regard to the current foot and mouth crisis, a high-ranking Commission official, whom I have known for about 20 years, admitted to me that he was unaware that the EU ground directive was preventing infected animals from being buried. Therefore, if we are to impose a substantial cost on producers, would it not be preferable to have the legal base and the remit of the directive in place at the beginning, rather than return to the matter in three or four years, after having penalised producers in the UK, who are facing increasing global competition, especially from third world countries?

Ms Hewitt: The WEEE issue was identified in the fifth directive, so it predates the fifth framework.

There is strong support throughout the EU for tackling the issue of hazardous substances that are used in the manufacture of many products. Unless action is taken, those substances will continue to enter the waste stream for many years. The proposed hazardous substances directive is intended to be implemented in 2008, which allows adequate time for producers to adapt their processes, change the design of their products and, in some cases, invest in new plant.

There is a fast-growing consumer market for electrical and electronic goods throughout the EU. We should neither deny that that creates problems, nor delay addressing them. There is support for the directives from retailers, as well as from environmental groups and the Governments of member states, because they acknowledge that problems exist and that they must be swiftly and sensibly tackled.

Mr. Darvill: In the draft regulatory assessments in relation to the options in paragraph 3.3, reference is made to the fact that the financial cost

    ``will predominantly fall upon manufacturers, importers and distributors''.

The document goes on to state:

    ``Depending on the implementation option, some costs may fall on Local Authorities''.

What studies have been undertaken in respect of the likely additional costs to local authorities? What would be the impact of relaxing burdens on local authorities?

Ms Hewitt: I am not sure that I can give my hon. Friend the detail that he requires on local authority costs. As I said earlier, we will want to consider how best to implement the measures and how the costs of collection should be shared among the various parties after we have finalised and agreed the directive. That is the same sort of issue that we have to consider in relation to the end of vehicle life directive.

Mr. Gibb: The Minister said that in Japan such measures add about £25 to the price of fridges. That will alarm Lec Refrigeration, a major employer in Bognor Regis, which is already fighting tight margins in a fiercely competitive market and says that demand is inelastic. That is a major hike in the price of domestic goods for consumers in this country. Will reference be made to that in the Labour party manifesto?

Ms Hewitt: I thought that we might enjoy one of those intelligent and useful discussions that we so often have in this Standing Committee, without resorting to such cheap party political points. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not go around the country saying that the price of fridges will rise tomorrow by £25, or say that to Lec Refrigeration in his constituency, because it would not be true. As I have said, we are quite clear that any additional costs to consumers will be significantly lower than they are in Japan, which is a high retail price country. We also seek the support of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to make significant changes to the directive that will substantially reduce the costs compared with the original regulation impact assessment.

Miss McIntosh: Will the Minister tell the Committee what stage the process has reached? I think that she said that she hoped that a common position would be reached at the March Council. However, I understand that in December the European Parliament had not even considered the matter, so I should be surprised if it managed to consider it quickly enough to reach that common position.

Ms Hewitt: When I referred to the common position I was talking about our expectation before Christmas that a common position would be arrived at with urgency at the December Council of Environment Ministers. As for the European Parliament, its Industry Committee voted on its amendments on 27 February, and the Environment Committee will presumably vote on its amendments on 24 April. The plenary session, during which the final vote on the European Parliament amendments is expected to take place, is scheduled for 15 to 16 May, so the earliest time at which a common position could be adopted is June.

Mr. Gibb: My question whether the issue would be included in the Labour party manifesto was not a party political point but a constitutional point. The Government propose to add £25 per the cost of every fridge in this country. It may be less, but the Minister did not give us another figure; the only figure that she has given the Committee is £25. If she can give us another figure, will she do so? If the matter is not mentioned in the manifesto, how can people who object to a measure that will create such a hike in the price of consumer white goods do so constitutionally? What can they do to stop it happening in our democracy?

Will the Minister also tell us what she means when she says that the retail and manufacturing sectors of this country support the goals of the directives? Does she mean that they support the environmental goals that deal with waste electrical and electronic equipment, or that they support the proposals that retailers and manufacturers will be forced to take back these goods?

Ms Hewitt: What I mean is that those sectors support the goals of the directive. They understand that there are environmental problems in relation to hazardous substances and waste, and they want to help in taking action to deal with those problems. Neither the Government nor the Commission are suggesting a consumer responsibility principle. We are suggesting that producers, not consumers, should pay. It will be up to producers to decide how they deal with the resulting costs. There is a long lead time before the hazardous substances directive comes into effect. Production processes, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, are changing and improving all the time. As companies invest in better plant, processes and design, and better skills for their work force, they can increase productivity and reduce the cost at which they produce goods, so there will not necessarily be any additional costs.

The hon. Gentleman takes an extremely crude and simplistic view of how manufacturers deal with rising standards. Manufacturers have the greatest incentive to improve the quality of their goods and productivity—to produce better goods at lower cost. The principle within the directive is one of producer responsibility, for which there is wide support. However, the actual costs depend not only on the final wording of the directive, but on the volumes of goods manufactured and all the other aspects of the production process to which I have referred. It is a pity if the hon. Gentleman allows his and his party's rather wild anti-European feelings to contaminate his views on the proposal.

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