Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment

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Miss McIntosh: I cannot possibly comment on my hon. Friend's views but they seem reasonable and sound to me. The Minister must be aware that the reason for the debate is that the European Scrutiny Committee requested an opportunity for the proposals to be considered in depth, and it was not convinced of the Minister's explanation as to why the lifting of the scrutiny reserve was necessary. In view of the rather relaxed timetable that she set out before the Committee this morning, in which there is no prospect of the earliest common position being reached or even discussed before June, does she not agree that it is therefore inappropriate to rush the proposals through?

Ms Hewitt: I am not seeking to rush them through. I am seeking support for the sensible position adopted by the Government towards the directives, which seems to be the proper thing to do. I explained the circumstances in which my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and I thought that it would be helpful and not problematical to the Committee to lift the scrutiny reserve before Christmas. The Scrutiny Committee rejected that request, perfectly rightly. As it turned out, no common position was arrived at at the December Council and we are now negotiating in the Council working group. We await the view of the European Parliament and, as I said in my opening statement, we welcome this scrutiny debate this morning. We can take the Committee's views into account as we continue our discussions in the Council of Ministers and the working group.

Mr. Gibb: I am astonished that the Minister can tell the Committee with a straight face that she believes that the hazardous substances directive will lead to a reduction in the price of refrigerators. Has the hon. Lady visited a fridge manufacturer? If not, would she like to visit Lec Refrigeration in Bognor Regis to discuss the directive? Could she define contaminated goods within the terms of the directive, because there is no requirement to take back the goods if they are contaminated? Does a deep fat fryer covered in fat qualify as contaminated?

Ms Hewitt: I used the term ``contaminate'' to refer to the effect of anti-Europeanism on the hon. Gentleman's views of the directive. He raises a serious point about the extremely old and unpleasant fat-coated electrical fryer. One of the issues on which we are concentrating in the working group discussions is the problem of the range of domestic electrical equipment that might be caught by the directive, to reach a rather more sensible definition of the sort of domestic electrical and electronic goods that we want to be taken back, especially by retailers. Contaminated goods are those that present a biological hazard or might be radioactive. Even under the existing proposals, retailers would be entirely within their rights to refuse to take those back.

Retailers, in particular small independent retailers, but also some chains, have genuine anxieties about how to handle the practical implementation of take-back—how to find the room to store the material before it is taken away for treatment and how to train staff and deal with the health and safety issues that may arise. We are discussing the matter in some detail with the British Retail Consortium to ensure that we reflect those anxieties in our discussions with the Commission and the Council of Ministers and that they are resolved in the drafting of the directive as well as in the practical implementation that will follow.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich): My anxiety relates to people such as elderly or disabled people having to return goods such as cookers and heavy fridges and perhaps having to pay for such collections. How will a procedure be put in place to help such people return goods to retailers?

Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for providing not only an interesting question but a new face in the debate. In the case of large white goods, on the collection of which the UK has a pretty good record, many retailers already make arrangements when delivering a new product to take away the old. We want to encourage that practice and see it increase. That will be the answer not only for many elderly people. When I last replaced a cooker, I could not have carried it out of the house, let alone anywhere else. It makes sense, as those are the sort of goods that would typically be replaced, for the take-back to occur at the same time as the delivery of the replacement good. In other cases, it may be a question of considering the facilities that local authorities already provide. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster referred to the role of local authorities. Existing mechanisms are in place not only for collection but in some cases for separation and treatment of such waste.

Miss McIntosh: Following that logic, how would a local authority or the Government recover the cost of removing a fridge of Japanese origin?

Ms Hewitt: Many local authorities already charge. The approach will vary from council to council, but many local authorities will provide a service to their residents for the collection of especially heavy waste and will charge for it. How they would recover the cost in the case of a fridge, for example, of foreign origin, is a matter that we shall need to consider as we discuss with manufacturers how the costs of producer responsibility should be shared. We shall consider the matter as we approach implementation.

Mr. Gibb: Following on from my hon. Friend's excellent question, how would an internet company fit in with the arrangements?

Ms Hewitt: That is one of the issues that we are currently discussing with the European Council and Commission to establish where responsibility should fall and whether it should fall on the internet retailer or at some other point in the value and supply chain. The matter has not yet been resolved.

Miss McIntosh: Following the Minister's answer to my previous question, does she share my anxiety that her proposals and the agreement that she wants to give to the EU directives, in particular the one on waste disposal and WEEE, will hit domestic producers unfairly and will have a negative and greater cost impact on domestic and European producers than on their Japanese and other competitors?

Ms Hewitt: As I said in my opening statement, competitiveness is one of the issues about which we are concerned. However, it is a mistake to assume that, when the European Union or an individual country puts in place high environmental or product quality standards, that is necessarily damaging to competitiveness. What we have seen in industrialised countries generally, and in Scandinavian countries especially, is the advantage that can be gained by producers when Governments set high environmental standards.

Those standards, in turn, incentivise or require manufacturers to design cleaner products and cleaner processes for the manufacture of those products. That, in turn, enables them to have a head start in moving into other markets as consumer expectations and environmental standards rise in those other countries. It also gives manufacturers a particular incentive to ensure that their investment programmes give them higher productivity and lower costs in other parts of the production process, in order to compensate, if necessary, for higher costs arising from higher environmental standards. The assumption that underlies the hon. Lady's question is not correct. Requirements to take back and to treat waste that arises will fall on retailers, and, collectively, on producers. That will apply to waste that arises in this country or in other parts of the European Union, regardless of where the product was originally manufactured.

Mr. Gibb: The assumption behind my hon. Friend's question is, in fact, absolutely right. I invite the Minister to visit Lec Refrigeration in Bognor Regis, which is one of the only remaining major domestic fridge manufacturers in this country. She would learn a huge amount if she were to discuss these issues with that company.

The Minister says that there are still many issues to be discussed with the European Union, so I find it astonishing that she did not want to debate the issue in Parliament. Ample scope exists for a further debate on these issues once they have been resolved in Parliament. As I understand it, she is seeking two key derogations—one for small businesses and a second on the range of products to be incorporated within the directives. How much support is she achieving for either of those derogations, especially that for small business? Which other member states are supporting her in that endeavour?

Ms Hewitt: The issue has not yet come back to the Council of Ministers. It is being pursued in the Council working group, and helpful discussions have taken place, especially on the issue of the timetable. Certainly, there are people in other member states who understand the problems of small retailers and small manufacturers.

We have a strong argument to make on the matter. However, that underlines the importance of the retailers and producers operating not simply at a national level but at a European one. Collectively, throughout Europe, they are making the same arguments to the European Commission. In other member states, they are making those arguments at a national level, to Governments.

We have advanced the general argument about the need for more effective business representation, especially small business representation, at a European level. In other member states, we have argued the case vigorously with our business organisations. I am happy to tell the Committee that there is evidence of a change of heart on the part of other member states. However, Council discussions are confidential, and I am certainly not going to start naming other member states at this stage. That is a matter for those member states, especially while we are still in discussions on the directive.

 
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Prepared 28 March 2001