Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment

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Mr. Darvill: The target for introducing the restriction of hazardous materials, on which we have concentrated this morning, is 1 January 2008. What expectations does the trade have of being able to achieve that, and how easy will it be to substitute other materials for those that will be restricted?

Ms Hewitt: I understand that the producers' concern is not so much the target date, but the substances for which there are no practical substitutes, such as lead used for soldering processes. We are seeking a derogation for lead because there is not a practical substitute for it. That is only one example of such a case.

Miss McIntosh: Before we proceed to the debate, will the Minister clear up some confusion? She said that retailers would have to pick up the cost, but I am not sure whether she meant the cost to the producer and, therefore, that the Japanese and third country manufactures would make a contribution at that stage. However, she went on to say that the cost of removing a particular article, such as a fridge or deep freezer, would be borne by the consumer, so it appears that the consumer will be given a double hit.

I am also concerned, as are constituents, that despite the Japanese saying that they expect the unit cost of a fridge to increase by £25 because of considerations of waste disposal and good waste care, the Minister does not think that there will be a unit cost increase to UK manufacturers.

The Minister disingenuously accused my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) of making political capital from the matter. We cannot be responsible for methods that the tabloids will use when arriving at what they believe the cost of a fridge will be.

Ms Hewitt: I hope that I made it clear that the underlying principle of the directives is producer responsibility. As in the end of vehicle life directive, we need to discuss how costs should be assessed and where they should fall. In my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, I said that it will probably be appropriate to treat historic waste differently from waste that arises from new products. That is primarily a matter that arises from the WEEE directive, but it is a matter of producer responsibility.

Mr. Gibb: Article 3(b) of the RoHS directive and the definition article of the WEEE directive defines a producer as a person

    ``who imports that equipment on a professional basis into a Member State.''

What is the US Government's opinion about the directives? Do the directives conform to World Trade Organisation rules, and will the Minister assure the Committee that they will not be the cause of yet another dispute between the EU and the USA?

Ms Hewitt: Yes, the directives conform to the World Trade Organisation rules, so there is no reason to believe that they will give rise to another trade war.

Mr. Gibb: How will manufacturers who go out of business after one or two years bear their fair share of the costs incurred by the directives?

Ms Hewitt: I said earlier that there is a real issue about producers that go out of business. We will consider the issue of collective responsibility for historic waste. However, the matter underlines the complementary nature of the two directives. The hazardous substances directive will reduce the problem in future years and decades because less problematic material will be used to make new products.

Mr. Gibb: What will be the Government's response in the Council if they fail to obtain the support of other member states for the derogations?

Ms Hewitt: The Government's attitude towards our colleagues in the European Union since the election is in striking contrast to the Conservative Government's attitude during their 18 years in office, so we are confident that we shall attain our goals. Reasoned argument with our colleagues and Commission officials generally achieves good results for not only the United Kingdom, but the European Union as a whole.

Mr. Gibb: That is not true. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain her next course of action. How can she have a view about what happens in the Council of Ministers? If its discussions are confidential, how does she know about them? She is not a member of the Council.

Ms Hewitt: The Council of Ministers comprises Ministers of all member states. To ensure that the interests of the United Kingdom are properly represented, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and I—as well as his officials and my officials—discuss such matters constantly, subject to the confidentiality that surrounds discussion between the Governments of member states.

The Chairman: That brings us to the end of the time that has been allotted for questions.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 10802/00, draft directives on waste electrical and electronic equipment and on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment; notes the Government's current negotiating line on the Document; and supports the Government's actions.—[Ms Hewitt.]

11.31 am

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): I become terribly depressed when I study such directives. They involve huge expense to consumers, a huge change in the law and in the way in which business must structure itself. I re-read the Labour party's manifesto before Committee and there was no mention of such a policy; nor was there reference to it in any of the four Queen's Speeches. I have not received one letter from a constituent suggesting such a change, let alone any letters demanding one. I had not been lobbied as a Department of Trade and Industry Opposition Front-Bench spokesman on the issue until yesterday, when I was approached by those who are against the proposal.

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): Given the points that have just been made and given that the whole process started in 1991, what was the view of the Conservative party and the hon. Gentleman on the proposals?

Mr. Gibb: Apart from talking about the Labour party manifesto, I have assiduously eschewed making party political points. The reason why I referred to it is because we live in a democracy and proposals are put before the country in manifestos; minor proposals can be missed out because they would expand manifestos into three volumes.

We are not talking about a minor proposal today. It is important. It will cost industry billions of pounds and will add about £20 to the cost of consumer goods. We should not get into a ``You did this. You did that'' argument. I am making an important constitutional point. We are being forced to adopt the directives through qualified majority voting. I suspect that many hon. Members of all parties are worried that such laws are being made month-in, month-out, piling huge burdens on to business, and that there is nothing that we can do as a democracy to stop it.

Mr. Darvill: I tend to agree with the hon. Gentleman's point. However, if he were really serious, surely his party's manifesto in 1997 would have contained a proposal objecting to the regulations.

Mr. Gibb: This is the first time that the regulations have been placed before Parliament. What is most worrying about proposals from the European Union is that the whole process is murky. It is almost as though that is deliberate, so that people do not know about them. After today, however, people will know about the proposals and I hope that they will be subjected to much wider public discussion before they become law.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): Before we move away from the subject, will the hon. Gentleman say how many lines in the forthcoming Conservative manifesto will be dedicated to waste electrical equipment? When he was reading the Labour party manifesto, did he see the section on the environment and on the need to improve recycling levels? How does he expect to obtain any gains for the environment without some costs and difficulties being involved for someone?

Mr. Gibb: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. Landfill is important, but there are other ways in which to deal with the matter. To force companies to take back their product at the end of the lives of those products is not the way to deal with the problem. It is an insane approach to waste products.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich): Was not the policy on producer responsibility introduced by the previous Government in 1993?

Mr. Gibb: I was not aware that it was. The Minister is a conscientious politician who wishes to work for the national interest and, although she has fielded questions robustly, I detect from her demeanour that she, like me, is depressed about the directives. That is also apparent in her epistle to the European Scrutiny Committee.

I am frequently lobbied, both as a constituency Member of Parliament and as a member of the Opposition trade and industry team, about the increase in regulatory burdens. The Minister is also concerned with that, as it is one of her ministerial responsibilities. Recently, she wrote to me about the matter. She stated:

    ``My role as a Minister for Regulatory Reform is to ensure that new regulations are not introduced unless they are absolutely necessary and impose the least cost to business. To this end, the Government has considerably strengthened its systems of regulatory control.''

I mentioned that the disposal of old electrical equipment is a problem. Recently, I dumped an old fridge at the Wandsworth tip. It was a free service, but I wondered what would happen to my fridge and to hundreds of thousands of others. However, the directive's proposals are not the correct response to the issue. The principle of subsidiarity should be applied to it: Great Britain should decide how to tackle the problem. It would become a single market issue only if end-of-life cost and burdens were imposed through the law on manufacturers, which would be a catastrophic route to follow. To create a fair single market, it would be necessary to harmonise that throughout Europe.

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