Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment

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Dr. Ladyman: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gibb: I will not give way; I want to finish. I hope that hon. Members who care about what is going on will put party politics aside—[Interruption.] It is a serious point. I hope that hon. Members will try to tackle what is becoming a hugely serious problem, more serious even than landfill sites. I speak of the intolerable burden of rules that is crippling industry, suffocating innovation and enterprise and damping down enthusiasm for business.

11.50 am

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): I refer first to the matter of party politics raised by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). I intended to approach the subject in a non-party political manner and I was surprised by his contribution.

The hon. Gentleman asked the Minister for a list of regulations. If I were in the Minister's shoes, I would be tempted to send him ``Halsbury's Statutes'' and one or two other legal tomes. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was making a party political point with an unreasonable question.

Mr. Gibb: I do not think that it was unreasonable. The Department of Trade and Industry has a team of well-qualified lawyers and experienced civil servants. With those resources, such a question should not be difficult. Someone setting up as a fridge manufacturer with 1,000 employees is expected to have the answer to all those questions. Expensive City lawyers have to be employed to find the answers.

It was a serious point, and I expected a quick but full response. I raised the question not as a party political point against the Minister but as a point against Administrations generally, whether Conservative or Labour. I suspect that the answers given by the last Tory Government would be the same as the Minister's. I made a genuine point about how we administer ourselves and we must tackle it urgently.

Mr. Darvill: The hon. Gentleman and I have debated the impact of regulations before. One company's regulations are another person's protection. A balance needs to be struck. Regulations specific to fridge manufacturers will be fairly limited. The other regulations apply to any industry and most companies will be affected by them. The point was a little unreasonable.

I agree with the principle of what we and the European Commission are trying to achieve in shifting the balance of responsibility to the producer. I believe that it was a principle of the Conservative party, even if it has changed since. The Minister was right to mention that the country is engaged in a broad debate on the subject. Consumers and the population at large believe that we should try to attack those problems. That is certainly evident among younger people. Those hon. Members who visit schools will know that, at every question and answer session, we are asked what we are going to do about the environment. Constituents who write to me on environmental issues often complain that we are not doing enough. I can understand that. The problem is getting the right balance. Debates such as this need to concentrate on that balance.

The proposal started in 1991. The broad principle must have been approved by the previous Government, or it would not have got this far. I believe that qualified majority voting on the subject was not applicable at the time. In other words, it would not have been a QMV subject in 1991, so it would have been possible for them to stop it in its tracks. I suspect that they had to acknowledge, as I do, that something needed to be done.

Dr. Ladyman: I tried to raise that subject with the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, but he would not give way. Will my hon. Friend confirm that it was the Conservatives who extended qualified majority voting? Not only did they accept the principle of producer liability, they made sure that we had to deal with it under the current arrangements.

Mr. Darvill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who, as usual, has a handle on the detail. He is absolutely right and if the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton were consistent, he would have acknowledged that in his contribution. If he were a Government Member, the relevant proposal would have been introduced because there is a general view in society that we should be doing something about the environment. Looking at the list of hazardous materials that will be restricted, I know that there will be concern in my constituency, where we have several landfill sites. What we put into those sites is a major issue. Unless we do something about it, we will damage the planet for our children and our children's children. The question is whether the proposals strike the right balance, and I have some concerns about that.

The time allowed for introducing the proposals—18 months—is tight. I know that the Minister said that we were trying to extend the time to 30 months. We should do whatever we can to extend the period, although obviously not indefinitely, so that small, medium and larger businesses can cope with the proposals. There will be knock-on effects in the high street, for example. Smaller retailers, such as the electrical shop in the high street in my constituency, where space is very limited, may be under a particular burden. Such retailers will need time to work collectively with local authorities and others to make the necessary arrangements for storage and collection. Disproportionate cost burdens may fall on such businesses if we do not get the exemptions right, although larger businesses may have sufficient resources. We already have a problem trying to retain high street trade, which must compete with the big retail centres. I would not say that high street traders were now in their coffin, but the proposals could represent another adverse impact. We must bear that in mind when considering the effect of the regulations.

I am also concerned about the possible impact on local authorities. I have been raising the issue of the burdens on local authorities for some time because we tend to concentrate on the burdens on industry. We hear of central Government—this is a criticism of the previous Government, as well as this Government—putting burdens on local authorities without properly funding them.

If the regulations are to work, we need the active co-operation of local authorities in partnership with local retailers and chambers of commerce. Unless we provide adequate funding—it might be necessary for industry to participate in some way, and some of the documents point towards collective funds—further burdens will be placed on local authorities, many of which are already stretched, and they will not be able to implement the regulations.

There needs to be a cultural change, something that we tend to ignore. Many people go to the shops and buy their electrical goods without thinking about the old ones that the new ones replace. We need a culture change, whenever possible taking our toaster, or whatever, with us when we go to buy another one. There may need to be a lead-in time while best practice in take-back is disseminated.

Mr. Gibb: Has not the hon. Gentleman highlighted the absurdity of the whole directive: that we should take our toaster with us when we shop? It is utter nonsense to say that people will take their food mixer or rice cooker with them. That is just not going to happen, is it?

Mr. Darvill: It will not happen overnight, but it may happen. Personally, if there were a facility in the area to take replaced goods, I would be tempted to take them along. That is the cultural point that I was making. When I dispose of my rubbish, I take the bottles to the local receptacle; I did not do that a couple of years ago. More and more people are thinking that way, certainly in my local authority—so much so that the containers at the local tip tend to be insufficient. That means that demand exists. Constituents have complained to me that local authorities should be doing more to meet it.

A cultural change is building up about recycling and the best thing to do with waste; people are conscious of the problem. I am not sure that the current proposals give sufficient impetus to that. If the Minister touches on that point when she winds up the debate, that will be helpful.

We must bear it in mind that the proposals would certainly have an effect on small business—larger industries would be able to build them into their costs. However, we must also bear it in mind that the average cost of fridges and other electrical goods has tended to fall in real terms. Although there is a competitive element, the margins are sufficient to make the proposals possible. It would be right for people to consider the impact of the regulations when they design and produce materials. The market would acknowledge that and make the necessary changes to its planning. I give the proposals a cautious welcome, but we have a lot more work to do. I agree with the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that we need a much wider debate in Parliament and outside, because the proposals would have an impact, but I think that they would be broadly welcomed.

12.2 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): We are asked to take note of the European document containing the two directives, to note the Government's current negotiating line and to support the Government's actions, which I have difficulty in doing. I note with horror that I have here a Government pen here that says ``Your Britain Your Europe'', which the Minister may want to have back as I am not entirely at one with her proposals.

I give the Minister a word of caution in case the House ever comes to consider a statutory instrument about the proposals. She will remember the toy safety directive in 1992, introduced under the Conservative Administration, which sounded innocuous, said good things about toy safety and covered new EU manufactured toys and imported toys. In its enthusiasm, the Department—I do not know if any of the Minister's advisers recall this—added a condition: the sale of second-hand toys to charity shops was to be abolished. That led to a flood of correspondence for me as a Member of the European Parliament, and we coined the phrase gold plating of directives. I hope that the Minister will quash any attempt to gold plate these two directives.

It is appropriate that the Committee has had the opportunity to consider the proposals in greater depth. After our discussion, the Minister must be aware what extra burdens will be placed on producers. I am sure that her Department can advise her on the lengthy proposals and debates during the time of the European product liability directive, which caused great consternation to producers. Hon. Members of all parties want to avoid imposing impossible burdens on producers.

We have had a good discussion of how the consumer will fare. The hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) may consider taking his toaster on the tube—I suppose that that is more likely than him taking it on the bus, in his case—but for many of us frailer creatures the prospect of carrying larger items of domestic consumption, including computers, is not that realistic. The burdens on retailers would also be considerable.

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