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3. Ian Lucas (Wrexham): What assessment she has made of the effect a tax on incineration set at the same level as the landfill tax would have on the level of recycling carried out by local authorities in England and Wales. [4670]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): We have set local authority statutory targets that will almost triple recycling and composting of household waste from the 1998–99 baseline by 2005–06, as my right hon. Friend said. We have set up the waste

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and resources action programme to foster markets for recycled materials. We consulted on a system of tradeable permits for biodegradable municipal waste. Given those instruments, I doubt whether an incineration tax is needed at this stage to secure our main priority of diverting waste from landfill to recycling.

Ian Lucas: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that there is great concern in my constituency about the relative amount of recycling and incineration outlined in a recent application to site a waste recovery centre there? What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that the recycling targets set out in "Waste Strategy 2000" are met and that the amount of future incineration is minimised?

Mr. Meacher: When we set statutory recycling targets, sanctions are attached to ensure that they are achieved. I assure my hon. Friend that they will be. We will keep track of all local authorities to ensure that they are making progress and will want to know why if they are not. We are offering managerial advice as part of the waste resources action programme. If need be, we can take action to put in place managerial systems that will deliver targets in each local authority.

I understand that a waste management private finance initiative project is being considered for Wrexham. A major part of that will be a facility that is designed, built, financed and operated by the private sector and will include incineration. That is still at the procurement stage. The business plan has to be passed by the Minister for Finance in the Welsh Assembly. Planning consent is then needed. However, whatever Wrexham decides, it must meet its recycling targets.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): As the constituency of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) neighbours Eddisbury, I have an equal interest in that plant and proposal. How can the Minister square the tax answers, which affect both England and Wales, with the decoupling of planning as a result of the devolution arrangements? My constituents might be most affected by the fallout from that incineration plant but have no rights of representation in the planning process. They are deeply concerned about that.

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman raises the devolution arrangements. It is our view that all reasonable powers should be devolved to the Assembly in the case of Wales and the Executive in the case of Scotland, and that is what we have done. However, tax is not a devolved matter. That is why the recommendation that I understand is in the Welsh draft waste management strategy—the Assembly's initial view—that there should be a tax on incineration will be considered duly by the United Kingdom Government, although the matter is of course entirely for the Treasury.

Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the landfill tax credit scheme, whereby tax is recycled to local partnerships to create environmental schemes for areas that are affected by landfill. There is some concern that that scheme will be

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scrapped. I urge the Government to reconsider the effects of doing so, as we in Portsmouth have certainly benefited from it and want it to continue.

Mr. Meacher: I am well aware of the mixed views on the landfill tax credit scheme. There is no question but that it has benefited many environmental projects, particularly to do with wildlife and biodiversity. Whatever changes might be made in any new arrangements—let me make it clear to my hon. Friend that a decision has not yet been taken—I would be extremely anxious to ensure that such benefits were secured. However, the proportion of the moneys that are raised by the credit scheme that goes into local recycling is not nearly enough. We have used indicative targets to try to increase it, but the issue remains whether that is adequate.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): Will the Minister acknowledge that the way in which waste authorities apportion local council landfill tax is not always fair and equitable? A poor example in that respect is the Merseyside waste disposal authority. Some local authorities charge not by the tonne but by population and council tax banding, and therefore have no financial incentive to recycle. Will he consider tightening guidance given to waste disposal authorities to ensure that those that recycle the most pay the least?

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The overwhelming thrust of the Government's waste management strategy is to achieve the maximum feasible increase in recycling. He is right that the structure of the allocation of moneys does not always optimise that. We are certainly considering his point.

Landfill Sites

4. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): If she will make a statement on the powers of the Environment Agency to regulate landfill sites. [4671]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): Waste disposal sites including landfills are regulated by the Environment Agency using powers in part II of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Waste Management Licensing Regulations 1994.

Dr. Starkey: In the first seven months of this year, my constituents in Bletchley were subjected to incredibly high levels of hydrogen sulphide emissions from the landfill at Shanks Waste Services Ltd. in Newton Longville. The Environment Agency has now required Shanks to bring the situation under control and the nuisance appears to have ceased. I believe that charges are being brought against Shanks for breaches of the licence conditions. However, there is great concern among my constituents that the Environment Agency did not detect the problems as they were building up and seemed to take action only once my constituents had suffered a very high level of nuisance and there was a potential health hazard.

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Will the Minister undertake to investigate whether the Environment Agency's failure was due to it having inadequate powers to undertake proper monitoring or due simply to inadequately exercised powers?

Mr. Meacher: I do not believe that the existing powers are inadequate, and I hear what my hon. Friend says about the exercise of those powers. The Environment Agency served four enforcement notices on Shanks, the landfill operator, in February for compliance by April.

The operator failed to comply on any count and, therefore, the agency suspended its licence on 1 May. As a result, the operator undertook some major improvements on the site, and the suspension has now been lifted, but the agency is still making, and will continue to make, weekly unannounced inspections of the site to assess compliance with the licence conditions and, as my hon. Friend said, it is also prosecuting the operator for breach of licence. I take the point, which she made, that the agency did not act fast enough. If she will give me the evidence, I will certainly pursue it.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Of course, we entirely support the Government's laudable aim of reducing landfill by increasing recycling, but in that context what does the Minister think about the activities of Liberal Democrat-controlled North Wiltshire district council, which recently announced that it will do away with the free collection of household goods for recycling and introduce a charge instead? To facilitate that, it has opened a recycling centre that is miles and miles away from anyone who wants to recycle. What does the Minister think about that?

Mr. Meacher: I always seek to be cautious in intruding local grief, but I am aware of the very real problem that the hon. Gentleman mentions because the Liberal-controlled council in Oldham has done exactly the same thing. Perhaps he and I can get together to monitor the effects that the rather curious and perverse charge may have. The charge is unwise and imprudent. It raises a small amount of money, but produces a very severe disincentive to recycle, which, I thought, we all wanted to encourage.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): I am disappointed about my right hon. Friend's answer because there seem to be major limitations in the Environment Agency's powers. For example, when a so-called golf course was being constructed in my area and lorry loads of topsoil were coming out of the site and hundreds of lorry loads of rubbish were going into it every day, the Environment Agency kept telling us that it could inspect the lorries, but could not inspect the apparent golf course. I hope that he realises that the Environment Agency is saying that it sometimes does not have the powers to do what it should.

Mr. Meacher: This is an unusual question session because I have to tell my hon. Friend that in Oldham we, too, have what he calls a so-called golf course, which has been used for the tipping of materials, and the residents have been concerned about their potentially hazardous nature. In fact, answers have been given and there have been assurances that the materials are not hazardous. The issue arises out of waste management licence exemptions,

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and I share the view that those exemptions have been granted too readily and that they need to be tightened up. If he will give me details of his case, that will certainly add to the dossier that will help me to take some action.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): Has the Minister had a chance to consult the Environment Agency about the prospect of having to dispose of up to 1 million old fridges each year because of Government incompetence? Are they now destined for landfill sites? When Ministers blithely signed up to EC regulation 2037 on products containing CFCs, did they simply overlook the fact that it is almost impossible to implement? The Department has now told local authorities that it will urgently review the situation. I should hope so—there has been a chance urgently to review the situation for the past four years. Is not "urgent review" Labour-speak for "haven't got a clue"? If not, what exactly are the Government's plans?

Mr. Meacher: I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is new to these matters, but I can assure him that, as he might well expect, when the issue was discussed in the Environment Council, the chlorofluorocarbon content of used fridges was exhaustively discussed. The issue of exports and effects on other countries was carefully examined. We are, of course, looking at the technology; in fact, a great deal of work has been done on the technology of removing CFCs from fridges and storing them safely. I hope that he does not take the view that fridges should continue to be landfilled.

Of course changes, reforms and improvements take place all the time but, in 20 years under the Conservative Government, fridges were just chucked into landfills. We do not think that that is proper; a more environmentally sensitive way of dealing with the problem is needed, and we are providing it.

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