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15 Oct 2002 : Column 21WHcontinued
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): May I take the opportunity to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) to his Front-Bench post? I no longer have to be quite so kind to him as he is no longer the pairing Whip, but it makes sense to spare a few kind words for his hard work, in several guises, for our party; he was vice-chairman, as well as occupying a senior post in the Whips' Office. I know that he will enjoy what is no doubt an exciting new portfolio for him.
I also have a word of welcome for the Minister for Rural Affairs, who is earning his corn this morning by dealing with two consecutive debates. Earlier, I spoke with his private office, and I want to say at the outset that the idea behind the debate is not to be overly party political, but to make constructive points about recycling. One of the few privileges of Back-Bench duty in this place is the occasional luxury of introducing a debate on a pet subject. I am not unrealistic about the likelihood of changing the law with my words today, but I hope that we raise the profile of the issue. The debate provides me with a platform to express my views and an opportunity to put on record my concerns in relation to recycling.
Recycling household waste is a key topic, and I make no apology for devoting time to discussing it. When I was growing up in the 1970snot all that long agoBritain was considered to be the sick man of Europe. A more accurate tag for Britain today, despite the Deputy Prime Minister's recent protestations to the contrary in his Johannesburg speech, is the dirty man of Europe. Nowhere is that more apparent than in our somewhat risible record on recycling household waste.
I represent the most central of the United Kingdom's inner-city seatsthe very constituency in which the debate is taking place. I therefore appreciate that my constituents, the throng who visit London daily and, dare I say it, all of us in the House are responsible for a significant amount of litter that is disposed of in central London. Similarly, I appreciate that the built-up nature of the district means that we do not suffer the blight of either a local landfill site or an incinerator in our midst. My call rapidly to increase the rate of recycling is therefore not based on narrow, constituency self-interest.
The sheer magnitude of the garbage problem is characterised by the horrifying statistic that, every hour of the day, people in this country throw away enough litter to fill one of the great landmarks of my constituency, the Royal Albert hall. That amounts to 100 million tonnes of litter each year, the overwhelming majority of which finds itself in a landfill site or an incinerator.
It does not have to be that way. England is way behind most of its European Union partners in the household recycling league. A few moments ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) told me that Denmark has an innovative scheme, similar to the old deposits for bottles, that applies to plastics as well as glass whereby a small deposit can be retrieved for bottles taken to a supermarket and placed in a recycling mound. Such an approach, using a carrot rather than a stick, would be welcomed in many parts of Europe.
Some 46 per cent. of German household waste is composted or recycled. The figure is a miserly 9.5 per cent. in the UK, and only Ireland, Italy and Greece have marginally worse records on household recycling. The much-derided EUon this side of the House at leasthas produced some sensible household waste targets. In the 25 years up to 2020, beginning in 1995, we are expected to reduce the amount of biodegradable household waste being sent to landfill sites to about 35 per cent. of the 1995 level. The interim target is a 25 per cent. reduction between 1995 and 2010. We are roughly halfway through that period, and it is fair to say that we have made only a negligible impact in reducing waste during the past seven years. We have a lot of catching up to do in the next two thirds of a decade.
One thing that always strikes me is that we must try to bring the issue down from sustainability in the broader sense, which may excite many of the experts in this field, to a basic level that will appeal to our constituents. I always find it remarkable that after I buy a cup of coffee at a local coffee bara Starbucks or a Coffee Republic, of which there are many in my constituency, as anyone who walks around the streets of Cities of London and Westminster knowsthe receptacle will be thrown away. Some may be recycled, but the great majority are not. The reality is that that polystyrene cup ends up in a landfill site where it will probably take about 1,000 to 2,000 years to disintegrate fully. That cannot be a sustainable way of dealing with our waste in the years and decades ahead.
Many experts are already talking about the destructive enzymes that are developing beneath the oceans as huge amounts of indestructible plastic and chemical waste are dumped at sea. Likewise, the prospect of landfills becoming full is a pressing concern that all local authorities and national politicians must address. In my constituency, commercial recycling is as key in the war on waste as the household initiatives that have developed in recent years. If ever local and individual considerations should be a guidethankfully, that is often the case in politicsit is in the matter of recycling, which is personal. It requires the individual to make an effort and a choice.
Leadership from politicians and others in environmental matters is vital, but it still comes down to us as consumers and residents to consider our actions. My experience is that success in recycling connects very strongly with a sense of community and belonging in one's immediate environment. For that reason, our throwaway culture in central London and in Britain as a whole is so depressing.
In the business world, whether offices, shops or factories, there seems to be much less enthusiasm to separate paper, plastic and glass than there is in homes. In one sense that is understandable, but, equally, we shall all face a somewhat doom-laden future if we do not start taking responsibility for how our actions affect the planet.
In Westminster, great initiatives among residents have been introduced in recent years. They have prompted a tremendous response, which I have perceived in my 16 months as the constituency MP. However, because of a uniquely high turnover of
I am a great paper userI am sure that this applies to many of my colleaguesand I tend to write letters and to deal with most of my personal correspondence predominantly by mail rather than by e-mail, which is much more environmentally friendly. It is my preferred way, and I do not apologise for it. However, my paper usage is minuscule, compared with just one document that may arrive from any of an array of public bodies that eulogise on hot topics.
To be honest, for many years I felt guilty about not recycling either my office or household waste, so I decided to take a small lead when I was elected a Member of Parliament in June 2001. Let us face it, having rubbish hanging around in our kitchen at home for a little longer than we would normally like is slightly inconvenient, but if we fail to take a lead now, how many more landfill sites will have to be dug in the countryside? How many more industrial incinerators will we need in the decades ahead?
When all is said and done, the acts or omissions of one individual make relatively little difference to the torrent of trash being generated by people and businesses in this country. If the idea of filling the Royal Albert hall on an hourly basis is difficult to grasp, we should consider the matter in this way: each and every one of this country's 58 million citizenslet us settle on that figure, although we in the House are battling over the number of residents because of the census reportthrows away about 20 times their average body weight in garbage each year. What happens to that endless tide of glass, metal, plastic, polystyrene and cardboard? Sadly, while the extent of our waste problem is new, the solutions are devastatingly prehistoric. In simple terms, we dispose of about 90 per cent. of our household and commercial waste, irrespective of its pollution level, by burying it in the ground or by burning it off at an extremely high temperature.
For some time, scientists have noticed a strong link between polluted landfill sitesabout 300 in England and Wales contain the most hazardous industrial wasteand an array of birth defects. Last August, the British Medical Journal published findings from Imperial college, London, which is in my headquarters area, that raised doubts about not only the most heavily polluted industrial waste sites, but all 2,300 landfill sites in the UK. Apparently, babies born within a couple of kilometres of such a site are more likely to suffer congenital abnormalities than those born further afield. Given that roughly three quarters of the British population live in such close proximity to their nearest landfill site, and in the aftermath of the great scares over BSE, CJD and foot and mouth disease, I fear that public confidence in the reassurances of any Government, of any political colour, has now reached an all-time low. Despite such medical evidence and increasing public awareness of the potential hazards of industrial burial, the vast majority of UK household waste continues to be sent directly to such sites.
It would be unfair to characterise any Government, of any political colour, as having simply sat on their hands as the landfill problem became ever more pressing. My party, the Conservatives, introduced the landfill taxthe UK's first environmental taxin 1996, but the first few years of its operation, other than a very modest Treasury windfall, have had little impact on its target. Anyone who dumps waste in a licensed landfill site is taxed at about £12 per tonne of biodegradable waste and £2 per tonne of non-biodegradable. Most commentators admit that such penalties provide virtually no disincentive to using burial. Even setting the tax at such derisory levels has given rise to a culture of non-compliancesome three fifths of local authorities report that illegal fly-tipping has increased since the introduction of the tax and much of it occurs on farm land, which has blighted many people in rural constituencies.
In March 2001, the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, in its paper "Delivering Sustainable Waste Management", attacked the inertia and low expectations that continue to characterise waste management in this country. It also criticised the Government's much-vaunted 2000 waste strategy as failing to provide real vision.
As ever, the crux of much of the new regulation is its enforcement. The hapless Environment Agency appears to be hopelessly overstretched and confesses that it is aware of cases in which illegal operators have opened sites, allegedly as construction sites, that are used for dumping contracted waste at levels below that of the landfill tax.
I understand that several leading lights in the waste disposal industry have been quoted as saying that millions of tonnes of material have been diverted in recent years to form the contours of golf courses, shopping complexes, sports grounds and housing estates. The Environment Agency seems to have little authority to license or inspect such sites, and we can hazard only a wild guess at the true level of such illegal operations. All too often, as I think the Minister can confirm, the regulations and disincentives in terms of fines are so derisory as to make little difference.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): Does my hon. Friend agree that such activities could store up problems for the future? During the past generation, methane seeping from long-abandoned tips has caused fundamental problems in housing areas in several parts of the country, and the dangers that he describes as short-term have long-term implications as well.
Mr. Field : I thank my hon. Friend, who is quite right. I shall come to future issuesthis is a long-term problem on which we must make an impact collectively, as politicians and as citizens of this country.
The EU has shown itself to be something of a trailblazer on landfill and recycling, and the European landfill directive has been incorporated in national law in this country. That legislation is designed to minimise the environmental impact of landfill, particularly the gas emissions mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). It also deals with surface and ground water pollution, and land contamination.
The most important domestic implication involves a ruling that the amount of biodegradable and municipal solid waste sent to landfill must be reduced in stages. That requires swift and decisive action if we are to meet our obligations. Effectively, we dispose of about only a fifth of the amount that Germany deals with through recycling rather than landfill or other means of disposal.
I am concerned that, all too often, the Labour Government's strategy for achieving landfill reductions can be described as somewhat cynical. Frequently, the claim is made that they are the greenest Government ever, but Britain ranks towards the bottom of the international recycling league among the developed nations and will continue to do so unless radical changes are made in the decades ahead. The Government seem to intend to fulfil their landfill requirement targets only by switching to the second most ecologically damaging optionincinerators. Not for nothing did the Select Committee, only 18 months ago, splutter at the lack of imagination, and planning without ambition, of the national waste strategy. Expert witnesses described the potentially catastrophic carcinogenic effect of large-scale incineration.
The Government have now revealed that they will fulfil their interim landfill directive targets by burning as much as a third of the country's rubbish in industrial incinerators, which will be the size of power stations by the end of the decade, but, between them, Ministers, civil servants and industry experts could not begin to agree how many large-scale incinerators would be needed to increase the number from 12, which we had up and running by the end of the 1990s. That augurs very badly for the battles ahead, not least with local interest groups, which are determined, perhaps understandably, to ensure that incinerators are not located in their back yards.
I understand that, only this summer, the Government were forced to admit that they were embroiled in long-standing legal and planning battles in a handful of the initial batch of new applications. Highly organised action groups in all corners of the country are determined to put paid to plan A for the Government's attempts to fulfil our international landfill obligations. The main trouble is that there is no plan B in place. I appreciate that, from the Government's perspective, they have something of a public relations disaster on their hands. In the past couple of years, there has been a shuffling of feet on the issue of incinerator sites, not least in view of the number of marginal Labour constituencies that would be directly affected by the outline proposals. In part, that may be an expression of the great electoral success of the Labour party rather than a direct criticism, but we need a more sensible strategy for siting incinerators.
It appears that the new strategy is not central Government's responsibility at all. In the perception and the reality of the localism that my party is trying to push forward, such matters must be devolved to the most local level, and the most local level is the individual consumer. I would like to see more power in the hands of local authorities and county councils in relation to recycling.
When all is said and donea detailed disentanglement of the Government's complex statistics is requiredit is clear that if there is to be any hope of meeting our 2010 targets, we shall have to burn on an
In London as a whole, certainly north of the Thames, we rely on a giant incinerator in Edmonton, which handles the waste of no fewer than seven north London authorities. The most recent tests suggest that dioxin-contaminated ash has been used in road building and the manufacture of bricks and breeze blocks. The sheer extent of the problem in Edmonton has yet to be fully determined, but suffice to say that many houses in Londonand, indeed, beyondmay already contain highly contaminated material that will not become apparent for some time. At the very worst, we shall run the risk of another asbestos-type scandal every time such houses are demolished or roads are dug up. Although it is argued that the next generation of incinerators will be considerably safermost of those built in the past were closed following the acceptance of new emission standards in the 1990sthe safe level of dust particles and dioxins remains far from certain.
In many ways, we continue to pursue what is a contamination time bomb. It may be possible to clarify the true extent of the problems only if there are far higher incidence levels of respiratory carcinomas in the decades ahead. I speak on a personal level, as my father passed away some 11 years ago due to a carcinoma of the lungnot that I think it was directly related to such toxins. Medical evidence suggests that such complaints are becoming more widespread. Although that may not be due simply to dioxins in the air, one cannot ignore the fact that it may be a result of what has been happening. As ever, it is notoriously hard to quantify the precise health risks. No serious attempts have been made at clarificationunderstandably, because many such problems come to light only many decades on.
We cannot allow misinformation and bogus statistics to drive Government policy and there is a risk of nimbyism being involved in the siting of incinerators, but, amid a cloud of ignorance generated by such misinformation, it is unsurprising that many local residents, groups around the country are increasingly becoming alarmed by the prospect of an incinerator being located in their neighbourhood.
Some of the evidence is conflicting. The US Environmental Protection Agency has warned that dioxins may be considerably more toxic than previously thought. The very patchy statistical evidence surrounding incineration is inconclusive, but some preliminary studies on cleaner incinerators suggest that there is little additional health risk. A recent survey in The Sunday Times pointed out that incinerators tend to be inflicted on the poorer parts of town, where residents are less able to defend themselves than the better organised middle classes, and we cannot discount the possibility that such people would have poorer health
Chris Grayling : Does my hon. Friend share my concern that communities in many parts of the country faced with the threat of incinerators tend to fragment and fight each other over their siting instead of fighting a unified battle against the imposition of such facilities by central Government? Does he agree that it would be much more constructive if politicians, residents' groups and local authorities united to try to resist Government pressure instead of taking political advantage locally to fight a NIMBY campaign for electoral purposes?
Mr. Field : I shall have to check the results in Epsom and Ewell, which may not be unconnected with those matters. Perhaps I am being a little unkind to my hon. Friend, who is right that this is a classic community issue that should not be a bandwagon to be jumped on by any political party or residents' group.
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : I trust that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell recognises that his remarks and those of his hon. Friend will be widely circulated after the debate and read in Hansard with great care by Labour Members.
Mr. Field : One great benefit of representing my seatnot least, among a lot of others, is the high calibre of many local residentsis the fact that I do not have to worry about landfill sites or incinerators, unless the Minister is going to suggest putting one in Hyde park. He will have to speak to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport before doing so. I appreciate that other hon. Members may wish to speak, so I shall canter through my remaining comments.
More than two fifths of homes in England and Wales are served by segregated waste selection schemes, with separate boxes for paper, combustible materials and mixed rubbish. The effort and imagination of individuals is essential if such basic domestic recycling is to work. Interestingly, Friends of the Earth claims that the average net cost of providing a doorstep recycling and composting service is a mere £17 a household per year. That is about £375 million a year for England and Wales as a whole, which is less than one 2,000th of overall Government expenditure. The same environmental pressure group also claims that if the United Kingdom met its recycling target of 30 per cent., that alone could create 40,000 new jobs.
The responsibility for innovative thinking is now in the hands of the waste and resources action programme, which plans to encourage far greater recycling rates and to develop new products from reclaimed paper, glass, plastic and wood. Within a couple of years, it aims to increase the recycling rate for bottles and jars from about 28 per cent. to 35 per cent., and it has great plans for a wide range of new uses to which recycled products can be adapted. In view of the almost universal condemnation that the United States has received from environmental groups across the world, it is interesting that that nation has led the world in terms of much of
It might also come as a surprise to many that two inner-city Conservative local authorities have been among the leaders on recycling. In central London, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where I was a councillor for eight years until May, and my local authority, City of Westminster, have ambitious plans to beef up their already impressive recycling facilities. I am an inveterate walker in London, and I love walking across all parts of the city, especially areas such as Camden, Haringey and Sutton. It is fair to say that councils of both Labour and Liberal Democrat hue have also had great recycling successes, and I hope that we can build on them together.
I want to talk briefly about my other local authority, which has more profound difficulties. For obvious reasons relating to terrorism, the City of London has been prevented from undertaking large-scale recycling since the mid-1990s, when the IRA threat became stronger, and since 11 September last year. However, a trial of door-to-door recycling has proved so successful that I can announce today that it will be extended to the whole Barbican area in the next year or so. I hope that the City of London, which is right at the heart of the capital, plays its part to ensure that the city has improved recycling.
Some 70 per cent. of my Westminster residents whose front doors open on to the street are already served with door-to-door collection, although the city council's director of environment and leisure laments that only a third use that service. The city council also provides 70 micro-recycling centres, and insists that 47 of its 56 schools have an on-site recycling service. That is not always easy, given the space restrictions in central London. I hope that the other nine follow suit in the next five years.
There is little doubt that Westminster council is happy to put its money where its mouth is. Excluding salaries and overheads, about £1.1 million a year is spent on the recycling programme, and it has three full-time staff on the subject. The additional post of campaigns officer is being advertised.
I make a special plea, not least given the debate on local government finance that will take place later. It is depressing that, as part of the Government's 2002 comprehensive spending review, London local authorities of all political colours stand to suffer the most as a result of recalibration of the annual sum known as the environment, protection and cultural services basket. Although the local authority has complete discretion as to how it spends its money, City of Westminster council directs a significant proportion of its income from that source to waste and recycling services. Another unwarranted and unwanted by-product of central Government's regional gerrymandering may be that local authorities in London are forced as a result to reduce
In the past financial year, the City of Westminster established five new projects to increase domestic waste recycling rates. Those projects include paper recycling bins at three underground and mainline stations, the first mixed glass recycling vehicle and the further extension of the doorstep recycling scheme.
Uniquely among the main political parties at the last election, the Conservatives made proposals for an active approach to recycling. I hope that the Government will think locally on the issue. They must provide personal and community incentives, and I hope that they use the carrot rather than the stick to encourage people down the recycling route. I hope that they will also encourage people in our cities to take responsibility for changing their lifestyle habits, which are, let us face it, unsustainable in terms of the future of the planet.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) has changed my understanding of what people mean when they talk about filling the Albert hall with rubbish. Previously, I thought that they were talking about a Barry Manilow concert, but the hon. Gentleman's imagery has caused me to think again.
The waste produced by households accounts for only 7 or perhaps 8 per cent. of all waste, but as the hon. Gentleman said, less household waste than other forms of waste is recycled. Some 40 per cent. of other forms of waste is recycled. The amount of household waste is growing by 3 per cent. a year, and not only is little of it recycled but the vast majority goes into landfill. That option has only a limited life because, as the hon. Gentleman said, the 1999 European Union landfill directive required European states radically to reduce the percentage of waste going into landfill. In any event, we are running out of holes in the ground into which to put rubbish.
The Government's response to the directive was to set local authorities statutory targets for diverting waste from landfill. Ideally, waste is to be moved mainly into compost and recycling, and the target is a 25 per cent. reduction in 1995 landfill levels by 2010. It is not clear what will happen to local authorities that miss the target. There are huge variations among local authorities in the status of recycling. The consortium of local authorities that make up the Hampshire waste project, in my part of the world, recycles 40 per cent. of household waste, but other local authorities recycle as little as 3 per cent. So it is clear that we shall have difficulty reaching the targets set in response to the directive.
However, the landfill levy applies in the same way to local authorities and to the private sector. Therefore, local authorities have to pay the landfill levy as though they were directly able to change the amount of rubbish that they must collect and dispose of. Here is the rub. The local authority has to pay the landfill levy, and the escalator on it, out of the same funds that it uses to promote recycling. Thus, each year that the escalator increases, local authorities have to find the additional money for the landfill levy from their funds for collecting and disposing of rubbish. The more that local authorities pay, the less they are likely to invest in measures to promote recycling. For them, the levy is perverse.
In evidence to the Select Committee in 1999, Hampshire, Southampton and Portsmouth councils estimated that in 1999-2000 they would pay some £6.6 million in landfill levysome 20 per cent. of their total waste disposal budget. That has now risen. Twenty per cent. of the funds collected under the landfill levy scheme is repatriated for various schemes including schemes to promote recycling. By definition, local authorities are excluded from that. The money is in the hands of environmental trusts, which are often associated with the landfill companies, and the money goes to non-local authority projects only, although, in some instances, local authorities have partnership arrangements with such projects.
Under those difficult circumstances, how are local authorities trying to meet the targets? As the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster has said, by and large, they seem, increasingly, to be using incineration. I shall not go into whether incineration is safe nor the large quantities of CO2 that are released into the atmosphere as a result of it. However, I should like to consider the logic of the mechanism so far as incineration is concerned. Given their limited up-front resourcesI have already mentioned the problems of local authorities in dealing with their waste disposal fundsmany local authorities are signing up to joint
To make that investment work, the companies usually require local authority disposal authorities to guarantee a waste stream to the incinerators. Furthermore, to achieve economies of scale, the companies tend to build large incinerators. For example, it is estimated that a plant that incinerates 400,000 tonnes per annum costs only three times as much as one that incinerates 100,000 tonnes per annum. Operating plant now in existence processes on average 240,000 tonnes per annum and, of the 22 incinerators in the planning process, only four are scheduled to process less than 100,000 tonnes.
As a result, local authorities will be locked in a disposal strategy for 25 yearsit may not be landfill but it is nevertheless a disposal strategyand, secondly, the waste stream will have to go to the incinerators because of their size. Therefore, as recycling increases there will come a point at which it must be stopped in order to feed the incinerators, or the local authorities will pay the penalty under the agreements that they have entered into. Logically, it looks as though the United Kingdom may be locking itself into a programme that is the opposite of the waste hierarchy that the Government's waste plan requires: reduction, reuse, recyling and, only finally, disposal.
There is a great deal to commend in the Government's waste strategy. I very much welcome the £140 million that has gone into the waste minimisation fund, and the aim of introducing markets for recycled products, which are absolutely essential. Setting up the WRAP schemethe waste and resources action programmeis a good example of that strategy.
There is much to commend in the work of local authorities in waste minimisation and waste diversion. I was pleased that putrescibles only were regarded recently as eligible for the renewables levy when considering whether energy from waste should be regarded as a renewable source of energy. That is logical because energy produced from incineration and non-putrescibles is not recycled, but merely a delay of one stage in the burning of fossil fuel. The logic of the instruments now in place and the local authority reaction to those instruments suggest that there is a glass ceiling on the long-term development of waste strategy.
It is a fantasy to suggest that incineration should disappear entirely, or that there never will be problems in respect of the placement of incinerators. Incineration, however, should be at the bottom of the hierarchy and only for material that cannot be recycled or dealt with in other ways. That suggests a need for small incinerators rather than the large incinerators programme upon which several local authorities are embarked at present.
Is there a way forward? I make these modest suggestions. First, if we are to drive towards a hierarchy, which is something we can all sign up to and is central to the Government's waste strategy, it is not logical in the long term simply to drive people from one form of disposal to another. There must be an incineration levy,
Secondly, the landfill tax must distinguish between the functions of the local authority and the private sector. Local authorities must either receive rebates or be substantially exempt from the effect of the tax if they are to make good progress in changing the way in which people dispose of their household waste.
Both taxes must be directed at the aim of the exercisegetting waste reduced, reused and recycled. That means funding the plant and the techniques to make that happen. That will create a virtuous circle rather than a vicious cycle, which I am afraid that we are in at the moment. The time scales have already been set out; we do not have long to do the work. We must do it sooner rather than later.
Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I want to speak briefly on one aspect, but I first congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing the debate. I represent a very different constituency from his. I have encountered the problems of fly-tipping, and I have had controversial discussions about landfill sites and incinerators.
My background is as a local councillor. I was proud to be involved in Local Agenda 21 and to do my part locally within the bigger global picture of achieving sustainability. However, I encountered great frustration, because as much as one pushes particular initiatives locally, there comes a point at which one cannot achieve any more success without sufficient national support. I want to emphasise that point today.
At one stage, my council was unable to cover the whole borough with kerbside recycling, as the cost of collection became too high compared with what was being saved on landfill tax. The market for paper fell dramatically, and my authority no longer collected cardboard. Such circumstances are tragic. It is hard for a council when a community is willing to recycle and people want kerbside recycling, but it, with its responsibility to the council tax payer, has to make difficult decisions. As such, I was pleased with the Government's initiative to introduce targets for local authorities, because it seemed to be a way for my authority, having been halted in its progress, to move forward again.
However, all the councils in my constituency now have an enormous concern. They have been successful and therefore were given relatively high recycling targets. That is good, but they are in difficulty because there does not seem to be sufficient money to meet the demands. Other authorities that have not recycled at such a great rate have been set lower targets and may be given greater help. In a way, recycling works like the law of diminishing returns: when a council is already recycling at a high level, it costs it more to improve its rates. My plea to the Minister is for some joined-up
All the councils have completed their recycling plans. I went to an exciting presentation by consultants at which members of the public were delighted to see that the targets could be achieved without considering incineration in the short run. The House can imagine that not having that potential conflict on the horizon made me and the members of the public feel very good. However, it was not long before someone put up their hand and said, "That is a wonderful plan, but how will it be paid for?"
Cost is a major issue for authorities such as mine, which appear to have what is described as a high council tax base. All the costs are continually pushed on to council tax payers, but people on fixed incomes will not take kindly to massive council tax increases to promote recycling when they feel that they have made their contribution and that there should be a big difference in their spending power month by month. I therefore urge the Minister to support councils. There is such a willingness out there to tackle this immense problem.
It does not matter how much scientific evidence is produced, people are worried about incineration. However, there is not only bad feeling about that, but huge concern about landfill sites. I recently supported residents who were fighting against one being created. Sadly, we lost that battle, but it must be remembered that locating landfill sites in certain areas has many environmental impacts, apart from the obvious ones.
If permission is granted, as in the case that I have mentioned, a facility will exist for a long time and have a private operator. Even if we are all successful at recyclingthis point is similar to that made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead)the pit will still have to be filled and lorries will come from even greater distances. That concerns me greatly. The location that I am talking about is in the heart of a tourism area, very near the coast that has just received an award for its outstanding beauty. Therefore, we have huge concerns, but also a willingness to recycle.
I also ask the Minister to consider the position of voluntary groups, which again reflects that willingness. If councils received only a little more money to pump prime, there could be amazing initiatives. A scout group in my ward collected waste paper for 15 years and thereby financed the building of a scout hall. Sadly, however, it abandoned collecting waste paper this year. What a tragedy. Young people and, indeed, the whole community were involved in that activity. Nevertheless, we must remain enthusiastic about recycling.
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) and the other speakers. I do not have much time but, luckily, they have said most of what needs to be said, so I do not have to repeat it.
As we have heard, most people, individually and at local authority level, have a strong desire to help with recycling. In my local authority, Hillingdon, all parties work hard to try to improve their record, but that is not always easy. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) said, people who have made an effort to recycle are sometimes disappointed to find that what they have collected just goes to another landfill site. They wonder what the point of it all is and conclude that the exercise is a bit of a sham. That must be considered.
There are various ways to encourage people to recycle. One method that I heard of recently is reducing the number of collections of non-recyclable household rubbish, but I have doubts about that. If we imagine the food waste that might accumulate over, say, two weeks in the summer, we can see that that method has inherent problems. It is also fair to say that there would be fly-tipping of household rubbish, so we must consider such methods carefully.
Having been in retailing for many years, I have noticed how much the use of wrapping and packaging has increased. Economic reasons are sometimes given for that, because it is easier to hang products on hooks and because consumers demand that goods arrive fully packaged, as they think that that protects them. My particular area was furniture. When I started, furniture would be delivered covered in a travelling rug. We would remove it before we went into the house, but increasingly people said that they wanted the furniture to be wrapped by the manufacturers. More shrink wrapping and cardboard is now used. There is a cultural problem with wrapping that we must consider. Of course, there are hygiene reasons for covering food, but as a part-time shopper in supermarkets, I have noticed that there is a tremendous amount of wrapping to get through before one gets to the food.
Alun Michael : I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's references to furniture, as my father was in that trade too. How often did people demand of the hon. Gentleman that items should have greater packaging? To what extent does consumer demand, as distinct from the retail trade's beliefs about it, provide the pressure?
Mr. Randall : Quite often, the consumer feels that if a product does not come packaged from the retailer it is shop soiled or has not been looked after properly. Sometimes they also want it to be checked beforehand. For example, consumers who buy a bed want the mattress to be inspected, but they also want it to be wrapped up again. I can understand that, but there is a
Finally, the recycling collection points in our constituencies often become eyesores, so people do not want them outside their house or along their shopping parade. Perhaps we should study new designs and see how collection points may be made more attractive so that people would be happier to have them built nearby. The point has been made that that must become part of our culturewe must educate people more. Other hon. Members may have had similar experiences when visiting schools: the children are all very worried about the environment and recycling, yet one sees most litter outside schools.
Returning to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster made about deposits on lemonade and beer bottles, perhaps we should use a "carrot" approach. He mentioned the credit system in Denmark. The matter may not be as simple as handing over 10p or 3p for a plastic or glass bottle, but a small financial incentive, as well as the knowledge that they are helping the environment, might encourage children and young people to collect a lot of such litter. They must feel that the material will be recycled. As others have said, we must improve. This is a non-partisan subject that we must tackle quickly.
Sue Doughty (Guildford): I thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) for calling the debate. We debate rubbish quite often, but do not make much progress. I hope that we will make more progress today.
Several statistics show that in general we are missing our recycling targets and materials recovery targets. Rather than fill up all the time that we have available, I will simply quote a useful statistic from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs digest of environmental statistics. The proportion of municipal waste disposed of to landfill has been reduced from 84 per cent. in 1996 to 78 per cent. nowbut municipal waste has grown by 14.6 per cent. from 24.6 million tonnes to 28.2 million tonnes.
We are going backwards, and our approach to recycling and household waste is pathetic and sad, especially when we consider what our colleagues in Europe do. We have modest targets, but we are about to fail in relation to several of them. We missed one target by 10 years, and reached only 40 per cent. recycling against current projections, according to a study by the Environmental Services Association.
We need to support local authorities. Hon. Members have mentioned how much support local authorities need. They are doing their best, but are struggling. Guildford, one of my local authorities, sends plastic bottles all the way to Stratford for recycling into underground pipes. That is good, but it costs the authority money. There is nothing to encourage householders to minimise waste, and we could do so much more with Government help and support. There are no tools. We are procrastinating while the waste
Much more needs to be done to enable local councils to develop markets for recycling and waste products. I am talking about recycling, but the country's mindset still seems to be "burn and bury". What are we doing to stop the blight of landfill, which means living with smells, flies and vermin? The UK has one of the worst records of recycling in the western world. There is much that we can do. We need to encourage a reduction in waste.
The landfill tax, which has been mentioned several times, is a pathetically weak instrument. I am very much in favour of it, but it does little to reduce landfill. So much more could be done. The tax does not hurt the end user, and consumers do not feel much effect on their pockets. We must weigh up whether it might be better if they did. The tax could be increased substantially. Without an increase, little help will be given to local government to fund a sustainable waste strategy.
The pre-Budget report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended that landfill tax should be increased considerably, and that the Government should not wait until 2004 to increase it. However, the Government knew better; they continued to ignore what was happening and stuck to their very modest plans. We could do more to incentivise the recovery of waste. We could tax incineration by having a universal waste tax. We need to take modest steps even to meet the Government's very modest targets.
Understandably, every plan for incineration is met with protest. I was disappointed by the intervention by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). As a Surrey MP, he will know that before the last election the only approach to incineration among Members from his party who represent Surrey was to say, "We don't want incineration ourselves, but we agree with incineration in someone else's constituency." There was an unholy cycle of moving waste around but not working against incineration. I differed with my colleagues in that I refused to support incineration. We need a moratorium on all new incineration proposals.
The Government face a difficult problem. For all the reasons already outlined, people will not tolerate new incinerators. They have had enough, they are worried, and the Government should go in another direction.
We need a sustained national recycling programme. We have already talked about the problems with neighbouring authorities. If one authority gets tough, there will be fly-tipping in another authority. Such matters must be considered, not to detract from what local authorities do, but so that the Government can support them. We need a waste and recycling action programme, and perhaps some other ideas, such as zero waste. Two councils recently turned down proposals for zero waste because they wanted to know what it meant, and whether they could achieve it.
Zero waste is a mindset. It is about using resources that we would otherwise throw away as often as we can until they are rendered inert. We can then dispose of them, possibly through landfill, but in a way that would not generate all the problems we associate with landfill, such as flies, smell and leaching. Zero waste methods are growing across the world. New Zealand is a zero waste country. Nova Scotia is a zero waste province. Canberra in Australia and Toronto in Canada are zero waste cities. Bath and North East Somerset is a zero waste council. I would like to congratulate Milton Keynes, which has become a zero waste city since the change in the council, and has turned down the existing plans for an incinerator. Those ideas are taking hold in this country.
One can do an awful lot through the logic of zero waste. The idea is not so outlandish. If one keeps on recycling paper, one can reuse wood fibre six times overbut I agree with the concerns about the market for that. We need better product design, some of which will come through Europe, with the end of life vehicles directive and the electronics waste directive. The Government have not yet got to grips with simple things like sorting waste at the doorstep through kerbside collection.
Supporters of zero waste would say that the doorstep collection of dry recyclables should be extended to every home without delay. Home composting should be supported through the doorstep collection of organic waste. A network of local closed vessel compost plants should be established; there is no need to drive stuff all over the country. From 2006, landfilling with biological waste that has not been treated and neutralised should be banned. The thermal treatmentincinerationof mixed waste should also be ended, and disposal contracts should be limited to a maximum of 10 years. I agree with the concerns about what will feed incinerators over the years, because the contracts are so long. Landfill tax should be extended and become a disposal tax. It should be increased and used to fund zero waste programmes. Producer responsibility should be extended and waste planning opened up to greater public participation. A zero waste agency should be established. Those approaches are not very hard to achieve, and the Government should support them.
I heard with interest what was said about schools, tuck shops and rubbish. I had a lovely meeting at a local school, Boxgrove primary school, which has a school council. The children have representatives on it, from the reception class up, and they are asking what the school was doing about rubbish. They suggested that their tuck shop should sell fruit, and the orange peel could be recycled. They are not asking for crisps because they know that would cause a local problemand they might actually eat their school lunch, which will delight parents. Those kids are saying many sensible things.
The idea of a tax on plastic bags is not rocket science; it is an excellent idea and we could use it. Many people worry about fly-tipping, but an Ernst and Young study of other countries found that although the figures initially go up when more taxes on waste are introduced, they then fall back. The income on plastic bags will go up, which will fund recycling initiatives. That will fall off later, but we may be recycling by then. I urge the Minister to consider some radical approaches to waste, because the way we are going is taking us backwards.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): This has been a valuable, thoughtful and constructive debate, but it has also been a disturbing one. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on bringing it to the attention of the House. He has confirmed his reputation for having an interest in garbage, which was previously pure speculation. Rightly and seriously, he has highlighted important issues that cross party divides and are important both to his constituents and to everyone else in the country. A debate on such important matters is valuable, not least because, as several hon. Members have said, the European landfill directive adopted by the EC in 1999 has now been incorporated into national law. The UK will have to make enormous changes to the way in which it deals with waste if it is to comply with that directive.
When I was doing my research for the debate, I discovered that we create enough rubbish in a day to fill Trafalgar square to the height of Nelson's column. In simple-to-grasp terms, that gives us some feel for the volume of the problem confronting us.
Mr. John Horam (Orpington): Here is another interesting statistic: every hour, we fill the equivalent of the Albert hall with rubbish. I thought that that might add to my hon. Friend's rather recondite statistics.
Mr. Hayes : I am reluctant to give any more examples, or the metaphor will become rather elaborate. I am sure that we could think of many landmarks around Britain, and in London in particular, that could be filled with wastebut perhaps I am inviting comments about filling the House of Commons with garbage, which might be unwise, and against both my interests and my aim of engaging the support of my colleagues in summarising the debate.
Clearly, the UK faces enormous challenges in meeting the directive. To put some flesh on the bones, I shall remind the House of some of its specifics. In 2002this yearwe face the prohibition of the use of landfill for specified waste, including liquid hazardous waste and clinical infectious waste. By 2004 landfill will be prohibited for hazardous and non-hazardous wastes, and by 2010 we shall need to reduce biodegradable household waste, first to 75 per cent. of the 1995 level, then to 50 per cent. and ultimately, in 2020, to 35 per cent. of that level. Those seem like ambitious targets when we examine Britain's performance thus far, but not when we consider the European experience. Measured by European standards, those targets look attainable and even, when we think about some countriesor colleagues, as they were described earlierrelatively modest. As Members throughout the Chamber have said, we have a lot of catching up to do.
The debate has been thoughtful as well as valuable. I was interested when my hon. Friend who introduced the debate said that the whole business of recycling had a key role in building community, reminding people of their responsibilities and encouraging them to collaborate for the common good. I do not want to become too philosophical in the short time available, but as a Conservative I believe that we inherit the environment and landscape features and have a
My hon. Friend also said that the issue was long-term and must be faced strategically, and that we could not go for quick-fix solutions. We need to build in a range of strategic measures to change attitudes, and my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) talked about changing the culture. Such cultural change will require real commitment from a variety of agenciesa point to which I shall return in a moment.
The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) made a thoughtful and well informed contribution, as always. I was particularly interested in his point about the patchy performance of local authorities on this issue. That is a matter of fact, and crosses the party divide. We have also heard something about Westminster and kerbside collection in that borough, but he will acknowledgeas, I am sure, will other hon. Members and the Ministerthat Labour authorities are among the worst culprits. I do not think that this is a party political issue.
However, if we are to expect more of local authorities, which we must, it is important to resource and support them. That means not only money, but encouraging strategic partnerships between the public and private sectors, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, to allow the private sector to do what it does best, but in co-operation with, rather than in contradiction of, what local authorities are expected and obliged to do to meet the directive. The issue is interesting, because a public-private partnership is a matter of necessity rather than choice.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) talked about the importance of getting young people to think about the issue. When she discussed recycling waste paper I could not help thinking about Focus leaflets, which was cruel.
Mr. Hayes : That comment was beneath me, and I should not have made it. The hon. Lady was as earnest as ever, and she made a helpful contribution about the importance of involving communities and including children. If we are to change our culture we have to start by getting children to think about waste, rubbish, litter and recycling, which must be done at community level.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge talked about producer responsibility, with which I shall deal in a moment, but first I shall consider what my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster described as our "risible" performance. All hon. Members will be aware of the 2001 report by the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, which attacked the
The environmental sustainability index ranks the UK as just about the worst performer in the world in recycling waste. It has already been mentioned that the amount of municipal waste generated by households and businesses has been increasing by 3 to 5 per cent. each year, and about 80 per cent. of such waste is disposed of in landfill sites. The 11 per cent. UK household recycling rate is one of the lowest in Europe. Germany, Austria and Switzerland have recycling rates of about 50 per cent., and the targets are not ambitious when considered in that context. The targets are ambitious for us, but would not be particularly so for other countries further down the road.
I hope that the Minister will have time to address the particular problem of tyres. He will know that the landfill directive stipulates that by 2003 whole tyres must not be disposed of through landfill, and by 2006 there will be a ban on disposing of shredded tyres through landfill. The problem is massive, given the number of waste tyres generated by towns and cities in Britain, and not being able to dispose of them easily and conveniently will lead to a significant problem. Will the Minister address that issue when he sums up?
Every other country deals with waste disposal through local authorities, but when local authorities are asked to do the work they must be properly equipped and resourced. The Minister will say that extra money is available and that consultation has occurred, but some smaller local authorities will find it difficult to use the money in a planned way in order to target their spending effectively. One obvious solution involves encouraging businesses to invest in the necessary equipment through council tax incentives and tax breaks. As the hon. Member for Southampton, Test said, the commercial sector is a big generator of waste, but we have not got to grips with incentivising it to invest in the necessary equipment to dispose of waste as we all feel it should. The targets should not be contradictory and should encourage outcomes that are based on real capacity. Landfill tax revenues must be brought back into recycling. The Government have estimated that a third of them will be, but we need an indicative number and firm commitments.
More inter-agency work is required. The public sector is a massive generator of waste, and agencies must work together to ensure that their waste is dealt with properly. What incentives exist for commercial organisations to put in the necessary work with local authorities, as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test said? Why is there no tyre recycler on the used tyre taskforce, which produced its sixth report earlier in the year?
The key to the problem is establishing a hierarchy for the disposal and recycling of waste. The national waste policy should place a burden of proof on producers and manufacturers, so that we can achieve the targets that we all believe to be essential for our national well-being.
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : As parliamentarians, we hear rubbish talked about a wide variety of subjects, so it is good to hear a lot of sense uttered by Members on both sides of the Chamber in a
I congratulate the hon. Member for the quaintly named constituency of Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing the debate and on the manner in which he introduced it. I agreed with a great deal of his constructive speech, but I must take issue with one or two points. He suggested that London is central, whereas Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield might have better claims. He claimed that he did not want to make party political points, but went on to say that not enough catching up has been done in the past seven years. It is curious that he should select that specific period, and fail to refer to the conspicuous failure of Conservative Governments to deal with the issue during the previous 18 years.
I experienced the frustration mentioned by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) when I chaired the finance committee of Cardiff city council in the 1980s. We were ambitious about improving waste disposal and recycling, but at that time much of the capacity of local government to take initiatives was being destroyed by the Thatcherite attack on local government. We should not forget the history of that period, because we need to learn from damage that it did. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), who is condemned to silence in debates because of his role as my Parliamentary Private Secretary, reminded me that as a member of Westminster city council in the mid-1990s he proposed door-to-door categorised recycling collections, but the idea was rejected by the majority Conservative group. He also pointed out that some £32 million in profits from parking and fines meant that the council could have afforded to do a lot morean opportunity that is not available to many local authorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) welcomed several aspects of the Government's approach and of the work of local authorities, as well as describing some of the challenges that we face. Nimbyism is often a problem. As several hon. Members said, it is difficult to debate objectively on the basis of facts when dealing with local issues. However, it can be done, and I was pleased to hear the hon. Members for Cities of London and Westminster and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole say that all hon. Members have a responsibility to promote a sensible debate based on facts and on the challenges faced in a particular area.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said that local authorities had been given high targets. However, they have also been given significant help. She suggested that there was a danger of the law of diminishing returns applying in relation to improving recycling levels. That is true, but it can also be difficult to
A topic dealt with in several contributions was the extent to which local authorities want central funding but also a reduction in ring fencing. They want to be able to use the resources available to them in a way appropriate to their area. There is always a tension between the wish for finances for this and other activities to be provided so as to give the maximum freedom to use them in a way that suits the local area, and the need to meet overall objectives.
The Government's waste strategy was published in May 2000. The vision is to change the way in which we manage waste and resources to improve our quality of life. To do that, we must tackle the amount of waste produced and break the link between economic growth and increased waste. When waste is produced, we must put it to good use through recycling, reuse and recovery. In short, we need to improve greatly the very low levels of recycling that have traditionally been achieved in England.
To ensure that we can achieve such aims, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs called together the key stakeholders for a waste summit last November. Since then, the Prime Minister's strategy unit has been considering what further steps, in addition to those already taken, must be taken to achieve the waste strategy 2000 objectives. The unit is assessing what extra instruments, changes to targets or regulations and/or additional funding may be required to ensure that the strategy is effectively delivered and that we can develop more sustainable waste management. The unit's report should be published shortly.
I referred to challenges. It is clear that the key issue for the review will be the need to make major strides on recycling. In 2000-01, we recycled or composted only 11 per cent. of our household waste in England. That was a small increase on previous years and progress looks slow, but this is in the period before statutory targets and extra Government funding have been put in place. I have been told that local authorities in England are roughly on track to meet the first target for 17 per cent. of household waste to be recycled or composted by 2003-04. However, as the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) pointed out, the growth in the amount of waste produced has continued to outstrip the increase in recycling, so the amount sent to landfill is still increasing. That cannot continue.
The EU landfill directive has set tough and binding targets to reduce and control the landfill of biodegradable municipal waste. To help achieve those obligations, we have set ourselves challenging national targets for recycling and composting household waste. Local government must double the amount of recycling over three years and triple it in the five years to 2005-06. We intend to see those targets delivered and have set every local authority individual statutory targets. If necessary, we will use the powers under the best value regime to intervene to support their delivery.
As for the comments of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, progress has been slow in Westminster, and we require every local authority to meet its targets. So far there has been a 1 per cent. increase in the rate of recycling to 7 per cent. over the 1998-1999 rate. However, I hope that the range of initiatives that Westminster currently has in place will improve its recycling performance and that the hon. Gentleman will encourage it in that direction. The recycling team offers many micro recycling centres as well as a door-to-door recycling collection service. I sincerely hope that it is now moving in the right direction and will meet its statutory targets of 12 per cent. for 2003-04 and 18 per cent. for 2005-06.
The City of London corporation must also take significant action to address its low household recycling rate. A recent estimate for 2001-02 placed the rate of recycling at 11 per cent., which is a marked improvement on the 1998-99 figure of less than 1 per cent., and I understand that the Barbican is currently achieving 25 per cent. The corporation has taken action to deliver its first statutory targets but it has probably done the easy bit. The challenge of reaching 18 per cent. for 2005-06 remains, and it will have to consider what further steps it needs to take to deliver on that target.
I am aware of the challenges to household recycling in that largely commercial area and there are security considerations, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but we need to make progress. We do not tell local authorities how to deliver their recycling because they are best placed to do that, taking account of local issues such as type of housing. I am interested to see some conversion to local government on the Opposition Benches. However, we recognise that local authorities cannot meet the statutory performance
Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): Within an hour of Mr. Speaker granting me the opportunity to highlight concerns relating to vetting of child care workers, the Department of Health rang my office to ask what I would be saying and to find out whether the Department of Health or the Home Office would respond. In doing so, it unwittingly demonstrated the first major problem: who takes responsibility for vetting? If the Departments do not know, what hope is there further down the line of accountability?
Vetting should be multi-agency, of course, but there should be clear lines of accountability leading via Ministers to one Secretary of State. At present, there are at least three Secretaries of State involvedfour including the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I shall say more about that later.
I confirm that I told the Minister in writing prior to this debate the areas that I would be covering. I told him that the debate would cover the work of three Departments based on my tabled questions and ministerial answers over a three-year period, and would draw on written ministerial replies to me about vetting concerns from three Departments. Aided with that information, I trust that the Minister will be able to respond to my concerns about health, education and Home Office matters and the implications for Northern Ireland. Failure to do so would further indicate the limitations of the existing structure of accountability.
What is wrong with the vetting of child care workers? Gaps, a limited definition of child care workersI know that because I was responsible for the definitionpoor lines of accountability, a lot of buck-passing at local level and fudging at ministerial level. No one person ultimately takes responsibility at local level or Government level.
I would like the Minister to put on the record today his response to that specific point. He need not take up limited time by telling me what the working groups are doing or about interdepartmental ministerial meetings. I am well aware of that. I would like to know the outcome and what exactly is being done to ensure that the inspectors' criticism is being dealt with with a view to vettingor does the Minister believe that the inspectors are wrong? I, for one, believe that they have been very moderate in their report.
For example, it has been brought to my attention that in the London borough of Southwark children are collected from school by drivers and escorts who are not known to the school. When challenged, they failed to produce photo identity as to who they are. Have those people, who have apparently been provided by various agencies, including International Aunties, been vetted? Who knows? Certainly not Southwark council. I have been assured in writing by Southwark council that all the necessary procedures are in place, but those are empty words, because no recording system exists in the schools. If a driver or escort arrives to collect a child and says that he has forgotten his identification pass, the child is nevertheless sent off with him; the school does not take responsibility. If the case is brought to the attention of social services, they simply pass the buck by saying that procedures are in place; they will not take responsibility either.
Last week, I personally asked the chief executive of Southwark council to ensure that, at the very least, any driver or escort who is collecting a child, and who is unknown to the school, has his or her details, such as a driving licence, noted. I was flatly told by the chief executive that in boroughs such as Southwark, which has so many children in this position, operating such a system would be impossible. Clearly, he will not take responsibility for those children.
I also gave the chief executive the name of a girl about whom I had worries. I carefully spelled out her name, but his secretary had to ring me the next day because the chief executive had managed to take it down wrongly. A week later, having had no response, my office rang the chief executive's office to discover that the name had been passed on to social servicesthe very people who I had said were not on top of the case. The chief executive did not contact me at all.
I asked Romi Burns, the deputy director of social services for Southwark, for an update. She said that she had been asked to ring me but did not have my number. So, we are dealing with a social services deputy director who does not know how to ring the House of Commons. When questioned, she simply reiterated that drivers are properly checked and procedures adhered to. How did she know? Schools do not have to maintain records
When I asked about the little girl who I had named to the chief executive, she said that she knew the name but had no information because the case was being dealt with by the education department. When we rang the head of education, we were told that they were "interrogating information". If that is an example of Southwark council dealing with an MP, what hope is there for concerned members of the public who attempt to blow the whistle to help safeguard children? What will the Minister do to ensure that such complacency and buck-passing is quickly brought to an end?
I now turn to the work of the Criminal Records Bureau. My Bill, which became the Protection of Children Act 1999, changed part 5 of the Police Act 1997 to facilitate the establishment of the Criminal Records Bureau. I therefore followed with interest last week's exchange in the other place. When the Minister for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reforma Minister of State at the Home Officewas questioned about the CRB's poor performance he had no reply other than to reiterate what had happened. Perhaps the Minister in the Chamber today will be able to improve on that. To help him, I shall be specific.
My first point is that last February, I asked the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safetyanother Home Office Minister of Statein a written question, to list bodies registered with the CRB, and he refused. He stated:
"Since most had not given their specific consent, it would not be appropriate". I must ask: why? What do they have to hide? He went on to say that the details of those who have given consent were available on the website www.disclosure.gov.uk. It had not occurred to that Home Office Minister in February that the fact that most organisations were not giving consent was a problem. What is the view of the Health Minister who is to answer the debate today?
Secondly, I was seriously shocked, when I questioned the CRB's chief executive, to discover that compliance checks do not mean, as I had hoped, that random checks are undertaken to ensure that an employer who has been informed that certain individuals are unsuitable for, or banned from, working with children is not employing such individuals. It seems that "compliance checks" mean that the CRB will check that the forms have been correctly filled in and that the prospective employee has given his or her permission for the check. That is a major loophole in the CRB system because paedophiles will knowingly employ other paedophiles, and the public rely on the fact that an individual has been checked if the organisation has the kudos of being registered with the CRB. How are the public to know whether the employee is suitable? We do not know, because the Minister of State says that we do not have to be told.
I raised those matters in writing last April with the same Minister. I can only say that he fudged the answers by explaining what had happened and finally stating that I was correct in my assessment. I do not want to be
I also raised the problem of court records in relation to the CRB vetting process with the Minister for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reform in April. In order for a vetting process to be up to date, court records need to be electronically communicated to the CRB immediately after sentencing. That administrative measure will be greatly welcomed by the CRB and the police. The Minister wrote to tell me that
Will the Minister who is to answer the debate please clarify today whether the PNC receives electronic information directly from the courts immediately after sentencing? Will he also update me on whether that information is now available to the CRB? On a wider point, will he address the issue of referrals of abusers?
The same applies to the suspicion of abuse. Under my Act, statutory bodies are required to instigate investigation procedures and refer known abusers for listings. Other agencies and organisations are only encouraged to do so. For example, private tutors need not be vetted. What is more, prior to my Protection of Children Act, vetting proceduresapart from those relating to education List 99 for teacherswere almost impossible to carry out. They were at best piecemeal and at worst non-existent. That means that before my Act was passed, many people employed as child care workers were not vetted to discover whether they had ever physically or sexually harmed a child.
I took that matter up with the Minister for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reform , and was appalled at his reply, which I received on 13 September. The Secretary of State, in effect, washed his hands of the whole business. The Minister wrote:
That is a clear hint that retrospective vetting may be hampered by employment legislation. Unfortunately, the Minister concerned did not offer to look into the issue; he did not liaise with his ministerial colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry. As far as I am aware, he just let the matter drop.
A decent employer seeking to do the right thing and vet existing employees is on his or her own. That is not good enough, and I look to the Minister who will respond today to undertake to make good this serious legislative hurdle in the vetting process.
My Protection of Children Act 1999 does not cover Northern Ireland, but the Assembly was seeking to put its own expanded version of it on to the statute books. The Northern Ireland version would introduce a welcome extra dimension, that of accreditation, in clause 16. However, I wish the Minister to tell us today how the accreditation of voluntary organisations will be supported and promoted by all Government Departments. I also want him to comment on the vetting of those who cross the border from the south to work with children in the north. At present, there is no equivalent vetting process in the Republic of Ireland, which effectively creates a major loophole in our system when child care workers come over here from the island of Ireland. The Minister will undoubtedly have been made aware of my concerns, so what I am looking for today is a progress report.
Finally, I almost feel sorry for the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), who has the task of replying today. I want to put on the record the fact that he did not make any of the ministerial replies that I have quoted; in every case, and with regard to every Department, the replies were made by Ministers of State. That raises the question of why my hon. Friend was considered to be the most appropriate Minister to respond today.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. David Lammy) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) for giving us this opportunity to debate these important matters. I know that she takes a passionate interest in helping to ensure that our children, who are the most vulnerable members of our society, are offered the best possible level of protection. That is very evident from what she has said today.
I should begin by saying that the Home Office is the Department that takes the lead on such issues, but it is clear that other Departments also have their respective responsibilities, and the Government think carefully about which of them should respond to specific Adjournment debates. I am pleased to respond to the debate today. I also refer my hon. Friend to the way in
We remain grateful to my hon. Friend for guiding her private Member's Bill through Parliament. That resulted in the Protection of Children Act 1999, which the Government implemented in October 2000, and it was that legislation which, for the first time, required Government to maintain a list of persons considered to be suitable to work with children, and to place specific requirements on child care organisations to carry out comprehensive vetting of the staff whom they intend to appoint to work with children. The legislation that was proposed by my hon. Friend was a vital first step towards achieving the Government's aim of establishing a framework of coherent cross-sector schemes for identifying people considered to be unsuitable to work with children, and to prevent such people from gaining access to children through their work.
Ms Shipley : I know what my Act did. It is not cohesive, extensive or anything else; it is very precise and limited. It also has lots of holes, which I regret, but I could not get the necessary changes through at the time. I do not want to sit here and listen to a description of what already existsand, in particular, of what I have done. I want the Minister to address the questions that I have raised today.
Mr. Lammy : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments, but it is important that I put the history of the matter on the record, because it pertains to many of the points that she raised both today and when the Act was passing through Parliament.
I wish to make some progress now, so that I can get around to addressing my hon. Friend's points. As she has said, many of them have been addressed in correspondence with various Departments, but I will seek to write to her if I am unable to get around to dealing with all of them in this debate.
I know from what my hon. Friend has said today that she would like the elements in her legislation that require organisations to seek checks on their staff to be applied to all organisations that work with children, rather than only to the statutory sector. However, that would involve some intractable problems. It was recognised very early on in the life of the Protection of Children Act that a scheme that required all employers to check that Act's list would be impossible to monitor and enforce.
That issue goes to the heart of much of what has preoccupied my hon. Friend over the past two yearsand, indeed, of what has been said today. For that reason, a requirement to undertake relevant checks was made for organisations that are regulated by statutethose who employ social workers, nursery staff and everyone who works in children's homeswhile other organisations are encouraged to undertake such checks.
Mr. Lammy : The issue raised related to taxis to school. My hon. Friend will know that, in London, as in other cities, a service is provided by taxis, minicabs and various other companies that transport children to school. Service providers are encouraged to vet their drivers, and it is right for the Government to encourage that. As important as the various checks are, however, it must remain paramount for all organisations entrusted with the care of children and other vulnerable people to carry out the full range of pre-employment checks to search for criminal backgrounds. That is only one part of a process that should include face-to-face interviews. Checking the referees and references of the various people is equally important. An applicant's employment history must be considered and employers must be satisfied that any gaps in details are adequately explained.
The Government quickly built on the foundations laid by my hon. Friend, and in January 2000 we implemented part 2 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 which, taken with the building blocks contained within the Protection of Children Act and the Education Acts of 1988 and 1996, complemented the integrated scheme to prevent unsuitable people working with children. The child protection measures in part 2 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 created a new way for the courts to disqualify unsuitable people from working with children, in addition to the existing schemes for education and child care. Those who commit a serious offence against children can therefore be prevented from all such work by means of disqualification by a judge, as part of their sentence or the disposal of their case.
We also ensured that the Act provided for the disqualification to apply to persons included on the Protection of Children Act List and to those included on the list maintained by the Secretary of State for Education and SkillsList 99which, as my hon. Friend knows, contains the names of persons barred by the Secretary of State from working in educational establishments. The Act also provided strong criminal sanctions against those who breached the disqualification order, whether the new order was imposed by the courts or the person had been included on the Protection of Children Act list.
Ms Shipley : The Minister is treating me to a history lesson, using information of which I am extremely well awareas I hoped I demonstrated when I was speaking earlier. He has seven minutes left, in which he should attempt to answer at least one of my questions. I would like him to answer some of the questions that I raised.
Mr. Lammy : As my hon. Friend will have heard, I am setting out the obligations that rest on the relevant bodies, and those relate to the illustration that she provided. I am seeking to deal with it and I want to make progress. We can exchange views, but I cannot make progress unless my hon. Friend allows me to continue. I shall certainly write to her if I cannot reach a conclusion on the issues that she raised.
The complete framework of protection provided by the 2000 Act introduced a new definition of working with children, which formed the area to be covered by disqualification. Working with children in all sectorsincluding voluntary work and irrespective of whether that work is paid or unpaidthus fell within the remit of the scheme. My hon. Friend posed questions about the definition of a child care worker, and her preferred wording is on the record. However, a clear definition is set out in section 36 of the 2000 Act.
I shall now move on to discuss the Criminal Records Bureau, which has an important role in preventing unsuitable people from working with children and vulnerable adults. The Government are acutely aware of the problems experienced by the bureau, which have caused difficulties for the proper protection of children and other vulnerable groups, but it is important not to allow such problems to detract from the value of the initiative itself.
The CRB is designed to achieve several substantial improvements. First, it will enable information from police records to be made much more widely available to employers, voluntary organisations and others, primarily those working with the vulnerable. Secondly, in respect of working with children, it will be possible to search lists of unsuitable people, which are maintained by my Department and by the Department for Education and Skills. Thirdly, the level and speed of service will be higher than the police have been able to provide in the past. I do not disparage the past record of the police, but resourcing issues apply.
My hon. Friend mentioned the list of registered bodies under the Criminal Records Bureau. If lists were given without consent, it would contravene the Data Protection Act 1998. That is the Government's position, upheld by parliamentary counsel. Consent is a critical issue in a democratic context.
Mr. Lammy : I pass no judgment on the many and varied reasons why organisations may not want their details passed on beyond the CRB, which is charged with that function, to other third partiesincluding my hon. Friend. The information relating to organisations that give consent is available for inspection on the website or a list can be provided.
Mr. Lammy : I am surprised to hear my hon. Friend ask that question. If she looked at the reports of Ofsted and other inspection bodies, she would see that compliance is examined when schools and hospitals are visited. That is where the duty lies. Action is being taken to address the bureau's operational problems. The bureau, in conjunction with its private sector partner, has put in place a service improvement plan that has already delivered several improvements, and continues to do so.
Action is being taken to address the bureau's operational problems. The bureau, in conjunction with its private sector partner, has put in place a service improvement plan that has already delivered several improvements, and continues to do so. One of the earliest