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17 Oct 2002 : Column 447—continued


2. Dr. John Pugh (Southport): If she will make a statement on the role of doorstep collection and taxation measures in increasing recycling rates. [72344]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): The answer remains the same. The Prime Minister's strategy unit is currently completing a study on waste. As part of this, it is considering what mechanisms and instruments will best help to achieve our aim of increasing household waste recycling.

Dr. Pugh : Does the Minister recognise that many councils are currently stretched to find the resources to set up doorstep recycling schemes? Despite a very co-operative public in my constituency, the local council is forced to run plastic recycling schemes only in areas that can draw upon specific and additional grants, such as those for neighbourhood renewal. Such areas are not always the best ones for high-volume recycling. Will the Minister undertake to look into this specific problem?

Mr. Meacher: Of course, I am very concerned about levels of recycling, including kerbside collection. To reach the challenging targets for recycling that we have set, our view is that all authorities—or certainly most of them—will have to adopt kerbside collection.

I am surprised by what the hon. Gentleman said about funding. In the spending review 2000, we increased spending on the environmental protection and cultural services part of the revenue support grant by #1.1 billion in the third year over baseline. In the spending review 2002, we increased that provision by a further #670 million for the three years to 2005–06. Final decisions on additional funding will be made when the strategy unit's report is published.

In addition to that, we have just made allocations of #140 million under the local authority recycling waste minimisation fund. Of 196 bids, 112 were successful and

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#50 million has been distributed. The hon. Gentleman's local authority should have the resources necessary to meet the targets.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): One of the most interesting pieces of taxation designed to encourage recycling recently has been the decision in the Irish Republic to introduce a tax on plastic disposable shopping bags. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of early-day motion 1730 in my name, which now receives the support from dozens of Members on both sides of the House, calling for such a tax in this country. Will he give us an idea of whether he is considering the introduction of such a measure in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Meacher: We have been watching closely what has happened in Ireland. I understand that there has been a 90 per cent. reduction in the use of plastic bags. In this country, the figures are quite daunting. Eight billion plastic bags are used every year, which, on average, is about 135 for each person. Therefore, reducing that figure would be very worthwhile. A plastic bag tax is not the only way of dealing with the problem, but I assure my hon. Friend that the strategy unit has been to Ireland, talked to those involved, and will certainly be considering this point in its report.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): Although we all support the idea of increasing the collection of goods for recycling, the Minister will surely accept that that does not finish the process. Recycling is accomplished when one has an economic use for the product to be recycled. The Government have just signed up to new European regulations, which will come into force in a couple of years, on the disposal of electronic and electrical goods. However, we know that there are some products—the plastic casings from video and cassette recorders, for example—for which there is no available use at the moment. What does the Minister intend to do in the intervening few years to try to encourage the private sector to develop alternative uses for some of those materials, so that we can avoid what happened with fridges and ensure that the entire system is in place when the new regulations come into force?

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman has just answered his own question. There are two or three years before 2005–06, when the directive on waste from electrical and electronic equipment comes into force, and one means of ensuring that the technology is put in place is the pressure exerted by the directive. It is right that electrical and electronic goods should not be landfilled. That is not an appropriate form of environmental disposal. It is clearly right that such goods should be recycled and reused.

The difference in the case of fridges is that the regulation became operative throughout the European Community on day one, which was 1 January 2002, whereas a directive that has to be transposed gives industry much more time properly to accommodate it. That is exactly what we intend. We have already had extensive discussions with industry, and I shall ensure that there are appropriate reprocessing uses for all those electrical products.

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Organic Action Plan

3. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): What progress she has made with the organic action plan; and if she will make a statement. [72345]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): Work is continuing on the 21 points in the organic action plan. It is a plan for the whole food chain, and a number of stakeholders, including retailers, have work in hand to take forward the plan's objectives. In DEFRA we are focusing on amendments to the organic farming scheme, on organic standards for the UK and on setting up a new organic advisory committee.

Joan Ruddock : I thank my right hon. and hon. Friends for their commitment on this issue and their positive responses to the organic targets campaign. We now have in place a plan and a significant target but no time frame. Will my right hon. Friend therefore introduce measures to make it necessary to achieve by 2010 the target of 70 per cent. of organic produce to come from British producers?

Mr. Meacher: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support for the organic action plan, which the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), launched on 29 July. It has been universally well received and we certainly intend now to put it into place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) has rightly said, there is a commitment to increase to 70 per cent. the market share of UK-grown organic products, which is more than double the current level of 30 per cent.

It is reasonable, however, that there is a time scale within which it must be achieved. It is not for the Government unilaterally to pick that deadline; clearly we must consult the industry and the British Retail Consortium about what is practicable. I chair the organic action plan group and, at the next meeting, I shall be raising the deadline as a major item on the agenda because I entirely agree that, for the plan to be successful, there must be not only a target but a deadline by which it must be achieved.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the National Assembly's decision this week to extend organic stewardship for farmers in Wales. It is a very welcome step. Is he aware of the threat that inadequate labelling of genetically modified food poses to the organic market, both for farmers and consumers? Will he take this opportunity to clarify at the European level the Government's position on what will happen with GM labelling and its relationship to an important and growing organic market in this country?

Mr. Meacher: Yes; it is an important issue. Let me make it clear that the Government strongly support a framework of labelling and traceability to the fullest extent that is practicable and workable. We support the proposal, which is probably being discussed at this very moment in Luxembourg, for a 1 per cent. threshold for the labelling of adventitious GM presence in non-GM products.

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The issue to which the hon. Gentleman may be referring, which is much more difficult, is the labelling of GM-derived products. As I said, I am strongly sympathetic to the argument that we should have the fullest and most appropriate labelling for the consumer. The problem is that there is no distinguishability in DNA terms between GM derivatives and non-GM derivatives. For example, that is the case with highly refined maize oils. Apart from that logistical problem, if there is an insistence on labels, despite the issue of traceability and very long supply chains that often start outside the European Union, they could not be guaranteed and could be seriously misleading to the consumer. We must bear in mind that constraint.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Once again, news from a major retailer this week tells of another increase in sales of organic produce, the majority of which is provided by imports. Does my right hon. Friend, like me, see that farmers are holding back from converting to organic farming because they fear that by the time that they have converted, the price premium will be lost to them? Can his Department reassure farmers so as to persuade more of them to undertake the conversion?

Mr. Meacher: That is a very important issue. My hon. Friend is right that the major multiple retailers are being very helpful in trying to increase sales of organic products. Without seeking to make a commercial plug, I can say that Waitrose and Sainsbury's are seeking to increase import replacement in respect of organic products, which is very helpful.

On my hon. Friend's question about farmers converting, we have now extended the organic farming scheme to ensure that farmers who have converted can enter into five-year agreements to observe the environmental conditions of the scheme in return for payments. We have also very substantially increased conversion aid for top fruit production. For top fruit conversions, we are now proposing to pay #600 per hectare per year for the first three years and #30 for the next seven years. We are considering long-term payment commitments to encourage farmers to initiate conversion, with the assurance that they will continue long enough for conversion to be well worth while commercially.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The Government constantly talk about their support for organic farming, but the reality is rather different. Some 70 per cent. of organic food is imported, only 4 per cent. of UK farmland is handed over to organic production and the funds available for conversion are wildly inadequate. The organic milk price is now below the non-organic price, so a number of milk producers are going the wrong way and switching back to non-organic production. As to GM, the truth is that this Government are going to allow the planting of GM maize crops within 200 m of organic ones, with the serious risk of cross-fertilisation. Does the Minister not understand that we do not need any more focus groups, initiatives, launches, leaflets or committees? He was on

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about committees again a moment ago, but what the people of this country want is decent, British-produced organic produce at a decent price.

Mr. Meacher: It behoves me to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box, as I believe that that was his first appearance there. If it is to be characteristic of all his appearances, I can see that we are going to have a lot of fun.

What the hon. Gentleman did not say is that while the total sums available for organic farming are still relatively small, they are hugely increasing on the level that we inherited. The amount provided this year is #20 million, but when his Government left office, it was half a million pounds, so it does not behove him to criticise us. That amount may not be enough, but I would have hoped that, as we have increased it 40 times in five years, we might get some congratulation from him. I am very keen to see an increase in UK-grown organic production. I repeat that the organic action plan, which the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), launched two or three months ago, has gone down extremely well in all sections of the organic industry. We are pressing the issue as fast as the industry believes seriously possible.

On GM, the separation distances to which the hon. Gentleman referred were those operated by the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops, SCIMAC—the biotech industry—on the basis that they would be sufficient to prevent cross-contamination. In the event of three years of the farm scale evaluation trials, no organic crop has lost its certification as a result of the GM trials, but of course this is a serious issue, which we are further considering.

I repeat that #20 million is now going into organic—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) asked six or seven questions; I shall answer only three or four, but it he wants me to go on, I shall be glad to do so. We are putting #20 million into organic production this year. That figure will rise in the next two or three years to at least #23 million, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that that is a vast improvement on anything that his Government could do.

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