Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280
WEDNESDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2001
280. Just for my benefitI am a new Member
and I am not familiar with how long these processes takewhat
would that mean?
(Margaret Beckett) We are talking months, not years.
281. So by spring?
(Margaret Beckett) Perhaps not quite so few months.
Realistically we are hopeful that it will be by the summer.
282. Would the Minister's department consider
supporting those local authorities who want the power to ensure
that the new developments that are taking place in housing, commerce
and industry include sustainable drainage systems? I am thinking
of the natural water supply, the run-off resources that would
for example support the wildlife and other things which are dependent
upon it. This last year, when we have had some severe flooding,
we had some flooding in a place in my constituency which was 1200
feet above sea level on a hill. When I went there to have a look
at it, I do not think the man meant to be joking but he said,
"It only happens once a flood". What had happened was
that the natural course of events had taken over. The rain had
been that heavy that it had returned to its Ice Age run-offs.
Those are the kinds of things which should be taken into consideration
and local authorities have had some problems with those. Would
you support them in trying to get that resolved?
(Margaret Beckett) It is a mixture of course and the
responsibility is directly with my department and officials, but
also the Environment Agency in terms of the advice they give.
Both as a department and also the Agencyand indeed the
other agencies who deal more specifically with environmental issues
and report to uswe do already have and are building up
structures and links with DTLR to try to make sure there is a
proper flow of information. Of course I have to say with a caveat
here that there is a quasi-judicial process and procedure as far
as DTLR is concerned and that means that decisions are for them,
but obviously we are anxious to make sure that the right information
is made available, that it is properly considered and assessed
and so on. There are links, specific new links.
283. You would be an ally, would you not?
(Margaret Beckett) We are very much allies along with
the Environment Agency and others in trying to make sure that
we assess what are now increasingly the impacts of climate change
on our own country and elsewhere and look at what impact that
has on public policy. We are much too much in our infancy in doing
that and it is clearly a very important part of the work that
my department is doing.
284. It has been very interesting, Minister,
listening to some of these responses, in particular on waste and
things like flooding. I have a number of questions about waste
but, going back to some of the points you were making earlier
about changes in departments, on the one hand we are hearing that
it takes a while to bed things in but we are all doing things
together, and on the other hand, as Members of Parliament looking
at our constituencies we are still up against the same old problems
with local authority boundaries coming in the middle. It rains
in one local authority and runs down the hill in another local
authority, and we get all these dreadful arguments between local
authorities about who is going to sort out the flood or why the
golf course is waterlogged when the water should be going into
the hole that was dug. We seem to be losing knowledge instead
of gaining knowledge. I would be interested in how much help the
department can give, going through its own period of change, to
recognise that local authorities are struggling sometimes with
these results of climate change in terms of flooding and what
they are going to do about it.
(Margaret Beckett) We did write to all Members of
Parliament when the House resumed in October making it plain that
it was a combination of the work and of the investment of the
Environment Agency and of my own department, and also of course
with many local authorities, that the breaches in flood defences
that have been created last year had been repaired. In very many
cases not only had we overcome damage that had been done but they
had been strengthened, and also a lot of work is being undertaken
on planning and making preparations for further works, not all
of which of course can be done on a timescale which can be completed
instantly because sometimes we are talking about quite substantial
further works. From that point of view we and the Environment
Agency are engaged with various local authorities, as is DTLR
itself. We do also have some co-operative structures for trying
to manage the contingency of flooding to get the right flow of
information and so on, and again all of that has been strengthened.
It would be wrong of me not to imply that there are now no problems.
Of course there are continuing problems for the reasons that we
have been discussing.
285. I hope then that as time goes by, and I
appreciate that you prioritise the big areas where houses are
going to go under water where people's homes are affected, and
I have no problem with that, but it is lots of little things that
are happening across the countryside as land is no longer able
to absorb the amount of water. I hope that the little schemes
will continue to be reported as well as the big schemes.
(Margaret Beckett) I do not think there is any question
about that. I am very mindful of that. The Committee may also
recallI am not sure how long ago it was but it does not
seem to be so very long agothat we were all being told
that there was going to be a perpetual water shortage in the United
Kingdom because the water table had now fallen so far that it
could never recover. It does not seem like five minutes ago; I
expect it is probably five years. It is certainly well within
memory and so we do have to deal with the position in which we
find ourselves, but what none of us can be sure of is that that
position in precisely that form will be sustained.
286. Returning to the waste problem, we seem
to have a few things coming along particularly from Europe which
on the face of it are quite good things, the Electrical Waste
Directive, other directives that we have been getting and the
Landfill Directive. We seem to be slightly slow in anticipating
these things coming along, so that at the moment we have got problems
about what we need to do with fridges. The usual routes by which
fridges are disposed of are closing down but we do not necessarily
have much coming down the pipeline. It is the same with abandoned
cars. The large number of abandoned cars is quite a burden on
local authorities now. I am very interested to see how we can
anticipate the new European directives (which are probably well
worth having) to make sure that as soon as they are imposed upon
us we are in a position to do something about them and that local
authorities are in a position to do something about them, as opposed
to suddenly it is all change now and we do not know what to do.
(Margaret Beckett) On abandoned cars of course we
have recently produced a consultation document to try to substantially
strengthen the regime for dealing with those. We await the outcome
of that consultation. I take your point about many of these issues.
With regard to fridges, the particular difficulty was that everybody
knew that the directive was there and knew that it would have
an impact and were geared up to deal with the impact as they thought
it would be. We did then have a court case which gave an interpretation
of the directive which was not that which had been anticipated.
These things happen. It is unfortunate but they do happen and
now we have to discuss how we handle the outcome of that particular
interpretation of the directive itself. I share your view. I think
this is perhaps a little unusual. On the whole we are very fortunate.
Our Civil Service is very effective and very skilled at following
what is happening in negotiations within the EU and what is in
the pipeline and so on and trying to make sure that we are up
to speed with it. There we are quite fortunate and obviously even
the best laid plans from time to time do not go exactly as one
287. I really would be happier if we had fewer
of these incidents. I take your point that we are now responding
but it is very worrying.
(Margaret Beckett) I entirely agree.
288. Looking at the approach to waste management,
we seem to have had quite a number of reports over the years,
in particular a very strong report from the Council For Sustainable
Waste Management, which was delivered in March and which had a
lot of good recommendations in it; the Environmental Services
Association manifesto for achieving environmental sustainability;
the Advisory Committee on Business and the Environment, their
report in August; the PIU report in November. We seem to have
a whole industry deciding what to do about waste on the one hand.
We have lots of local authorities with their backs against the
wall on waste on the other hand, and we have had the summit as
well, and life seems to be constantly that the answer will be
round the corner. Are we certain that when we get round the corner
in spring or summer when the PIU makes its report we will be in
a situation where we are going to get a strategy that is not only
acceptable to the Government but is also acceptable to local authorities?
I take your point about the debate on waste but also your point
on the general public. We do need to engage the general public
a lot more. I am very worried that some of these reports have
had extremely good recommendations but we are still getting another
(Margaret Beckett) I understand that, but that is
in part, as I have said in answer to the first question on the
issue, because I think things have rather ground to a halt in
terms of the public debate. There was an encouraging climate of
discussion and proposals and so on moving forward and then, for
whatever reason (and we all understand the reasons for it), a
sort of road block was erected and the debate and discussion and
so on rather ground to a halt and we need to re-engage in that
debate and to encourage the public to re-engage in that debate
and to accept that there are no simple answers which will mean
that we do not have to make some of these difficult choices, because
we are creating a very considerable amount of waste and are likely
to continue to do so if there are not successful ways found to
289. I understand the problem that we have about
whether lower waste is achievable and it is quite interesting
that those who have been claiming that it is achievable backtrack
when you say "How?". It does seem to me though that
we are still, both at central government and at local government
level, in the "must burn or bury" mode, so that even
if we call it energy from waste, although it is a very inefficient
form of energy, we should be trying to get people to say that
it can be a combination of composting, pyrolysis, gasification,
all these up-coming things which we need, and looking at more
and getting much more in the way of trials or studies of how it
has been working in Europe or America where they have been using
(Margaret Beckett) I agree with that.
Sue Doughty: It is a matter of urgency to a
lot of local authorities. There are those around the table who
are all sitting there with massive plans for incineration and
waste strategies where they are going to be signing on the line
some time this year possibly for a 30-year technology which people
do not want and have made that very clear, but they know they
will have to make some compromises if it is not going to be fast
burn incineration, and they want those compromises available now.
It is very urgent for a lot of people.
290. Is it not extraordinary though, on reflection,
and I very much agree with the points that Mrs Doughty is making,
that particularly so soon after a general election (and the Government
has been in for four years) there should be this policy vacuum?
(Margaret Beckett) There is not a policy vacuum. There
was a White Paper.
(Mr Adams) The Waste Strategy 2000 last year.
(Margaret Beckett) There are strategy targets, very
demanding targets, set for local authorities. There is not a policy
vacuum but, as I say, we are beginning to get to the stage where
we could have problems unless we move the debate forward, is that
there is a sort of mood grown up that neither local authorities
nor other participants, nor the public as a whole, want to come
to grips with these issues and recognise that we have a lot more
to do and that we have to build recycling plants and we may have
to do a little more perhaps.
291. There seems to be a delivery blockage rather
than a policy vacuum.
(Margaret Beckett) Yes, that is a very good way of
putting it. Thank you very much.
292. Do you feel that there is any room for
manoeuvre in the problem that we have all the time, and I think
it is a local authority problem, that obviously it is a strategic
approach as well where we do have that difference, as we were
talking about earlier, between a collecting local authority and
a disposing local authority, because if those two local authorities
do not have a particularly strong relationship or if some of the
borough councils are at odds with what the county council is trying
to do, again it is very hard to get an integrated approach and
draw out some of these holistic approaches which we all agree
we need to be looking at?
(Margaret Beckett) Part of what we need to consider
is whether we have the right mix of incentives and penalties to
encourage the right behaviour. I share entirely the view you expressed
a little earlier that, whether it is on waste minimisation or
waste handling, we need both to acquaint ourselves with the best
of what is available in terms of innovation and new technology
and we also need to be encouraging further steps on innovation
and new technology.
293. I have a further concern. I am sorry, I
am getting very heavy on waste but there are those of us who sit
with these problems on our doorsteps who are concerned at the
moment. My further concern is about commercial waste because on
the one hand we have a lot of influence about what is happening
with municipal waste and then we have the problem of commercial
waste. One of the issues we are looking at is where we are going
about trying to integrate our approach on commercial waste, whether
it is landfill or incinerator, in order to start reducing the
amount of waste available because other initiatives are taken
up and then just grab the whole commercial waste. To me there
are all those streams as well.
(Margaret Beckett) We could do a great deal better
on industrial and commercial waste and it is not surprising that
we should really because we are talking about costs to business.
Again, one of the issues that people will look at is whether we
have the mixture of incentives and penalties right in that respect.
Right across the field of sustainable development, whether it
is waste production or energy use or water use or whatever it
is, we are looking both at whether there are economic means of
encouraging the right behaviour and also at how we encourage and
publicise the beneficial effects of better management and the
spreading in this area, as in so many other areas, of best practice
and bench marking and so on. There are some spectacular examples
now in, for example, the use of water, the production of waste
water and so on, or indeed in the use of energy, of massive savings
relative to the size of the organisation that different companies
and organisations have made. There is a very clear incentive there
in the commercial and industrial sector. The thing to do is to
make sure that everybody is very conscious of that in the same
way that we try to do with a whole range of issues, and encourage
people to drive for quality and high standards by bench marking
themselves on the best practice.
294. Landfill tax credits: I know you are looking
at whether these instruments are the right ones and whether they
are effective. The tax itself was due to be reviewed in 2004.
How do you feel currently about the possibility of incinerator
tax, landfill tax, landfill tax credits, that whole area of instruments
about penalising bad behaviour and investing in good behaviour?
(Margaret Beckett) You know from the pre-Budget Report
that the Government as a whole is very mindful of the fact that
there is a range of measures potentially available to penalise
behaviour that we do not wish to see and to encourage behaviour
that we do wish to see. Those measures continue to be kept under
295. Could I turn to energy briefly because
energy efficiency is very much part of your responsibilities?
Everyone seems to agree that the combined heat power industry
is now in severe difficulties. The sort of difficulties they are
having were extensively flagged up during the consultation period.
What went wrong?
(Margaret Beckett) That too is in the area where there
is continued discussion. We hope in the new year, I think I am
right in saying, to produce a further consultation document. There
have been discussions with Ofgem. There is a working group I think
you will find that is examining these issues now and we hope to
come forward with some proposals and a consultation document around
the turn of the year.
296. Is this an example of what you were referring
to earlier, Secretary of State, where you said it is easier to
persuade government to move on than to admit to a mistake?
(Margaret Beckett) No, I do not think so. In any case
it is an important issue and we do recognise the need to address
297. But it is huge. A recent Ofgem report showed
that CHP output sold to the network had fallen by 60 per cent
in the first three months of the NETA agreement and two major
energy firms have announced that they are axing all further investment
in CHP. This is dramatic stuff.
(Margaret Beckett) I can only repeat what I have already
said, that we have taken steps in the past to help encourage investment
in CHP and there have been discussions with Ofgem. We will continue
to have those discussions, particularly to discuss what is happening
with smaller generators. Of course we are also awaiting the PIU's
own energy review which has not quite been published yet but I
anticipate will be in the not too distant future.
298. We had the Secretary of State for the Department
of Trade and Industry here a couple of weeks ago on a similar
question about NETA. Who has the most powerful voice? Is it the
voice of reducing electricity prices through competition or is
it the voice of investing in renewables and CHP and the other
things which may have a premium attached to them? There seems
to be a bit of a battle between these two policy objectives.
(Margaret Beckett) There is a bit of creative tension
if you like. I do not think I would say that there is a battle
between them. The Government is committed as you know to increasing
the use of renewables and is committed to innovation, and again
if I can remind you, in the pre-Budget Report yesterday the Chancellor
took some further steps on exactly these kinds of issues. I think
it remains clear that the Government is indicating that it is
keen to see the development of sustainable energy.
299. There was £270 million mentioned in
the pre-Budget Report
(Margaret Beckett) I do not remember the figure.