Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-399)



  380. The point which came up in an earlier meeting when we were talking to the EU civil servants was that they actually said that the plant which was being installed now will be used also for the destruction of the new fridges because there were pollutants in those as well.
  (Mr Meacher) That is right.

  381. Whereas in the statement you made before, you said you expected the costs to go down as the new fridges became ready for recycling. So what is your view? Will the new fridges need to be destroyed in the same manner? Will we be allowed to export them?
  (Mr Meacher) There will be technical standards applying to the newer fridges, non-CFC, under the WEEE Directive, which are going to require reprocessing. There is a market there, and I hope—I hope—that industry will get the message this time, perhaps quicker than they did before, that they should plan in advance to meet that market.

  382. I am sorry, I am not with you on the last point. To which market are you referring?
  (Mr Meacher) You yourself said that the newer fridges, under the WEEE Directive, the non-CFC fridges, will still require treatment. That is true. That requires higher standards being met. We need to plan for that and, of course, private industry needs to invest before they are required to do so. That have time—it is 2005—but we need to think about these things in the light of what has happened over fridges.

Diana Organ

  383. Talking about the fact that we need to know about things, could you say now, looking back in the middle of the fridge crisis, shall we say, what are the three main lessons that you have learned or Government has learned as a result of it, and how is it going to make us better prepared for when the end-of-life vehicles fiasco might hit us with the WEEE Directive?
  (Mr Meacher) It will not be a fiasco either for us or for ELV. I did spell out the three lessons, at the end of the memorandum. One of them obviously is that where clarification is necessary it should be done more quickly. Whatever is decided, we should not get these kinds of delay. Secondly—and this is more tentative, but I do feel this quite strongly—where an interpretation, I use that word advisedly, is made which actually amounts to quite a significant adjustment to, or amendment of, the whole thrust of a Regulation or a Directive, I think we should give consideration to the matter going back to Ministers. I have whole-hearted respect for officials but actually in the end the decision on 11 June 2001 was made by senior officials from the Commission and senior officials from Member States; it never went back to ministers; this was never drawn to ministers' attention. We never had a ministerial discussion that some countries were going to be in difficulty and how should we try to ensure at that stage they would have time; the matter never arose. When the decision was finally made, it was made by officials not ministers. Thirdly, I do think the real lesson coming out of this is that where there are technical problems, and this was a highly technical and complex regulation, there should be time written into the timescale of implementation of a regulation which allows for things to be resolved. The problem which arose in December 1998—for reasons I well understand having been in the chair myself when one is very keen to have successes for your country—was because the Austrians were very keen to have a success in getting political agreement, in getting a common position, they wanted to move rapidly to a conclusion of this process, they did not want there to be a lengthy and time-consuming examination of all the nitty-gritty details. Later, the Portuguese, who succeeded them in the presidency—and I am not in any way administering censure at all, these are the political pressures—found themselves in the position of having to deal in conciliation with the amendments moved at Second Reading by the European Parliament and their minds were focused on getting agreement, getting conciliation and solving the problem, they were not concerned about matters which the European Parliament had never raised. So we do need to have a special provision to ensure there is adequate time for sorting out all the technical problems. Those I think would be my three lessons.

Mr Mitchell

  384. The Portuguese have not implemented yet.
  (Mr Meacher) I believe that is so.


  385. Can I be clear? You made a very interesting point, you said that all of these problems have been handled at the level of officials and the management committee, but looking back at paragraph 11 of the memorandum which you eventually sent to us, it indicates that the Council adopted a common position on 23 February 1999. So are you saying, as the minister responsible for policy in this area, you then took absolutely no interest whatsoever in any detail, implementation, problem or anything? Your in-tray remained completely vacant of anything to do with this which might have alerted you there was a problem coming down the track?
  (Mr Meacher) I can safely look to you, Mr Chairman, as someone who has been a Treasury Minister and I am sure was extremely busy and who dealt with dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of issues, many of them simultaneously, the only way in which ministers can keep track on these things is if these matters are raised with them by officials. I am not complaining that these matters were not raised with me by officials, what I am saying is that many of these were highly technical issues and I think they probably should be—

  386. The reason I asked that question is that when I was a minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, responsible for European policies, I used to have a little diary from all the officials telling me what they were doing, which management committees they were going to, and every so often I had a meeting with them and I would say, "Tell me what is happening", because I realised the management committees were the best way for ministers to find out what was going on and what was likely to be coming up the track. So I am intrigued to know that in your area, which is absolutely deluged by European legislation, that once it is agreed at political level, you move on, so you are not being made aware through whatever mechanisms there are in DEFRA and its predecessor to look at these. This does surprise me.
  (Mr Meacher) The officials in the UK, as I have indicated, I repeat again, on nine separate occasions raised this with the Commission. I think they were right to do that, I do not think I could have added to that. There is a question which I think is raised under the lessons to be learnt, which is that you could argue officials should have raised it with ministers here in the UK in order to increase the pressure on the Commission; there is an argument for that. There are actually counter-arguments that in the case of this particular regulation, the Commission itself when it drew up its list of clarifications, produced 23 uncertainties, so this one which we have spent the whole time talking about is only one of many. I did, it is true, and you may be interested in this, as a result of the whole fridge episode raise with the Department how many regulations or directives, in other words all sorts of EU legislation, were currently active.

  387. That was helpful.
  (Mr Meacher) Shall I tell you the answer?

  388. Pages, I guess.
  (Mr Meacher) It is 40. What I have asked is that I want to have an implementation schedule for every one now and in the future, so I can see if there are problems arising and if any are being extended and likely to reach a point at which we are at risk of infraction. I do believe that is probably the only way of keeping control of the situation. Of course I have meetings with officials, I suspect if you ask them, you will find I have far too many meetings with officials. I think it is important to see this in context, we have concentrated on one single issue of a highly technical and complex regulation when there are 40 at any moment in play and when there are probably elsewhere within the brief, I do not know, another 50 issues going on on different issues.

  Chairman: But that is the nature of Government; lots of things going on and you suddenly find yourself in front of a Select Committee talking about fridges!

Paddy Tipping

  389. You said you were involved in the political decision-making and then let the officials get on with it, when did you become aware there was a ticking time-bomb or the potential for a growing mountain?
  (Mr Meacher) I was, I think, informed about the export trade as a matter to note, not with regard to any decision being taken, but something I ought to know about, in 2000. To my recollection, I was informed that there was a problem in I think July 2001 about the managing and recovery from foam, and of course I had subsequent meetings with officials and there were a number of other submissions made in the second half of 2001.

  390. So it was after the June 2001 decision you became fully involved?
  (Mr Meacher) I think that is correct. If it is not correct, I will write to the Committee, but I believe it is correct.

Diana Organ

  391. In answer to my question about lessons to be learned, you went clearly through one or two items which you wished to see, but if we could give you that wonderful thing which is 20:20 vision of hindsight, what would you want to do differently about this regulation going through? What would you personally have handled differently?
  (Mr Meacher) I am glad you said that because everyone of us have been exhibiting hindsight to a very high degree this afternoon.

  392. And it is wonderful.
  (Mr Meacher) It is an enormous privilege.

  393. Yes.
  (Mr Meacher) I have already said what I consider to be the three main lessons we ought to learn from it. If these were implemented, we would have had an earlier clarification within Europe about the meaning of "if practicable" and where recovery from foam fell under 16(1) to (3). We would also have had more time to sort out the technical problems, the pressure on the presidency, first of all the Austrian and then the Portuguese, would have been diminished if there was time set aside for settling all of these matters. My third point was it should have come back to ministers.

  394. You just in that reply said "We would have had this" and I was asking the question, what would you as a minister have done differently.
  (Mr Meacher) That is what I, as a minister, would have preferred. With the gift of hindsight, which of course none of us have at the time, this should have been discussed, I suppose you could say, at the Environment Council, but hindsight is too big a concession. The industry was not raising it with us, there were much bigger problems about methyl bromide and HCFCs. If the industry was not raising it with us, we did not perceive there to be a problem, the industry was not telling us there was a problem. No other Member State raised it, the Commission did not raise it. It is only with hindsight that these things could be seen.

Mr Martlew

  395. You just told us you only found out there was a problem in July 2001, when was the decision taken to actually implement the Directive even though we did not have the capacity to deal with it properly? Then, when we took that decision, were we aware of the consequences with regard to the fridge mountain and the cost to the Government?
  (Mr Meacher) It went through the Environment Council in December 1998.

  396. Yes, it is just from 2001. You say that you found out personally that there was an issue in July 2001, is that right?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  397. Then why did you then decide that we were going to implement the Directive? Presumably somebody came to you and said, "Yes, we're going to go ahead with this"?
  (Mr Meacher) I was trying to explain. The decision was made to implement the Directive in the Environment Council in December 1998. There were some changes wanted by the European Parliament, so there was conciliation, but it was finally agreed and came into force on 1 October 2000, so at that point the decision was taken. The only question was what were the implications of actually implementing it. It was only in the beginning of that year that we began to understand that there was a serious problem about which article recovery from foam came under, was it 16(3) or not.

  398. But we have just been told that the French have decided not to do anything at the present time. Are you saying that there was no direction from yourself, after you found out in 2001, about the way forward?
  (Mr Meacher) Sorry, maybe I misunderstood your point. Of course, the formal decision to implement it had been taken, but we now find we have got a problem, so are we, the Brits, going to implement it or not? Yes, we did have that discussion, and I did take the view that whilst I would have been prepared to look on this sympathetically—I have to say this—I was certainly told, and I agreed with the advice, that there was no chance whatever that we could escape responsibility. I learnt, I cannot remember at what point, that the French were not implementing it, and obviously it would be tempting to follow them, but I thought that kind of thing would be suicidal and it would be costly, and I do not think that that was a serious option.

  399. When you then decided to go ahead, were you aware of the consequences with regard to the cost of the fridge mountain?
  (Mr Meacher) As I have said, the industry did tell us in, I think, either June or July 2001 that they could meet the deadline of 1 January 2002, that they could get plant in place to deal with the problem.


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