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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 127 - 139)




  127. Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. Can I just first apologise to those who were waiting outside; we were a little delayed in starting because of the vote that we had, and the Committee have had the pleasure of a presentation from the Environment Agency, who have been trying to give us an overview of this complex subject. And I would like, at the outset, to put on record, on behalf of the Committee, our thanks to the Agency for a very useful presentation, I think it illustrates the degree of complexity of this particular subject, but, nonetheless, a very useful overview, which will help and guide us in our deliberations. Before commencing our questioning, I wonder if, for the record, the Environment Agency will be kind enough to introduce themselves and say what they do?

  (Dr Leinster) Thank you very much. My name is Dr Paul Leinster. I am Director of Environmental Protection at the Agency. On my left is Steve Lee, who is Head of Waste Regulation, and on my right is Roy Watkinson, who is Hazardous Waste Policy Manager.

  128. I would like to start off reflecting some of the evidence that we have had, both in writing and at our session last week, which suggests there is still a lot of uncertainty in this area, definitions of wastes, techniques of disposal, uncertainties about matters coming out of Europe. What do you think could have been done to reduce the level of uncertainty which has been felt by waste producers and managers over the future of hazardous waste management in this country? I am mindful of the fact that, in European terms, things seem to be agreed a long time ago and then we go through an equally long period of trying to introduce into Member States' law the methodology, the practicalities, and in-between the two it creates an atmosphere of uncertainty.
  (Mr Lee) Thank you, Chairman; yes, I will take that one. Yes, we recognise the area of uncertainty, both for waste managers and waste producers, and indeed uncertainty for the waste regulators. Your simple question was, what could have been done to have reduced the uncertainty, or to have moved faster; to be honest with you, I do not think that there is an awful lot that the UK regulator, the UK industries, or the UK Government could have done, given the control over the pace that has been exerted through the European Union. One of the biggest uncertainties, I think, particularly to help hazardous waste producers see what the future might have to bring for them, was the clarification of the so-called "waste acceptance criteria". Now we have supported DEFRA at every stage, in helping them in negotiations and trying to help the Technical Advisory Committee come to their decision; we expect that decision to be made clear on about 23 July. Given the control of the Commission over that date and that decision, I do not honestly think that there is very much more that individual UK parties could have done to have moved it along much faster.

  129. Can I just ask, for how long has that work of the Technical Adaptation Committee been going on?
  (Mr Lee) The Directive itself, do not forget, was agreed in 1999; the work started in the Technical Adaptation Committee shortly afterwards, and it has proven to be technically very difficult and politically very complex, individual Member States having different desires for the outcome of the waste acceptance criteria.

  130. You are a professional in this field; do you think three years was a reasonable amount of time to be taking and doing something? Yes, it is difficult, but it is a long time for people who are saying, "Once we've got this information we can then set out our stall to deal with these hazardous or special wastes;" some people say it was too long?
  (Mr Lee) It is longer than I think anybody would have liked; clear waste acceptance criteria some time ago would have helped focus attention. On the other hand, let us not forget that the interim waste acceptance criteria have been made clear in England and Wales, which gives the waste producing and waste management industries something to get their teeth into. I do not think anybody would have liked the discussions to have gone on for as long as they have; now that we have come to the stage where the TAC are in a position to make a decision, we applaud that, we want to move forward as quickly as possible.

  131. Has it had a damaging effect though on the UK hazardous waste management industry, this element of uncertainty; because we have heard in previous inquiries that, because of uncertainty, people, for example, have not been willing to make the necessary investments. Do you think that is a real problem, in this case?
  (Mr Lee) I think it is a problem insofar as the planning horizon for new facilities is so long. Even if you wanted to get a new hazardous waste treatment or disposal facility going immediately, now, once you have made the decision, the investment decision, the planning permission, gaining the right permit to get the site actually built and commissioned would take several years. So I think it has been frustrating in that respect. Even if we make decisions now, it will be some years before we have any network of different facilities in place.

  132. What about other Member States; have you had feedback from your colleagues in other Member States about how they feel about all of this, in those quiet, private moments you all have, when you are sitting around the coffee machine in Brussels, or whatever?
  (Mr Lee) I cannot say that personally I have ever been to Brussels, but, yes, we do, we support DEFRA in their discussions in Brussels. and I can only say that they feel very much in line with the rest of Europe. But, I would have to stress, this is perhaps a question you would care to put to the Minister; different States have different desired outcomes for the waste acceptance criteria.

  133. Let me ask you a question about the legal status of the guidance provided by your Agency; can this guidance provide the level of certainty that companies need in the context of making their investments in new treatment facilities?
  (Mr Lee) Yes, it is an important question. Any guidance that the Environment Agency puts out has no other status than Environment Agency guidance. To help give certainty both to the regulator and to all of the industries that are involved, we would like to see as much as possible of the guidance be given a statutory basis. We have identified, with DEFRA, with Government, many of the issues that we would like now to see reflected in statutory guidance, and we are working with them to try to get that guidance produced as quickly as possible.

  134. Now in your very helpful summary to the evidence you sent the Committee, you said: "EU legislation relating to hazardous waste is complex. The current arrangement of regulations and directives makes practical implementation of the legislation unnecessarily complex. . ." this is a double underscoring. I just wonder why it has to be so complex; why do you think it is so darned complex?
  (Mr Watkinson) There are several reasons why it is complex, primarily because, the way that the Hazardous Waste Directive itself has been brought together, for example, it contains quite a large number of technical annexes to it, as well as interpreting legislation for it, so it refers, for example, to another Directive, in order to make its full interpretation. We then have the issue that bringing that into UK law required that to be harmonised, to a certain extent, with existing legislation, and, for example, the additional wastes that are already part of the Special Waste Regulations, before the introduction of the Hazardous Waste Directive, then became subsumed into part of that. So that means really that, in order to simplify it, quite a large amount of work would have to be done, and that would mean really asking for a significant amount of redevelopment work; and, of course, the Government took on a regulatory review, and that is something that actually we fully supported, that there should be such a development to work towards reducing that complexity.

  135. Basically, it is a complex area, and therefore complexity is reality; is it better that it is complicated?
  (Mr Watkinson) Yes. The ideal, of course, would be to have it very simple and easy for everybody to understand, the man in the street not to have to blink twice before looking and seeing and understanding it, because surely there are people who will have to actually take account of this in determining what is hazardous waste for them. But the only answer, I think, is that it must be as simple as it can be without getting additional bells and whistles to it.

  136. And yet you say here that it is unnecessarily complex; so it strikes me it could have been simpler?
  (Dr Leinster) Can I answer, on that. I think there is a time coming when we do need to simplify; there is this level of complexity, I think that some of the complexity is necessary, but I also think that a review, a bringing together of all the pieces, and looking at the simplest way of implementing the whole, taking into account the history, could result in a simpler regime than we have now. But I think that is something that we would like to see working with DEFRA in the future; we are willing to put effort into that.

  137. We have had different definitions, in this country, of what are hazardous wastes, and these have got to be resolved, in terms of the review of the Special Waste Regulations. Does this cause the United Kingdom particular problems, because, obviously, we have had the benefit, in the past, of landfill, which has not been a luxury enjoyed by many other members of the European Union?
  (Mr Lee) I do not really think it is the change of the definition from special waste to hazardous waste that is going to have a marked effect on the cost of producing and managing hazardous waste; we think the real driver for the cost of responsible hazardous waste management will be the Landfill Directive and the various bans and controls that phase in over the next three, four or five years. What the change to the Hazardous Waste List and use of the "hazardous" definition in the UK will be to greatly increase the number of businesses who are recognised as producing or separating out from mixed waste, hazardous waste. Currently, we estimate about 90,000 special waste producers in the UK routinely produce special waste, and about 110,000 produce it on occasion.

  138. How are ones who are not currently producing hazardous waste going to get to know they suddenly are?
  (Mr Lee) That is the most important question. The onus usually falls to the regulator and to the waste management industry to make these controls known to the businesses that are newly caught by them. We had to do a very large information and education campaign back in 1996, when the special waste regime changed; we envisage that we will have to do exactly the same again when we change from "special" waste to "hazardous" waste. There are so many businesses that potentially could be caught by the new hazardous waste regime, people who produce small amounts of waste and would only have to consign it infrequently; but, of course, it would be impractical for the Environment Agency, or even the waste management industry, to make personal contact with all of them. We will have to make use of people like trade associations, who usually have very good contact with their members, to pass across important messages about changing legislation.

  139. Therefore, when it comes to enforcement issues, as people get used to this new regime, over the next few years, are you going to be understanding, if people, basically, express some concern about they did not know that they were fingered by this? Because we, as Members of Parliament, will no doubt get lots of hard case letters, if there is not some understanding of the way that this seems to be introduced?
  (Mr Lee) Rather than "understanding", I would use the word "communicating", we are going to have to be communicating before and after the change in legislation. Understanding; the law is the law, and it depends in which way it has been broken and how serious the impact of it is. The Environment Agency has got a published "enforcement of prosecution" policy, and, of course, it would be ridiculed, if it were to take very small, insignificant cases against unknowing producers of very small and possibly fairly benign "hazardous" materials. But it has to be guided by a policy.

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