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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  180. So when you meet him, and you say, "Where is the national plan?" does he say, "In the drawer," or how far are we on with this national plan?
  (Mr Lee) We have had a meeting with Michael Meacher, and the Chemical Industries Association and the waste management trade association, Environment Services Association, to share understanding of how big and urgent an issue this is, and to follow up a proposal, originally from the Environment Agency, that we should have some form of hazardous waste management seminar. A subsequent proposal came from the Chemical Industries Association, that it would be a good idea if there was not just a one off, or a series of events, but was a formal forum. Those discussions have been going on since the beginning of this year; and, indeed, the Environment Agency has been standing up as often as possible, as long as it can get people to listen to it, saying things like, "Don't be dazzled by the biodegradable waste targets under the Landfill Directive, it's the hazardous waste targets that are really much more dramatic." So this thinking and this preparation has been going on for some considerable time. We have had that preparatory meeting with the Minister, with the question to him, would he like to set up this hazardous waste management forum, and the Environment Agency fully supports it.

  181. So you are going to have a seminar, you are going to have a forum, you are going to have a series of discussions; but I want to see a plan, I think it is important we have a plan, and I think we ought to have a plan quick. And where is the plan, how far on are we with getting it; is there some kind of framework for it?
  (Mr Lee) I do not think DEFRA could lay claim to having made any start on the planning process; but, of course, we have been working with CIA, with the waste management industry, trying to identify things like what their concept of final storage quality is, what types and quantities of hazardous waste have we got and how it could be managed, and whether or not the bans in July 2002 would actually be a strategic problem. So that discussion has started, but not picked up yet by DEFRA for turning into a hazardous waste plan.

  182. And when do we need this plan?
  (Mr Lee) I would like to have had it today.

  183. When will we get the plan?
  (Mr Lee) I do not know that I can answer that.

Mr Lepper

  184. Could you hazard a guess at how far in the future we have to be before, if we have not got that plan by then, that is it, no point any longer?
  (Dr Leinster) I think we have to avoid that situation. One of the things that is happening, and is happening quickly now, is that we are beginning to get the information together to enable us to inform this plan, we are getting the criteria together to help us inform the plan, and so the writing, or the development, of that plan, now that we have got the information together, could move forward with pace. And one of the things that we will do is support DEFRA, in whatever way we can, to help that planning process.

  185. Could move forward, at a pace, if DEFRA provides the kind of lead that Paddy Tipping was suggesting is necessary?
  (Dr Leinster) Yes.

  186. And it looks as if it will? Perhaps you should not answer that, I do not know?
  (Dr Leinster) Yes; it is difficult.

  187. Can I just clarify one other thing, about departmental responsibilities. I think we have clarified it, but, so far as ministerial responsibilities, responsibilities within the Civil Service, are concerned, everything resides with DEFRA, we have not got any DTI input into all this, have we?
  (Dr Leinster) There are planning issues.

  188. Or the office of the Deputy Prime Minister?
  (Dr Leinster) Which now sit with the office of the Deputy Prime Minister; and also the producer responsibility Directives, so End of Life Vehicles, Waste Electrical and Electronic goods, and other producer responsibilities as they come in, will sit with DTI. But the licensing aspects of those producer responsibility Directives sit with DEFRA.

  189. Do we know that those three Departments of Government are getting together on this issue, particularly in relation, insofar as it is necessary, towards the development of the plan? Do we know that DEFRA, office of the Deputy Prime Minister and DTI are talking to each other about it, so far as you know?
  (Dr Leinster) So far as we know, they are.


  190. Can we press you a little further about this, because, this week, we will produce, for the public benefit, the report of our Sub-Committee on the disposal of fridges, and that had a multi-departmental dimension to it; now we are dealing with a multiplicity of changes in the way that hazardous wastes are going to be dealt with, and we have just talked about the fact that motorcars are involved, electrical equipment is involved, a whole raft of industries are involved. Just to be absolutely clear, can you tell us whether there is, or is not, a piece of formal co-ordinating mechanism within Government to bring together all the players who should be talking to each other about this particular matter?
  (Dr Leinster) We are not aware of one.

  191. You are not aware of one. Are you consulted, given that you are the repository of knowledge in these matters, by any other Government Departments for information about this whole area?
  (Dr Leinster) Yes, certainly. We have regular contacts with DTI on the producer responsibilities; in fact, we have seconded a person in to the DTI, to work particularly on End of Life Vehicles. One of the other Departments which is also involved, it slipped my mind, is the Treasury, on Landfill Tax, which will have a big influence in this area. We also have dealings with Treasury, and with DTLR.

  192. Let me ask you a slightly easier question. Would you feel more comfortable if there were some formal co-ordinating mechanism within Government to which you could contribute, that was bringing together the strands and implications of the changes in this area of environmental legislation?
  (Dr Leinster) Yes, I think we would. As you have described, there are so many tentacles to waste, and it is spread so wide and in different ways, that I think it would be useful for a formal co-ordinating process.

  193. What about your own Agency's resources for all of this work; are you (a) satisfied you have enough money, (b) "Well, we've got to accept what we've got but would like some more," or (c) in dispute, privately and quietly, with your paymaster on resource for this area? Which is it, (a), (b) or (c)?
  (Dr Leinster) Part of the funding that we get, within the Agency, is raised from charges; so, when it comes to permitting processes, we charge those that we regulate for the work that we do. So, in one way, the more permits we have, and the increased number of permits, will deliver us more money, which will then deliver us more people. The question though, I believe, is one of competence, and the level at which we can afford to pay and keep skilled people within the Agency. Now I am not questioning at all the competency of Agency employees, but we are a very good training-ground for others then to come and take from us. So a number of people join the Agency, get a good training, learn, and then others are able to entice them away with higher salaries. I think that if we were able to pay more for some of our regulators then we would not have quite so many enticed away to other places.

  194. Right. Well I think we have got the message about that, and no doubt the people who report these matters will say "Some good jobs and good training going here, but even better opportunities round the corner." The reason I was asking this is that DEFRA, in their written evidence, said that the input of the Environment Agency is vital to the success of virtually all of the measures discussed in this, meaning their particular memorandum; but, having said that, we got a memorandum from a company called Safety-Kleen, I thought it might be one of those doorstep sales organisations, then I read it again and realised it was a very substantial and important company in the waste field. And I got the impression, for example, from paragraph 13 of their evidence, where they say: "The reality is that the Environment Agency does not have the manpower to make regular visits to producers, unless they are already required to visit for waste licensing and IPPC purposes." And they are already questioning whether you have got the people power to do the job now and in the future?
  (Dr Leinster) One of the things that we want to do with the new Special Waste Regulations is to move from a system whereby we were tracking consignment notes to one where we would have a registration process, and waste producers would register with us, they would then have a requirement on them to supply us with quarterly updates of information to do with the amount of material that they have produced in the period, and where they have sent it. And what we would like to do, under that new regime, is then spend more time in visiting particular producers, in auditing and providing advice to them on minimisation. So I think that the new Special Waste Regulations will provide an opportunity to have a shift in the nature of our work.

  195. Let me just move on now to another observation from the same company I quoted from a moment ago, Safety-Kleen, in paragraph 9 of their evidence to the Committee they said, and I quote: "The Landfill Regulations are broadly a reflection of the wording in the Directive. Many key issues are to be dealt with in guidance, rather than in the Regulations themselves, in particular, the meaning of treatment prior to landfilling." And they go on to make a couple of comments, bearing in mind your own earlier observations that guidance is guidance. They say: "This places a burden on the Environment Agency that should more appropriately be assumed by DEFRA as legislator. There is an industry view that due to lack of resources in DEFRA many key issues have been passed to the Environment Agency to handle rather than work up more comprehensive regulations to deal with important issues." Is that a problem that you recognise?
  (Mr Lee) As I said earlier on, we have already identified a number of important Government policy areas that need to be clarified for us and for the industries that we regulate. As Safety-Kleen have pointed out in their evidence, the Regulations themselves are a fairly simple write-across from the Directive, which is probably what we should anticipate more of in the future. That means that there is a lot of interpretation, technical guidance and policy that needs to be explained after the event of the Regulations, and we are keen for DEFRA to use the opportunities available to them to issue statutory guidance, to us and to the industries, because that helps us know the rules to the game, and it helps, frankly, to keep us all out of court; we could spend huge amounts of time arguing with each other in court over issues that could, and should, be made clear for us by Government. There are other issues, which I think it is only fair and proper that the Environment Agency should make clear through issue of its own technical guidance. But, yes, I agree with you, there are issues that we would like to see reflected in statutory guidance.

  196. Can you just explain, for the benefit of the Committee, the legal status of statutory guidance?
  (Mr Lee) Statutory guidance is guidance to which the various parties should have regard; that is not to say it is a black and white rule, that if you step across this line you have broken the rule and you will have committed an offence, but it is guidance to which the parties should have had regard, in making sure that they comply. Now that is much better than just Environment Agency guidance, which actually has a very much lesser status.

  197. Just looking to the future, we have talked about resources and the retention issues of people power, but can you just give the Committee a feel for what the implications will be for the Environment Agency, as all of this change becomes introduced. You were talking about your wish to go out and both give advice and police what was going on; it is difficult for me to get a clear picture as to whether this means more people or a better use of the existing numbers of people that you have?
  (Mr Lee) Yes, I think that is a good question. It is a question of different types of people. At the moment, the Environment Agency puts the majority of its hazardous waste effort into monitoring the movements through the consignment note system that I explained before the start of the session. A small amount of our effort is put into sending field staff into hazardous waste producers. Safety-Kleen assumed that we did very little, or none; that is not true, but, obviously, we do not do anywhere near as much as we would like to. We think it is at the hazardous waste producer end of the chain of responsibility that perhaps we could have the greatest impact. So, on moving into the new hazardous waste regime, we anticipate there will be a much reduced administrative job for the Environment Agency to do, which means that we would be able to use our resources to send more valuable people out to hazardous waste producer premises, check that they are registered and complying, and then actually do other good work whilst we are there, on the back of our regulatory work. That could include identifying sources of future waste minimisation guidance, or good practice, or identifying other businesses within the same industry sector who are doing different things, or managing to produce less hazardous waste. So there is quite a lot of good best practice work that we can do, on the back of rather more thoughtful visits to hazardous waste producers, rather than just being an administrative spider in the middle of the data web.

  198. You talked, earlier on, about the use of your expertise to minimise future waste streams. I suppose my first question is, industry, seeing that costs of disposal will increase, that is probably the thing that will concentrate their minds the most, and I guess good companies are already thinking very actively in this way, are we spending enough, if you like, from central resources on research to help that process; do you have any research monies yourself, what work are you doing actually to try to help achieve this reduction in waste streams, are there ideas that you have where you say, "I wish people would only use our idea, they could make x percent. reduction"? It may be a bit crude in putting it that way; just give me a flavour of how you are actually going to contribute to this process of waste reduction in the future?
  (Dr Leinster) There is already an organisation called Envirowise, which is a joint-sponsored, DEFRA-DTI body, which provides environmental advice, including on energy conservation, waste minimisation, for industry, and what they are doing is going through different sectors and identifying what waste minimisation can be applied. Within the Agency, as well, we have produced guidance on how to carry out a waste minimisation audit, how to look at particular streams and then how to manage that waste minimisation system through, and we have also run various waste minimisation clubs. When you get to hazardous waste, depending on the sector that we are talking about, it becomes more difficult, because for a number of these wastes the types of waste streams which will be produced will be dependent upon the chemical or other production process which is in place, and, as you say, the best people to identify how to minimise those wastes are the operators of those facilities. What we can do is to assist within the process of giving frameworks that you can use, tools that you can use, to assist within an audit identification and then reduction plan. One of the other things though that I believe we can play a part in is in the spread of best practice, and that is, if we are visiting many different sites, you then start picking up who is doing the best. And one of the ways that we want to use the information that we gather in the future is looking at particular sectors and looking at the quantity of waste, for example, per unit product, produced within a sector, and then see whether we can learn from the one with the lowest waste produced per unit production, and spread that learning to the other facilities and activities within that same sector. So I think a lot of our work is going to be on the spreading of best practice, rather than Agency people going in and re-engineering processes. I would not see that the re-engineering of processes was an Agency activity.

  199. Is this an area for nationally-set targets for the reduction of waste?
  (Dr Leinster) As long as it is feasible; and one of the things that we need to do as well within this is to look at not only UK waste production from certain industries, but is to look at best practice from across Europe. And one of the things that we are involved in, through the Pollution Prevention Control Regulations, and development of that, is the European Bureau which is developing best available techniques within that European context, and we have got a number of people who are seconded out to the Seville Bureau, working on this. Through that process, you can identify what the best in sector is able to deliver, and then you can use that information as well to deliver that information back into the UK. I think there is a role for targets, but you need to decide which wastes you are going to target and what the implications of those targets will be; but I think it has a role that needs to be explored further.

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