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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 339)



  320. There are a second series of questions, are there not? Suppose the amount of landfill goes down because we over landfill at the moment, suppose the private sector who deliver the policy make some hard commercial decisions, there could well be parts of the country where there is a lack of facilities to landfill?
  (Mr Meacher) As I say, there could be. I think this is all hypothesis. I think it is rather otiose at this stage to try to decide what we should do if. As I say, within a few weeks we shall have a much clearer idea. If it certainly looks as though there is going to be a serious lack of hazardous landfill facilities in July 2004 obviously we are going to have to take action with the industry quickly to fill that gap, and we will.

  321. But there are public policy issues here because we are asking the private sector to deliver a public policy. What I am trying to get at is yes there are discussions with a variety of bodies, including the operators, but who is driving the policy, who is driving the strategy? We have got a Directive here, it is being implemented, somebody ought not to know where we are going to, what the shape of things is, what the shape of the future is? I do not get that certainty at the moment.
  (Mr Meacher) It is clearly the Directive which is driving the policy. That is the law, that is what has to be implemented. You say it is private operators working with Government, of course that is perfectly true and it is the case, also, that private operators in this part of the market, as in so many others, if there is a gap they will see that there is a profitable way of filling it. I do not think there will be a lack of willingness to consider investment if they believe there is a market there which they will be able to meet.

  322. So it is a market driven policy.
  (Mr Meacher) No, it is a public policy driven project. It is driven, certainly, by a vision of appropriate disposal for hazardous waste but it is being implemented in a market organised manner and I think that is perfectly appropriate.

  323. What may well happen is the amount of landfill declines, the price of disposal goes up, there will be new more high tech treatment mechanisms perhaps in the future. The development of those will be dependent upon getting the necessary planning permissions. Now this is a notoriously difficult area. There is a review of planning policy on at the moment. First of all, do you think the review of the planning policy will be helpful? Is this an issue the PIU might or might not be looking at? Is planning policy going to help deliver this?
  (Mr Meacher) Certainly I hope it is. Unquestionably the PIU will be looking at this. They will be interested, as we are, about the information which is revealed in the site conditioning plans in the middle of this month. As to this potential gap which I am being asked about, some have argued, of course, the opposite. As a result of the new requirements the costs of landfilling hazardous waste will rise, which again in market terms could well drive towards a reduction in hazardous waste, which again I think would be very helpful. If it works in the other direction, and there is a gap, I repeat I would expect private operators if there is a certainty in the market to invest. Planning policy, I am quite sure, we would want to make compatible with that.


  324. Can I just raise one or two practical points which have been put to us as we have gathered evidence about how this thing is going to operate. For example, we went to see a very well run facility of an incinerator run by Cleanaway at Ellesmere Port last Monday and it was clear that particular facility was running somewhere near its full capacity, clearly there was a demand. I can see the situation where people may, if you like, for the sake of knowing that they have got an absolute method of disposal, look to that type of facility in the future. We are going to have a special evidence session tomorrow to hear, for example, from the Cement Manufacturers Association. They seem to be very keen to advance the virtues of cement kilns being used for disposal but as you may well have heard yourself there is an issue because under current situations they are not subjected to the same emission requirements as incinerators, partly because they are not burning as much "waste" as the incinerator is. They have an advantage, also, where they can use as the fuel, materials with a high calorific value in their process which, unfortunately, the specialist incinerator cannot because there is no energy credit given to them in terms of the use of that material. Now if high temperature incineration becomes a growing feature of our hazardous waste disposal how are you going to deal with that type of issue to ensure that the cement people do not get an unfair advantage which currently the high temperature incineration industry thinks is conferred upon them with the use of certain fuels or waste acting as fuels?
  (Mr Meacher) You are absolutely right, Chairman, there is an issue there. I have met representatives from the high temperature incineration industry who are exactly making that point. The problem arises because the Waste Framework Directive of the EU takes a different view as to whether the purpose of the operation is for disposal as opposed to energy recovery. That is why in the case of cement kilns they have an advantage because it is for energy recovery whereas HTI, which is purely for disposal, is denied it. As I say, that is a definitional distinction which is made under the Waste Framework Directive. Certainly it is felt to be extremely unfair by high temperature incineration. I might say there are only two such plants in this country, Ellesmere Port is one, I think Fauls is the other and the third at Pontypool closed down recently I think for other reasons. They do feel sorely that there is an inequity and certainly they believe that in those circumstances they will feel under pressure to revert to using fossil fuels, that is certainly the argument they use, and obviously I would not wish them to do that but we are bound by the provisions of the EU legislation.

  325. That is in use, they cannot change that? You cannot reopen discussions?
  (Mr Meacher) Anything can be changed but you have to wait, as you know, for the EU legislative timetable and get the agreement of the Commission and of the other 14 Member States. We are looking to see whether within the current framework it is possible to find a way of meeting their requirements. I do not want to go further than that.

  326. It is helpful to hear you say that because at the end of the day it should be what is the best practical method of disposing of material that drives this.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  327. It raises a worry in my mind and that was why I started my initial line of questioning about the amount of environmental legislation. Much of it interrelates, I am only just beginning to wrap my mind around how it all locks together. What I do not sense, and your response to my previous question illustrates the fact, and I will ask this as a question, is there somebody within the Commission, in your opinion, who is taking sufficient of an overview as to how all this lot links together? Clearly we have a point in question here where what is good for one industry is a problem for another and yet they are both in the same business of disposing of hazardous materials.
  (Mr Meacher) They are two rather different issues. I do think it is a valid distinction between disposal for incineration and energy for recovery. In environmental terms clearly there is an important distinction and to support one without necessarily supporting the other does have an environmental logic behind it. On your first question, your major question, of course I do not know how far there are senior officials in the Commission who are taking the necessary overview because, of course, the Council of Ministers which I attend is presented with a series of items and an agenda, which the Presidency has agreed with the Commission, and whether there is someone behind this process who is orchestrating it in a consistent compatible way I rather doubt. But I take your point that it is a consideration, not just in terms of energy for recovery versus disposal but in terms of broader compatibility of several wide ranging and fundamental measures which is changing the direction and the thrust of policy, particularly for the UK which has rather notoriously, I think, not had a good record over environmental regulation or disposal. It is having to change its practices to a marked degree. Now whether, as I say, someone is taking an overview on that I rather doubt. Sometimes, I think, we have ministerial away days for Departments at Westminster, a ministerial away day with the Commission in some spot—not Bali—would probably be a very good idea.

  328. I was going to say not Bali. Very good. It does strike me as that because coming back to what you said before, here we are, sort of sitting on the edge of our seats waiting until the 23 July before you, as a Department, will have some indication as to the likely capacity in terms of landfill for the future disposal of hazardous waste against a background where, as I understand it, the Waste Acceptance Criteria are in fact only to be of interim status. So it could be, you might like to comment on this, what might happen actually between 2004, I gather, and 2008, when this thing finally becomes a non interim solution, it seems to me a recipe for a certain amount of uncertainty; am I right or wrong in that perception?
  (Mr Meacher) I think to a good degree you are right. When you say we are sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for the vote on 23 July, I think that is an amusing over presentation.

  329. You might be looking forward to Parliament going into recess to stop us asking difficult questions.
  (Mr Meacher) I think we have a pretty good idea of the direction in which things are going. It is not as though this is like, is it, who is going to score the first goal in the World Cup where it could go either way, I think this is pretty certain and of course we have been preparing on that basis. But, like all formal votes, until it actually happens you cannot be absolutely certain. Looking to the wider issue, particularly, for example, what happens between 2004 and 2005, I do not know that the Environmental Services Association are keen that the Waste Acceptance Criteria are introduced a year earlier—that is in July 2004—because they do not want untreated hazardous waste going into hazardous only landfill. I do not think that is the issue, actually, because the Landfill Directive requires all hazardous waste to be treated in July 2004 but there is an issue, particularly if there are going to be any further changes in the Waste Acceptance Criteria, as to whether there will be sufficient treatment capacity available to meet the very strict Waste Acceptance Criteria by July 2004. Now that is a significant question because the issue is how to manage that period during which waste must be pre-treated but not necessarily to the standard required to meet the strict Waste Acceptance Criteria. I know that the Environment Services Association have tried to reconcile this by suggesting that hazardous waste should be treated to what they call final storage quality. Well, once again, it is not one of those interpretations which is necessarily agreed by everyone, it is not even necessarily the best practical environmental option. The treatment standard is of course linked very closely to the Waste Acceptance Criteria for each type of site. But I agree these are still questions to which there is no final answer. It is not as though it is a "yes/no" question as it was over fridges. In terms of making investments, which are quite significant, it is important that even down to the detail, the precision of the requirements should be fully known, and that is not the case at the moment and I think that is not satisfactory.

Mr Borrow

  330. Can I just come on to the questions to do with whether or not we should have a national hazardous waste management plan. The Committee have received comments from Cleanaway supported by the Environment Agency. They have said they would welcome a national plan. I take it from both your Department's memorandum, which has been submitted to the Committee, and earlier comments that you have made, that you regard the Waste Strategy 2000 as incorporating a hazardous waste strategy or management plan. Am I right in assuming you would not wish to go down the line of developing or producing a separate hazardous waste management plan?
  (Mr Meacher) You are absolutely right. I would strongly assert that the UK already has a national waste strategy, not only for England but for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We have the Environment Agency Strategic Waste Management Assessments. Let us be aware, hazardous waste is only approximately two per cent of total waste arising so there really is no need for a separate hazardous waste plan. I know another idea which has been put forward by the CIA—the Chemical Industry Association—is an Industrial Waste Forum in order to bring together the various stakeholders. I am always in favour of that being done. It is the same in terms of the Chemical Stakeholder Forum, and I think it would be appropriate. If all sections of the industry, and of course the conservation NGO groups, if they could be brought together I think that would be a very good way of proceeding. I do not think with all these detailed strategies in place we want another plan. What we want to do is to find a way of getting early and authoritative answers to the relative details which still need to be settled.

  Mr Borrow: Obviously your Department is in regular discussion either directly with yourself or through officials with the Environment Agency. In many ways they are a key organisation in supporting the Department in their hazardous waste management plan. I wonder to what extent the discussions between the Environment Agency and your Department have been able to either put their concerns at rest or answer some of the concerns that they have?


  331. Just before the Minister answers, he may not have had a chance to read the Environment Agency's evidence but they said actually that they would welcome a national plan for hazardous waste management specifically in their evidence to us.
  (Mr Meacher) I did not know that. I am quite surprised, for the reasons I have given, to have a further inset. I take it the Environment Agency is not looking for an alternative strategy of 2000 but to have a special inset for hazardous waste I would regard as unnecessary because even if we were to do that it still cannot answer the crucial questions. It is the questions which we have been talking about this afternoon which need answering, not having a separate plan.

Mr Borrow

  332. One of the things which the Environment Agency has said to the Committee is that the data which will be needed to develop such a separate hazardous waste management plan is actually being collated. So they are working under the assumption that information is being pulled together which would develop a plan in 2002-03, presumably building on the Waste Strategy Plan of 2000.
  (Mr Meacher) I think what the Environment Agency is referring to there is the collation of information which will be assisted, certainly, by the site conditioning plans so that they can require landfill operators now to submit, by 16 July of this year, which will set out how their existing sites will meet the requirements of the Directive and the site classification sort: is it hazardous or non hazardous. All of that information is already, I am quite sure, to a large degree in the hands of the Environment Agency and, of course, that is very valuable and important information. I can understand that once you have all that information you have the essence, if you like, of a hazardous waste plan. Maybe it is just a semantics difference but I am always against trying to solve problems by having separate committees or separate plans. It is getting the basic plan and the basic committee to address the real issues which are still not answered, and answering them. That is what is really needed in my view.

  333. I think the submission made to the Committee by the Environment Agency on this issue is quite crucial.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  334. I recognise the Minister has not had the opportunity to see it and study it.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  Mr Borrow: I think it will probably be important that the Department come back, having considered the evidence submitted by the Environment Agency, with a further response before we produce our report.


  335. We are very happy to send, Minister, a marked up copy of the relevant section in their evidence and before we draw our conclusions you might find time to be able to respond to that in a little more detail when you have seen in context what they have said. I think we would find that very helpful.
  (Mr Meacher) Can I just say, Chairman, if I have anything in addition to what I have said already, certainly we will let the Committee have a note.

Paddy Tipping

  336. I am pleased to hear there is a Hazardous Waste Strategy. You told us earlier on you were waiting for the industry to tell you what they were going to do after 16 July. That does not sound like a very proactive strategy, Minister, it sounds as if we are going to respond to what the market tells us.
  (Mr Meacher) I think there is a misunderstanding. What I am saying is that landfill operators—I repeat again—by 16 July when they submit site conditioning plans to the Environment Agency, they have to decide whether in future they are going to operate a hazardous waste landfill or a non hazardous waste landfill. That is not just saying "Leave the drawing up of a strategy to the industry", it is saying to the individual components that they have to tell us what their intentions are and in the light of that, the Environment Agency can form its appropriate dispositions as to whether or not after 2004 there will be sufficient hazardous landfill facility to meet the nation's requirements.

  337. We will return to that, I am sure, in correspondence. I did want to ask you just about the End of Life Vehicle Directive. In evidence to us earlier on today the Local Government Association expressed real concerns and perhaps you remember they were calling for early implementation from 2007-05. The Government has made a decision of 2007. There seemed to be real concerns amongst local authorities about the problem of illegal disposal of cars and it must be a very real possibility. They are putting a figure at £60 million as the cost to local authorities of the End of Life Vehicle Directive. How does that fit with your own estimates?
  (Mr Meacher) The regulatory impact assessment that we have made—obviously these are only estimates—of implementing the End of Life Vehicle Directive is between £22 and £56 million a year, so £60 million is only slightly over the top end of that. Of course a good deal depends, again, on exactly how it is undertaken. Like Germany and France, we made a decision which we published on 21 June that it will be the last owner who will be responsible for disposal, up until 2007, after which point it will be up to the producer; that is laid down by the Directive. For the period up to 2007, it is left at the discretion of Member States and we have taken the same view as France and Germany. Of course the risk is, in leaving it as the responsibility of the last owner, that it could lead to an increase in abandoned cars. We did, on 10 April this year, set out our proposals to try to deal with that which for vehicles of what is generously called "no value"—that is wrecks of one kind or another—the period of time within which they can be removed legally by local authorities was reduced to 24 hours. For vehicles which have some value within the market place the period is reduced to seven days. Certainly that will lead to the removal of abandoned vehicles, and has done already, on a much larger scale. In the case of Operation Cubit seven and a half thousand motorists in that one area, I think in Kent and then in Newham, were induced to re-licence their vehicles as a result of its operation which saved £1.3 million of additional revenue. So there are ways of countering the whole problem of abandoned vehicles, partly by giving increased powers to local authorities, partly by modernising the whole system of vehicle registration, the question which we are looking at of continuous registration. Although putting the responsibility on the last owner, for well understood reasons, which as I say is shared by other Member States, there could be an increase in abandoned vehicles, I do not deny that, but we are trying to meet it by fairly firm and tough measures. Indeed, I commissioned a report from Operation Cubit as to the basis of the initial pilots which have been carried out and are now being followed in other local authorities as to whether it would be appropriate to have a national roll-out.

  338. You are telling us the measures put in place in April for greater powers for local authorities, greater controls on licensing which could be rolled out, will ensure that up to 2007 we will not see more abandoned vehicles?
  (Mr Meacher) I cannot say that. I cannot say there will be no more abandoned vehicles. At the present time about 350,000 vehicles are abandoned each year. I could not make a commitment there will be no increase but I think we can keep any possible increase down to fairly reasonable proportions. I do not think there will be a great explosion, that is not quite the word in this case, I do not think there will be a sudden enlargement in that figure, certainly I hope not.

  339. Ten per cent on 350?
  (Mr Meacher) I do not think anyone can make that kind of decision. Really it depends, I think, on the rigour and comprehensiveness with which we learn the operations of Operation Cubit and apply those nationwide. I am strongly in favour of tough measures.

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