Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment

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Mr. Wilson: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's every word.

Mr. Hammond: Is there a loophole, and are there any plans to close it?

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm whether there are plans to create a separate regime for the recycling of business waste electronic and electrical equipment as distinct from household waste? One of the documents that I read last night suggested that businesses would be in a different position when purchasing electronic and electrical equipment, and that there would be an option for the producer and the purchaser to agree a different sharing of responsibility for the ultimate disposal costs. Do the Government intend to set up a regime that recognises the different status of the buyer? Is that their understanding of the directive?

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Finally, has the Department carried out an assessment of the likely impact of the WEEE directive on the roll-out of new technology? Is it the Government's view that it will slow up the rate of replacement of equipment? Is not there a danger that that will, in turn, slow up the rate of introduction of new technology, whether it is the latest generation mobile phones or the latest generation of computer equipment? We know from work done in the United States of America that the speed of introduction of new technology into the workplace, especially IT, is a significant factor in determining productivity growth rates.

One of the Chancellor's principal targets is to improve the United Kingdom's productivity growth and, God knows, he will need that to happen if he is to get near hitting the growth figures for the UK economy over the next three years on which he has based his spending programmes. Is the Minister not worried that a perverse, unintended consequence of the directive may slow up the deployment of new technology and thus make UK business marginally less competitive in comparison with its USA counterpart? That counterpart is more significant to UK business than it is to most of our European Union partner businesses because we have a larger trade with the United States than with any of our European Union partners.

I shall turn briefly to the hazardous substances directive. I have already asked the Minister to confirm that the Government will defend rigorously the use of the separate legal base and resist moves that have been made by other member states to have the hazardous waste directive introduced under the article 175 base, not the article 95 base. Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Government will argue for a single harmonised date for the introduction of the hazardous substances directive rules and that the date for the UK will be the latest permitted by the directive?

The hon. Member for South Thanet has already asked about the availability of alternative materials. Perhaps the Minister would touch on that. Will there be any derogations? For example, will products that involve hazardous substances be permitted in military applications, even though they would not be permitted in civilian applications?

12.4 pm

Mr. Wilson: May I express my appreciation to members of the Committee, especially those who have spoken, for the manner in which the discussion has unfolded? Such measures are vulnerable to caricature and to misrepresentation, particularly when ''Europe'' is involved. The directives are sensible and potentially beneficial measures. They will lead to an incremental increase in the recycling of products that should be recycled rather than dumped in the ground for a distant, future generation to deal with. As long as the manner and method of implementation is as sensible as the objective, the directives will lead not to problems, but to significant environmental benefit and economic opportunities.

The Committee's approach to the directives is a reflection of the consensus on such issues. I certainly

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welcome the range of questions that I have been asked, particularly those by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, and I shall answer them seriously. I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman on those questions that I do not deal with today. It is important for me to stress at the outset that many questions fall into the category of ''I don't know the answer yet'', because consultation is ongoing. Part of the purpose of the debate, at the instigation of the European Scrutiny Committee, is to elucidate the thinking behind the directives and justify them. I hope that both the spirit and the detail of our discussion will contribute to that objective.

The WEEE directive seeks to deliver significant environmental benefits. One of the hon. Gentleman's early questions was whether we need an EU directive to do that. It helps to have a directive, not least because the measure would apply to the whole of the European Union so the relative competitive issues would not arise in the same way. Concerted action is good, but it is also important to stress that it will not be an imposition because the directive is in line with the UK's national waste strategies.

What are the potential benefits of the directive? It is not a case of taking figures that have either been plucked out of the air or provided by the European Union. We have undertaken research and have commissioned additional work from PricewaterhouseCoopers, which demonstrates that greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts from the disposal of electrical items should improve by between 10 and 50 per cent. under the WEEE directive compared with current UK practice. That is not an insignificant benefit. We must try to maximise it and ensure that it is at the 50 per cent. end of the scale, not the 10 per cent. end.

The UK already collects nearly 50 per cent. of household WEEE items by weight, most of which are large white goods. Many of them already enter a recycling process. As I said earlier, the directive does not deal with rocket science or other great innovations. Many local authorities carry out the practice of recycling very well, but what should arise from the directive is an incremental improvement in our performance.

In fairness to local authorities, it is important to emphasise that they are not reluctant partners in the process. They probably put a lot more thought on a daily basis into such issues than Parliament does. They are closer to the implementation of that kind of activity in their communities, and therefore want to improve their performance as part of the general service that they give to their communities.

Several EU member states, including the Netherlands and Sweden, already have similar legislation, and it works. The directives are not a dramatic innovation; other countries are already doing things of the type mentioned in the directive, and there is no reason why we cannot do them. We should be learning from their experiences as well as ours. We should regard the implementation as well worth doing, and we should go for it in a credible way.

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We also know, from the experiences of other countries, something of the costs involved. As a result of such legislation, the average price of consumer goods in the Netherlands rose by 1 per cent., not the 10 to 15 per cent. claimed by some lobby groups in the UK. I also stress that the directive creates big opportunities for the waste management industry. I shall later say more about the potential for innovation and doing things better, and how that is an economic good.

The industry is big, and will be even bigger if we take what we are doing with electrical goods in conjunction with end of life vehicles and all the other recycling measures that are coming through. If the opportunities are taken, they can produce many jobs. Even the much-reviled fridges will be an employment creator once the infrastructure for dealing with them is in place. The environmental benefit of that infrastructure is beginning to come through. There is a proposal for such infrastructure in my constituency, so I am particularly aware of it. The measures will produce new or expanded industries, and that is another benefit.

The ROHS directive has been the poor relation in the debate; we have concentrated on the WEEE directive, and the ROHS directive has been WEEE's wee brother. It is worth noting that, under the ROHS directive, from 2007 the following materials and components of electrical equipment will be banned: lead, cadmium, hexavalent chromium—an anti-corrosive—mercury, and two brominated flame-retardants. All sorts of nasty things that go into household items will be banned under the directive, and that will be an incentive for producers to think harder, and in a more environmentally friendly way, about the materials and substances that they use.

The hon. Gentleman asked about subsidiarity. The WEEE directive allows considerable subsidiarity, but environmental impacts—air pollution, and so on—are cross-boundary. The WEEE directive makes all producers responsible, so it also has some single-market elements. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the two directives come under different powers. The ROHS directive comes under article 95, which refers to the single market, and the WEEE directive under article 175, which is on the environment. It is agreed by all that that is the basis on which we should proceed, so I reassure the hon. Gentleman on that.

The hon. Gentleman is a bit too pessimistic. We must not discourage people from taking their bottles to be recycled by telling them that there is no point. There was a recent story about people on the Isle of Skye—with which I am quite familiar—who loyally took their bottles and so on to be recycled, put them into different slots, and were somewhat disappointed to find that the whole lot was then solemnly removed and put into landfill. I hope that that is a minority experience rather than a common one. By and large, people who recycle and separate their waste are doing a public service, and we should encourage them to do so as widely as possible.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Greece and Ireland. As he predicted, intelligence has reached me about the matter. Greece and Ireland have a

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derogation that means that they do not have to meet the 4 kg collection target. I understand that we endorsed that agreement on the basis that they simply did not have the infrastructure to meet the targets within the time scale, especially because of the country's sparse population in rural areas. It is not an indefinite derogation, and neither should it be. There are parts of the UK that are as sparsely populated as rural Ireland or rural Greece. There may be a case for a temporary derogation on the basis of existing infrastructure, but it should not become permanent.

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