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Lord Dunleath: My Lords, I believe that I am the sole representative from Northern Ireland present in the Chamber today. I know that many of my colleagues have returned to the Province with a great deal of concern, as I shall shortly.

I totally agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, about the standards of education in Northern Ireland and about the benefits which service children enjoy at Northern Ireland schools. I was sent to a school in this country, about 30 miles from your Lordships' House, of a type of which perhaps Members on the

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Government Benches would not wholly approve. However, my wife and I took a conscious decision to send our own children to school in Northern Ireland. Our daughter has just finished her A-levels at a voluntary grammar school in Belfast and we have two boys currently at a separate voluntary grammar school in Belfast.

I too welcome the information which the Minister gave so clearly, as he always does, on the provision of additional funding for voluntary grammar schools and integrated schools. In particular, I am very pleased that the boards of governors and head teachers of these voluntary schools will still have the wherewithal to decide how to apply the funds they are given and that the power is not to be vested in the education and library boards. That is a welcome move. I have no problems with the order before us today.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am grateful for the general support for the order. I will deal with the points which were made, not necessarily in the same order.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, commented on the length of the order and criticised the parliamentary procedure for scrutinising it. I have a lot of sympathy with that point. All being well, these are matters which will in future be dealt with by the Assembly, which will no doubt develop its own ways of scrutinising them.

The noble Lord asked why the order was not left to the Assembly and said that there was a danger that the Assembly might have an empty in-tray. I can assure the noble Lord that the Government's concern is that the Assembly's in-tray will, if anything, be far too full by the time it ceases to be in shadow mode and takes over full powers early next year, I hope. The danger is that if we load the new Assembly with too much to do, there will be an enormous burden on individual Members and on Ministers in the early days and it will take rather longer for them to get round to some of these bread-and-butter issues than would otherwise be the case.

Another consideration is that if the Government were now to leave everything to the new Assembly, there would be a policy and decision-making vacuum for the next seven or eight months. I do not believe that that would be healthy in terms of politics; it would not represent good government; and it would not be in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, who surely expect government to continue and decisions to be made, particularly on a matter such as this which has been subject to such extensive consultation. I assure the noble Lord that the Assembly's in-tray will not be empty, but I do not believe that it would be proper for us to delay matters. Under that argument, there are many other matters of government policy and decision-making which would presumably also be left, and I am not sure that that would be a happy way of proceeding.

The order was initially prepared when the talks were at an early stage and there was at that point no assurance that the talks would reach the successful conclusion that occurred on Good Friday.

Some of the powers in the order are essential. Without them it will not be possible to move for the benefit of Northern Ireland schools on a range of issues which

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have widespread support, such as pre-school education, school improvement programmes and school development plans. As the noble Lord conceded, the order was subject to widespread consultation. We shall consult further in any instances where further enactment is needed to introduce any of its provisions. I believe that the order has such widespread support that it would be wrong for us not to proceed.

A question was asked about the general teaching council. The power of the council as to the removal of teachers from the register will be included in the regulations which will be made under the order.

I was asked how the department intended to implement the class-size policy in Northern Ireland. The scale of the matter is substantially less in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales. In addition, the structural and funding arrangements for education in Northern Ireland are quite different from those which exist in England and Wales. A working group of representatives of the Department of Education, the five education and library boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools is currently developing the detailed arrangements for the implementation of the policy on a standard basis across the Province. Resources will be available to schools from the department via education and library boards, when necessary, to assist them to comply with the policy. It is expected, however, that the great majority of schools will be able to comply with the policy without additional assistance.

I was asked whether additional funds would be available to implement the new class-size policy. This policy is a key priority. Subject to the outcome of the comprehensive spending review, additional funds will be made available to support it. However, as I said, many schools should be able to meet the statutory requirement by the effective use of existing teaching resources and possibly the reorganisation of class structures.

I appreciate the positive support for integrated education from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. The Government will continue to support well-founded proposals for new integrated schools in the primary and secondary sectors. We are committed to doing that and the order extends support to integrated education in the pre-school sector.

I can assure the noble Lord therefore that we are committed to integrated education. Of course, the speed with which we can move forward depends not just on overall support--one can quote statistics of support in Northern Ireland--but also on support in specific areas so that one can establish an integrated school of an adequate size. There is a difficulty therefore in the transition process, but we are moving forward as rapidly as possible.

The noble Lord asked also about the comment in Schedule 3 in relation to creditors. These are common provisions which have been in existence since 1990. There have been no objections from any source in two public consultations and of course the power would not be exercised unreasonably. Therefore, although the

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noble Lord raised the matter as something which might cause concern, it is an established way of operating and no one seems to have objected to it.

As regards the public finance initiative, again raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, of course that is not a panacea for all ills. However, it is a useful way of raising additional resources for education and, as such, the Government are committed to using the PFI whenever appropriate. There are specific areas of educational provision--the noble Lord mentioned computers--where the PFI approach might not work as well as in other aspects of education. But our commitment is there. We want to use the PFI as well as other means of raising the money necessary to continually improve education in Northern Ireland. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Producer Responsibility Obligations (Northern Ireland) Order 1998

12.51 p.m.

Lord Dubs rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the main purpose of the draft Producer Responsibility Obligations (Northern Ireland) Order is to introduce in Northern Ireland provisions on producer responsibility in line with those already in force in Great Britain under Sections 93 to 95 of the Environment Act 1995.

The order will also enable the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland to make regulations to implement European Community requirements.

The powers in the order will be used in the first instance to make producer responsibility regulations to place statutory obligations on businesses to meet recovery and recycling targets, thus enabling Northern Ireland to comply with the requirements of Article 6(1) of the EC directive on packaging and packaging waste.

We are all aware of the pressing need to find better ways of dealing with the waste which we produce through the development of more sustainable waste management practices. According to the most recent figures available, the amount of packaging waste currently going to landfill in the United Kingdom amounts to over 10 million tonnes per annum. This is clearly a figure which none of us wishes to see continued, let alone increased. Indeed, we want to reduce it. Sustainable waste management must therefore involve every individual, every household, every business and every district council in trying to find a better alternative. In fact, I recently announced the publication of a draft waste management strategy for Northern Ireland which seeks to move waste disposal away from landfill and up the waste hierarchy towards recycling and recovery.

I appreciate that the details of this order are somewhat technical and to that extent may sound dull when I describe them. But to ordinary people who have the misfortune to live near a landfill site, these matters are

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neither dull nor pedantic; they are of importance to them because most of those people would like to have no site at all or less waste going into the site. I am convinced that the future policy on waste is something which will affect everybody and in order to have an effective waste strategy we will need the active co-operation of households, councils, businesses and all others concerned with the matter. Therefore, it is not a dull issue, even though the details of the order appear dull at first glance.

The introduction of the legislation on producer responsibility will further the aims of the strategy and make a valuable contribution to the Government's sustainable development approach to the environment, but without imposing an undue burden upon smaller businesses. In that regard, it is estimated that the legislation will capture 90 per cent. of all packaging waste while placing an obligation upon only 10 per cent. of businesses in Northern Ireland. It is an impressive statistic that 10 per cent. of all businesses contribute 90 per cent. of all packaging waste. It is therefore the larger businesses which will be particularly involved.

The order should be of especial interest to the House because it is a piece of legislation which is not simply being imposed on industry out of the blue. It is, rather, the fruit of a long and constructive debate with a wide range of industry representatives on the best and most equitable means of ensuring that producers assume responsibility for the impact upon the environment of the materials and articles which they manufacture.

There has been widespread consultation with business in the United Kingdom. A consultation paper was published in Northern Ireland in 1996. The result of those consultations was the formulation of the shared producer responsibility concept which spreads the burden across the business sectors involved. It was also concluded that recovery and recycling targets could be met but not on a voluntary basis. Legislation would be necessary both to avoid free-riders and to provide an incentive for business-operated schemes to organise recovery and recycling to meet the targets.

It was also recognised that all sectors of the packaging chain would have to be involved, from raw materials manufacturers and convertors of that raw material into packaging through to packer-fillers and sellers to the final user.

That, in essence, is the content of the order. It is designed on the one hand to comply with specific aims as regards the recovery and recycling of waste materials and on the other to ensure that individual businesses may choose the method of compliance which best suits their own business operation.

The order achieves those objectives by introducing provisions which, while strengthening environmental law and ensuring that Northern Ireland can implement national, EC and international obligations, do not offer any barrier to competition or free trade. The regulations will set annual tonnage and turnover thresholds. Only those businesses which both have an annual turnover of over £5 million per annum and handle 50 tonnes or more of packaging per annum will be subject to the

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regulations. This means that all small business will be exempt from any obligations. The regulations will also provide for businesses to meet their statutory obligations, if they so choose, through membership of exemption schemes for joint compliance. What this means in practice is that in return for the payment of a fee, an exemption scheme will assume the legal obligations of its member companies and arrange for the required tonnages of waste packaging materials to be recycled on their behalf.

In Great Britain, the duties of registration and monitoring of obligated companies that this legislation entails are being carried out by the Environment Agency in England and Wales and by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency north of the Border. In Northern Ireland that role will be carried out by the Environment and Heritage Service, an executive agency of the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland which already carries out a similar regulatory and monitoring role in respect of other environmental controls.

The business community in Northern Ireland was initially consulted about a shared responsibility approach to the legislation in November 1996. Those consulted included members of the packaging chain, the waste and recycling sector, major manufacturers and retail chains, trade and industry federations, district councils, environmental groups and other interested parties. There were, of course, a number of concerns regarding the costs and practicalities involved in meeting the proposed targets. However, the response was on the whole favourable and in accord with the Government's ongoing commitment to achieving a more sustainable approach to dealing with the impact of waste upon the environment.

We have been mindful of the importance of ensuring that the economic cost of implementing the order should not discriminate against any sector of industry. I am pleased to be able to reassure the House that the operation of the legislation will be the subject of detailed scrutiny. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st June be approved.--(Lord Dubs.)

1 p.m.

Lord Randall of St. Budeaux: My Lords, I welcome this statutory instrument because it takes important steps towards improving our environment. I like the idea that manufacturers should take responsibility for the by-products that arise through manufacturing processes.

There is always a problem in achieving a balance between environmental protection and waste management. I should like my noble friend to explain more about the impact the order will have on small firms. He said that it would not be a burden on small firms but went on to describe the exemption scheme, which, on the face of it, sounded rather good. However, fees will be associated with that exemption scheme. This worries me very much because the role of SMEs and micro-companies is so important to the development of the economy, not just in Northern Ireland but throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. We have to ensure

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that we do not increase the burdens on such developing companies in a way that would impair their rate of development, their productivity and their ability to re-invest.

Accordingly, I would be most obliged if my noble friend could give the House some assurances on the impact that the order will have on SMEs and what protection it will offer them so as to ensure that their performance and development are not impaired.


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