British-Irish Council: Environment

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:30 pm on 22nd November 2016.

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Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP 4:30 pm, 22nd November 2016

With your permission, Mr Speaker, in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I will make the following report on the fourteenth British-Irish Council (BIC) meeting held in environment sectoral format in the St Pierre Park Hotel, Guernsey, on Friday 4 November 2016. The Northern Ireland Executive were represented by me, on behalf of Minister Michelle McIlveen, and Megan Fearon, junior Minister in the Executive Office. The report has been endorsed by junior Minister Fearon, and she has agreed that I should make the statement on behalf of both of us.

Members will be aware that the BlC was established in 1999 and is a forum for members to discuss, consult and use best endeavours to reach agreement on cooperation on matters of mutual interest within the competence of its member Administrations. The environment work sector is led by the UK Government. It has proved a constructive forum for facilitating evidence exchange and practical collaboration since the Council was first established.

The meeting in Guernsey focused on addressing the problem of food waste and on improving the quality and quantity of recycling. The meeting was chaired by Dr Thérèse Coffey MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Life Opportunities. The Irish Government were represented by Seán Kyne TD, the Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs and Natural Resources. The Scottish Government were represented by Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform. The Welsh Government were represented by Lesley Griffiths, Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs. The Isle of Man Government were represented by Geoffrey Boot, Minister for the Environment, Food and Agriculture. The Jersey Government were represented by Deputy Steve Luce, Minister for the Environment. The Guernsey Government were represented by Barry Brehaut, President of the Committee for the Environment and Infrastructure.

Ministers discussed food waste and responses across their Administrations. Tim Smith, group quality director at Tesco, attended for the first part of the item to set out how Tesco is addressing the global issue of food waste. Tesco is working to meet an ambition of sending no surplus food that can be safely eaten to waste from its UK stores by the end of next year. The approach includes partnering with producers and growers to tackle food waste across the supply chain and helping customers to reduce waste in their home. Ministers endorsed the need to tackle food waste for a variety of financial, environmental and moral reasons and noted that all members of the Council shared the goal of reducing food waste wherever possible. Ministers agreed that all members of the Council will wish to see concrete steps taken towards achieving the UN sustainable development goal target to, by 2030, halve per capita global food waste at retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses. Finally, Ministers committed to working together to develop and share ideas and experiences of policy interventions to support each Administration's ambitions on food waste.

Following the discussion on food waste, Ministers discussed recycling and how to improve both quality and quantity. They noted that the materials that flow through our economy represent a valuable resource and that recycling those materials can create economic opportunities for business and local authorities whilst playing an important role in minimising our call on finite global resources. Ministers noted that the diverse experiences across Administrations presented opportunities for collaboration and learning to enable the citizens of these islands to view everyday materials as a resource and to recycle them effectively. Ministers also agreed that all Administrations should continue to share information and experiences on the challenges, particularly with reference to increasing the quantity and quality of recycling and improving material prices. They agreed that member Administrations should work together to tackle common challenges on recycling, where opportunities arise to do so. They also agreed to identify and share research on recycling in cities.

Following on from the thirteenth BIC environment ministerial meeting, held on the Isle of Man in 2014, Ministers reaffirmed the threats posed to their respective ecosystems from invasive non-native species. They noted that that continued to be a matter of concern across these islands and agreed to continue collaboration and cooperation between all BIC member Administrations, including holding a workshop for those working on the issue.

Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to agreements on natural capital and resources made at the Council’s London summit in November 2015. They discussed and noted the progress made on those agreements in the intervening period, including a series of workshops held earlier this year that explored matters relating to pollinators and natural capital accounting. Ministers agreed to continue collaboration and cooperation on natural capital and resources.

Ministers agreed that the fifteenth ministerial meeting would be held in Dublin in 2018. In addition to the commitments outlined, Ministers asked that the work sector collaborate on a programme of work looking at ways to collaborate on the implementation of the UN sustainable development goals, with a particular focus on goal 6, which is to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, and goal 13, which is to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impact. The work sector will report on progress to the next meeting of Environment Ministers.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP 4:45 pm, 22nd November 2016

I am grateful to the Minister for the update. I note from his statement that he records that all involved:

"reaffirmed their commitment to agreements on natural capital and resources made at the Council’s London summit in November 2015."

Of course, the main focus of that was on pollinators. I would be grateful for an update on the Executive's work on pollinators.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

That was work that was carried out after the last meeting. I will touch on natural capital first, if I may. It is a concept that we are looking at with some interest because it is one of those areas that can make a huge positive impact across the country in identifying our natural resources. I will write to the Member on the pollinator process, because, as he will know, I was standing in for the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. I will write to him with all the details, and I am sure that he will be able to absorb them in due course.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

How is the Department working with councils to increase the amount of domestic waste, including food waste, being recycled?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

This year, upwards of £2·5 million of financial assistance has been allocated by the Department for councils to invest in and improve recycling infrastructure and services. The Department will also work in partnership with councils on communications, especially on food waste, research — particularly to identify options, costs and timelines for increasing council household waste recycling rates — and to agree action plans to reinforce the strategic approach to dealing with Northern Ireland municipal waste.

It is important that we work in partnership. Across the various councils, there is a mixed bag in the recycling rate and in the way in which they ask their constituents to separate their food and waste in bins. We need to work on that to try to improve it across the Province.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. It would seem that there was quite significant discussion on food waste, which we need to have a bit more of a focus on. There are some very good examples of good practice in other EU states. Will the Minister tell us what measures, relating to how the issue is dealt with in other jurisdictions, he feels could be applied here?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

It is a hugely important issue, particularly given the importance of the agrifood sector in Northern Ireland. The inefficiency from food waste arising throughout the supply chain from farmer to householder undermines the economy and wastes natural resources. By addressing food waste, we will help businesses to become more resource-efficient, more competitive and more sustainable.

It is not, of course, just businesses. UK households throw away in the region of 7 million tons of food and drink every year and that costs us in the region of £12·5 billion. By improving the whole structure, the average family could save in the region of £700 a year. That shows how important this is. In Northern Ireland, 56% of food waste is sent to landfill, which accounts for about a third of all household waste that is sent to landfill.

In the discussions that we had across the different jurisdictions, I am not sure that it was so much that we were learning from others; it was important that we shared information about the various things that we were doing and got reassurance that we all face the same challenges in educating people in how to ensure that they are not wasting their food sources and how to separate food waste, which is a particular challenge with the older generation. There is also a significant difference between urban and rural areas, which all jurisdictions will have to address.

It was encouraging that particular note was given to some of the things that we are doing in Northern Ireland. A number of initiatives were mentioned that other places have also done. The Love Food Hate Waste campaign was very successful. The Waste and Resources Action Programme was noted, as were the hospitality and food services sector responsibility agreement and the Rethink Waste capital and revenue funds. Most significantly, other jurisdictions are learning from us through the Food Waste Regulations that were introduced in January 2015 and that place a number of responsibilities on businesses in reducing food waste. We should be proud of that and of the fact that other countries have taken an interest in those regulations.

Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement, which mentions the importance of tackling non-native invasive species across these islands. The Minister will be aware that invasive species are causing environmental concern across the North, particularly in Fermanagh, on the land and even in Lough Erne. Will the Minister outline what steps he has taken to tackle the like of Japanese knotweed that is a huge concern, not alone in Fermanagh and South Tyrone but across the North?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

I am not sure that I have taken any particular steps, but I know that the Minister has worked on that issue. There was a debate on 20 September, and I know that Members from constituencies across Northern Ireland raised particular issues. At constituency level, many of us have been approached by people who are getting increasingly frustrated that action cannot be taken to deal with this. I know that the Minister has asked officials to examine the policy options available to her Department and the consequential financial and resource implications that those would have. She has a mind to report back on that in due course.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I thank the Minister for his stand-in role, at the meeting and today. I must say that I was slightly disappointed to see so much of a focus on recycling given that I thought that we had got slightly higher up the waste pyramid and were looking more at reduce and reuse. In relation to the Minister's reference to UN sustainable development goal 13 on climate change, is there any chance of us hearing that the Executive will introduce a climate change Bill by next week, which is the first anniversary of the Assembly calling for it?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

I sincerely doubt it.

Photo of Sydney Anderson Sydney Anderson DUP

I thank the junior Minister for his statement. How do recycling rates in Northern Ireland compare with those of other BIC members?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

We sit somewhere in the middle. The European average is 40·45%, and Northern Ireland has a household recycling rate of 42%. You have to take these figures with a pinch of salt because different countries use different definitions for recycling. That is a broad indicator rather than the definitive figures. The exemplar region appears to be Wales, with a rate of about 53%, but it uses a slightly different definition from the one used here, in England or in Scotland. At 32%, Jersey has the lowest rate because it relies quite heavily on incineration. We are sitting at 42%, which is around the average of all the countries in the BIC.

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

I thank the junior Minister for his answers so far. I draw his attention to paragraph 11 on the threats to ecosystems from invasive non-native species. I will bring the question of Lough Foyle into this and the unregulated fishing practices of fishermen bringing in seed mussels. Some might be non-invasive species that could wipe out the natural mussel or oyster in that area. Will the work sector look at how we can move this on so that agreement can be made between the British and Irish Governments on regulations for Lough Foyle before its ecosystem is wiped out?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

That was not discussed at the BIC meeting in Guernsey, but I am happy to pass that on to the Minister, and I am sure that she will respond directly to the Member.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

I thank the junior Minister for his answers so far. He referred to the problem of food waste here in Northern Ireland. What specifically is being done by the industry to tackle the issue?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

That is an interesting point. We had an opportunity to talk to Tim Smith from Tesco at the BIC meeting. It is important that supermarkets play their role in reducing waste, and there are a number of things that they are trying to do. The first is making sure that packaging is appropriate and that customers recognise that grouping a number of food items leads to a lot of wastage and people throwing food away. Increasingly, they are looking at the packaging of individual portions of food.

The other issue raised was food labelling and the difference between use-by dates and best-before dates, particularly for the younger generation, who tend to look at the best-before date and throw away food when it has gone past it, even though it could be perfectly safe and healthy to eat. They are looking at labelling in order to encourage people not to throw food away when it reaches its best-before date and look at the use-by date instead.

They are also looking at ensuring that their canteens use up foodstuff that would otherwise be left on the shelves. They are collaborating with local charities to make sure that that food is available to people who need it. They are also looking at giving away fruit. Tesco, in particular, gives away fruit to children while their parents are shopping.

I noted that, in the last number of weeks, Members received a package from Sainsbury's on what it is doing to reduce waste. The supermarkets are taking it seriously, and it is important that we continue to monitor what they are doing. In Northern Ireland, there is legislation in place under the food waste regulations to make sure that supermarkets in Northern Ireland are doing all that they can to reduce waste.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement and answers. I refer him to paragraph 9, which states:

"Ministers noted that the diverse experiences across administrations presented opportunities for collaboration and learning to enable the citizens of these islands to view everyday materials as a resource and to recycle them effectively."

Will the Minister give examples of that?

Paragraph 13 states that the next meeting is scheduled for Dublin in 2018. Given the importance of these matters, why are meetings only biyearly?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP 5:00 pm, 22nd November 2016

Where some of the learning is concerned, the concept of the circular economy and putting an economic value on wastage was something there was a great deal of discussion about. Sometimes we see waste as having no value, but it has an economic value. I think it is important we recognise that recycling and reusing are good for the economy and for the environment. There is learning in that and in how we get to a higher level for that circular economy and keep using resources as long as possible until there is no value left in them.

As a former Minister, the Member will know that the BIC and the North/South bodies do not meet that quickly between meetings, but, of course, meetings between Ministers go on in the interim period anyhow. When I was over in Guernsey, the Welsh Minister said she met our Minister in three or four weeks out of the previous eight or nine at different events. Conversations continue to go on between Ministers, and I think relationships are good between different jurisdictions, in that officials will continue to work together. The official meetings of the BIC tend to be where there is reporting back on previous agreements. Of course, if something extraordinary happened, I suspect different jurisdictions would want to get together before that.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement and answers thus far. I think these types of fora are a very useful opportunity to look at and learn from practice in other jurisdictions as we all move towards our ultimate goal of a circular economy. In that vein, I am aware that the Scottish Executive were proceeding with a deposit return scheme. Did they elaborate on that? Was any information given to the meeting on it? Do the Minister and, indeed, the Executive concur that such a scheme would be useful here in the North?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

There was a brief mention of it, and they certainly thought it had been proven to be relatively successful. I know our Minister is looking at that issue along with a number of others that other jurisdictions are doing. In particular, the Welsh Government have set themselves quite difficult targets for their initiatives, so the Minister is keeping under consideration a range of different initiatives taking place in other member states.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

Can the junior Minister expand on what is meant by "natural capital"? Is the concept something the Department is embracing?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

The definition of natural capital is the elements of nature that produce value, directly or indirectly, to people, such as the stocks of forests, rivers, soils, minerals and oceans. It is, I think, fair to say it is a relatively new concept to the Department here in Northern Ireland, but it has monitored progress in the rest of the United Kingdom and in the Irish Republic to learn about the approach and the processes that have taken place. The Department here appears to have developed the concept further than others perhaps have, and it has asked the Office for National Statistics to incorporate natural capital into its budget decision-making process by 2020.

It is an incredibly complex issue. Placing value on forests, natural resources and peatlands is quite a difficult thing to do, and it obviously leads to discussion, debate and some level of disagreement. For example, with a forest, some people may put a higher value on the timber because of the uses it has for producing paper, whilst others will look at the forest's impact on and value for tourism and recreation. Where other jurisdictions have tried to put a value on some of their natural resources, it has led to widespread disagreement. I think that is indicative of the complexity in this. I know the Minister here in Northern Ireland is open to and intrigued by the concept and wants to make sure that officials carry out further work on it to see whether it is something we want to take forward here in the Province.