Clause 2 - Non-target years

Waste and Emissions Trading Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 3rd April 2003.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:30 pm, 3rd April 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 32, in

clause 2, page 2, line 8, leave out 'may' and insert 'must'.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 33, in

clause 2, page 2, line 15, leave out from 'only' to 'the' in line 16 and insert 'following consultation with'.

No. 34, in

clause 2, page 2, line 17, leave out from 'only' to third 'the' and insert 'following consultation with'.

No. 35, in

clause 2, page 2, line 20, at end add—

'(5) The power under subsection (1) is exercisable following consultation with the relevant local authorities.'.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

May I say how delighted I am, as all right hon. and hon. Members must be, to welcome you, Miss Begg, to the Chair of this exciting Committee? I look forward to further exciting debates this afternoon and thereafter.

The amendment needs to be seen in the context of this morning's first debate, for which you, Miss Begg, were not present. The Committee discussed whether to change the word ''must'' to ''may''. We now want to change the word ''may'' to ''must''. That is principally on the ground of consistency—[Laughter.] I see that the Committee has spotted the logic in my argument.

The Minister knows that we would not want to leave him with a Bill that was imperfect. At the moment, it suggests that the Minister ''may'' specify the maximum amount of waste by weight of biodegradable municipal waste allowed in non-target years. It has already been acknowledged that, because of the obligatory requirements of the EU directive, ''must'' would be a more appropriate word to use at the beginning of the Bill. It is a matter of legitimate debate as to whether we should use the word ''must'' in the non-target years.

The difficulty with using the word ''may'' is that it might wrongly provide flexibility; it could provide variability and make it more difficult for us to meet those targets. The Minister was honest enough to say that it would be difficult to meet those targets, given the proportion of waste currently sent to landfill. We

do not start from a happy position in respect of meeting those stiff targets. As the Minister said on Second Reading, it will be a huge challenge.

The strength of the amendment is that it would encourage the Minister to be rigorous in his requirements—if we are to meet those targets, we must press ahead with vigour. Later in our proceedings, we shall say that it needs to be done with sensitivity, and proper consultation, but that is the subject of later amendments. I do not argue for a prescriptive approach. It must be done with partnership and agreement, and with proper collaboration between the interested parties, but ''must'' seems an appropriate word when specifying the amounts of waste to be sent to landfill in non-target years.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I am greatly looking forward to the Minister speaking in depth about the formula in clause 3. I wonder whether replacing ''may'' with ''must'' would have the additional benefit of simplifying the following clauses, which would save us having to deal with the complications that could arise.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend is teasing me to display my intimate understanding of those matters in an even fuller form than I had intended. He is right that changing the word will have a material effect on the whole of clause 3; it might be that if we change the word to ''must'', the formula will become redundant. Committee members will have read it and worked it through—I did a few thumbnail sketches on it last night and found that if one presents the formula graphically it is a straight-line graph. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that. It will certainly be of less significance if the Minister accepts the amendment. Other hon. Members might like to comment on the matter in the course of their perorations.

However, the essence of the amendment is that if we are to meet the target that the Minister has rightly identified—if we are to press ahead with the speed and vigour that we all desire, without giving the Minister overweening powers—''must'' is a more appropriate word. On that basis, I probe the Minister to discover how he sees his role in relation to meeting the targets in the non-target years and whether he feels that it will be helpful for the Bill to give him greater authority so to do. I shall be interested to hear his response. Perhaps, in the course of it, we can have a full mathematical analysis of the formula with some worked examples.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Sayeed Mr Jonathan Sayeed Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

I welcome you to the Chair for this sitting, Miss Begg.

In order to determine whether one wishes to support these amendments, it is important to agree what they mean. It is particularly important to tease out whether the Minister believes that they mean what we think they mean. I shall say what I think they mean, so that the Minister can tell me whether he agrees.

I turn first to amendment No. 32. As the Bill stands, during target years, there is total rigidity owing to external commitments. However, during non-target

years there is flexibility and it is within the remit of the Secretary of State to specify the maximum amount of biodegradable municipal waste that can be sent to landfills. If the Secretary of State decides not to use his powers, the default rules specified in clause 3(2) allow the formula to be applied. If he does exert his powers, then he may override the formula.

As I understand the amendment, it would force the Secretary of State by statute to specify the maximum amount of BMW, which would—later in the Bill—render the formula redundant, as there would be no need to use the default rules. Effectively, there would be no need for clause 3.

The argument in favour is that the amendment simplifies the Bill. It removes the complexity of a—straight-line or otherwise—scientific formula, which might be too abstract and inflexible. However, there is also an argument against: it gives the Secretary of State added responsibility and enhanced powers and permits him a degree of flexibility to specify maximum amounts. Effectively, it forces him to use his powers to override the formula and to stipulate, according to the needs of the time, the whole time frame of the Bill's targets.

Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 specify that the Secretary of State's powers are exercisable following consultation with Scotland and Wales. As the Bill stands, the agreement of Scotland and Wales is required, which gives the devolved authorities the power of veto over the Secretary of State's requirements.

I would sum up the arguments in favour as follows. If the Secretary of State is required to consult rather than to seek agreement, that would centralise more power under the control of the Secretary of State and, by definition, the power of England, and would permit the Secretary of State to override the devolved authorities and remove their power of veto. That could be justified by the greater need of England to meet the targets, which are specified externally by the EU and which would require some rigidity. However, there are also arguments against. It would involve the further centralisation of power and a move away from local decision making, and Conservative Members are extremely wary of doing that.

Moving to amendment No. 35, my understanding is that, as the Bill stands, there is no obligation on the Secretary of State to consult local authorities. The amendment would force consultation, but would not give local authorities a power of veto over proposals. The arguments in favour are arguments that are often adduced in similar cases. It would involve local authorities in the decision-making process.

However, the argument against is that some local authorities might consider it to be a somewhat tokenistic gesture—seeking discussion but still retaining the Secretary of State's right to overrule. However, that could be justified by the need to meet external targets, which place responsibility on central Government.

I should be grateful if the Minister would say whether he agrees with my interpretation not only of what the clauses were supposed to mean before

amendment, but what they would mean after amendment.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I, too, am glad to see you in the Chair, Miss Begg, for what will be a warm, and even entertaining, afternoon if it is a repeat of this morning's performance.

I am a little puzzled. Having ended the remarkable morning sitting by being taken to task for being so pedestrian and prosaic as to be committed to the beauty of targets, on the grounds put forward by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) that I should have a more aesthetic view of life and the great unquantifiable goals of love, friendship and altruism, I am now confronted, in the early afternoon, with being asked to explain an algebraic formula. I am not sure whether to be lyrical or mathematical, but I shall try to respond to each count.

Amendment No. 32 would change the discretionary power that the Bill gives the Secretary of State to set targets in non-target years to an obligation. Opposition Members are right to say that the Bill could be simplified in the way that they suggest. However, the amendments would remove the need, in clause 2, for the Secretary of State to reach agreement with the other United Kingdom Administrations on the maximum amounts of biodegradable and municipal waste to be sent to landfill in non-target years and require only that she consult with those Administrations before making the decision. The proposal is that she should consult but they should not be able to exercise a veto.

The problem is that that proposal runs counter to the devolution agenda. I think—I am sure that I am right—that it would be unacceptable to the Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland simply to be consulted and told that they could not override a provision. They would not regard that as in keeping with the nature of a devolved relationship, in which there is negotiation between equals. They are not equals, but they are more equal than the amendment implies.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:45 pm, 3rd April 2003

I want to clear up that point at the outset. The critical point here is that responsibility for meeting the targets, and any fine imposed, would lie with the UK Government. There is a real worry that, if we are to take the hit and own up to the responsibility for meeting targets, we must retain control over the means by which we meet them. That is the purpose of the amendment.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

It is perfectly true that in the end it is the Government who are responsible to Brussels for meeting the targets. If we failed to do so and were infracted—if that is the word—we would be subject to a payment, although we would ensure that that financial and legal liability was passed on to the other Administrations. To use a more common phrase, we would not simply pick up the tab, but would expect them to pay in accordance with their responsibility, and that is well understood.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Sayeed Mr Jonathan Sayeed Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

The Minister says that we would not pick up the tab. However, England keeps picking up the tab for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through one formula or another. The question is whether they get extra money or not for not doing something that we ask them to—although I might have used too many double negatives and should perhaps express that slightly differently. English taxpayers and ratepayers subsidise Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish taxpayers and ratepayers. I trust that if, for example, Scotland did not undertake a duty that had been imposed and agreed on, more money would not go from English taxpayers to Scotland in order to subsidise that.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

Although that is certainly the case, there is no suggestion of giving financial aid through a different formula from that which is available in England in order to ensure that those targets be met. I repeat that the Government have made available substantial extra sums to local authorities across the country. That suffices in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Those local authorities are expected to meet the targets with the financial dispensations that have been made.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I am finding it difficult to keep to the thread of the argument, but of course I will give way.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Let me help return the Minister to the thread of the argument. When we were talking about target years I asked him whether he felt that the Government's devolutionary spirit would be undermined by the Secretary of State's insisting on compliance during target years, and now it appears that the Secretary of State is happy to be more flexible during non-target years. Does that not undermine the authority of those regional Governments? I do not believe that that is something that the Minister intends to do.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

No, it certainly is not something that I intend to do, nor is it something that the Government will do. Clause 3 contains the default position, which would prevent that from happening.

The approach of the amendment runs counter to the established framework of devolution and would not be acceptable to the Administrations. Protection of the environment is generally a devolved matter, and it is right that the setting of targets in non-target years should be subject to agreement between the parties. In other words, we are trying to provide as much flexibility as we can, while safeguarding the meeting of the targets in the target years. That is the key point. The negotiations are open and transparent—at least I think that that is right, and there is no question of trying to conceal them. If no agreement is reached in non-target years, as is possible, clause 3 provides the default position, which would provide a gradual reduction between target years.

Amendment No. 35 would require the Secretary of State to consult relevant local authorities before setting targets through regulations in non-target years under the clause. It is difficult to see quite what the intention is. The Secretary of State and the

devolved Administrations will agree the setting of targets in non-target years between them. Local authorities have no locus in that operation. Rather, they have locus in allocating allowances to waste disposal authorities under clause 4, for which it is intended that they be consulted on the basis used for the allocation, as part of the wider consultation on regulations to set up the landfill allowances scheme. Once allowances are made, clause 4 requires the allocating authority to publish a statement setting out the allowances allocated to the authority and the basis of the allocation.

In relation to the position in Scotland and Wales, to proceed by agreement where possible and not by diktat from London is clearly the only approach in a devolution age. The consultation that is referred to in amendment No. 35 is unnecessary for the reasons that I have given, and I hope that, on those grounds, the amendment will not be pressed.

There was some interesting discussion about the exegesis of the mathematical formula. I would not attempt to do any such thing, but I would refer any hon. Member who is interested in exploring it—it is very detailed, although a careful reading makes it clear—to fact sheet No. 5. It is available and I am happy to provide it to any member of the Committee. It sets out in detail, with plenty of graphs, exactly how it operates. The simple principle behind it is that where agreement is not reached, there must be a formula that will ensure that it is reached. That is provided here, and examples are given.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

Who interprets the formula? Is it done within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or elsewhere?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I hope that the formula is self-disclosing if one takes account of the definition of the variables L, N, B and G. They depend on whether the year in question falls directly after a target year or whether there is one or more intervening year between the last target year and the one in question. If one reads the rules and the footnotes that underpin the formula, that should be clear. In the last analysis, if there were a dispute about how it works, it would be for the Department or the Secretary of Secretary of State to determine it.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

Since we are talking about the formula—

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman starts, the formula comes up in the next clause. Unless it is relevant to clause 2, hon. Members might like to wait until we debate that clause. Mr. Baker, do you still want to intervene?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

No; I am suitably chastened.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I am, if not suitably chastened, suitably finished. I have answered the points that have been made. I hope that I have explained that our formula is designed to achieve maximum flexibility while ensuring that the targets are met. That is better than simply consulting but saying that there is no veto—in other words, claiming to consult, having already decided. That is not acceptable; the formula is better. I hope that I have explained it and that the

amendment was a probing one, which the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings will withdraw.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

There will be more than enough time to discuss the consultation issues associated with the amendments in the course of our proceedings. At this point, I would signal that it is vital that the whole process be founded in the spirit of partnership between local and national Government. Local government will end up having to do the job, and the variety in local situations, both in terms of the volume and nature of waste and of the structure of local government necessitates proper consultation. Two-tier authorities and unitary authorities are involved, as well as urban and rural authorities, all with their own waste culture. However, I accept that that consultation would be best discussed later. As the Minister suggests, the targets are fixed and the consultation might—as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) said—be perceived as purely paying lip service if the local authorities were to be consulted only to be told that the matter had been agreed anyway, as the Minister put it.

In terms of the Scottish experience, it is important to acknowledge that the Minister has made it clear that we shall not find ourselves in that situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire rightly feared that the Minister would be in a position in which the UK Government would accept responsibility and, indeed, financial liability, but that would not be passed on to the devolved assemblies. However, the Minister made it clear that that was not the case and that the assemblies would be expected to take, in an appropriate fashion, their share of the responsibility and any financial penalties that might ensue.

On the basis that the Minister has given us assurances on both those points, and given that we shall debate the formula in fine detail in the discussion that we are about to enjoy, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I am happy to respond to any questions, but we have explored the fundamental principle and I have nothing further to add. Given that the Committee is anxious to make progress and save time for the more substantive issues, I shall conclude my remarks.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.