Clause 10 - Monitoring authorities

Waste and Emissions Trading Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 8th April 2003.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:30 pm, 8th April 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 53, in

clause 10, page 8, line 2, at end add

'and publish this audit annually.'.

It is not my intention to delay the Committee much. Subsection (2)(b) contains the words

''audit the performance of waste disposal authorities in the area in complying with their obligations under this Chapter''.

I propose the addition of the helpful words

''and publish this audit annually.''.

The Minister may intend to publish the audit annually in any case, but the amendment is designed to clarify the matter and, should that not be the Minister's intention, to tease out of him why the audit should be kept secret. I have just received a nod from the Minister affirming that my amendment has had its desired result.

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

As the hon. Gentleman has said, the amendment would result in annual publication of the audit of performance of waste disposal authorities in complying with the waste-sent-to-landfills obligations specified in chapter 1. I am not necessarily opposed to the amendment, as it is perfectly reasonable. I want the allowance scheme in England to be as open and transparent as possible, and I am sure that that applies to the other countries of the United Kingdom. However, the amendment could have major resource implications for England—I know that the hon. Gentleman is hot on resources, as we found out this morning—as annual reports would be required for all 121 waste disposal authorities, including the unitary ones.

In any case, as the hon. Gentleman surmised, the amendment is not necessary: the Bill already provides for allocating authorities to require monitoring authorities to keep a register of monitoring information. That could include information about the performance of waste disposal authorities, and regulations may provide for such a register to be open to public inspection and for members of the public to obtain copies of the information contained in it. We intend the register in England to be as open and accessible as possible to the public, and I assure the Committee that no information will be withheld without an extremely good reason. I have always been extremely keen on freedom of information and on providing information as fully as possible to the public and to interested bodies. Indeed, one of the two private Member's Bills that I attempted to pass through the House of Commons was a freedom of information Bill. Needless to say, it lapsed.

I hope, with that explanation, that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment, as what he seeks to do is already provided for.

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

I am delighted to hear what the Minister has to say, particularly in the light of amendment No. 27, which we will discuss under clause 11. English Members of Parliament, in particular, will be able to ask a parliamentary question to find out information about their own authority every year.

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

I do not want to dilute the warm thanks that my hon. Friend is offering the Minister for his assurances. However, I just add one caveat: the information must be available in a comprehensible form in case those who want to access it do not have the necessary expertise. The published information must be in a form that is as comprehensible and

accessible as possible. Frankly, not all local government information is.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his important intervention. Although I am not an expert in the workings of the Minister, I suspect that he will seek to do exactly that.

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

Comprehensibility is certainly very useful, but common is also a very useful word. If waste disposal authorities lay out the information in a common fashion, WDAs may be compared with one another. Will my hon. Friend press the Minister to ensure that information provided is comprehensible and laid out in a common form so that like can be compared with like?

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

I assume that the Minister will take both those interventions on board.

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

Perhaps I could record the fact that I agree with both points. Comprehensibility is important, and I have striven to provide information on the pollution infantry, which provides information on 150 pollutants, in a manner that is understood by anoraks and ordinary people alike. I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) that information should be provided in a uniform, standard way, and I shall issue guidelines to ensure that that happens.

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

It is unusual for me to score a point for the anoraks, but I am grateful to the Minister for his assurances. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 63, in

clause 10, page 8, line 15, at end add—

'(g) by request from the landfill operator inspect sites exempt from the Waste Management Licensing Regulations 1994.'.

As the Committee will have noted, the clause concerns the monitoring authorities and the business of monitoring performance. In the previous short debate, we dealt with the importance of information being both available and appropriate. The amendment would add to the end of the clause a provision exempting operators from the Waste Management Licensing Regulations 1994. It is an attempt to add further, proper scrutiny to the process established in this part of the Bill. It adds to the spirit of the clause and plugs a loophole that might be said to exist, given the limits on the earlier legislation referred to in the amendment. We have said throughout our proceedings—particularly today, when we discussed scrutiny and performance monitoring in respect of the Bill's objectives—that the process must be clear, comprehensive and well understood. That is essential if we are to give public assurance about the implementation of the objectives. I hope that the amendment goes some way towards reinforcing that intent.

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

Regulation is one of the key drivers of the waste management industry, and the effective enforcement of regulations is essential if we are to give

investors confidence that there is a prospect of waste management resources going into new infrastructure. If environmental regulations are enforced effectively and assiduously, the introduction of new and higher standards should not be a problem.

Some 120,000 sites are exempt from waste management licensing requirements, including golf courses. I know that the Minister has an interest in golf; his son—a very fine golfer—plays at the same club as I do. I have nothing against golf clubs, but, partly because of the funding arrangements, those sites are inspected less frequently by the Environment Agency than are the licensed waste management facilities operated by Environmental Services Association members.

The ESA gave oral evidence to the Select Committee inquiry into the future of waste management on 19 March 2002. It cited the example of an ESA member that operated a licensed waste management facility. Directly opposite that facility was a golf course that was, in places, 7 m higher than it had been in 1993 because of the volume of waste that it had received. That is one way of producing bunkers, I suppose, but I should not like to have to play my bunker shots from a waste dump. According to the ESA, there has been no formal inspection of that golf course by the Environment Agency. We need to ensure that all such sites are covered by the Bill.

That is a problem that runs through the Environment Agency. I have had complaints from metal recyclers that they are visited very frequently by what they describe as rather low-level, extremely poorly paid inspectors, who make life easy by going to an established and well-regulated metal recycler and complaining about where the rubbish bin is, or who say that things would be so much better if a desk were moved 3 in left or right. What they do not do, however, is go half a mile down the road to where a didicoi is stripping out the good bits of cars and dumping the rest all over the countryside. The Environment Agency should deal with the hard targets rather than the easy ones. Can the Minister confirm the ESA's figure of 120,000 sites being exempt from waste management licensing requirements—and, if that is so, what should be done about it?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment) 2:45 pm, 8th April 2003

I agree that it is important to ensure that exemptions from waste management regulations are not abused. Many allegations have been made about that in the media over the years, most notably in The Guardian and the ''Dispatches'' programme, and we examined them closely.

The exemptions have been made to ensure that genuine recovery operations can take place with light touch regulation. However, like all administrative regulation, this could be abused; one has to be extremely careful about that. I am sure that hon. Members will support the principle, which is to gain value from the waste. However, abuse of the system is a serious matter, and it needs to be tackled vigorously. Indeed, over the past couple of years we have been reviewing the number of exemptions from waste

management licensing. Our survey was thorough, and we will shortly be consulting on our conclusions.

As part of the package, we propose that the Environment Agency should be required to inspect those exempt activities annually. The problem has arisen because the exemptions were not checked or tested regularly. When the consultation paper is issued, hon. Members will see that we have tightened up extensively and across the board. It is an area where I believe there has been substantial abuse.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

The Minister is making a reasonable point, but I am slightly concerned that the agency appears to be reducing the number of inspections, not increasing them. He will be aware that his parliamentary answers to me show a decline of about a third in the number of agency's inspections, and a catastrophic fall in its checking of the discharge of hazardous material into rivers. The agency appears unable to deal with its present inspection regime, let alone a new one.

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

I am conscious of the fact that the continual roll-call of European legislation, most if not all of which I consider desirable, imposes significant extra duties on the agency. We have attempted to match that with increased funding and an increase in the number of officers and inspectors employed by the agency. It now employs between 10,500 and 11,000 of them, which is substantially more than in 1997, and under the most recent spending review, which is now complete, the extra real-terms increase was in the order of £16 million. If I am not right, I shall correct those figures later.

The increase in resources has been substantial, but I agree that there is continual pressure on them. However, all landfill sites will come within the ambit of the pollution prevention and control regulations under the integrated pollution prevention and control directive, or the IPPC, and no sites will be exempt from those requirements. We are trying to enforce coverage of the inspection system as tightly as we can.

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

I was at a parish council meeting last night, speaking about some aspects of this problem. My right hon. Friend says that coverage already exists, but I am unsure whether the amendment would increase coverage, because it relies on the landfill operator to instigate inspections. With the best will in the world, the sort of people that we are talking about will not encourage further regulation or inspection, so I am uncertain what benefit the amendment would provide.

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

This is not my amendment, so it is not for me to promote it, but it would require monitoring authorities in each area of the UK to inspect sites that are exempt from the Waste Management Licensing Regulations 1994, if asked to do so by the landfill operator. It would result in much tighter regulation of a system that is already supposed to be properly supervised, but in which there are many loopholes, as experience has shown. Inspections would be much tighter and more frequent. The landfill operator would have to provide much more detailed information, including the evidence to substantiate

claims justifying exemption. To that extent, the amendment would extend coverage.

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

The Minister makes a good point about tightening the regime, but it might help the Committee and the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) if he gave some examples of those areas that are not covered by the 1994 regulations. He properly referred to some of the stories of abuse that we have heard and to the issues that my amendment is designed to address, but it might be useful if he would briefly say where the problems lie. That would assist our discourse and answer the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

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

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire put his finger on the key issue: landscaping is a wonderful way of avoiding the exigencies of waste management regulation, and golf courses are indeed a classic example of that. Many golf courses have been created, allegedly because of the desire of local inhabitants to knock a ball around 36 holes—

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

Or even 18—but their construction was probably motivated by the capacity to landfill very large amounts of material in a way that is exempt from regulation. Golf courses are by far the most common example of that, but there are countless others. We intend to ensure that that cannot happen in future. The grounds to justify an assertion will have to be provided and checks will be carried out regularly to ensure that the land is being used as was proposed.

We are also conducting a review of waste permits, which will include the exemptions regime, and we will consider the issues of enforcement and inspections. The amendments would bring a third party, landfill operators, into the inspection regime. I understand that they may be concerned about competition. However, the Environment Agency is clearly the competent authority to deal with waste management licensing in England and Wales, and it is for the agency to determine the frequency of inspection, rather than leaving it to the discretion of landfill operators. It can then determine the interests of all those parties who are likely to be affected. We have been considering the issue for a long time, and I hope that we will reach some real conclusions.

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

The Minister's reassurances are commendable. I especially appreciated his statement that every site that is currently exempt from inspection under waste management regulations will be inspected annually and that, in future, the Government will ensure that the grounds given for landscaping, for example, are genuine, rather than merely a way of making money by dumping rubbish and then capping it.

I asked one other question, however, which the hon. Member for Lewes added to, about the number and quality of the Environment Agency's inspectors. Perhaps the Minister believes that my assertion that the quality is not high enough and that the inspectors are doing the easy jobs rather than the difficult ones is unfair. If so, or if he does not know the answer, will the Department talk to the British Metals Recycling Association and to the Environmental Services

Association about the quality and number of staff that the Agency uses to inspect regulated sites?

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

I am quite prepared to respond positively to that, although obviously I cannot comment immediately on either the quality or the number of staff available. In many organisations there is always room for improvement in standards of expertise and in numbers of personnel, although given the increases in resources that the Environment Agency has received in the last four or five years, I think that both of those have improved. However, I am quite prepared to draw the hon. Gentleman's point to the attention of the agency's chairman and chief executive, and to have with a discussion with the two organisations that he mentioned. If he hon. Gentleman writes to me in due course, I tell him the consequences of that discussion.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I am sorry to press the Minister on this point, but the chief executive of the Environment Agency has on occasion brought matters to the attention of hon. Members, rather than the other way round. Notwithstanding the agency's extra resources, the number of inspections that it carries out has fallen by about a third since 1997, under the guise of an allegedly more targeted approach. For instance, although there is supposed to be a check on industrial discharges to rivers every four years, which is a 25 per cent. check on discharges, in some areas of the country that rate is down to 3 per cent. Even under the present arrangements the agency is simply not coping with the number of inspections that it should carry out, never mind having extra responsibilities forced on it.

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

Again, I cannot check the figures that the hon. Gentleman has given. I am aware that the level of inspections is well short of what some of the agency's responsibilities require, and that in some cases the number might have fallen since 1997. However, I do not believe that that is the general picture.

The chief executive never ceases to tell me that the agency's problem is the continual and rapid yearly increase in its duties which is a result of EU directives. Those increases are quite substantial, so the agency is trying to stay level while running fast. We are trying to improve its resources and manpower so that it can get further ahead, but the race is continual. One could say that the way out is to slow down the pace of EU legislation, and many hon. Members probably think that that is so. However, the EU legislates on many, if not most, environment matters in which there is a need for improvement, and it is the main enforcement mechanism.

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

I am allowing myself to be dragged further from the main point, so this had better be the last intervention.

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

Let me give another reason for the amendment, almost in the agency's defence. It has now taken responsibility for main rivers, and although that

makes sense, I am not aware that it has received extra funding from the Government for that additional task.

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

These matters are fairly peripheral to the amendment. We are considering the entire range of the agency's duties and responsibilities, and we are asking whether a recent change has been fully funded. I cannot answer that directly, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to press the point, he can write to me and I can have it checked.

I am sympathetic to the purpose of the amendment. Those are not just soft words; we will issue a major consultation paper in the next few months that will examine waste management regulation exemptions far more thoroughly than ever before. We are considering the issue in a broader way than the amendment would achieve. I hope that after this slightly diffuse discussion the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) will feel satisfied that we have taken his point on board and that there is no need to press the amendment.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:00 pm, 8th April 2003

Yes, I am impressed with the Minister's assurances about tightening the enforcement and inspection regime. It is clear that that determination permeates the Bill, and it has been reinforced by the Minister's comments. It is important that the Committee has recognised that there is a loophole. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.