Clause 31 - Directions to waste collection

Waste and Emissions Trading Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 29th April 2003.

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Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test 3:30 pm, 29th April 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 71, in

clause 31, page 20, line 18, at end insert—

'(1A) In section 45 (collection of controlled waste), subsection (3) (charges) shall be omitted.'.

A little while ago, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings mentioned his interest in Marx, so I am sure that he will be familiar with the tootsie-frootsie ice-cream sketch in the Marx brothers film ''A Day at the Races'', in which Groucho Marx has to buy many different form books to find out which horse will win the race that he has a tip on. Amendment No. 71 is something like that, in that it is necessary to go through several documents to understand what it is about. It refers to the Environmental Protection Act 1990, to the Bill and then back to the amendment paper.

In essence, the amendment is simple and modest. It would switch off a section in the 1990 Act that specifically prohibits local authorities charging to collect household waste. That provision was based on the logic that the householder could put as much waste as they liked outside their front door and, because they paid their poll tax or council tax, the local authority would be required to collect it. At that stage, there was no consideration of a waste hierarchy or minimisation, so the quantity of waste that the householder placed outside their door was not an issue.

We are talking in a rather different vein today. We are debating how waste collection authorities could deliver waste to disposal authorities in a form suitable for recycling, and we have talked several times about what we might call the holy grail of waste hierarchy—the idea of waste minimisation. The important point about the present situation under the 1990 Act is that the waste collection authority has little leverage, other than exhortation, in delivering waste in a form that the waste disposal authority may work on.

The suggestion made by the amendment is that by simply switching off the relevant section, the local authority could have available to it—if it wanted and

after a debate with its local citizens—the leverage to enable it to undertake its part of the bargain contained in the provisions of the Bill. The amendment says that if we are following the Bill's logic, it is also logical for the local authority to have the wherewithal to enable it to take a part in the process set out in the Bill. It would provide a rights-and-responsibilities arrangement for waste collection and waste disposal authorities.

The point about switching off the relevant provision in the EPA is not that a local authority would be forced to charge an amount of money in addition to what was set out in the council tax bill. The point is that a prohibition on any method, however imaginative, of variable charging, rebate charging or incentives for minimisation appears to lie in the EPA as it stands. Switching off that provision would allow a local authority to undertake those imaginative ways of encouraging people to put their waste out so that it could be processed, or to put less waste out in the first place. That would be the logical consequence.

There are a number of practical examples of how the process works, not in this country but elsewhere in Europe. In Milan, there was an arrangement that involved a fixed charge for collecting waste overall, but a variable charge on residual—non-biodegradable—waste. That produced an immediate 18 per cent. reduction in the amount of residual waste put out. In Sweden, a similar arrangement produced a much larger reduction of 45 per cent. That system appears to have a real empirical impact; it works.

There are potential political problems, inasmuch as if one simply charged everyone double for collecting waste, that would be seen as an additional tax on waste collection. As we have discussed in relation to incineration, the relationship that a local authority has with its population means that it is unlikely that such an arrangement could come into play at local level. However, a system of variable charging, with incentives such as a rebate if someone produced a smaller amount of waste or if their waste was fully sorted, could be popular at local level, provided it was well explained and understood. Such a system would have a marked effect. It would complete the circle of arrangements that we have discussed today and at other times. I am talking about how we make the system work fully in terms of trading, delivery of waste and the relationship between waste collection and waste disposal authorities.

To save on any suspense, let me say that I anticipate that the amendment will be received with interest, but not necessarily acclaim, so I shall not press it to a vote. However, I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to indicate whether he thinks that something along these lines might be a way of completing the circle, whether further work should be done on considering how that might work and whether, in relation to the Bill in operation, it may be a good idea to look again at the EPA and the assumptions behind it on waste collection.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

We often say in Committee that we have produced probing amendments, but this is a prodding amendment. It is designed to raise the profile of variable charging. My right hon. Friend the Minister is interested in that

issue, but there is a great disinclination across the rest of Government to consider it. In political terms it appears to be a no-no, an issue that is not even worth debating. The purpose of debating the amendment is just to cover the ground a little.

The cost of waste collection and disposal in this country does not reflect the true prices. We can consider international comparisons. The amount spent on waste collection and disposal in the UK is very low compared with other European countries. In that sense, we are getting something for nothing. We are producing waste and paying for it, but not at its proper cost, through council tax.

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

I wonder whether I can prod the hon. Gentleman further. Would he go as far as to say that this comes on top of several unfunded additional statutory responsibilities on local authorities? He and I enjoyed our time together on Nottinghamshire county council, and we are both doughty defenders of local democracy. Is it not part of an emerging pattern of further statutory responsibilities that are unfunded but which create considerable burdens on authorities? I say that without party prejudice. Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that some sort of thoughtful, longer-term strategic approach to the whole subject is required, rather than a series of penalties and incentives?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not raising any party political issue. Under the last Conservative Government, revenue support grant fell by 7 per cent. Under the Labour Government, the amount of money going to local councils has increased by 25 per cent. That is one of the issues that is being discussed in the Chamber today with, I suppose, Thursday on hon. Members' minds. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point in that responsibilities are placed on local councils, and it is not always entirely clear where the funding for those responsibilities is coming from. There is an amazing lack of transparency in the environmental and cultural block grant in support for local authorities. One has to be a magician to understand what goes into that pot and what needs to be paid out of it.

The purpose of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test is to say to the Minister gently that there will be a growing demand for variable charging in the long term. Having reviewed the international literature, I conclude that a strong case is beginning to pile up with implications for the UK. I put it no more strongly than that. It must be right. It is one of the emerging themes of government. It has been slow coming from the Treasury, but we need new green legislation. We also need taxation that takes into account what one pays for the pollution that one produces.

As householders, we all produce waste. I am not asking for the amendment to be accepted, but there is a strong argument for considering what would happen to domestic household waste if householders were rewarded for segregating their waste and for producing less of it. We would all be winners if we moved towards that situation. I hope that this afternoon's brief discussion has raised the issue's profile. I appreciate that the Minister might not be

able to make much progress on the matter at the moment, but in the long term this campaign will grow and will, I believe, eventually succeed.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle 3:45 pm, 29th April 2003

It is interesting that the proposal to allow councils to experiment with charging regimes for waste collection was recommended by the strategy unit to provide a stick to promote recycling and waste minimisation by householders. The principle of the proposal chimes with the Tory outlook on the environment and waste control, in that it puts the onus on those who generate excessive waste to take personal responsibility for it and not to offload it on to the state, their fellow taxpayers or the community. In the argot of the waste sector, it is the ''polluter pays'' principle, and it would mean that councils could raise the necessary revenues to provide first-class recycling services that, unfortunately, many councils throughout the country do not provide or do not have the resources to provide. It would help drive the minimisation of waste and encourage recycling. That said, there is a very strong social dimension to this as well. It would inevitably be seen as an additional charge on households and on large families, who inevitably produce more waste. It could even cost them more, whatever clever formula is invented. There is also a very well grounded fear that it could lead to increased fly tipping to avoid charges. Fly tipping is something that we Conservatives have been particularly concerned with as an ill thought-through by-product of many of this Government's regulations, particularly those emanating from the European Union.

Therefore, although I am not against charging in principle, I am firmly of the opinion that until we have a nationwide high-quality recycling service that allows people to separate their waste on their doorstep, we should not introduce this type of charging regime.

If it were possible for a householder to separate their waste for doorstep collection, I think the vast majority of people would be only too willing to comply. Polling evidence taken by the Environment Agency would support that view, in which nine out of 10 people in their sample said that they would be very willing to play their part in a doorstep recycling scheme. Ultimately, if there is no real objection to people being charged for residual waste, and if that proved necessary to persuade people to separate waste, then I would support that. However, we are simply not there yet, and a great deal more needs to be done by the Government to improve the current regime before we start talking about penalising individual householders with financial sticks. First, the Government have got to raise their game. I would point out to Labour Members that the Labour Party in Scotland has grasped the nettle, and have a commitment to introduce national kerbside collection. Perhaps they will start to make greater progress in Scotland than we are making in England. We are certainly lagging behind other countries in the United Kingdom. It would be very sad if England and

Wales started to lag behind other parts of the United Kingdom.

I hope that it will strengthen the Minister's position in a Government who are clearly disinterested in the environment issue. I hope that it will strengthen the Minister's hand in calling for the stronger measures that we would all like to see. However, until we have that first-class system of kerbside collection in England and Wales, I do not think that the time has come to countenance financially penalising householders.

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

I do not think that my hon. Friend is being entirely fair to the Minister or the Government. It is not that the Government is disinterested in environmental issues; the Prime Minister is disinterested in all domestic issues. One cannot single out the environment in that way. I do not think that the Prime Minister is prejudiced; he just does not like to concentrate on what he sees as parochial issues.

We, on the other hand, do not have such an arrogant view of the world; we care about those things. Clearly, that is the case for those who moved the amendment, which I think is interesting. They have said that they are not going to press the issue, so I do not want to delay the Committee too long, but there is an important point that comes out of this. That serious point is that if we are to make extra demands on local authorities—rightly in my view—if we are to expect them to raise their game, we must be seen to be even-handed in the way that we support them in that process.

There is a valid argument about the relationship that will now develop between the Government and the relevant bodies that are empowered to deal with the matters that are in the Bill. We have talked at length about the change in the public sector, and about the change in the culture of local authorities. We have spoken this afternoon and before that about the partnership that needs to develop between those authorities that deal with collection and disposal. However, we have not talked a great deal about the relationship between Government and those people. That needs to be thought through. Perhaps there will be time to debate it during later stages of the Bill. This helpful amendment has given us the opportunity to focus on the matter. Just as there needs to be a balance in the relationship between disposal and collection authorities, there needs to be a balance between the carrot and the stick, between what we expect and demand and how we encourage and support. That is the spirit and tone of the amendment. It is useful that we have had the opportunity to debate it.

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

Again, we have had an interesting debate. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) and for Southampton, Test on having displayed their usual feline dexterity in walking the tightrope between rebellion and loyalty. I suddenly got the message. As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle says, the Government have been considering the possibility of household charging. That was proposed by the strategy unit report. It recommended that local authorities that wished to introduce household incentive schemes to help to reduce waste volumes and increase recycling should be allowed to do so. There are powerful reasons for it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned some serious arguments against it, and I shall come to them.

The most powerful argument for it is waste minimisation. How does one encourage individual households to generate less waste? Minor prizes or incentives are not generally effective. However, this is a way of saying to people that if they create less waste it will cost them less. That is powerful. The council tax, which pays for councils to collect and deal with municipal waste, is flat rate. Whether a householder creates a little waste or a lot of it, he pays the same. That does not provide appropriate incentives.

The report ''Waste Not, Want Not'' listed a number of ways in which such incentives might be provided. They included council tax discounts for households that home compost, rewards or prizes for homes that recycle and variable charging schemes that replace the element of council tax that covers waste. I emphasise the word ''replace'' because I have had many letters about the matter. Nearly all suggest that it is a double whammy—that people will have to pay not only council tax but an additional one. It is not an additional tax. It is a substitute that is fairer between people. I shall cover the other objections shortly.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test said, local authorities might find the power to charge households for the collection of their waste useful in encouraging people to separate their waste before it is collected so that it can be recycled. That is another powerful incentive. With a suitable power, households would only be charged for residual waste collected, and that would provide them with an incentive both to separate and to minimise waste. I understand why it is attractive, and I find those arguments persuasive. I also understand why there is concern that at present households, as waste producers, are not sufficiently incentivised to reduce waste. I must draw attention to the fact that 17 countries already operate such schemes. It is not as though it is an untried precedent.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has just announced that the Government do not consider a national tax on household waste collection appropriate; he has ruled it out. However, he also confirmed that we are still considering the possibility not of imposing a tax but of allowing local authorities to charge where it might help them to deliver on their recycling targets and to reduce landfill. It is a matter of record that many local authorities have voluntarily, at their own discretion, asked for the right to do that.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

The Minister mentioned that countries already have such a system in operation. Can he tell the Committee how many of those 17 do not have a national kerbside collection for recyclables?

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

I cannot. I was about to say that there is a certain amount of further information that we need and that that is some of the material that we seek to collect. We consider that further work is needed before a decision can be taken on whether to extend the powers of local authorities in that way and to introduce pilot household charging schemes. Some of the issues that we will examine are those that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. They are practical issues,

such as how we can ensure that low-income households are not penalised, and the costs and methods of administering such a charge.

We also need to consider the risk that charging might increase fly tipping. It was only when I had been in my job for some while that I got used to the concept, which I originally found rather hilarious, of waste tourism. The idea is that if a charge is imposed on people, at 2 am the night before they will sneak out of their house with a couple of bags and dump them over the wall up the road. I do not believe that to be very likely, but the issue has been raised.

We would also need to ensure that the recycling infrastructure is in place, so that households can cut the amount of residual waste that they have to throw away. I agree with the comments that the hon. Gentleman made.

I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test that we are examining the issue seriously. I have said constantly during the Committee proceedings that waste minimisation is at the top of the hierarchy. I would be the first to say that there is no point in making ministerial speeches about something unless one is going to deliver it. It is difficult to think of alternative mechanisms that can deliver it as well. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood is right to say that there are some issues that must be resolved first.

I am grateful for the spirit and persuasiveness with which my hon. Friends introduced the amendment. I note that they said that they would not press it to a vote, but I hope that they are persuaded that the Government are taking it seriously.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 20, in

clause 31, page 20, line 32, at end insert—

'(4B) Before exercising its power to include requirements about separation in directions under subsection (4)(a) above, a waste disposal authority shall consult the waste collection authorities within its area.

(4C) In exercising its power to include requirements about separation in directions under subsection (4)(a) above, a waste disposal authority shall have regard to any guidance given by the Secretary of State as to the exercise of that power.

(4D) A waste disposal authority which includes requirements about separation in directions given under subsection (4)(a) above shall notify the waste collection authorities to which the directions are given of its reasons for including the requirements.''.'.

No. 21, in

clause 31, page 20, line 32, at end insert—

'( ) After section 52 there is inserted—

''52A Payments for delivering waste preseparated

(1) A waste disposal authority in England which is not also a waste collection authority shall pay to a waste collection authority within its area such amounts as are needed to ensure that the collection authority is not financially worse off as a result of having to comply with any separation requirements.

(2) A waste disposal authority in England which is not also a waste collection authority may pay to a waste collection authority within its area—

(a) which performs its duty under section 48(1) above by delivering waste in a state of separation, but

(b) which is not subject to any separation requirements as respects the delivery of that waste,

contributions of such amounts as the disposal authority may determine towards expenditure of the collection authority that is attributable to its delivering the waste in that state.

(3) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision about how amounts to be paid under subsection (1) above are to be determined.

(4) Regulations under subsection (3) above may include provision for amounts to be less than they would otherwise be (or to be nil) if conditions specified in the regulations are not satisfied.

(5) Any question arising under subsection (1) above shall, in default of agreement between the paying and receiving authorities, be determined by arbitration.

(6) A waste collection authority in England which is not also a waste disposal authority shall supply the waste disposal authority for its area with such information as the disposal authority may reasonably require—

(a) for the purpose of determining amounts under this section, or

(b) for the purpose of estimating any amounts that would fall to be determined under this section were the collection authority to be subject to particular separation requirements.

(7) In this section ''separation requirements'', in relation to a waste collection authority, means requirements about separation included in directions given to it under section 51(4)(a) above.''.'.—[Mr. Meacher.]

Clause 31, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 32 and 33 ordered to stand part of the Bill.