Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 31 of Session 2005-06, dated 23 March 2006


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today:

"The Department of the Environment's past performance in transposing EU Directives into Northern Ireland legislation was woeful. Having now cleared the backlog, it is essential that the legislative programme is kept up to date, to avoid exposing the UK Government to the risk of EU infraction fines.

Northern Ireland's waste management performance ranks poorly against other parts of the UK and Europe, and the Department must raise its game if it is to meet the challenges of complying with EU targets. The Department's new Waste Management Strategy, due this month, will have to bite a lot harder than its predecessor and needs to set more ambitious targets.

Greening Government is an important strand of the Waste Management Strategy, through which Government can show leadership. If the Department is to act as an example to others, it must be seen to implement good practice, and a good place to start would be the development of targets for improving its own performance.

The black economy profits to the tune of around £24 million annually from illegal waste disposal operations in Northern Ireland. Tackling offenders and cleaning up the environment are costly, and can be particularly challenging in border areas. The Department's recent successful prosecutions of offenders are, therefore, most welcome. However, the enforcement effort must be matched with an ongoing commitment to preventative work, including providing waste producers with comprehensive and timely guidance on their responsibilities, and regular monitoring to ensure compliance."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 31st Report of this Session, which examined Northern Ireland's framework for waste management, progress in implementing the current Waste Management Strategy and improvements that need to be put in place for the future.

The 1975 EU Waste Framework Directive instructed Member States to produce waste management plans and also established a hierarchy of waste management practices, indicating the relative priority to be applied to different methods of dealing with waste.

Measured against this hierarchy, Northern Ireland's waste management performance is poor. Its wider performance in transposing EU environmental Directives has also been slow. Although now cleared, a large backlog, peaking at 45 pieces in 2002, created the risk of infraction fines for the UK which would, in turn, have resulted in shortfalls in the NI public expenditure budget.

The Department of the Environment is responsible for policy and legislation and for developing and implementing Northern Ireland's Waste Management Strategy. The latter role has primarily been undertaken by its Environment and Heritage Service. At a local level, Councils are responsible for waste management plans, in order to establish a regional network of facilities to support a reduction in the amount of municipal waste sent for disposal and to increase the use of recycling. Combined expenditure by the Department and Councils is estimated at between £90 million and £120 million annually.

In accordance with the 1975 Waste Framework Directive, the Department of the Environment produced a NI Waste Management Strategy in 2000 and, because they had responsibility for delivering key aspects of the Strategy, required local Councils to produce associated waste management plans. Both the Strategy and the plans were deficient, and Councils were slow to produce their plans, only completing them in April 2003.

Since its launch, there have been problems in the implementation of the Waste Management Strategy. For example the Greening Government initiative was a major theme in the Strategy but the Department has shown poor leadership in this area, with little progress in initiating key measures. The targets in the Strategy and the data used to measure achievement have also been deficient. Illegal dumping has remained a problem, particularly in border areas, and has required the allocation of additional staff resources to address the issue.

A specialist Advisory Board, appointed by the Department, reported on the poor rate of progress in the Strategy's implementation. The Board made recommendations for improvement, some of which the Department has been slow to implement.

The Department is currently consulting on a new Waste Management Strategy, due for publication in March 2006. A number of other outstanding issues are also currently under consideration. These include a review of environmental governance and exploring the potential funding sources for the £270 million to £300 million investment required to deliver its waste management targets.

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