BAN Waste Select Committee evidence

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Phase 1 Day 8 2001-10-29 Bishop Ambrose Griffiths (Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle)

report from minutes of Select Committee


The Rt Rev Don Ambrose Griffiths OSB, Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham & Newcastle.

The Chair welcomed the Bishop and asked him to make his presentation, following which a question and answer session would ensue.

The Bishop said that in terms of the 'Moral Overview' it should be noted that first and foremost the world was a gift from God for past, present and future generations and that within the whole of creation, human beings, were special; capable of thinking and acting responsibly with all men and women having equal rights and destined for an eternal future. Accordingly, all social and economic behaviour must be accounted for and spiritual needs provided for. The continued production of more and more economic goods was unacceptable and consideration must be given to the common good. At present, there was a great and unjust imbalance with 80% of all goods/resources being consumed by just 30% of the world's population. There was an increasing need to realise that many resources were non-renewable and were running out. Every effort therefore should be made to make sure resources were recovered wherever possible and were properly managed and not taken for granted. Similarly, it was essential to minimise energy uses in the long-term and be aware of the impact of what we were doing and be careful and responsible Stewards of the World. We must grasp the massive opportunities that exist to manage and reduce waste and wherever possible recover value from the waste that is created. Finally, the Bishop emphasised the need to take care to protect the people from the potential hazards of waste disposal options.

The following questions were then raised:

(Q1) How does the concept of the "Common Good" differ from the concept of the "Greatest Good"? (Sylvia Conway)

In response, the Bishop said that the common good meant that everybody was of value, however it was not always possible to make "perfect" decisions and it was sometimes necessary to take account of the greater good of the greater number. However, that could lapse into the greater good for the benefit of the greater and wealthier nations to the neglect of the poorer nations. Today, it was evident that there was great disparity throughout the world.

(Q2) Why do you think it is that there is a deep reluctance on the part of our decision-makers to address questions of injustice between rich and poor in our world? (Nick Fray)

The Bishop said that all our world-leaders were put into to office on a short-term basis and therefore felt it necessary to keep any eye on the electorate who put them in office. A move towards a better balance across the world could mean more taxes and lower standards of living etc and this would be exceedingly unpopular. There needed to be an immense amount of publicity and raising of people's understanding and appreciation of the real worldwide position before there could be any change. At present, there was a complete lack of the will to do this.

(Q3) How does a Local Authority put into practice the principle of the "Common Good" in its decision-making process?

The Bishop said that this was a very difficult and complicated process although those not in authority tended to think it was easy. The aim should be to achieve a balance; politics was the art of the possible, but you had to keep the "ideals" before you in your mind. Local Authorities should make every effort to educate people of the need to respect the world we live in and avoid waste wherever possible. Some Local Authorities were better than others.

(Q4) We wonder whether you would agree that there was an increasing divide between rich and poor in the City? How might this divide be overcome?

The Bishop responded that in England the statistics showed a divide with the richer getting richer etc and it was likely that the same thing was true in the City. The primary moves that would in his view reduce poverty in the City included the creation of jobs and the alteration of the benefit system to encourage people into and stay in worthwhile and properly paid jobs.

Bill Colwell asked what measures could be taken to tackle unemployment in the City in relation to waste management.

The Bishop suggested that the unemployed could be employed and involved in waste disposal and the education of local people about the sensible management of waste in the household. He suggested that Newcastle must be one of the last Cities not to have a system for the separation of waste. A kerbside separation of the collection system over all the estates of the City would be good waste management and also provide good employment opportunities. Then that would bring you back to paying for it and would mean taxes etc.

(Q5) What guidelines for policy making would you suggest that arrives from the common good, particularly in regard to waste disposal and recycling? (Roger Mould)

The Bishop said that first of all he would not site an incinerator in a poor area; it should be away from the population altogether if you actually decided to have one. He thought there was again a need for education as most people were thoughtless at the moment. He felt that the most effective measure would be through a good TV documentary/campaign. Whilst he thought that financial penalties for misuse of waste might be self-defeating, he suggested that a workable deterrent against creating unnecessary waste would be a good thing.

(Q6) Do you think the principle of the common good offers hope to the residents of the East End with regard to the location of the incinerator? - How would you negotiate the location?

The Bishop commented that wherever the incinerator was put near people you would run into the "not in my back yard" syndrome. So there was a need to look for a relatively remote area and take account of the prevailing winds - somewhere in the area of the coast might be a good location (like the large pharmaceutical industry).

Phil Capon suggested that if incinerators were as "clean" as the operators say they are, why were they not sited next to say the Civic Centre.

The Bishop said that that was fair comment and added that the poor areas often had less voice.

(Q7) The Guardian, on Wednesday 24 October, reported that at a conservative estimate we throw up to 500 million pounds worth of perfectly safe and edible food into landfill sites each year. A witness on the 26 September from a Gateshead supermarket had said that for years they had been obliged to throw away mountains of food. How could we get going in the North to redress this? (June Wolf)

The Bishop said that supermarkets, whilst very powerful, were sensitive to public opinion and there was no doubt that campaigns/boycotts were effective although they did take a lot of organising. He suggested that one of the causes of the waste mountain at supermarkets was the "use-by date" system which was largely to protect the supermarkets against litigation.

(Q8) Moral issues often led to legislation - had choice become a right and was the absence of choice a problem in society today - too many monopolies existed like supermarkets - in Byker there was a lack of choice for the people - how should this be viewed?

The Bishop said that there was a problem here - whilst we were continuing to extend human rights we were neglecting the importance of reminding people of the duty we have to each other. There was he suggested an imbalance between choice, human rights and the duty to each other, ie choice was limited by the duty not to infringe on your neighbour. Often in cases like Byker the choice was almost always towards the cheapest option. He confirmed that Governments had an overriding duty to pass laws for the common good - that was the common good for the poor as well as for the rich.

(Q9) A previous witness gave an example of one country where problems appear to have been solved through recycling but found that the World Trade Organisation had been lobbied by some large major national companies indicating that the laws on recycling could not be implemented because they were detrimental to their marketing policies - so the legislation had been withdrawn locally - this had a bad effect.

The Bishop suggested that the World Trade Organisation had responsibility for a lot of harm going on in the World - international discussions were led by the richest countries who forced their wishes on others. Marketing was substantially to line pockets whereas it should be to sell the product and benefit those going to buy it.

(Q10) Reference was made to the term "common good" and to the monopoly of SITA/City Council in relation to the energy supply to Byker and the voice of the people not being heard. Was there an evil when people were not heard?

The Bishop said that this was absolutely true and that whilst the common good was a general term it could only be put into effect if you listened to what the people wanted. Otherwise those in power decided what they thought was best and they didn't really know.

(Q11) The Chair asked whether it was possible to persuade the people of Newcastle of the narrow arguments in relation to good waste management.

The Bishop said that most people would accept the principle of the common good but in practice there would be a problem - that is until others changed first - no-one liked to be first. With the rush of modern life it was very difficult to make radical changes in lifestyle.

The Chairman thanked the Bishop for his interesting presentation.