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Leading Article: A waste of energy, Mr Meacher

A DECADE AGO, when the year 2000 seemed a distant prospect, the then Environment Secretary, Chris Patten, set the target of recycling a quarter of the average dustbin by the millennium. By the latest estimate, we will not even get to within two thirds of that goal.

So the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, is right to draw attention to the need for greater recycling. But he seems to be suffering from a bad dose of pre-reshuffle junior ministerialitis, a traumatic disorder which occurs when the victim believes he is soon to depart the ranks of government and launches himself on a frenetic bout of last-minute activity designed to boost his profile and show how important he is to the running of the country.

Promoting ideas that make recycling easier is one thing. When the consultation paper, entitled Less Waste: More Value, is published, it is to be hoped that it will contain practical ideas for making recycling easier. Instead, reaction to the paper is likely to be dominated by the apparent proposal to get the tax system involved. Whether it is in the form of tax breaks, tax penalties or council-tax rebates is almost irrelevant. The real concern is that this is an Old Labour approach in a New Labour guise. Who is to police the system? A new agency, with yet more environmental bureaucrats - or will dustmen be required to tick off a tax form and inspect the contents of rubbish bins as they make their rounds?

Instead, the Government should concentrate on measures with a practical bent, such as assisting the more laggardly councils in providing recycling facilities. And who has not sighed in frustration at the wasteful packaging that covers so much that we buy.

When Mr Meacher was questioned yesterday he was all smoothness and light. His ideas are not proposals, he opined, but suggestions. He should be forgiven his impression of Sir Humphrey only if it is a sign that he is already back-tracking.