The great refrigerator scandal

Did you know that it is almost impossible to buy a new fridge these days? Before you turn the page, thinking I have sent in a column for Good Housekeeping to the New Statesman by mistake, let me explain. Fridges have become a matter of high politics - so much so that there is now a fridge mountain. This mountain involves the reputation of a minister, the anger of the Treasury, serious worries about European democracy, and an unholy muddle in Labour thinking.

The problem is this: no one will agree to take away your old fridge, so it is very hard to buy a new one. Disused fridges leak CFCs - chlorofluorocarbons - which harm the ozone layer. At the beginning of this year, a European Union directive came into effect that prohibits the old ways of dealing with discarded fridges - burying them in landfill sites - because of the effect on the environment.

In future, we will have to use special "crushers", which stop the harmful gases from leaking out, to deal with old fridges properly. This is fine . . . except that the nearest crusher is in Holland. Only the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden have the right equipment to meet the new law.

This affects us Britons: we get rid of 6,500 old fridges a day, which adds up to 2.5 million each year. Local councils are now being bribed by the government to take them away and stockpile them, but the bribe is puny, hardly worth the name - £6m towards a problem some estimate will cost £75m. Councils, therefore, often charge £50 a pop to take your fridge away.

This means two things. First, that people are dumping fridges on wasteland, fields, quarries or at the bottom of streets, which means Britain is littered with rotting, polluting mounds of metal and plastic. And second, that even where recycling companies are collecting them, the sheer quantity is alarming: at Stratford, in east London, 25,000 fridges are expected to have arrived before the crushers are finally imported this summer.

So panic-stricken is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) that a spokeswoman recently suggested that it "might be best if you don't buy your new fridge just yet and wait until this problem has been sorted out". Which, coming from a market-mad, pro-shopping government, was quite something. The Treasury is furious that the department didn't see this one coming and stop it. The department in turn is furious that Eurocrats sneaked it through without warning them first.

Michael Meacher, the environment minister, complained that it had taken his department 18 months to find out exactly what the European Commission was proposing: "We feel badly let down by the Commission, and since then we have put in place all the measures that are necessary to try to deal with this issue, given the lateness of the day in which we were informed . . . we have acted on it as fast as we can in the light of that rather surprising decision of the Commission."

That is the essence of the story, but it tells us a lot. First, it suggests incompetence by civil servants trying to second-guess the Commission. But second, it is a democratic outrage that they should need to. It is time to face the obvious: there is a profound democratic deficit opening up between our political system on the one hand (our voters) and directives from the EU on the other.

The disposal of fridges may seem a minor thing, but it stands as a symbol of a much wider problem. Rather than bickering about it, or blaming Michael Meacher personally, the government (including the Treasury) should use this as a wake-up call for senior ministers to settle down and draw up hard proposals for more effective democratic checks in the EU, when the new structures in Europe are agreed in 2004. There is worryingly little sign that new Labour understands the democratic and political dangers facing the European Union, or that it has its own ideas as to how to solve these problems.

Second, however, there is the issue of environmental policy in Britain, which seems to limp pathetically behind green thinking on the Continent. Part of the government's embarrassment over this has been because it upsets business. Fridge manufacturers want to sell their gleaming new, frost-free, ice-dispensing, all-singing-and-dancing fridges to as many customers as possible, without a care for the old ones. Yet if we are to do anything at all to protect the environment, there will most likely be a cost - to the taxpayer and local government, as well as business.

Although it is true that advanced environmental policies can help business in the longer run, in the first phase there is no escaping it: green politics, acted upon to protect the wider interests of a country, hurt and anger businesses. They have to change and they have to pay, and they don't like it a bit. You cannot, in short, be both pro-business above all and be genuinely environmentalist. New Labour talks about hard choices, but prefers to avoid them, usually nodding to business first. This, however, is a hard choice that cannot be avoided.

So, there we have it. The humble fridge turns out to contain not simply old tubs of margarine, John Prescott's preferred peanut butter and a six-pack of Tony Blair's favourite lager-lite. Open up the fridge issue properly, and you find dilemmas about democracy, particularly on the European scale; about the competence of departments of state; and about new Labour's excessively pro-business instinct.

There is, it turns out, rather a lot in the fridge. And, with the next big Earth Summit - ten years on from Rio - starting in Johannesburg in September, this is one fridge of worms that Tony, Gordon and the lads can't simply take down to the bottom of the nearest field one night and dump.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Time to bite back?