HL Deb 26 October 2004 vol 665 cc1163-5

2.37 p.m.

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to levy a tax on plastic bags; and in which other European Union countries there is already such a tax.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I understand that the Republic of Ireland has a plastic bags levy and that Denmark's tax on packaging has a special rate for plastic bags. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer keeps all taxes under review. The Government have no plans to introduce a tax on plastic bags.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, that is a very disappointing Answer. Is my noble friend aware that in this country we use 8 billion plastic bags a year; that the life of a plastic bag, when disposed of, is between 100 years and 1 million years; that plastic causes an enormous number of deaths and injuries to birds, marine mammals and other forms of wildlife; and that the Republic of Ireland's tax has reduced plastic bag usage by 90 per cent? Does my noble friend agree that the proposal to tax plastic bags would be good for the planet, good for wildlife and good for the Chancellor? When do the Government have a win, win, win solution?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am enormously grateful to my noble friend for those comments. Let me emphasise the fact that although the tax in Ireland has reduced, as my noble friend indicated, the usage of certain plastic bags, paper bag usage has increased significantly and more robust plastic bags, which are outside the tax, are used more extensively. Although we need to tackle every aspect of waste—that goes without saying—plastic bags comprise only 1 per cent of our waste. Therefore, the efficacy of such a tax in dealing with the broader issues would be quite limited.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, in September 2002 the Co-op introduced degradable bags, which take only three years to degrade instead of the normal 100 years. At the time of their introduction there was some concern that these bags were not as environmentally friendly as they could or, indeed, should be. Have the Government financed any research into developing environmentally friendly disposable plastic bags, and what progress has been made?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, that is a most constructive proposal, which the Government are looking at carefully. Further research is necessary. There is no doubt that the plastic bags in question, which are currently being used in a very limited part of the United Kingdom, have the very significant advantage of being reducible in a much more limited period. Therefore, we hope that research will show ways in which we can encourage that development.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, is it not the case, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was indicating, that the reason why the normal supermarket bag is so offensive is not so much to do with its durability as the fact that as a nation we are inclined to be very casual about litter? It is the appearance of these bags all over town and country that really causes offence. What action are the Government taking to influence public opinion to reduce this menace?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I believe that we compare poorly with some other advanced countries in our control of litter. We have a greater tendency to drop litter in our public places and on our streets. That is why we are encouraging the prosecution of those who drop litter, sometimes with quite startling effects. The House will be aware of a prosecution only the other day for a limited infringement of the law. But this is also a matter of education. We certainly are concerned within schools that the next generation will do rather better than past generations have done in concern about litter in our public places.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, perhaps the Minister's observation that plastic bags make up only 1 per cent of waste and therefore it is not worth doing anything about it is one reason why the waste pile is ever growing as opposed to diminishing under the Government. Surely, if they tackled all of that 1 per cent we would be a large part of the way there. The point of the plastic bag tax is to change people's habits so that they use reusable bags—cotton bags, canvas bags and so on. Having seen some of the glitches that happened in Ireland, could not the Minister learn from that and introduce a very workable tax?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I did not seek to disparage the significance of plastic bags; I was merely saying that they still form a small, albeit very irritating, fraction of household waste. But we have specific, significant targets for recycling waste. Our percentage has increased from 12.5 per cent in 2001 to 14.5 per cent last year. We hope to hit our 17 per cent target and eventually the more ambitious target in 2004–05 of 25 per cent. Those are significant targets; we are moving sharply in the right direction. But there is no doubt that considerable effort is needed, both through incentives and public education, for us to improve on recycling waste. The House will be aware of the intensive exercises carried out by most local authorities to increase that factor.

Lord Puttnam

My Lords, perhaps it would help my noble friend to know that in Ireland, where I live, it is not just a question of plastic bags constituting 1 per cent of waste; the ban has literally transformed the rural and urban landscape. I would have hoped that that would be an additional consideration. Secondly, heavier quality plastic bags, which are real shopping bags, cost one euro and invariably the money goes to charity. I cannot help but think that the Government could look across the Irish Sea and follow what is a very good environmental example.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, of course the Government are always eager to learn from successful developments elsewhere. I merely sought to indicate the limited success of the Irish experiment. I bear in mind entirely the advantages indicated by my noble friend, who is in a position to attest to them. But we must look at the issue in the context of the totality of waste. I understand the noble Lord's point about thicker bags having the advantage of being chargeable and resources going to charity, but in due course those bags become waste and present problems, too.