HC Deb 27 November 2002 vol 395 cc122-8WH

1 pm

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Thank you, Mr. Benton, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate. I have spoken before in Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall, but this is the first time I have spoken on a subject of my own choosing.

I approached this subject with an open mind—which is, I accept, unusual for a politician. It presents a challenge to any Government who are genuinely concerned about the environment, particularly as it is estimated that as many as 10 billion plastic carrier bags are used every year by consumers in this country. I am sure that we can all agree about one thing—that it is important to encourage consumers to reuse those bags.

The key question is: how do we do that? Since the beginning of April 2002, the Irish Government have pursued the very radical—and, in some quarters, very popular—policy of imposing a 15 cent tax, which is 9p in real money, on every plastic carrier bag issued by the supermarkets. That tax cannot be absorbed by the supermarkets; it must be passed on to the consumer, or there would be no point in levying it in the first place. The United Kingdom Government have suggested that they might consider imposing a similar tax.

In response to a question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz), who is present today, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment described the 90 per cent. reduction in the usage of plastic carrier bags in Ireland as quite daunting, although he went on to say that there might be other 'ways to reduce the consumption of plastic carrier bags. Five days later, my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury said: The Government currently have no plans to introduce a plastic bag tax."—[Official Report, 22 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 212W.]

The purpose of this debate is to give the Government the opportunity to clarify their position. I do not expect the Minister to say today that they will or will not impose such a tax, but I hope that they will use this opportunity to explain where we are now, and whether we are considering imposing one. Depending on one's point of view, today might be either a good day or a bad day to raise this issue, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be making his pre-Budget statement in the Chamber later, and he might address this subject.

I approach the issue from the point of view of someone who is concerned about jobs not only in my constituency but throughout the United Kingdom. Last week at business questions I raised a matter concerning a company in my constituency called Simpak. Its managing director, Neil Young, first brought this matter to my attention. In this country, private industry is never slow in coming forward to express reservations or to imply that there might be job losses in response to almost any regulation or taxation proposed by any Government, but we must take industry's view seriously, or at least listen to it in the first place.

Simpak manufactures paper bags but imports large quantities of plastic bags from Asia—which is where the vast majority of plastic bags used in this country are made. The threat is credible; Simpak's concern that a significant decrease in the use of plastic bags on the same scale as in Ireland could result in a loss of jobs in my constituency is credible.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and also to the Minister for allowing me to intervene. Given his constituency interest, I recognise my hon. Friend's sincerity in relation to such issues; I also understand why manufacturers involved in the production of plastic carrier bags do not believe that a ban would be a good idea. Does my hon. Friend accept that the problem is based not only on the amount of plastic used in the production of bags, but on how the bags are disposed of, and the contribution that such action can make to combating litter and the throwaway society? Given the public support for the early-day motion that I tabled in our previous Session, does he not think that the industry, rather than simply opposing the innovation of carrier bag tax, should look for a way of diversifying its production?

Mr. Harris

I accept that my hon. Friend's views are genuine, and I agree with many of them. He has been a strong supporter of the measure for a long time, and I shall deal with some of his arguments. We must consider whether the sacrifice that may have to be made in terms of the number of jobs throughout the country would be justified by what I consider to be the dubious environmental advantages. I have taken a peculiar—some would say unhealthy—interest in the litter on the streets of my constituency. Far from there being large quantities of used plastic carrier bags, the main culprits are discarded cans that once contained lemonade, and plastic and polystyrene food containers. It is estimated that only 1 per cent. of the litter dropped on the streets of the United Kingdom, and only 1 per cent. of landfill, is taken up by plastic carrier bags. That is because many people already reuse plastic carrier bags. A National Opinion Poll survey in October 2000 found that four out of five consumers already regularly reused the carrier bags that they were given free at supermarkets.

One consequence of the new tax in Ireland is a 90 per cent. reduction in the use of plastic carrier bags, but there has also been a 300 per cent. increase in the number of black plastic bin liners sold in shops. Such bin liners are rarely reused, as the smaller carrier bags are. Furthermore—and we must learn from what has happened—there has been a massive shift in Ireland away from plastic carrier bags to paper carrier bags. Environmentalists will welcome that, because paper bags degrade far more quickly than plastic carrier bags.

However, the environmental disadvantage of that practice is that a paper carrier bag is six times the weight of a modern plastic carrier bag. It also takes up 10 times the storage space of a plastic carrier bag, which has consequences for the transporting of paper bags. In other words, for the number of plastic bags that could be transported in one lorry, it would take 10 lorries to transport the same number of paper bags. I hope that the Government will take that serious point into account when considering the way ahead.

We are politicians and we must be careful not to raise expectations. If only 1 per cent. of landfill and I per cent. of street litter is plastic carrier bags, even a decrease of 100 per cent. in the number of plastic bags used would result in a mere 1 per cent. decrease in landfill and a 1 per cent. decrease in litter. Is such a negligible improvement in the environment worth the opprobrium that we would surely suffer from consumers and electors if the tax were to go ahead?

We should acknowledge the hard work done by the industry in recognising that it has environmental responsibilities. The best example of that hard work is the fact that a plastic carrier bag today uses 70 per cent. less plastic than it did 20 years ago. The industry should be congratulated on that achievement, not penalised for it.

As with all consumer taxes, my main anxiety is that a plastic carrier bag tax would be regressive. When I go to the supermarket with my wife to do the monthly shopping, we use as many plastic carrier bags as we need to carry our shopping to the car park. If the tax were introduced, I suspect that my habits would not change, and nor would the behaviour of many other people who are lucky enough to earn a good income. However, such a tax would affect the poorest people in my constituency, who are already living at or below the poverty line. Supermarkets are already planned around the car culture, and the proposed measure would only help to penalise people who do not own a car and already suffer from supermarkets' lack of accessibility.

I shall finish by making what some would consider a cynical point, but one that I consider realistic. All politicians want their political party to benefit and prosper electorally. I accept that taxes are unavoidable, but introducing the proposed tax would hand our opponents a ready-made, custom-built manifesto commitment to abolish the tax. Such a commitment would be popular among the millions of swing voters that the Labour party has been courting assiduously in the last 10 years, and our opponents would seize upon it. The tax would probably be the most unpopular since the poll tax, and we do not have to think back too far to remember the consequences of that tax for the Conservative Government.

I am not one of those Labour Members of Parliament who instinctively welcome all taxes and think that we should raise them left, right and centre; I believe that if we can abolish or reduce a tax we should do so. We only have to think about what happened in 1997 to see the consequences for the Conservative Government of raising taxes that the electorate were not convinced were justified. I approached the matter with an open mind, but the more I learn about the subject, the more I am convinced that imposing the tax would mean the worst of both worlds. We would reap a negligible benefit to the environment, and the unpopularity of imposing an unfair tax on the people whom we were elected to represent.

1.13 pm
Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) on securing the debate. We all agree that meaningful and effective steps must be taken to improve the environment. We are required to work within the terms of European directives or pay the penalty for not doing so. I therefore understand the Government's position in taking steps on environmental issues where they can make a significant difference, and they have been successful in doing so. I have an open mind, and my right hon. Friend the Minister's argument may well convince me. However, at present I share some of my hon. Friend's concerns.

I had not given a great deal of attention to the subject until I had read some of the relevant documentation. Certain questions remain unanswered—for example, how effective a tax of this nature would be in making a significant change to environmental pollution. My information is that only about 2 per cent. of all the oil consumed in Europe is used for plastic film, and plastic carriers represent a small part of that percentage. The vast bulk of oil—nearly 85 per cent.—is burned as fuel in cars and lorries, or for power and heating. A carrier bag tax will make no real difference to global oil consumption. Such questions need to be answered if anyone is to be convinced that such a tax will make a significant difference.

My hon. Friend outlined some of the issues regarding the purpose of carrier bags. We all take for granted the plastic bags that we are given by the supermarkets every weekend. I do not know what the reaction would be if they were not available, nor how the public would be expected to cope without them. They are a part of people's way of life now, and such a change would lead to questions about why that practice had changed. Any increase in tax would therefore have to be weighed against the benefit to the public, and a clear argument would have to be presented to justify such a measure.

In general, I believe that if taxation is to make a difference it should be as little as possible, yet effective; in this case, it should be applied across industry, so that no particular industry is unfairly targeted. Industries that cause pollution should pay the penalty for that pollution; either a tax should be imposed across the board, or it should relate to the scale of the pollution. We should resist taxation unless it can be shown that polluting industries would make a significant contribution; in that case, taxation would be easily justified, and I am sure that the public would be on board.

I remain to be convinced that putting a tax on carrier bags will be seen as effective. The Minister may have an effective argument against me; he may say that I am wrong and that my fears will not be realised. I hope that he will consider the points raised by my hon. Friend, and I hope that he can reassure me that if taxation is to be applied, it will be done for credible reasons. If not, perhaps the matter should be reconsidered—if it is not too late. No one knows whether my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make a contribution to this debate this afternoon; we wait with bated breath, but other issues may figure higher on his agenda. I do not want to take time unnecessarily, so I shall let the matter rest there.

1.18 pm
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

The three contributions by my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) and for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) were well made. Before such new measures are introduced, there should be a proper public debate and a general understanding of the rationale behind them. As a result of a leak, information was passed to the media, which ran with the story in a particular way. That is a classic example of a hare being started when the information was largely inaccurate. That is not the best way to conduct a public debate. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to respond to this debate.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Central Fife said, it is somewhat ironic that this debate is being held only a few hours before my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer presents his pre-Budget report. I cannot disclose any of its contents that might be relevant to the debate, but clearly, we shall look both to that and to the strategy unit's waste report, which are both highly relevant.

What I can talk about is why this has become an issue. I receive many letters about packaging, which is probably the issue that most concerns the public in terms of the unnecessary frivolous waste of resources. The Government are taking action to reduce the tonnage that retailers use in packaging by introducing certain measures that will give them incentives to do so. However, in 2001 there were 1.7 million tonnes of plastic packaging in the waste stream—an increase from 1.6 million tonnes in 2000. The figure is slowly rising. Point one is that the proposal would be a way of reducing the use of a form of packaging that many members of the public find unacceptable.

The second point concerns sheer quantity. Research conducted in September 2000 indicated that UK consumers used about 8 billion plastic carrier bags per year—an average of about 134 bags per person. That is a huge number, and it is difficult to justify the use of all of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart made a reasoned case from the sceptical side. He suggested that the amount going to landfill might be no more than 1 per cent. and asked what happened to the other 99 per cent.

It is true that if we assume a 20 per cent. replacement of conventional plastic packaging with bioplastics—one solution is to replace non-biodegradable bags with biodegradable ones—the estimated landfill space saving due to the degradation of plastic will be less than 1 per cent. of the volume taken up by municipal sustainable waste each year. Of course we have to take account of the other 99 per cent.—and we are doing so with strict landfill targets, the increase in statutory recycling targets and trading permits in the Bill that we are introducing this year. However, even the 1 per cent. that goes to landfill could still, if all plastic bags ended up there, be about 68,000 tonnes—not an insignificant quantity.

Litter is the issue that concerns most members of the public. The perceived plastic bag disposal problem is based on the view that most go to landfill. Litter is the more obvious issue because discarded bags are very visual, and very unsightly when they blow about in hedgerows or on the street, as they do in my constituency—and, I am sure, everywhere else.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart raised a couple of points that I shall try to deal with immediately. I was puzzled by his saying that the measure could be unpopular. I entirely agree that nothing should be done without a much better public understanding of the rationale behind it. However, if the measure is as popular in Ireland as it appears to be, and has led to an enormous reduction—about 95 per cent.—in the use of plastic bags, I find it difficult to understand why it should be so unpopular in England. We are not exactly the same as the Irish, but I should have thought that there would be a similar reaction here. My hon. Friend also said that there could well be, as has happened in Ireland, a 300 per cent. increase in the number of bin liners. I am sure that there would be a substantial increase in their use. That is a fair point, but I would suggest that those bin liners would actually be used for transporting waste, whereas the litter issue with so many plastic bags is that although once they are brought home they might be used as bin liners, many find their way to other destinations, where they blow about in the street looking unsightly.

Mr. Harris

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way to me, and giving me a second bite at the cherry. Is he not perhaps confusing popularity with acceptance? Despite the non-payment campaigns, 90 per cent. of people paid the poll tax, but that did not mean that it was popular. I have no doubt that the tax in Ireland has been successful, but whether it is popular is another matter.

Mr. Meacher

Of course I understand that. No one likes paying taxes, and there is no such thing as a popular tax; that is a bit of an oxymoron. To take up the point about acceptability, however, there could be a good reason for us to pay a tax, and it could help us to achieve objectives with which we all agree. That is perhaps as far as I would press the point.

There are alternatives, and the Government want to consider them all before proceeding. We are assessing the extent of the problems created by plastic bags, as well as the possibility of a tax, although my hon. Friends know that tax is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, not for me. The results of our work will be considered alongside the report of the Government's strategy unit, which will be published shortly.

I would be the first to recognise that there are disadvantages to a plastic bag tax, and there is the issue of increased unemployment. Some of my hon. Friends may have plastic bag manufacturers in or near their constituencies, and that is a significant issue. A tax could lead to companies going out of business, although my experience suggests that they are good at finding ways to adjust, provided that they have a sufficient transition period. I also understand the point about there being no conventional plastic manufacturers in Ireland. That is significant.

Several food retailers have introduced "bags for life" schemes, and we are probably all familiar with them from doing our shopping. They all follow the same basic pattern. A charge is made for a strong and durable plastic bag, which is replaced each time it wears out. It takes a long time for the bags to wear out, but when they do, the plastic from them is recycled. Some supermarket schemes have had considerable success; for commercial reasons, I probably should not name the supermarkets involved, although I think that they are familiar to us all. However, those schemes have yet to take off in a major way across the whole retail sector.

I readily admit that retailers see "bags for life". schemes as a better way forward than a tax. Although they recognise the schemes' overall lack of success, they have, through the British Retail Consortium, shown an interest in introducing a well publicised, voluntary national "bags for life" scheme, as advocated by the curator of the Science Museum. Such a scheme would involve putting a national logo and strapline on all bags, which would be customised for all supermarket chains and types of retail outlet, and designed to be as environmentally friendly as possible. Advocates of that approach take the view that what is missing at present is a properly promoted and co-ordinated scheme to cover all retailers throughout the country. They also recognise that it is crucial to motivate consumers if we are to encourage the reuse of bags. Once again, it is important that we carry the public with us.

There is no doubt that a tax-based policy moves consumer behaviour in the right direction. However, it may also encourage consumers to reuse bags for the negative reason of avoiding tax, and it would be much better if they were incentivised for the right reasons. If consumers are to have positive reasons for changing their behaviour, we must raise awareness and convince them of the environmental benefits of reducing waste and recycling used bags.

Finally, the Wales Environmental Trust and Asda have set up a project to encourage the reuse of plastic carrier bags. Its objective is to find an effective means of reducing the number of single-trip plastic supermarket carrier bags used in Wales. It tries to answer two questions in a two-part project over 10 weeks. The first question is whether the attitudes of the general public on the reuse of supermarket carrier bags can change without the introduction of a tax or some other charge, and the second is what is the best reusable option to provide for consumers. For a trial period of six weeks, single-trip carrier bags will be removed from all Asda stores in Wales, and bags for life will be issued free in their place. That is the type of measure that we will consider before we take a final decision.