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Mr. Hutton: I strongly agree, and I have made clear that there is absolutely no excuse or justification for that type of sharp practice. If there is any evidence of collusion between suppliers on prices, it will suggest a potential violation of competition law. There is an appropriate mechanism for investigating and bringing
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about redress in such circumstances. I invite my hon. Friend to give me the details of his constituent’s experience.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State’s assurances about supplies, which I hope will be noted. As for what was said by the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), is it not up to forecourt owners and managers to act responsibly and inform their customers that they can secure future supplies and manage them sensibly?

I am, however, concerned about the implications of the dispute for the security and continuity of production in the North sea. Many of us have thousands of constituents who work in the North sea, and who must fear that a dispute downstream could threaten their livelihoods and their long-term future in upstream activity. Can the Secretary of State assure us that he will investigate thoroughly the integrity of the system downstream and upstream, to ensure that no dispute of this kind can cause serious long-term damage to production capacity and delivery in the North sea and the future employment of people whose livelihoods depend on it?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. I have spoken to Tony Woodley, the general secretary of Unite. Thousands of Unite members also work in the North sea, and it is in no one’s interests, including theirs, for the dispute to have a ripple effect on production upstream.

As with all events such as this, there are lessons to be learnt. I am sure that once the dispute is brought swiftly to a conclusion, as I hope it will be, we can all reflect on what should be done to ensure better protection of continuity of supply and vital infrastructure should a similar situation arise in future.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): May I reinforce the needs of rural communities? I am glad that the Secretary of State is keen to protect the whole of Scotland, not just urban areas. May I also ask him to ensure that there is proper monitoring to prevent price exploitation?

What can be done about the impact on the North sea, short of exhorting people not to do anything that might jeopardise production? Has the Secretary of State any powers to intervene to protect production and vital infrastructure?

Mr. Hutton: I have a number of emergency powers under the Energy Act 1976 and the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. The only questions concern when they can and should be used, and their extent and duration. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are fully equipped with a range of powers to deal with emergencies.
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Topical Debate


12.57 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Joan Ruddock): I beg to move,

Today’s debate provides us with an excellent opportunity to focus on the role of supermarkets, and to consider how their activities affect people, communities, the economy and the environment. Many of us have a peculiar love-hate relationship with our local superstore. We like the convenience of being able to obtain a wide range of goods in one place, at one time and at a reasonable price, but we want to ensure the hearts of villages and towns are not destroyed by out-of-town developments and our high streets are not cloned into homogeneous parades of shops selling the same products from the same stores in town after town. Many of us also care very much whether producers and farmers—whether they farm in Britain or in developing countries—get a fair price for the products they sell.

Whatever anyone’s stance on the issue, no one can deny that our supermarket chains have a unique place in this country. They exert an incredible influence over what we buy, how we buy, and where we buy. Their actions hold sway over many varied issues, and I am sure that a number of them will be raised today.

Although it is not in my brief, I am more than aware of Members’ concerns about the ability of supermarkets to expand their empires at the expense of local shops. Our “town centre first” policy has produced some real success. However, the Department for Communities and Local Government has now decided to conduct a review of planning policy statement 6, and to introduce a tougher impact test to give councils more capacity to refuse big developments that put small shops in town centres at risk.

World food prices are the latest issue to top the supermarket agenda. On Tuesday, recognising that the poorest would be hit hardest, the Prime Minister hosted a summit with leading experts—including the head of the World Food Programme—to discuss ways of tackling the problem. My focus in this debate, however, will be on the supermarkets’ role in climate change and waste.

Supermarkets have a key role to play on climate change. As large businesses, they need to reduce the carbon impacts of their operations. Many have secured real reductions through energy efficiencies and new technologies, but to drive down their emissions further we are introducing the carbon reduction commitment through the Climate Change Bill. That will create a domestic cap-and-trade emissions scheme covering all enterprises whose annual half-hourly metered electricity use is above 6,000 MW hours, which will include supermarkets.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What proportion of the world’s total carbon emissions are given out by supermarkets?

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Joan Ruddock: I regret to have to say that I do not have that figure with me. We can endeavour to get hold of it, however, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman if I have it. As I think he will know, we in the UK are responsible—in terms of our own productions here, as opposed to the goods we bring in—for 2 per cent. of total global CO2 emissions, but we have to take on our responsibility, as does every section of society, and I know that the supermarkets understand that.

As consumer-facing organisations, supermarkets also wield huge influence over the purchasing habits and lifestyle choices of millions of individuals. As they have expanded beyond groceries, supermarkets have given us cheap clothes and electrical and electronic goods. Like all goods, they come with a carbon price, which Government can no longer ignore. Supermarkets’ voluntary phase-out of incandescent light bulbs is already helping consumers to save money and reduce carbon emissions. Many organisations are now interested in the carbon footprint of individual products, so the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Carbon Trust and the British Standards Institution are working with retailers to develop a methodology that could lead to carbon labelling, and which will certainly lead to retailers being able to reduce carbon footprints.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The last time I and the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) were in the Chamber addressing a related topic, I was critical of ASDA Wal-Mart, but on this occasion I wish to congratulate it. Does the Minister endorse the initiative that it and Leicestershire county council launched some time ago of a packaging amnesty that allowed consumers to return excessive packaging, and, as part of an overall campaign, of encouraging shoppers to be alert to excess packaging and to try to select products that minimise their carbon footprint?

Joan Ruddock: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which anticipates something I intend to say later. I am happy to congratulate those in his constituency who have been active in trying to improve packaging issues.

DEFRA is working directly with supermarkets, retailers and manufacturers to reduce the energy consumption of products such as set-top boxes and stand-by mechanisms. Helping the consumer to acquire the least energy-consuming products by choice-editing is a vital part of our fight against climate change.

Fast fashion and cheap clothes are adding to our carbon footprints. Only last week, I read a newspaper headline quoting a shopper at Primark, who said:

And throw it we do—more than 1.5 million tonnes of clothing waste per annum. Once again, however, the Government are taking action, by working with retailers and others on a clothing road map analysing the carbon impacts from seed-sowing through manufacture and sale to disposal of the clothes we wear. This, too, is designed to minimise environmental impact, including carbon emissions.

What, however, is top of the list in my ministerial postbag on supermarkets? As I am sure Members will guess, the answer is packaging. Surveys show that most people feel there is too much packaging on products on
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sale today. Packaging serves multiple purposes, of course. It is used to catch the eye of the customer. It can serve to keep a product fresh, or to protect it, or make it easier to store or move. People realise that they have to pay for packaging, however, and when the packaging is finished with, it occupies as much as a fifth of their household waste bin. As council tax payers, they then end up paying again to get rid of it. When it becomes waste, packaging also contributes to climate change.

As individual consumers, we have a responsibility and there is action we can take. We can opt for goods with less wrapping, buy loose goods and reuse and recycle more of the packaging we acquire. However, people also expect the Government to act.

Philip Davies: No they don’t.

Joan Ruddock: I assure the hon. Gentleman that surveys show very clearly that people expect the Government to lead on these issues—and lead we will.

Eighteen months ago, senior representatives from the country’s biggest grocers, the Government, and the Waste and Resources Action Programme agreed the Courtauld commitment. Courtauld is about reducing packaging and food waste, such as by keeping wrapping to a minimum and finding new means of “lightweighting” those containers with which we are all so familiar. The signatories to the agreement are responsible for about 40 per cent. of the packaging in this country. Their first target was to end the growth in packaging waste this year—to de-link growth in packaging from growth in GDP. I believe they are on target, and look forward to the report that is to come.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): It is an enormous pleasure that the Minister is present to debate this subject—or any other. Will she at least accept, however, that the problems associated with the miles travelled by products, the products themselves and their packaging are not unique to supermarkets, but that they are more general problems across the retail sector? It is also of concern to me that the Government are addressing this issue from a very narrow perspective, when in fact supermarkets have a specific impact on suppliers, and their out-of-town activities siphon wealth out of town centres. It is an enormous disappointment that we are not able to address those issues as well in this debate.

Joan Ruddock: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, but I must say to him that he is entirely entitled to make his own speech, and if he chooses to concentrate on the issues he mentions, I will most surely be willing to pass any points that are to do with other Departments to my colleagues. I alluded at the start of my speech to the fact that there are other such issues, so I feel that I have offered him that opportunity. In terms of what he said about goods, the miles they travel and embedded carbon, supermarkets are of course not unique; those issues affect the whole of the retail sector. When I refer to supermarkets and agreements, it must be remembered that other non-supermarket retailers are involved in those agreements, so we are trying not to single them out but to work effectively with them.

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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): When we talk about miles travelled, especially in relation to fresh produce, we also need to have in mind the good that this does to developing countries that want to export to the United Kingdom. We can sometimes assist them by buying their produce. Trade is far better than aid in many cases.

Joan Ruddock: I very much agree. That is why we work on whole-life cycles. It is impossible to make a judgment about a carbon impact without a whole-life cycle, and goods brought from further abroad can be less carbon-intensive than goods produced using a lot of energy in Europe.

I have talked about the Courtauld agreement and the fact that we are on target. Reducing packaging is the priority, but reusing and recycling it is also important. We have made real progress in that. Packaging recycling rates increased from 28 per cent. in 1997 to more than 59 per cent. last year. We expect to reach the packaging directive targets of 60 per cent. recovery, including 55 per cent. recycling, by the end of this year. However, that means that more than 5 million tonnes of packaging waste is still not being recycled, and much of it comes from supermarkets. I have therefore increased the packaging recovery targets for 2008 to 2010 and set new targets for 2011-12.

The public have also made it clear to us that they want action on plastic bags, and we have taken it. We will require that supermarkets charge for single-use bags, whatever they are made from, unless the voluntary agreement achieves a much more substantial reduction in respect of the 13 billion bags that will be distributed free this year. The best way to tackle waste is not to generate it in the first place, and that is where the retail sector can have its greatest influence.

It is estimated that supermarkets waste about 1.6 million tonnes of food every year, but, astonishingly, we householders throw away even more—more than 6 million tonnes. We bin one third of all the food we purchase, so we need to tackle the issue by starting with what we buy. We must know how much we need and, dare I say it, we must not be tempted by offers of buy one get one free, three for two or two for one. When it comes to cutting down on our food waste, such sales initiatives are deeply unhelpful. Let us help the poorer customer, but why not offer products at half price?

Last year I helped launch WRAP’s food waste campaign, “Love Food, Hate Waste”. Since then, as food prices have risen so fast, the campaign messages have become even more important. We should plan for, and buy, only what we need. We should also store our food wisely and cook only what we can eat. When some people in the world cannot afford to buy food to eat, it is a scandal that every year we waste £10 billion-worth of food that could have been eaten.

We are grateful for the supermarkets’ co-operation in pursuing our climate change and waste agendas. They may sometimes be irritated by my mantra, “Further and faster”, but I can only say that it is because I have confidence that they can do more.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The Minister has used the time allocated to her in these topical debates.

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1.12 pm

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Supermarkets dominate not only the retail sector, but the whole economy, and they colour and shape our daily lives. There are so many facets to the power and reach of supermarkets that it would be hard to debate them all in this short topical debate, so in the 10 minutes available to me I shall concern myself with the effect that supermarkets have on waste and packaging. That is the most topical point for me to address.

I am sure that the Minister was as disappointed as I was that the much-touted green Budget never really materialised. Instead of any new radical measures to tackle dangerous climate change, the only supposedly green measure we were offered by the Chancellor was the veiled threat of a plastic bag charge. The Budget announced that a Government tax on single-use plastic bags may be introduced next year if retailers have not already started charging for them by that time. Even by the standards of this lethargic, weak and dithering Administration, that was an astonishingly weak gesture. It is hard to credit any initiative from this tired Government on waste, however worthy, when it is set against the huge cuts inflicted on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and its agencies, which will directly undermine the Department’s efforts to lead on waste reduction; 2008 will go down as the year Labour bottled on waste.

The business resource efficiency and waste—BREW—programme, which was set up in 2005 to support resource efficiency and waste projects, looks likely to have its spending cut by more than half, from £125 million in 2007 to £60 million in 2008, despite the fact that the BREW programme has been responsible for more than 2 million tonnes of landfill diversion, 1.8 million tonnes of CO2 reduction and cost savings that were estimated at almost £40 million last year. The Waste and Resources Action Programme—WRAP—which promotes recycling and measures to reduce the use of landfill, has confirmed that its funding is being cut by 25 per cent., and it has issued more than 30 compulsory redundancy notices in the past months. Can the Minister explain why her Government are undermining those effective and efficient emissions reduction programmes while putting nothing in their place? Where is the ambition? Where is the compelling strategy? Where is the on-the-ground implementation?

This Government are getting things wrong across the waste agenda, and the results are plain to see: the number of recorded fly-tipping incidents in this country has increased by a staggering 290 per cent. over the past two years; the UK has one of the highest levels of landfill in the EU; and 22 per cent. of the country’s emissions of methane—a gas that has 23 times the greenhouse effect of CO2—comes from decomposing landfill. We cannot simply blame the supermarkets for that.

As the waste agenda becomes wedded ever closer to the climate change agenda, and as legislation such as the Climate Change Bill, which is soon to arrive in this House, and various international frameworks push us towards greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the irresponsibility of this Government’s record on waste becomes all the more glaring. It is simply not acceptable just to push the blame on to supermarkets.

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