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24 Apr 2008 : Column 1494

The UK produces about 330 million tonnes of waste every year, and after 10 years of this Government we still find ourselves lagging woefully behind other European countries on recycling. The current approach to waste policy is propping up our throwaway culture and putting an unacceptable stress on our environment. The focus is on end-of-life management, while growing global consumption is having damaging ecological effects and contributing to climate change. Landfill accounts for about 3 per cent. of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, many more emissions are created through unnecessary new products, and waste threatens our wildlife and biodiversity, so an ambitious waste policy is essential for a sustainable future.

A regulatory approach is not enough. The current approach to waste, which is built around EU directives and environmental regulation, has been bureaucratic and sluggish. The packaging and packaging waste directive, for example, ensures that producers examine the environmental impacts of products, but it has had limited success. Enforcement is difficult, and purely aiming to make packaging lighter can have the perverse effect of making it more difficult to recycle.

The problem is much greater than merely dealing with packaging or supermarket packaging. The total number of specific product categories covered by EU directives establishes producer responsibility for only a small amount of waste, such as electrical and electronic equipment, vehicles and batteries. Furthermore, the drive to increase recycling is driven by the threat of hefty fines for failing to comply with the landfill directive, rather than by a fundamental rethink of how we look at waste. Instead of relying on penalties and bashing companies with further regulation, we need to use this opportunity to rethink our waste strategy and to find alternative solutions. Changing our approach to waste is vital to the health of our environment, to social well-being and to our economy.

It is always sad to see the Government veer off course when they are moving in the right direction—we have seen that happen a lot recently. A year ago, WRAP put together the Courtauld commitment, an agreement with all the major supermarkets and grocery organisations that aimed to develop new packaging solutions and technologies so that less rubbish ends up in household bins. Some 31 major retailers, brands and suppliers have joined the Courtauld commitment since its launch in July 2005. Under the agreement, WRAP works in partnership with retailers, brand owners, manufacturers and packaging suppliers to develop solutions across the whole supply chain. Such solutions include: using innovative packaging formats; reducing the weight of packaging, cans and boxes; increasing the use of refill and self-dispensing systems; collaborating on packaging design guidance; and increasing the amount of recycled content packaging used.

Retailers set themselves targets for 2010 and, reporting this year, have demonstrated impressive results. As a result of reward schemes, new equipment, technologies and supply-chain management, they are on track to hit their targets. The retailers know their businesses better than the Government and know how most effectively to make savings on emissions and waste. Government, in partnership with business, is the way to drive change.

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On 17 March, the Leader of the Opposition announced new responsibility deals, which examine the issue of producer waste. The responsibility deal is a voluntary arrangement among producers to cut back on the production of waste and to improve its disposal. Such deals represent an approach that is non-bureaucratic, consensus-based and self-regulating, and it will help us move towards the goal of a zero-waste society. That aim was explored in some depth in the Conservative party’s quality of life report.

Archie Norman, former shadow Environment Secretary and chief executive of Asda, will develop the first deals of an incoming Conservative Government. We will go well beyond the Courtauld commitment, which also covers a small proportion of waste, and will tackle the whole spectrum of our resource management in retailing. This will present a huge opportunity to extend sustainable manufacturing and disposal of goods to other centres. We aim to ensure that anyone involved in designing or manufacturing a product will have to work out what will happen to it at the end of its life.

We have seen time and again that the solutions to climate change and sustainability are to be found in partnership with business, not by confronting business. It is only through engaging with UK plc to drive dynamic industrial change right across the economy that we can hope to be effective in finding solutions. So, why have the Government U-turned on the Courtauld commitment? The commitment had the whole-hearted support of the major retailers and industry groups, so that decision has left them angry and confused.

In response to the Budget announcement, Justin King, chief executive of Sainsbury’s, said that

Joan Ruddock: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is confused. The Courtauld agreement remains in place. I met WRAP yesterday to discuss it and the possible results that we will get from it. There is no question of backtracking, changing direction or anything of the sort. He has confused that agreement with the single-use bags agreement.

Gregory Barker: It is a shame that the chief executives of major retailers do not agree with the Minister. People are concerned about the fact that the Government overlooked the Courtauld agreement and went for a gimmick in the Budget—a little bit of a greenwash—in the form of the plastic bags policy, rather than looking at the totality of the waste stream involved in the Courtauld agreement.

Joan Ruddock: It is a separate agreement. There was an agreement that specifically concerned bags and that will run until the end of this year. We have said that we believe that we need to make greater progress in reducing the number of free give-aways, and that is what we are determined to do.

Gregory Barker: The Minister has to recognise that the comments from the chief executive of Sainsbury’s stand as a matter of record. He has accused the
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Government of jumping on bandwagons and forgetting the issues that need to be addressed. Those are not my words but those of the chief executive of Sainsbury’s.

Why has the Chancellor decided to meddle, hanging the threat of compulsory taxation over the consumer and greatly angering retailers—as the Minister discovered in person when she met Justin King on “Newsnight” last week?

Why are the Government being accused by the retail sector of chasing headlines and reneging on their agreements? Is it because the Chancellor squeezed a splash of greenwash into his flawed Budget? If it was, then it was pretty weak greenwash. His plan has been attacked by most non-governmental organisations, which have rejected a ban on plastic bags. The Green Alliance, a leading environmental NGO, pointed out that a ban would be likely not to reduce emissions and might in fact help to increase them. Or was the aim to satisfy the popular press? Perhaps.

I wholeheartedly agree that the scourge of bags that litter our streets and countryside and pollute our seas must be tackled, but the reduction of packaging and supermarket waste will be most effectively achieved hand in hand with retailers—through designing out waste and educating the consumer to recycle and dispose of their rubbish responsibly—not through gesture politics and fumbled greenwash.

Tackling our waste stream is an essential part of tackling climate change. Waste threatens our wildlife and biodiversity and an ambitious waste policy is essential for a sustainable future, but political gestures about plastic bags are a poor substitute for an ambitious and thought-through whole-life waste strategy. For that, we will have to wait for a change of Government.

1.24 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to take part in this debate. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House, because I suggested that supermarkets would be an excellent subject for a topical debate a couple of weeks ago and, lo and behold, she actually listened to me. It must be a first.

I pay due respect to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), but I want to come to the issue from a slightly different perspective. I want to talk about the Competition Commission inquiry, which is coming to a conclusion. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) will, I am sure, catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in order to do likewise. He has been valiant in bringing the issue before the House—I always refer to him as the witchfinder-general of the anti-supermarket movement. It is about time that we questioned some of the practices of supermarkets.

My hon. Friend the Minister is right to say that waste and packaging are one aspect of the problem. The supermarkets could do much more, because they are responsible for creating so much waste. However, I want to talk about the Competition Commission inquiry. It is reaching a crucial point. We are expecting a final report; in fact, it might be out already. It
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certainly might be with the Government. I have not seen the report and I suspect that it has a few more weeks of going around the system before it is published.

We will get the final report and, if it is published on time, I assume that from May to September the so-called remedy steering group will finalise its mechanism for the new supermarket code of practice. The code of practice will be new, because the one that we have is fairly toothless. The group will also finalise the idea of the ombudsman. Some of us have had things to say about that in the past. There will be consultation on the subject, and no doubt the Competition Commission will have to talk to various supermarkets and look at how they will or will not respond. Later this year and early next year, we will see whether we need to legislate on the subject and, if we do, we will look at how we should do so. That will enable us to consider whether we can effectively judge and measure what the supermarkets say that they will do as against what they do. That is not before time.

I am rather proud to have worked last year with the hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) and for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) on the Bill that is now the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. It was an important bit of legislation and it took a lot of effort to get it through the House, but now it offers local communities a chance to fight back against ghost-town and clone-town Britain and to put in place the remedies that we want in our local communities. It was an important piece of legislation that we can use to good effect to consider how to get some balance back into our high streets, our smaller communities and, indeed, our larger cities so that we do not feel that we are being monopolised by supermarkets.

I am not against supermarkets. I am a Co-operative Member, and we obviously have to declare, as we always do, that we derive money and support from the Co-operative retail societies. We have a number of supermarkets—not many compared with the big guys, but still some. We support those supermarkets and see the benefit of supermarket shopping some of the time. The reality is that many of our small shops have either gone already or are under serious attack. They are under serious attack because of the power of the supermarkets and the fact that no one is prepared to stand against them.

Philip Davies: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that supermarkets do not put small businesses out of business, but customers do? If a customer wants to keep shopping at their local shop, their local butcher or their local baker, that shop will not go out of business. The only reason why such companies go out of business is that people stop shopping with them. That is not the fault of the supermarket but the responsibility of the consumer.

Mr. Drew: I do not necessarily agree with the hon. Gentleman. If I did, I would not ever be able to campaign again to try to save some of my local post offices. I am sure that the Government could use exactly the same logic to say that it was entirely up to the customer, as it is a free market— [ Interruption. ] I
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am sure that the hon. Gentleman is saying from his sedentary position that he is largely in favour of that. I am not. I am in favour of community solutions and I do not believe that choice is the answer to everything. There is a degree of need for balance in the way in which we provide such services. It is always the vulnerable who lose out: not necessarily the ordinary customer, but those who do not have the choice.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Drew: I give way to my hon. Friend, who will come to my aid.

Mr. Illsley: I am certain that I do not need to come to my hon. Friend’s aid. I agree entirely with what he is saying. The supermarkets have deliberately targeted high street shops by, for example, putting a Tesco Metro on the high street to compete with small shops. They have used pricing policies to undercut the small corner shops and try to force them out of business. That is why the consumer does not shop there—because it is cheaper in the supermarket.

The supermarkets are now targeting pubs, which is why alcohol can be bought in supermarkets for less than it costs the supermarkets to buy it. In a debate on Monday night I gave the example that on Budget day, when alcohol duties went up, the price of a pint of whisky in the supermarkets was reduced by £5. That is a classic example.

Mr. Drew: I cannot add to that. I totally agree with my hon. Friend, and I am grateful that he has helped me out.

One problem is what we mean by “competition.” If there were genuine competition, perhaps some of us would have fewer qualms about what is happening, but there is not genuine competition. There is not, to use a horrible term, a level playing field. It is a very unlevel playing field. That is why, in connection with the Competition Commission survey, I conducted a survey of the top 100 suppliers to supermarkets. I wrote to each of them in confidence, asking them three simple questions: first, whether they would be giving evidence; secondly, if they were giving evidence, whether they would share with me the basis of the points that they would make; and thirdly, whether they had any particular views on how supermarkets operate.

Perhaps it was me, but I got one substantive reply, although I had a few nice notes saying that unfortunately the suppliers could not respond in time or share their evidence with me. The one substantive reply explained why the supplier concerned would not be giving evidence to the Competition Commission inquiry, despite the fact that, as the hon. Member for St. Ives knows, they could have done so in confidence with no names and no pack-drill. They still would not do so, because suppliers are scared rigid. I am talking not about the small local farmer, who is unable to have any real traction over the process of the supply chain, but about the everyday producers and major wholesalers that we all know about. They are scared rigid by the supermarkets, although not necessarily in the way that we would think.

We all know what happens—the big supermarket would never touch the well known brands, but power is exacted when a supplier brings a new product to the
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marketplace. If the supplier has not played the game and done things as the supermarkets want, the supermarkets can exert pressure and make all sorts of threats that they will not put the supplier’s products on their shelves. There is a degree of malevolence in the process that is never really exposed.

In the end, to my shame, I did not give evidence to the Competition Commission inquiry because, my survey being the basis of my evidence, I had no evidence to give. Although those that gave evidence included some of the bigger suppliers, the number of suppliers that did not give evidence was overwhelming. They chose not to break ranks and not to say what they thought—the things that they say behind the scenes, and sometimes openly in meetings that the hon. Member for St. Ives and I have with them. They will not say it in any way that could change policy, which I find terribly depressing.

Not everything that supermarkets do is wrong, but the matter is not open and transparent. We cannot have much influence over it, because the great influencer—Parliament itself—cannot bring forth evidence, as people will not put on record what is going on and suppliers do not do enough. I make a plea to the Competition Commission to do what we ask and set up a proper process so that we can monitor supermarkets’ performance. We understood at the outset that the commission would be examining land banking, and it is good that it has moved away from that to consider some of the structural deficiencies in the marketplace, but the question is how that will work.

I do not see that matter as separate from what my hon. Friend the Minister said about the need for supermarkets to be more responsible in how they handle waste, packaging and so on. They also need to be more responsible in how they operate per se, and should perform as moral, corporately socially responsible organisations. If they are not able to do that even with their larger suppliers, one must ask where the customer and local communities come into it. We see the consequences too often, and Britain’s retail choice has declined because supermarkets have controlled the agenda completely, utterly and ruthlessly.

1.35 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): The topic of supermarkets is huge, and I am sure that many issues will be covered in a wide-ranging debate. I intend to focus my remarks on packaging, on which I have been campaigning for some time. Early-day motion 188 stands in my name, and I brought to the Liberal Democrat conference a comprehensive policy on reducing excessive packaging, which was passed. I also introduced a ten-minute Bill on the matter in the previous parliamentary Session. I was due to meet the Minister today to follow up on that Bill and discuss it further, but obviously that has been delayed owing to this debate. I welcome being able to discuss the issue here and then go into more detail in a few weeks’ time.

I welcomed many of the Minister’s comments, and at some points I wondered whether she was plagiarising the speech I made last October on my ten-minute Bill. I cannot really complain about that, because taking on board the ideas that I was proposing was exactly what I was inviting her to do. I was pleased to hear her words,
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although I have some questions about whether the actions are matching the words, and I shall come to that.

I cannot cover everything in just under five minutes, but I wish to touch on a few points before I deal with packaging. Given the huge power that supermarkets have in our society, I believe that they have a huge responsibility. Whether it is related to the fair trade movement, the impact on the environment of how their staff travel to work, the recycling that they do or their energy use, they need to take that responsibility seriously. We have just heard about the contracts for suppliers, which are important, and I would add to that the importance of involvement in the community. Often supermarkets are involved in a community but do not take the same interest as other, more local retailers, whether through local festivals or other such initiatives. I was surprised to hear that a group of traders in Milngavie, in my constituency, who are interested in a business improvement district, which sounds like an excellent idea, have heard that Tesco does not generally like to get involved with such things. To me, that seems a sad state of affairs. Surely we should encourage all retailers to be involved in the communities in which they operate.

I welcome the comments that have been made about planning guidance. It is important that we consider not just competition between supermarkets but competition with smaller shops. Local authorities need to have the power to ensure diversity of provision.

I turn now to packaging, and first to the Courtauld commitment. I am afraid that I do not quite share the optimism of the Minister or the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), the Conservatives’ Front-Bench spokesman, who seemed to say that it was on target and working well. Voluntary agreements are preferable to regulation when they can be proven to work, but I have asked a range of parliamentary questions about the Courtauld commitment and it still seems unclear where the benchmark is and how it will be measured. One answer that I received stated that each Courtauld signatory declares its total packaging use each year, but another stated:

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