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When Ireland introduced a levy on plastic bags, the production of plastic increased dramatically. People got to the supermarket tills, realised there was a levy on plastic bags, went back into the supermarket and bought a roll of black bin liners, opened a bin liner and put their shopping in it to carry it to the car, so plastic production increased. I know that the Minister is well aware of all those arguments; she has been lobbied on the issue time and again, so I do not need to rehearse them. However, I want to say that we have to be careful not to demonise plastic bags wrongly. Only a very small percentage0.05 per cent.go into landfill. They can
be recycled. In fact, plastic bags are made from a waste product. We have to ensure that we get the science right before we bring in levies, bans and so on. A further opportunity to debate the subject would be most welcome.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I had better start by declaring an interest. Sadly, I do not own a supermarket, but, as everybody knows, I own a convenience store in Swansea, Evans the News, which opens early in the morning until late at night. It is good value for money. That is advertising you cant buy.
Mr. Evans: We do, and I will come on to that, because it is an important point when we are talking about waste. I agree with the Minister that people have a love-hate relationship with supermarkets. Supermarkets get a lot of bad press and people get very angry about the subject. When we read about supermarkets, the context is usually that people want to put one on the edge of a town or city, and some local people are very angry about it, or that a local authority has turned down the application, or that the supermarket has won on appeal. Or the issue might be the plastic bags or packaging. Controversy is normally involved when we read about supermarkets.
Of course, supermarkets do a lot of good, and I am speaking as a small retailer. For instance, I am sure that many of us have been to Tesco to present our local youngsters with school computers or DVDs or whatever, because of the coupons that shoppers collect and give to schools. Sainsburys has a similar scheme for keep-fit equipment. Many supermarkets get involved in the community; certainly, Tesco in Clitheroe does. I do not think that supermarkets deserve some of the knocking that they get.
Mr. Evans: Having said thatI assure my hon. Friend that he will not enjoy all of my speechsupermarkets are seen as posing a threat to the smaller trader; there is no doubt about it. Supermarkets are increasingly moving on to the high streets and opening smaller stores there. In some cases, I suspect that that is done to get around some of the Sunday trading legislation, but it is also done because there is a lot of demand for shopping on the high street in towns and villages. Increasingly, we see such stores as a threat to small shops in the independent sector.
I agree that retailers have a responsibility, too. If consumers stopped going to the smaller supermarkets, turnover would decline, profit would disappear and the stores simply would not survive. I suppose that the next threat will increasingly be online shopping. It would be pointless for us to say, This is dreadful; small stores are being put out of business because people are shopping online. Consumers are busy people. They shop online not because it is more difficult, but because it is easier and they prefer that method. Give it another 10 years and we may see a huge change in the way in which people do their shopping. Some of the larger retail supermarkets may even go into decline as a result of people preferring to shop online.
Philip Davies: Supermarkets seem to be in a no-win situation. If they open on an out-of-town site, people say, Theyre destroying the high street. Its outrageous; its bad for the environment, because people are driving to these out-of-town stores. When supermarkets open a store on the high street, they are criticised for going into head-to-head competition with independent retailers. People have to decide at some point where they want supermarkets to go. The out-of-town supermarkets are often successful because they offer convenient locations and free parking. Perhaps local authorities could do more for smaller retailers by stopping excessive parking charges and restrictions, which prevent people from using smaller high-street retailers.
Mr. Evans: My hon. Friend makes an important point. In many towns and cities, there are high car parking charges, yet parking is free outside supermarkets. I do not believe that the answer is to start charging shoppers to park outside supermarkets; that is ludicrous. Shoppers would not be too happy, and, funnily enough, shoppers are voters. It would be a brave political party that put such a measure into a manifesto.
Mr. Hayes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to be the voice of sanity against the defenders of Mammon. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) seems to suggest that convenience should necessarily triumph over quality, and that ubiquity should replace service. As a small shopkeeper, my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) knows that small shops do much more than supermarkets to inform and characterise communities. We need diversity for the consumer. We also need to recognise the aesthetic of small shops and what they do for our communities, and the damaging aesthetic of supermarkets. They are brutal, ugly things, and that needs to be said in this place and elsewhere.
Mr. Evans: I feel a bit like an umpire now. I am glad that I am between my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), just in case they try to get at one another during my speech. There are elements of truth in what both my hon. Friends have to say about supermarkets, but only elements. We have to look at the issue seriously. If we want the small trader sector to survive, it will take a bit more than sitting back and saying, Well just see what happens. I can tell hon. Members what will happen: give it another 10 years and small shops will carry on disappearing, and their numbers will decline. We have all seen specialist shops and stores such as mine being put under pressure in our constituencies.
When I was a kid growing up, there must have been 20-odd shops on the square where my shop stands, and across the road. First, the shops across the road
disappeared, and then, one by one, the shops on the square started to disappear or combine. We are down to about four shops now in our area. There is a lot of pressure on the smaller stores: costs are always increasing, for example as a result of rising staff costs and the minimum wage. I am not making a point about thatI am just saying that that is the reality, and that there is a cost attached. Smaller stores have to pay bank charges, but they do not have clout with the banks. I am sure that supermarkets have a lot of clout in negotiations with the banks, but smaller stores do not, and bank charges are disproportionately high for the smaller trader. Insurance costs are high, and business rates can be extremely high. We have discussed packagingindeed, I thought that I was attending a debate on packaging at one stage, not on supermarketsand we should remember that all the goods that come into supermarkets are already packaged. There is a good reason why cigarettes, for instance, are packed in cardboard boxes: we want to protect the goods inside, although I accept that many of them are wrapped in cellophane, too. The worst thing for a retailer is to see the product smashed in at the corners during delivery, as it is very expensive for them if they cannot get their money back from the wholesaler or the manufacturer.
Rubbish costs for smaller stores are disproportionately high. Such costs used to be included in business rates but, all of a sudden, retailers were asked to pay a separate refuse charge on top of business rates that runs into several hundreds of pounds a year. If we want the smaller trader to survive we must look carefully at how we will achieve that, and it may require Government action. We have discussed a laissez-faire approach from Government to legislation on supermarkets, but if we want smaller traders to survive, Ministers must sit down, work out what the problems are for smaller traders and see what can be done to assist them.
I shall make just a couple more points, as I know that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) wishes to make a speech. We should not go down the road of taxing plastic bags. I fully accept what the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) said about the Irish experience: we should learn from that experience, but we must be realistic. The same argument applies to low-energy light bulbs: if the hon. Gentleman is right, people are consuming more energy, or more energy is used by some low-energy light bulbs. That problem could arise in the manufacture of plastics, given the Irish experience. If we introduced a charge on plastic bags, I suspect that it would be regarded as just another stealth tax that had nothing to do with efforts to dissuade people from using plastic bags. Tesco encourages people not to use plastic bags by giving them green points on their club card if they use their own bag. We should use more carrots to encourage the reuse of plastic bags, but I accept that people use them for their rubbish. They are not always put in bin bags, and many of them are reused. We must, however, conduct proper research to make sure that biodegradable plastic bags are the norm: it should not take 1,000 years for them to disappear, but only a brief time.
Far more research is needed on that problem, and more must be done to encourage supermarkets to
source products locally. Booths in my region sources 75 per cent. of its fresh meat and 42 per cent. of its bread products from Cumbria, Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire, which is where its stores are located. It does a fantastic amount of work with local producers and, indeed, it helped local milk producers to form a consortium and, as a result, now sells Bowland milk. That is a superb form of marketing that has worked. There are many farming families where I live, and they support such initiatives, because they know how important they are.
I want to mention buy one, get one free, or BOGOF as it is known. The Minister talked about the need for less packaging, and she was right with regard to some products. However, we have heard the counter-argument that that may lead food to decay more quickly, and there are instances of that happening. For people buying single items of food, particularly fresh produce, that is an important consideration. Elderly people who live on their own, for example, do not want to buy large quantities of food, because it goes off before they can eat it, so it is wasted. The same argument applies to buy one, get one free. Some of those offers are fantastic, and I am as guilty as anyone else: I am happy to buy one and get the other one for free, but the second item goes off before I have a chance to eat it. I would much prefer to encourage manufacturers and supermarkets to get together and offer the stuff half-price: it would amount to the same thing, and there would be less waste. We do buy one, get one free in our store through our wholesalerwe have to do so, because all the advertising blurb is about BOGOFbut I would much prefer a move to half-price items if possible.
Finally, we must look again at the power of supermarkets in relation to suppliers. There is an underlying belief that some supermarkets have such huge powerthis is based on what the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, and his explanation of why he received so few submissions in his surveyand have such a hold over people that they can dictate the price at which products come into the store. They then say how much the product will cost on the shelves, and manufacturers do not have much of a say: if they do not play ball, their goods will disappear from the shelves, and a competitor who does play ball will put their goods on the shelves. We have to be realistic about the power of the supermarkets, and see what we can do to ensure that the balance is made fairer. At the end of the day, we want consumers to be the real winners.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): This debate has been a case of déjÃ vu for me. When it began, I imagined I had a veritable banquet of time in which to make my comments, but I ended up with a meagre morsel.
I wish to leave the Minister enough time in which to address the many points that have been made in this important debate. However, I wish to express disappointment, not in her but in the restrictions of her brief: important concerns about planning and suppliers have been raised, but they are not her responsibility. She promised, however, in an intervention that she would convey those concerns to the relevant Ministers, and I certainly hope that she does so. I wish to concentrate on the points that the hon. Member for
Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) made in his conclusion but, in passing, I will make a few other points, if I have time.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) prefaced each of his references to the Government with an acerbic adjective, and he clearly did not want to persuade the Minister to accept his point of view. My hon. FriendI think that that is probably the right expressionthe Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) described me as witchfinder-general: the Vincent Price of the Chamber, the witchfinder-general of the anti-supermarket brigade. I do not want to give the impression that I am some kind of deranged evangelical zealot; I have always wanted to present a calm, objective analysis of the issue, with a dose of healthy scepticism.
I want to address issues concerning suppliers and producers, and the impact of out-of-town supermarkets. I understand why the Government have effectively entered into a love affair with supermarkets. It seems as if the Prime Minister brought the supermarkets into his big tent, before the big tent was properly open. One can easily be seduced into believing that the supermarkets have helped to deliver the Governments policy of low inflation. The latest food crisis has demonstrated that the Government need to give equal attention to producers who, with suppliers, can also contribute to the achievement of low inflation. It is not simply the supermarkets that do so, and they have had suppliers under the cosh in recent years.
I am not arguing and I never have argued that supermarkets are evil or that their chief executives are the product of the loins of the devil. Their actions to press their suppliers until the pips squeak and to gobble up their smaller competitors are merely the rational product of the climate in which they operate. If they did not push their suppliers against the wall and squeeze every last ounce of benefit for themselves out of them, if they did not gobble up their smaller competitors, and if their competitors in the supermarket sector were doing that, they would clearly lose market share and their shareholders would not be happy.
It is not that those organisations are fundamentally bad; they are behaving rationally. The question that we need to ask ourselves and the one that I have been putting to the Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading for years is whether we have reached a point where the supermarkets have moved from successful and appropriate use of market muscle to inappropriate abuse of market muscle. That is the issue which, I believe, the Competition Commission has intended to address as part of its inquiry.
Mr. Hayes: We have passed that point. My farmers and growers have been telling me since I became their MP that we passed that point a long time ago. There is excessive muscle, and it is high time that farmers, growersprimary producersgot a fair cut of the cake.
My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) produced an excellent report in 1998 entitled Checking out the Supermarkets, which resulted in the Competition Commission inquiry and the supermarket code of practice in 2000, since when there have been
three other inquiries into the power of the supermarkets. The latest one started in May 2006 and the report from the Competition Commission is due out on 8 May this year. I attended an evidence session on 13 March, at which I, on behalf of a number of other sector organisations, went through some of the evidence and the preliminary recommendations in the report.
It is clear that the suppliers have not been satisfied. I made representations to the Competition Commission in an attempt to persuade it to extend the remit of its inquiry. A wide range of groups, including the Association of Convenience Stores, the NFU, Friends of the Earth and ActionAid, were represented on the Cross-Cutting group, which represented both brand names and other suppliers and those who were in competition with the supermarkets. We presented the Competition Commission last year with two submissions, one about an adjudicator, which it has called an ombudsman, and the other about planning issues. The findings so far are extremely encouraging. I do not have time today, but I would welcome an opportunity to debate the issues with Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform when the report comes out.
If an ombudsman is to be effectiveit is obvious that the supermarkets will object to the introduction of an ombudsmanit will probably require ministerial discretion to be used under the Enterprise Act 2002 and secondary legislation to be introduced. Important progress has been made by the Competition Commission, which should be congratulated. I hope the Minister will take these messages on board.
Joan Ruddock: I shall respond briefly to the final points made in the debate, which echoed those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). A number of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud were directed to the Competition Commission, and I am sure we will draw its attention to that. As I said earlier, I will take the other comments back to my colleagues and ensure that they are properly heard. Many important points, particularly about the responsibilities towards suppliers, were well made.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. In the few minutes remaining I cannot refer to all their speeches, but let me tackle a couple of issues, particularly the free use of give-away bags. At the start of the agreement, 13 billion such bags were in circulation. We understand that the reduction is 1 billion. It would take 12 more years to get rid of the remaining bags. We think that needs to be done. That is why we are addressing the issue. The public want it. It is a symbol of our wasteful society, and if we are trying to encourage behaviour change, as we are, we need to respond.
In Ireland the issue was one of taxation, but that is not the case in the United Kingdom. We are talking about charging. There has not been a proper analysis of the results of the Irish undertaking, except that 90 per cent. of the bags went. Biodegradable bags are not the answer. They produce methane in landfill. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) raised questions about the packaging regulations. We agree with her. The essential requirements do not work. We
have asked for a review, but progress is slow. We are pursuing the matter all the time because we want more to be done.
I pay tribute to the expertise of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on packaging. He gave us an interesting speech, particularly on Malibu. I agree with him about the quality of recyclates. I am looking desperately at the issue of better quality. He spoke about shipping to China. There are good reasons for doing that, as it saves the Chinese using raw plastic. My hon. Friend raised a number of other issues. On light bulbs, consumers should look for the Energy Savings Trust recommendation. That is the way to be certain that the bulb is low energy. Other points have been dealt with in correspondence. We have technical answers to his questions, to which I refer him again.
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