Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Steve Webb: I do not dispute for a second that the Government are doing lots of other things that do not involve legislation, but that is not the point. The question is, now that we have a Climate Change Bill, is the Minister really saying that, of all the things that require legislation, carrier bags are the most important in terms of climate change?
Joan Ruddock: I am not saying that at all. The Bill itself is making huge provision for a whole raft of policies and strategies to tackle climate change; this measure is one small addition. It is there; it may look odd to the hon. Gentleman to put it in the Bill, but it is there because it is something that we believe needs to be done and there is a requirement to legislate. However, it is not a matter of saying, “This is more important”. There have been many measures in this Bill that we have all properly debated, which clearly demonstrate the Government’s commitment most of all to reducing carbon emissions across the whole of Government and in every aspect of our society, and also our commitment to adapting to climate change.
As was announced in the Budget, we wish to take enabling powers to require retailers to charge for single-use carrier bags. However, before these powers are exercised, we first want to give retailers the opportunity to pursue a sufficient reduction in the number of bags that they distribute on a voluntary basis. That is my response to the question put by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal. There is in existence a voluntary agreement, which runs to the end of this year, but that was about reducing the environmental impact by 25 per cent. The environmental impact is different from just the numbers of bags.
Martin Horwood: Will the Minister expand on the 25 per cent. figure, because a large part of the impact of plastic bags is not made on climate change, but in terms of wildlife, litter and causes close to the heart of the Campaign to Protect Rural England—a brief name-check—with its “Stop the drop” campaign? In doing so, will she also pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon, which is that this may not be the most important consideration in relation to climate change?
Joan Ruddock: Let me also name-check CPRE. I supported the “Stop the drop” campaign and I am working closely with the CPRE, which is promoting it.
Let me give the hon. Member for Cheltenham the figures. Plastic bags comprise between 0.1 per cent. and 1 per cent. of visible litter in the UK, 2 per cent. of total litter on UK beaches, which is substantial, and 0.3 per cent. of the domestic waste stream. Yes, those are visible, cause concern and need dealing with, and how better to deal with them than to reduce the circulation in the first place? Whatever the spectrum of reasons, plastic bags have environmental impacts associated with their disposal and produce emissions and are therefore relevant to climate change. However, other issues are involved. I do not dispute what the hon. Gentleman says. But plastic bags are important in respect of those other areas. We are getting more gain, potentially, than just simply that relating to climate change—and an important gain it is, because although plastic bags comprise quite a small percentage in terms of overall litter, they are so visible. When seeing those bags up in the trees, in the hedgerows and on the railway tracks, it makes a big impact and we want to see it ended. [Interruption.] I am reminded of something that might be helpful to the hon. Gentleman. In our partial impact assessment, single-use carrier bags were responsible for an estimated 790,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalents each year. Again, that has an important climate change impact.
Let me give the Committee an idea of what might be achieved. At least a 70 per cent. reduction in the numbers of single-use bags distributed could be achieved if a charge were introduced. The Government are prepared to impose a charge if a similar reduction cannot be achieved through voluntary action by retailers. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal suggested that we were being unfair to retailers and that some were hurt and disappointed by what they perceive as a change. First, this is not a change: the proposal to bring about the end of the single-use carrier bag was included in the waste strategy 2007. I think he will acknowledge that, whereas public opinion has become vociferous and concerned about the numbers—they want them done away with—at the same time a number of other countries have ended the use of these bags, not least China, where the vast majority of such bags were being produced. If other countries are doing it and the public demand is there, it is appropriate for the Government to respond. We have tried to explain to retailers that the argument has moved on: it is not a lack of appreciation for what they have achieved. Of course, we have learned a great deal from what they have achieved about ways in which we can reduce packaging.
The Government are prepared to impose a charge if we cannot achieve what we hope to achieve through voluntary action by retailers. The new clause would introduce a new schedule conferring powers on the relevant national authorities—covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not Scotland, as requested by the respective devolved Administrations—to make regulations about charges for single-use carrier bags. The specific powers are contained in the new schedule, which is split into three parts: powers to require a charge for bags, powers to create civil sanctions in respect of sellers who breach such regulations, and procedural matters. This is new material and part 1 of the new schedule provides powers to make regulations about charging for the supply of single-use carrier bags. Those regulations will require sellers of goods to charge for single-use carrier bags supplied either at the place where they are sold, or for the purpose of delivering goods. The measures will define “sellers of goods” and a “single-use carrier bag”, specify the minimum amount that sellers must charge for each single-use bag, appoint an administrator to administer the provisions made by the regulations, and confer appropriate powers and duties on them, including enforcement powers and duties. It will require records to be kept of the amounts raised by the charge, and the uses to which proceeds are put.
Obviously, we will consult formally on those points prior to the introduction of secondary legislation. The first set of regulations will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Part 2 of the new schedule contains provisions about civil sanctions. They follow the model used in the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill. Of the sanctions in that Bill, we propose only fixed monetary penalties, variable monetary penalties and compliance notices. Administrators will be able to choose which sanction is applied on a case-by-case basis.
We are not creating any criminal offences and have proposed that any fixed penalty fines for breaches of the proposed bags regulations be kept to a maximum of £5,000. There is, however, provision to require retailers to publicise the fact that they have breached the regulations. Part 3 of the new schedule provides for the regulations to be made either by a single national authority, or by two or more national authorities as joint regulations.
Martin Horwood: As I understand it, part 3 disapplies the hybrid procedures that would allow parties named in legislation to make representations in relation to it. I do not speak on behalf of any retailers that might be affected, but surely if an individual retailer is named in legislation, they should have the right to make representations in the normal way on that kind of legislation or regulation.
Joan Ruddock: I confirm that the hybrid procedures to any draft regulations made under the powers contained in the new schedule will be disapplied, as we provide for the power to name specific retailers who will be subject to the charge. The same approach is taken in relation to the waste reduction scheme provisions, which we discussed with the hon. Member for Vale of York, and the retailers so named will be able to make representations.
Amendments Nos. 86 to 101 are consequential to the new clause and schedule. By bringing forward the amendments, the Government are responding to strong public demands for action on single-use carrier bags. Those enabling powers will provide a powerful lever in our continuing efforts to phase out single-use carrier bags in favour of longer-lasting, more sustainable alternatives.
Gregory Barker: We agree with the Government that single-use plastic bags are a scourge on the landscape of our country. On a trip through the countryside, there are few things more infuriating to see than plastic bags blighting the landscape and stuck in our hedgerows and trees. The single-use carrier bag has become an icon of our throwaway society. They cause extensive environmental damage, endanger our wildlife and pollute our seas and waterways. As the Minister said, this country uses over 3 billion single-use carrier bags each year.
Joan Ruddock: It is 13 billion.
6.45 pm
Gregory Barker: I am sorry, 13 billion—that is over 500 bags a year for every household in Britain. Action is needed to reduce that figure. I must ask the Minister why, as already raised, the Government feel it necessary to include regulations for what is, in effect, a litter prevention initiative in a Bill that is about serious carbon reduction. Much of the evidence shows that there is little if any carbon reduction benefit—certainly in the grand scheme of things—from introducing such a charge. In the legislative precedent, set in the Republic of Ireland, there was never any suggestion that the policy was related to climate change. It was only ever mooted as a desirable litter prevention policy—an extremely successful one it has been too.
Opposition members of the Committee have made the point at several stages throughout the debates that the Climate Change Bill is a framework document, a big-picture piece of ambitious policy making. The Bill is about the future of our planet and the sustainability of humankind. It seems inappropriate to us to be introducing a micro-measure, such as the enabling powers, into the Bill, particularly when those powers will have no discernable impact on our overall carbon reduction. While we are certainly in favour of the new clause in principle, we question how appropriate it is to this particular piece of legislation. Dare I say it, I cannot help suspecting that a modicum of political posturing from the Government is involved here. However, I hope that the Minister can persuade me otherwise, as we are intent on supporting the aspirations of the new clause.
There are a few other areas where I would appreciate the Minister’s clarification about the new schedule. One issue is the “voluntary agreements”. Hon. Members know that my party believes in the necessity of keeping regulation to an absolute minimum. That is why we were pleased to see the Government engage positively with the retail industry, through WRAP, to agree a voluntary agreement to cut the environmental impact of single-use carrier bags by 25 per cent. by the end of 2008. The Prime Minister then said, in a speech last November, that
“the Climate Change Bill will legislate so that, if there is not sufficient progress on a voluntary basis by the end of the year”—
“the Government can exercise powers early next year to impose a charge on these bags.”
Can the Minister please tell me how the Government define “sufficient progress”? The reports I have received from the retail associations involved seem to describe significant progress. The British Retail Consortium stated that
“provisional figures released by WRAP in February 2008 showed that retailers gave out a billion less bags compared to this time last year and had already reduced the environmental impact of plastic bags by 14 per cent.”
Another issue that greatly concerns us, which the Minister did not really go into in any detail, is the hypothecation of funds, particularly in the new schedule. What will happen to the revenues raised by the bag levy? Should it be introduced, the Prime Minister made it clear in his speech last November that “any money raised” would go “to environmental charities”. Yet I do not see any reference to hypothecation of the bag levy in the Government’s new clauses. Can the Minister assure me that the Prime Minister’s statement will be honoured? We have already discussed the public distrust that exists around green taxes. Sadly, it seems that the levy is slipping in that direction. We must do all we can, in the interests of encouraging positive public engagement with environmental issues, so that we do not give people any grounds for suspicion that the Government are yet again using a tax, the bag levy, as yet another means of stealth tax.
It is worth noting that Marks and Spencer, which introduced voluntarily a 5p plastic bag levy in its food stores nationwide in February, is donating all revenues from that levy to the environmental charity Groundwork, with which many members of the Committee will be familiar. It does excellent work. It creates and improves green living spaces such as parks and gardens in neighbourhoods, especially deprived neighbourhoods, throughout the United Kingdom. Can the Minister assure me that the levy will be truly green, not another revenue-raising initiative—however small—from a cash-strapped Treasury?
Another issue that concerns me greatly is the ruling out of price absorption. There is not a stipulation under the new clause that would prevent large retailers from absorbing the single-use bag levy into their costs to prevent customers from having to pay it. That would, in effect, make the levy a new Government tax on retailers with no guaranteed environmental spend. If retailers could do that, it would give the big players—especially the larger supermarkets—an unfair advantage over their smaller and independent competitors, which would be far less capable financially of absorbing such a new cost. It would also negate entirely the purpose of the levy, which is to encourage behavioural change in the buying public. Can the Minister please clarify that it will not be possible for retailers, large or small, to absorb the cost of that levy?
I return to paper bag exemption. The Government have considered whether the levy should apply to paper bags as well as to plastic. As we are discussing a litter prevention policy not a carbon policy, is it not the case that paper bags biodegrade and do not pollute as plastic bags do? It is interesting to note that the levy on plastic bags in Ireland did not result in a rush to use paper. Instead, people have moved to reusable cloth bags. I should like to hear the Minister’s views on whether there is a necessity for exempting paper bags on the grounds that they provide a service without the environmental externality of plastic. With those concerns in mind, we are inclined to support the new clause and hope that we can halt the appalling sight of plastic bags littering our cities, towns and countryside, but we await with interest her response to our very real worries.
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