Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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The Chairman: Order. I will suspend the sitting for five minutes.
6.52 pm
Sitting suspended.
6.58 pm
On resuming—
Steve Webb: The Liberal Democrats have an established party policy in favour of a levy on plastic bags, which was passed at our conference some years ago. We are broadly sympathetic with the new clause, new schedule and Government amendments and will not seek to obstruct them.
However, before the Committee approves the new measures, we should be slightly clearer about exactly what we are voting for. This is not exactly a pig in a plastic bag but it is something of that sort, because a great deal of detail still has to be established. I accept that the Minister says that we will pass primary legislation, that there will then be consultation and secondary legislation, and that we will have to return to some of the issues, but it would be helpful to know now what the Government are thinking about some of them.
My understanding of the principle is that there will be no requirement to place a levy if there is sufficient voluntary reduction—I believe that that was the phrase that the Minister used. She mentioned a 25 per cent. figure, but it would be interesting to know whether the Government are now clear in their own mind how much progress must be made, over what time scale, and whether it will be reviewed annually—the whole mechanism. How much is enough? I would hope that “enough” would be an ambitious target.
We have already heard about Ireland and other places where the reductions have been dramatic and fast. I hope that the Minister will set the bar high because if we are going to go through the process of putting the infrastructure in place, we might as well ensure that we get bang for our buck. I hope that the Minister will give us some idea of the Government’s thinking on charges.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle said that there was an issue about the use of revenue. The Bill is not explicit about what the use of the revenue would be. I am also slightly unclear about the funding flow. Presumably, there will be lots of people levying the charges. Do they all hand over the money to some sort of clearing house that then gives out grants or something? It is not clear how this will work. Having been required to make a charge, it would seem a bit odd if the individual companies were allowed to pick and choose their good causes. Again, the measure is a bit hazy and I do not know how it will work. Some further clarification would be helpful.
The coverage of the levy is unclear, but perhaps the Government have not yet made a decision. For example, my village shop issues carrier bags and I am not sure whether the Government have a de minimis threshold in mind. Clearly, the village shop’s carrier bags are as littering as everyone else’s. However, if my village shop had to keep a register of how many carrier bags it had handed out and how many 5ps it had charged customers, and if it would have to send in accounts on a form to DEFRA, it would make me wonder about the relative costs and benefits of the proposal. Is the measure aimed at the big supermarkets? Do the Government know where the cut-off point is? Those are very important questions.
I welcome the fact that the new schedule refers not only to carrier bags handed out in shops, but bags profligately used for home delivery. It is very important that those bags are within the scope of the legislation.
Although I agree with the basic approach, I have sneaking reservations about the switch from a voluntary to a statutory strategy. It is perfectly legitimate to try to do this on a voluntary basis. There is also a credible argument for saying, “Let us just get on with it and make it happen.” However, I am not sure about trying a voluntary approach, and then revoking it early on. When we intervened on the Minister to ask how the voluntary approach was working, she said that she had some ballpark figures. However, although she did not seem to have much idea, the decision to revoke the voluntary approach and put some stick in was taken months ago. Therefore, long before the Government knew how the voluntary approach was getting on—they cannot have had hard data on it months ago—they decided to go for a statutory approach.
As the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal said, the only thing that can be assumed is that the Government were responding to newspaper pressure. While the Daily Mail has its merits, it should not be determining the law of the land in the way in which it seems to have done in this case. We did not intervene on the Minister to say that we do not think that action needs to be taken in this area. Clearly there is a case for action, as our party advocated some years before the Daily Mail. The concern is that we have either a big picture climate change Bill that is strategic and sets frameworks, or we have a systematic strategy of specific legislation to tackle big climate change issues. It seems to me that with this Bill we have neither fish nor foul. We have what is supposed to be a measure to establish global targets for decades to come, and then it addresses bin taxes and plastic bags. The worry is that we do not have the strategic approach from Government telling us where our legislative priorities are and where the big climate change impact is—the bang for our buck. We just have responses to the flavour of the moment. That does not seem to be a wholly satisfactory basis on which to legislate.
We have the Bill in front of us and we have got to form an opinion. Our judgment is that these powers need to be available. We hope that the bar will be set high so that we can be confident that drastic reductions in the numbers of plastic bags, which are clearly possible, as other countries have shown, will be achieved in this country.
Mr. Gummer: Again, I would like to refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, not least because I chair a company that deals with a high proportion of requirements under packaging legislation. We have also advised a number of companies on how best to fulfil what I believe is the corporate responsibility to reduce the amount of waste that we use in this country.
Like other people, I am perfectly happy to say that we must do something about the nature of the society in which we live. This is a throw-away society, and we have gone through a period of time in which we have contravened all the rules that were previously part of our nature. We always used to refer to “waste not, want not” and I hear that idea coming back in relation to the Prime Minister’s comments.
We always thought that people went shopping with a shopping bag, put the items in there and came back with them. That idea was thrown away because people thought it was terribly old-fashioned, but we have returned to seeing the value of that approach. I feel it is a much healthier society that takes the view that wastage is of itself wrong and damaging to the environment. I do not want to be in any way critical of the principles that lie behind the measure, but I still find the presence of this aspect of the Bill very difficult to accept. It is as if we are at some fantastic liturgy where everything is leading up to the great moment in which we really show the centre of what we are going to depend on for the rest of our lives, and then just as we come to the end, somebody gets up and says, “I’d just like to announce that there’ll be tea after the service in the parish rooms”—somehow or other that is not actually the best bit. I do not think that the Minister for the Environment is terribly happy with this addition to his important Bill.
The Minister and the Under-Secretary will no doubt deny this, but I have a feeling that they believe the Bill is about something bigger and that the measure is merely a convenient thing to put on the end. The measure is no more about climate change than a whole lot of other things. Of course, it contributes to the battle, but it is largely about litter and a new attitude to waste, with which most of us agree. It is therefore not something that I wish to destroy. However, in the whole battle against climate change, there is a need to elevate the issue so that people recognise that dealing with it demands something very considerable of us and is not merely a matter of bits and pieces.
Secondly, I have a concern about the distinction between our argument about how terribly important it is to give large businesses time to work out how they will measure their carbon footprint and how, after we have had a few months of a voluntary agreement, we immediately have to bring in a system to clobber them because we are not sure that they are going to deliver. In addition, we do not know in detail what has been done. There is a certain contrast between those two things. Does that have anything to do with the way in which the public view has been both influencing the press and influenced by the press?
That leads me to the third point. I am sorry that this bit about plastic and paper bags is so limited because I would have thought that this was the moment to push the boundaries. It is interesting that many of the newspapers that are keen on taxing plastic bags are themselves delivered in a plastic bag. Why have we not extended the measure to cover that? What about saying that the legislation should apply to a wide range of uses of plastic that manifestly contribute to litter and add to greenhouse gases?
I think, too, of the packets in which parliamentary papers are sent out—they no longer come in what was rather better packaging, but in plastic, which seems largely unnecessary. I do not know whether you have noticed, Mr. Atkinson, but in the old days, the bound volumes of parliamentary reports came in very useful boxes, in which most of my back papers are now filed. Somebody somewhere, without any discussion with anyone, decided that the parliamentary reports would be packaged differently, which has had two results: first, they come damaged; and, secondly, the packaging cannot be reused, which is a more important mechanism than recycling. I am sorry that that has happened, because I like to apply rules to ourselves first.
Anne Snelgrove: Is the right hon. Gentleman talking about the 19th or the 20th century?
Mr. Gummer: Perhaps the hon. Lady, who has so far voted against her conscience on a number of issues, could be a little more serious. During the short time that she has been, and will be, in Parliament—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!] Well, we have had a good conversation so far, but I do not think that her intervention was a very useful contribution. Our bound papers used to be delivered in perfectly reasonable boxes that we could reuse, but about nine months ago, there was a change to a new form of packaging that we cannot use again. We now have to throw it away, or at least recycle it, which is a pity. For those of us who try to address matters of recycling, that is just another complicated issue.
Above all, it is very dangerous for the Government to base legislation on a popular, but possibly momentary, concern. The measure would send out a warning, but I am not sure that when enacted it will prove to be so popular. It is the sort of legislation that people are keen on only for as long as it does not actually happen—attitudes are always different before something actually happens. The Government should do one of two things: take no action, which I think would be wrong, or, preferably, say, “We will make this our own. We will not simply respond to a newspaper campaign, but establish a basis for a much wider view of how to reduce waste in packaging.”
Reducing waste in many parts of the packaging industry is a real operation. I declared an interest in this matter, and Valpak is very concerned about reducing the creation of packaging in the first place, which is what we try to do. However, we are not moving fast enough in certain areas where the Government might have provided some encouragement. I have given a couple of examples already: the increased use of unnecessary plastic packaging around other things simply because it happens to be convenient for the distribution of newspapers and the like, and the question of whether we ought to be using as many plastic coverings for materials that were previously covered in more easily recycled materials.
I see no indication in the new clause that those issues have been considered or that legislative opportunities have been taken to give powers to the Government to intervene. I am sorry that that opportunity has been missed. The Government ought to think very seriously about how to bring together the voluntary and the compulsory, and I think that the hon. Member for Northavon was on to something when he sought to distinguish between them. There is no doubt that some of the companies that have sought voluntarily to reduce the number of bags that they use have found it an interesting and valuable way of coming together with their customers and talking seriously about the issues—it has been a point of contact. The effect is that the whole concept of the collection of material for recycling and waste and such like has become important.
7.15 pm
Reports from checkout girls and boys, store managers and others have been interesting, and that is true across most of the retail trade. The situation is different for different kinds of products. Interestingly, the stories that one hears from the suppliers of clothes are different from those from grocery suppliers. In all cases, however, there appears to be a real advantage in there being a degree of voluntarism because it might have a longer effect upon people’s general method of treating waste. We need to change attitudes, and doing that on a slightly longer trajectory might mean that more people’s attitudes will be changed for a longer time. I beg the Under-Secretary to make sure that in any change that she or her successors seek to make, serious consideration is given to not just the size of the reduction in the number of bags, but how much we have used that reduction to change habits and attitudes. Taking a bit longer might have a more lasting and broader effect than the immediate impact of getting rid of the one-trip plastic bag.
Lastly, I commend those companies that have produced a wonderful business in providing bags for life, which has much enlivened the differences between them. I have much enjoyed the reasonably good-hearted jokes as each of the supermarket chains has sought to show that its bags are better than those of the others. They have done all sorts of things to get at the bags of others. It seems that, in general, that has had a thoroughly good effect upon the manners and attitudes of shoppers.
I hope that we will ensure that, in so far as we can, we get the voluntary system to do as much as it can, because I suspect that it is changing more attitudes than almost anything else that we have done for some time. It might need to go on for a bit before we intervene to ensure that we get the full result, which, probably, we will not get without the use of some of the powers that the Minister has put forward today.
Joan Ruddock: I seem to have an enormous number of questions to respond to, and I will try to do so as succinctly as I can. I was grateful for the support given by all those who have spoken, although they have given a critique of proposals. The general principle is well supported and we are delighted to have that support.
I begin with the issue of whether this is a litter scheme or a climate change scheme. I have made it clear that the scheme will have a number of positive results, if we able to achieve what we seek to achieve, but it is rooted in climate change. We are dealing with significant emissions, and that is why this is in the Bill. The Irish law was based on litter—that was the rationale. Ireland was trying to get rid of bags for litter reasons, not other reasons. That was why there was a lot of substitution of paper for plastic.
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Prepared 9 July 2008