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House of Lords

Thursday, 7 July 2005.

The House met at eleven of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by Lord Bingham of Cornhill): The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Tordoff) on the Woolsack.

Lord Stevenson of Coddenham—took the Oath.


Lord Grocott: My Lords, it may be helpful to the House to know that later this morning my noble friend Lord Rooker will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is being made in the House of Commons about unfolding events, of which we are all too well aware. The Statement will be repeated at a convenient time as soon after 1 pm as possible.

Plastic Bags

11.1 am

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Bach): My Lords, the total number of single use carrier bags used in the UK is between 8 billion and 10 billion per year. These go on to form approximately 80,000 tonnes of waste plastic, which equates to 0.3 per cent of all domestic waste. Surveys have shown that plastic bags of all sorts, some of which will be single use carrier bags, comprise a small proportion of marine litter, but plastic litter in the marine environment can kill and injure substantial numbers of cetaceans, birds and turtles.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for the information he has given in answer to my Question. Nevertheless, he will be aware that plastic bags can last for hundreds of millions of years. Even if they are a small percentage of the total waste in this country, they are still significant in the damage they cause. It would be the easiest thing in the world for the Government to put a tax on plastic bags, as has been done in other countries, thereby significantly cutting their use. Why can the Government not put a tax on them? It is a simple thing, and they might even make some money out of it.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend about how serious a problem this is for the environment and waste. It is right that a plastic carrier bag tax would severely reduce the number of one-way plastic bags in circulation. However, our present view is that the case for a plastic carrier bag tax is not proven on
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broad environmental or litter grounds. Indeed, the jury is out on this as far as we are concerned. A recent extended impact assessment on the introduction of such a tax or levy in Scotland shows that there would be a broad environmental disbenefit should the levy be introduced in its current form, mainly due to factors such as increased transport emissions through the substitution of heavier bags—paper and thicker plastic bin bags—for the light one-way bags currently in use. I know that this answer will disappoint my noble friend, but there are no immediate plans to introduce a tax. However, we are monitoring closely the impact of the PlasTax scheme in Ireland.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, it is not the manufacture and proper use of plastic bags that is offensive, it is our appallingly casual attitude as a society to their being dropped all over the place as litter. Have the Government received any evidence from countries that have put a tax on these bags that it has had any impact on the incidence of plastic bags appearing in improper places as litter?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the Government have asked the Waste Resources Action Programme, known as WRAP, to investigate the feasibility of a national bag-for-life scheme to attempt to change consumer behaviour and reduce plastic bag usage. My noble friend's point about changing behaviour is at the heart of this issue.

The experience in Ireland, where there has been a 15 per cent levy on disposable plastic carrier bags since March 2002, is favourable. The levy has raised €33 million in all, €13.5 million of which was collected last year. Its primary purpose is apparently litter control rather than plastic waste reduction, but it seems to have a large effect on the use of disposable plastic carrier bags, which has reduced, I am informed, by 93 per cent since the levy's introduction. There is much to think about there.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, if a tax is not the answer to this serious problem, what other actions are the Government taking to reduce the quantity of plastic bags that end up as litter; for instance, by encouraging supermarkets to use biodegradable bags?

With respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, Chair of the Refreshment Committee, I report that at the last meeting the committee agreed that the shop in the House of Lords should use paper bags for all small items, and so reduce the use of plastic bags in your Lordships' House.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am delighted to be reminded by my noble friend of the action that we in this House have taken.

The House will not be surprised to hear that the Government are talking to supermarkets about this issue. The Government have recently introduced legislation in the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 to improve powers for tackling all forms of litter, including plastic bag litter. Some of these measures came into force on 7 June. The remainder will need to be commenced in April 2006.
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One of the measures that came into force in June is the extension of the litter offence to include all land areas, not just land that is accessible to the public, so that it now covers private land and land covered by water. It is an offence to drop any item of litter in a lake, pond, watercourse, or the sea down to the low water mark. Fixed penalties can be used to punish those who commit such anti-social offences.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, the Minister rightly says that the issue is partly about changing consumer behaviour, and I am sure he is aware that the Liberal Democrats believe that a tax would do that. Does he agree, however, that this is also about changing retailers' behaviour? They use plastic bags and packaging of all sorts, not only to contain the goods, but as marketing tools and security measures. For example, if you buy a large item, they will simply tie a plastic bag to it as an indication that you have paid. What do the Government propose to do about the retail sector?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Baroness, as always, asks a pertinent question. There is an issue with retailers over this matter. We are talking to supermarkets, as I mentioned, and we have discussed the question of tax or a bag for life. We have talked about the latter possibility in some detail. Many of the supermarkets support such a concept. However, in the case of those who run these extremely powerful retail organisations, there are conflicting interests in their minds as to what they should do. But there is no doubt at all that the problem my noble friend has raised in his Question is one that we have to answer soon, for all our sakes.

Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, arising from the earlier reply that the experience in the Republic of Ireland has proved that 93 per cent of plastic bags are no longer necessary, instead of imposing new taxes on the people of the United Kingdom, why do the Government not go ahead and ban 100 per cent of plastic bags, so that we can now use alternatives, as they are now doing in the Republic?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am interested to hear the noble Lord's view on the matter, and I will take it back to the department with me. I cannot promise, however, that it will shortly become law.

Bowman Communication System

11.10 am

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty's Government:

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, full selection for the deployment to Afghanistan in 2006 will not be finalised
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until late autumn. We therefore cannot at present identify either the units or communications equipment that will be deployed.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. If Bowman is taken to Afghanistan, the troops using it must be confident that it works properly. Can the noble Baroness give an assurance that it will be fully tested in mountain conditions before being used there? Will it inter-operate with other NATO troops in Afghanistan?

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