I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of supermarkets.
Today’s debate provides us with an excellent opportunity to focus on the role of supermarkets, and to consider how their activities affect people, communities, the economy and the environment. Many of us have a peculiar love-hate relationship with our local superstore. We like the convenience of being able to obtain a wide range of goods in one place, at one time and at a reasonable price, but we want to ensure the hearts of villages and towns are not destroyed by out-of-town developments and our high streets are not cloned into homogeneous parades of shops selling the same products from the same stores in town after town. Many of us also care very much whether producers and farmers—whether they farm in Britain or in developing countries—get a fair price for the products they sell.
Whatever anyone’s stance on the issue, no one can deny that our supermarket chains have a unique place in this country. They exert an incredible influence over what we buy, how we buy, and where we buy. Their actions hold sway over many varied issues, and I am sure that a number of them will be raised today.
Although it is not in my brief, I am more than aware of Members’ concerns about the ability of supermarkets to expand their empires at the expense of local shops. Our “town centre first” policy has produced some real success. However, the Department for Communities and Local Government has now decided to conduct a review of planning policy statement 6, and to introduce a tougher impact test to give councils more capacity to refuse big developments that put small shops in town centres at risk.
World food prices are the latest issue to top the supermarket agenda. On Tuesday, recognising that the poorest would be hit hardest, the Prime Minister hosted a summit with leading experts—including the head of the World Food Programme—to discuss ways of tackling the problem. My focus in this debate, however, will be on the supermarkets’ role in climate change and waste.
Supermarkets have a key role to play on climate change. As large businesses, they need to reduce the carbon impacts of their operations. Many have secured real reductions through energy efficiencies and new technologies, but to drive down their emissions further we are introducing the carbon reduction commitment through the Climate Change Bill. That will create a domestic cap-and-trade emissions scheme covering all enterprises whose annual half-hourly metered electricity use is above 6,000 MW hours, which will include supermarkets.
I regret to have to say that I do not have that figure with me. We can endeavour to get hold of it, however, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman if I have it. As I think he will know, we in the UK are responsible—in terms of our own productions here, as opposed to the goods we bring in—for 2 per cent. of total global CO2 emissions, but we have to take on our responsibility, as does every section of society, and I know that the supermarkets understand that.
As consumer-facing organisations, supermarkets also wield huge influence over the purchasing habits and lifestyle choices of millions of individuals. As they have expanded beyond groceries, supermarkets have given us cheap clothes and electrical and electronic goods. Like all goods, they come with a carbon price, which Government can no longer ignore. Supermarkets’ voluntary phase-out of incandescent light bulbs is already helping consumers to save money and reduce carbon emissions. Many organisations are now interested in the carbon footprint of individual products, so the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Carbon Trust and the British Standards Institution are working with retailers to develop a methodology that could lead to carbon labelling, and which will certainly lead to retailers being able to reduce carbon footprints.
The last time I and the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) were in the Chamber addressing a related topic, I was critical of ASDA Wal-Mart, but on this occasion I wish to congratulate it. Does the Minister endorse the initiative that it and Leicestershire county council launched some time ago of a packaging amnesty that allowed consumers to return excessive packaging, and, as part of an overall campaign, of encouraging shoppers to be alert to excess packaging and to try to select products that minimise their carbon footprint?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which anticipates something I intend to say later. I am happy to congratulate those in his constituency who have been active in trying to improve packaging issues.
DEFRA is working directly with supermarkets, retailers and manufacturers to reduce the energy consumption of products such as set-top boxes and stand-by mechanisms. Helping the consumer to acquire the least energy-consuming products by choice-editing is a vital part of our fight against climate change.
Fast fashion and cheap clothes are adding to our carbon footprints. Only last week, I read a newspaper headline quoting a shopper at Primark, who said:
“So cheap you can almost wear it and throw it”.
And throw it we do—more than 1.5 million tonnes of clothing waste per annum. Once again, however, the Government are taking action, by working with retailers and others on a clothing road map analysing the carbon impacts from seed-sowing through manufacture and sale to disposal of the clothes we wear. This, too, is designed to minimise environmental impact, including carbon emissions.
What, however, is top of the list in my ministerial postbag on supermarkets? As I am sure Members will guess, the answer is packaging. Surveys show that most people feel there is too much packaging on products on sale today. Packaging serves multiple purposes, of course. It is used to catch the eye of the customer. It can serve to keep a product fresh, or to protect it, or make it easier to store or move. People realise that they have to pay for packaging, however, and when the packaging is finished with, it occupies as much as a fifth of their household waste bin. As council tax payers, they then end up paying again to get rid of it. When it becomes waste, packaging also contributes to climate change.
As individual consumers, we have a responsibility and there is action we can take. We can opt for goods with less wrapping, buy loose goods and reuse and recycle more of the packaging we acquire. However, people also expect the Government to act.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that surveys show very clearly that people expect the Government to lead on these issues—and lead we will.
Eighteen months ago, senior representatives from the country’s biggest grocers, the Government, and the Waste and Resources Action Programme agreed the Courtauld commitment. Courtauld is about reducing packaging and food waste, such as by keeping wrapping to a minimum and finding new means of “lightweighting” those containers with which we are all so familiar. The signatories to the agreement are responsible for about 40 per cent. of the packaging in this country. Their first target was to end the growth in packaging waste this year—to de-link growth in packaging from growth in GDP. I believe they are on target, and look forward to the report that is to come.
It is an enormous pleasure that the Minister is present to debate this subject—or any other. Will she at least accept, however, that the problems associated with the miles travelled by products, the products themselves and their packaging are not unique to supermarkets, but that they are more general problems across the retail sector? It is also of concern to me that the Government are addressing this issue from a very narrow perspective, when in fact supermarkets have a specific impact on suppliers, and their out-of-town activities siphon wealth out of town centres. It is an enormous disappointment that we are not able to address those issues as well in this debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, but I must say to him that he is entirely entitled to make his own speech, and if he chooses to concentrate on the issues he mentions, I will most surely be willing to pass any points that are to do with other Departments to my colleagues. I alluded at the start of my speech to the fact that there are other such issues, so I feel that I have offered him that opportunity. In terms of what he said about goods, the miles they travel and embedded carbon, supermarkets are of course not unique; those issues affect the whole of the retail sector. When I refer to supermarkets and agreements, it must be remembered that other non-supermarket retailers are involved in those agreements, so we are trying not to single them out but to work effectively with them.
When we talk about miles travelled, especially in relation to fresh produce, we also need to have in mind the good that this does to developing countries that want to export to the United Kingdom. We can sometimes assist them by buying their produce. Trade is far better than aid in many cases.
I very much agree. That is why we work on whole-life cycles. It is impossible to make a judgment about a carbon impact without a whole-life cycle, and goods brought from further abroad can be less carbon-intensive than goods produced using a lot of energy in Europe.
I have talked about the Courtauld agreement and the fact that we are on target. Reducing packaging is the priority, but reusing and recycling it is also important. We have made real progress in that. Packaging recycling rates increased from 28 per cent. in 1997 to more than 59 per cent. last year. We expect to reach the packaging directive targets of 60 per cent. recovery, including 55 per cent. recycling, by the end of this year. However, that means that more than 5 million tonnes of packaging waste is still not being recycled, and much of it comes from supermarkets. I have therefore increased the packaging recovery targets for 2008 to 2010 and set new targets for 2011-12.
The public have also made it clear to us that they want action on plastic bags, and we have taken it. We will require that supermarkets charge for single-use bags, whatever they are made from, unless the voluntary agreement achieves a much more substantial reduction in respect of the 13 billion bags that will be distributed free this year. The best way to tackle waste is not to generate it in the first place, and that is where the retail sector can have its greatest influence.
It is estimated that supermarkets waste about 1.6 million tonnes of food every year, but, astonishingly, we householders throw away even more—more than 6 million tonnes. We bin one third of all the food we purchase, so we need to tackle the issue by starting with what we buy. We must know how much we need and, dare I say it, we must not be tempted by offers of buy one get one free, three for two or two for one. When it comes to cutting down on our food waste, such sales initiatives are deeply unhelpful. Let us help the poorer customer, but why not offer products at half price?
Last year I helped launch WRAP’s food waste campaign, “Love Food, Hate Waste”. Since then, as food prices have risen so fast, the campaign messages have become even more important. We should plan for, and buy, only what we need. We should also store our food wisely and cook only what we can eat. When some people in the world cannot afford to buy food to eat, it is a scandal that every year we waste £10 billion-worth of food that could have been eaten.
We are grateful for the supermarkets’ co-operation in pursuing our climate change and waste agendas. They may sometimes be irritated by my mantra, “Further and faster”, but I can only say that it is because I have confidence that they can do more.
Supermarkets dominate not only the retail sector, but the whole economy, and they colour and shape our daily lives. There are so many facets to the power and reach of supermarkets that it would be hard to debate them all in this short topical debate, so in the 10 minutes available to me I shall concern myself with the effect that supermarkets have on waste and packaging. That is the most topical point for me to address.
I am sure that the Minister was as disappointed as I was that the much-touted green Budget never really materialised. Instead of any new radical measures to tackle dangerous climate change, the only supposedly green measure we were offered by the Chancellor was the veiled threat of a plastic bag charge. The Budget announced that a Government tax on single-use plastic bags may be introduced next year if retailers have not already started charging for them by that time. Even by the standards of this lethargic, weak and dithering Administration, that was an astonishingly weak gesture. It is hard to credit any initiative from this tired Government on waste, however worthy, when it is set against the huge cuts inflicted on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and its agencies, which will directly undermine the Department’s efforts to lead on waste reduction; 2008 will go down as the year Labour bottled on waste.
The business resource efficiency and waste—BREW—programme, which was set up in 2005 to support resource efficiency and waste projects, looks likely to have its spending cut by more than half, from £125 million in 2007 to £60 million in 2008, despite the fact that the BREW programme has been responsible for more than 2 million tonnes of landfill diversion, 1.8 million tonnes of CO2 reduction and cost savings that were estimated at almost £40 million last year. The Waste and Resources Action Programme—WRAP—which promotes recycling and measures to reduce the use of landfill, has confirmed that its funding is being cut by 25 per cent., and it has issued more than 30 compulsory redundancy notices in the past months. Can the Minister explain why her Government are undermining those effective and efficient emissions reduction programmes while putting nothing in their place? Where is the ambition? Where is the compelling strategy? Where is the on-the-ground implementation?
This Government are getting things wrong across the waste agenda, and the results are plain to see: the number of recorded fly-tipping incidents in this country has increased by a staggering 290 per cent. over the past two years; the UK has one of the highest levels of landfill in the EU; and 22 per cent. of the country’s emissions of methane—a gas that has 23 times the greenhouse effect of CO2—comes from decomposing landfill. We cannot simply blame the supermarkets for that.
As the waste agenda becomes wedded ever closer to the climate change agenda, and as legislation such as the Climate Change Bill, which is soon to arrive in this House, and various international frameworks push us towards greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the irresponsibility of this Government’s record on waste becomes all the more glaring. It is simply not acceptable just to push the blame on to supermarkets.
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.
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
“when our government jumps on the bandwagon of an apparently simple solution, forgetting the issues to be addressed, ignoring the evidence, and indeed an agreement reached with industry—as has happened recently in the debate on plastic bags—I think we all have cause to be concerned.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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, 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:
“Information on the annual total packaging use of each of the signatories is not routinely collected”.—[Official Report, 12 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1652W.]
It seems that there is some confusion about the Courtauld commitment, which I hope we can get to the bottom of, particularly because packaging growth is supposed to be halted this year. We ought to know where we are and who is monitoring it. What will happen if the targets are not met? Will there be naming and shaming, and will that be an effective sanction? Will the Government consider legally binding targets if the voluntary approach does not work?
The Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003 are another bugbear of mine. They do not work, because they allow any producer to have as much packaging as they like, as long as they can prove that it is acceptable to the consumer. Basically, if they can sell more products, it is all right.
I declare an interest, in that I was a marketing manager before I was elected to Parliament. Any marketer knows that the greater the amount of shelf space in a shop, the more products get sold. The incentive is to increase packaging, and there is no effective way to enforce the regulations.
The hon. Lady is right, and she knows that I used to work in marketing for a supermarket before I entered Parliament. Does she accept that the onus is on the customer to shun products with lots of packaging and to buy the ones with minimal packaging? If that happened, supermarkets and food manufacturers would reduce the amount of packaging provided. We do not need Government regulation, as it is all in the hands of the consumer.
That is the argument for enlightened consumerism, and we should encourage people to do what the hon. Gentleman suggests, but I want a level playing field for producers. Enlightened companies that take their environmental responsibilities seriously should not be penalised, with lower sales of their products caused by the fact that they are given less space or prominence. Regulations to which all companies must sign up would resolve the problem in a different way, while remaining perfectly acceptable from a market point of view.
At a Select Committee sitting in December, I questioned the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the regulations. He said that the EU’s Directorate General on the Environment was looking at the matter again and undertaking a study, but I have not got very far with finding out more. I wrote to the DG Environment in January, but so far I have received no answer. I also wrote to the right hon. Gentleman in March to see whether he could assist in soliciting a response. I understand that the task was transferred to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and that an answer is sitting on the relevant Minister’s desk there. I hope that the Minister attending this debate will help me to get the answers that I need, and to find out whether the regulations will be reviewed.
Last year, I conducted a survey of 200 trading standards officers. The ineffectiveness of the packaging regulations means that there have been very few prosecutions, and public awareness of them is low. I hope that the Government will consider raising people’s awareness of the fact that trading standards officers can deal with packaging problems, but we cannot expect wonderful results as long as policing packaging is not a priority for them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that supermarkets tend to insist on suppliers using packaging that is often much more expensive than could be achieved otherwise? The supermarkets are involved in driving up the costs of packaging and the extent to which it is used.
My hon. Friend is right. I hope that we will hear more from him about that later. The Local Government Association carried out an interesting study last year and found that markets used the least packaging whereas supermarkets used the most.
I am intrigued by the sudden interest in plastic bags expressed by the Prime Minister and the Government. I suspect that it may be driven in part by the media agenda and a certain campaign in the Daily Mail. Although it is important to cut the number of disposable plastic bags that are used, that is merely a drop in the ocean in the context of the wider debate about packaging. The effort may be visible, but it is not of the greatest importance in the overall campaign. The Minister knows that the evidence is mixed as to whether taxes reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and about whether there are negative effects of increased other bag use. I welcome the fact that the charge being considered will take into account what bags are made from. That is an important factor, as heavier bags lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions, but I still think that a voluntary approach is best.
In conclusion, consumers pay through the nose for excessive packaging, at the check-out and in their council tax bills—
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), as the final minute of her speech—on plastic bags—was quite interesting. I agree with the point that she would have gone on to make.
All of the various issues such as packaging and plastic bags that have been raised in the past hour or so are worthy of a full day’s debate. The Order Paper shows that the London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill will be debated at some date in the future, but many other environmental matters deserve to be debated too. It is therefore a shame that we have only 90 minutes for this important debate, and that attendance in the Chamber is not better.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) suggested that supermarkets would respond if people were to ask for products that had less packaging or which presented some other environmentally friendly quality, but I am sceptical about that. I believe that supermarkets supply the products that we buy, and that consumer choice ends there.
My hon. Friend the Minister opened the debate by outlining some of the environmental issues at stake. I agree with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire that we must be careful not to react to public opinion by introducing measures that science tells us are wrong. For instance, incandescent light bulbs are to be banned in favour of so-called low-energy bulbs, but people need to understand what such a bulb’s power factor means. I shall try to explain.
A low-energy bulb with a power factor of 1 demands as much power from the generating station as does a conventional bulb. Technically, therefore, a light bulb is not low energy unless it has a power factor of 0.9 or less. Most low-energy light bulbs on sale in this country have a power factor of about 3, which means that they use three times as much power as an ordinary bulb. Consumers need to know that information if they are to make the right choice, but it is not widely available. That problem is one that the Institute of Lighting Engineers is trying to highlight, and we should bear it in mind.
We had a good debate in Westminster Hall last year on packaging. The hon. Lady set out her thoughts on the essential requirements, and the arguments have been well rehearsed. We all want to reduce the amount of packaging used, but no one can say how much is excessive. Some packaging is needed to present information about the product inside. For example, people with a peanut allergy can make use of the traffic light system to find out about ingredients, and consumers are now asking for packaging to contain information about the obesity risks of a product, or its salt or fat content.
The hon. Gentleman asks what constitutes excessive packaging, but does he think that consumers should decide? Should not large retailers install places near the exit where people can dispose of packaging that they consider excessive? That would expose some of the culprits and even change retailer behaviour.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s agreement as confirmation that supermarkets are considering that approach. I should be happy to let consumers decide on all such matters, as long as they have all the information needed to make a proper judgment. Clearly, though, they do not have all the information on things like low-energy light bulbs. I am sure that the same is true for plastic bags, about which I shall speak in a moment.
Packaging is needed for reasons of hygiene. People ask why coconuts are wrapped in clingfilm, given that they have a hard shell. However, the shell is covered in fibres that can break off and get in other food products, with the result that people might choke. Some products need to wrapped for safety, others to facilitate their transport. For instance, why is a tube of toothpaste put in a cardboard box? The answer is simple: it is easier to stack the boxes than the tubes.
The main reason for the packing that we see in all our shops is that the consumer demands it because it is convenient. Consumers like to shop once a fortnight or once a week at their local supermarket or local hypermarket, and they simply want convenience. That is why a lot of our packaging is the way that it is.
The hon. Gentleman speaks with both knowledge and commitment on these subjects, but I hope that he will not become an apologist for unnecessary packaging. When my young children have their toys, which I am obliged to buy for them very regularly, they come packaged in paper, metal, plastic, wood and every other kind of thing that one can imagine. When we bought toys or when they were bought for us as children, they came very simply packaged. I am not sure this is about information; it is about unnecessary packaging. One could use many other examples of the way that packaging is, frankly, out of control. Surely the hon. Gentleman would agree with that.
To a certain extent, I would, but I do not think for a minute that packaging is out of control. Packaging manufacturers do not make packaging for the fun of it. They do not spend money unnecessarily. They want to get away with the least amount of packaging around a product that they can, because obviously the more materials they use, the more money it costs them. They have a vested interest in reducing packaging as well.
The hon. Gentleman gives a good example: toys. I believe that it is accepted that toys are perhaps excessively packaged, but most toys sold in this country come from China. Another classic example, of course, is the Easter egg. The egg is about 4 in long and the packet is 2 ft wide.
Has not the hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head? This is not about information or safety; it is about marketing and about people making something that is very modest look very grand. That is why toys are dressed up in the way that they are, and it is why Easter eggs are packaged in expansive and rather grand boxes. So he is making my argument for me, is he not?
No, I do not think so. I shall go back to the beginning and start with packaging, information, hygiene and so on. The hon. Members for Shipley and for East Dunbartonshire can speak about marketing far better than I can—I have no experience in it. Some excess packaging is the result of marketing, but some packaging is essential. The glaring example is perfume. Quite often, more money is invested in the packaging and the bottle that the perfume comes in than in its contents. Another example is an alcoholic drink called Malibu—not that I drink it, but I have seen the bottles made in my constituency. Anyone who has seen a bottle of Malibu knows that it is a glass bottle, which is painted white. Orange and brown are then painted on to the white paint by an electro-magnetic process—positive and negative charges cause the paint to fly on to the bottle. Given the technology involved in making those bottles, they cost about 30p each. That is about twice as much as the value of the pint of alcoholic drink that goes into the bottle.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech and a lot of pertinent points that are often not made. He mentioned hygiene, but I am not sure whether he mentioned another factor: keeping products fresh. For example, packaged cucumbers keep fresh for longer. Does he agree that, given that we want to cut down on food waste as well, such packaging is a good thing, not a bad thing?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, which I did not mention. I am glad that he has raised it, because it is valid. A lot of consumers complain about seeing vegetables, particularly salad vegetables, wrapped in a thin layer of cling film and suggest that that is excessive packaging. Last year, there was a demonstration in the House by Marks and Spencer, which brought in two items of vegetables, both bought in the same shop on the same day. One of them was immediately wrapped in cling film; the other was not. They were brought into the House for a meeting, where hon. Members could see them, and it was obvious that the one without the cling film was deteriorating far more rapidly that the other one.
As the hon. Gentleman points out, there is a need for packaging, and it comes down to convenience and freshness. People shop in supermarkets for convenience weekly or fortnightly, or whatever. They want that food to last longer, so that they do have to go to the shop, as people used to do, every day or every other day and so on. I am speaking in defence of the industry; I am chairman of the all-party packaging group, so I would, wouldn’t I? I want to get across the point about balance. The industry is co-operating with the Government, through the Courtauld agreement and so on, to try to address these issues, and it wants to do so. However, the issue can become sensationalised.
Last year, we saw the campaign in The Independent newspaper that highlighted four issues over four days. The Daily Mail did the same thing. We experience the sensationalism of news reporters taking a shop load of stuff from a supermarket and depositing it on the counter to make a point. The danger is that the problem will be exaggerated out of all proportion. We need some balance and further debate to consider what is excess packaging and what we can reduce and lightweight.
Lightweighting is an important point. My constituency contains one of the largest glass manufacturers in western Europe. It manufactures a very popular beer bottle, and it has just taken 1.5 g out of that third of a pint beer bottle. As a result, the cost saving to the industry is remarkable and the amount of glass used in that product is reduced. That is a huge success, but the number of bottles that are broken when they are transported from the factory to the brewery has increased dramatically because the structure of bottle is not as solid; it has been lightweighted. We must be careful that we do not damage products in seeking to lightweight them. The hon. Gentleman also made the point that food waste is the biggest problem that we face in waste disposal at the moment. As the Minister said, we waste a third of all our food. That is an absolute disgrace, and we should address it before we even think about looking at plastic bags, packing waste and so on.
On food waste and recycling, the Minister pointed out that she has increased the target for the recycling of packing waste and other materials. Again, I make the plea that the quality of recycled material in this country is not good enough to be used in certain industries as recyclate. The glass industry is a classic example. The glass is mixed with other products—often paper and other materials that can be recycled—and is so badly contaminated that it is unusable. Local authorities have no real restrictions placed on them or proper targets for separating collected material and delivering it to recyclers in such a way that it can be reused. In fact, most local authorities have a different collection system from the collection authority next door. Some authorities collect some materials; others do not collect that material. We have got a mix and match, and local authorities are required to collect by weight. They simply have to collect and recycle a certain weight of material, not specifically separated materials.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the plethora of ways in which local authorities organise their recycling causes great confusion with consumers? Different areas a few miles apart have completely different systems. In my area, we have waste separation at the kerbside, but constituents are concerned and say, “But in Glasgow, it all just goes in one big bin. Why can’t we have that?” It is difficult to get such issues across. People assume that their recycling is being used again in this country. Perhaps having more guidance on the best schemes that local authorities could use would be help in getting a common scheme across more local authorities.
The hon. Lady is exactly right. I entirely agree with her. Some of the material collected does not get used in this country. Plastic bags are an example. We collect the plastic and ship it over to China, because it can use it and we cannot. We have nowhere that can recycle the plastic from plastic bags, so it goes abroad. Plastic bags make up about 0.05 per cent. of the landfill waste—a miniscule amount. The plastic is recyclable, but we cannot recycle it, because no one in this country can do it.
On plastic bags, my hon. Friend the Minister made a point about the voluntary agreement not working. She said that she wanted to reduce the number of plastic bags. Under the voluntary agreement, the number of plastic bags in use has fallen by 7 per cent.; that is against a target of 25 per cent. However, the amount of plastic being used has been reduced by 14 per cent. against that 25 per cent. target. We have to determine what the target is. Is it for a reduction in the number of bags, or a reduction in the amount of plastic that we use?
Ireland tried putting a levy on plastic bags. One briefing said:
“A levy on plastic bags in Ireland only made matters worse…people underestimate how many plastic bags are used to put out recycling or are substituted for plastic bin bags.”
The chief executive of the Government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme said:
“We have got to remember that taxes and levies can have perverse effects—such as making people use more plastic rather than less.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that the voluntary agreement to which I referred
“is working with retailers offering shoppers reusable bags for life. We don’t think a ban or a levy is the right way to go”.
It added that in Ireland, people just bought more bin liners to replace free carrier bags, so the volume of waste stayed the same. Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth said:
“But until supermarkets reduce the energy used in their stores, minimise food miles and treat farmers better, saving a few plastic bags is just window dressing.”
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 percentage—0.05 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.
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 can’t buy.
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. Sainsbury’s 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.
Having said that—I assure my hon. Friend that he will not enjoy all of my speech—supermarkets 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.
Supermarkets seem to be in a no-win situation. If they open on an out-of-town site, people say, “They’re destroying the high street. It’s outrageous; it’s 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.
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.
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.
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, “We’ll 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 that—I 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 packaging—indeed, I thought that I was attending a debate on packaging at one stage, not on supermarkets—and 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 wholesaler—we have to do so, because all the advertising blurb is about BOGOF—but 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 power—this is based on what the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, and his explanation of why he received so few submissions in his survey—and 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.
This debate has been a case of déjà 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. Friend—I think that that is probably the right expression—the 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 Government’s 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.
That is a supportive comment, to which I do not need to respond.
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 effective—it is obvious that the supermarkets will object to the introduction of an ombudsman—it 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.
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.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who spoke from the Front Bench, made his usual speech, which was a central office handout—
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed, without Question put, pursuant to Temporary Standing Order (Topical debates).