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Plastic Pollution

Volume 662: debated on Wednesday 3 July 2019

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to set targets for the reduction of plastic pollution; to require the Secretary of State to publish a strategy and annual reports on plastic pollution reduction; to establish an advisory committee on plastic pollution; and for connected purposes.

You have 10 minutes to rest your voice, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Plastic pollution has attracted massive amounts of attention and coverage in recent years. For those of us fortunate enough to live in coastal and island communities, it is far from a novel problem. Walk along any of the magnificent, if occasionally breezy, beaches of Orkney and Shetland, and the evidence is there for everyone to see for themselves: plastic washing up along our coastlines, despoiling some of the most spectacular, and the last genuinely wild, environments to be found anywhere in Europe. In the northern isles, every spring, we have an impressive and well-drilled series of litter-picking operations—the “Bag the bruck” campaign and Da Voar Redd Up—but as much as we can pick up off the beaches, we know that when the tide comes in again the pollution will start again. We can pick up only what we can see and what we can see is only the tip of the iceberg—there are bigger concerns about what we cannot see. Plastic breaks down to become microplastics, and once they are in the ocean they are next to impossible to remove.

Much of the credit for the rise in interest in this issue can be given to the excellent work of the BBC’s “The Blue Planet” series and Sir David Attenborough. They have raised awareness and forced us to confront the impact of our throw-away culture. In particular, they told us how these microplastics have an impact on our food chain and they have challenged us to do better at protecting our valued marine life. May I also pay tribute to Friends of the Earth and the Women’s Institute, which have been staunch in their continued support for this campaign and given me invaluable support in the drafting of this Bill? Other organisations I have been privileged to work with include Surfers Against Sewage and City to Sea, among many others. But this now goes beyond the campaign groups; in our coastal and island communities, the challenge of plastic pollution is being taken up in every walk of life. From microplastics infecting the food chain to marine life swallowing plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish, our throw-away culture has now become an existential threat to many of our indigenous industries, especially our fishing industry.

Therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that some of the leading voices calling for a reduction in plastic pollution in my constituency come from among the Shetland fishing industry. For years, these people have supported campaigns such as “Fishing for Litter”, and just this week the Shetland Fishermen’s Association has been highlighting the environmental damage caused by the practices of gillnetting and longlining. I would like to think that all right hon. and hon. Members are sufficiently acquainted with the different means of fishing that I would not need to explain what gillnetting is, but 18 years in this House makes me suspect that that may not be the case. So if the House will indulge me, I will just give a little explanation of what I am speaking about.

Gillnetting is a type of fine mesh twine, which works by being placed in the water and left there for prolonged periods. The fish swim into the holes in the mesh, which then tighten around them, trapping them. Gillnetting is brutally effective, but it results in vast nets being placed in the water and left there for a long time. These nets are sometimes several miles long and will be laid end to end. The practice is predominantly to be found among Spanish-owned and licensed vessels fishing within our waters, and it is pushing out many of the local boats, excluding them sometimes from several hundred miles of our territorial waters and doing so in a way that is drawing increasing attention. The aggression that is shown towards local fisherman by the Spanish boats that lay these gillnets is increasingly a problem and it will require to be addressed. More often than not it is the local Shetland boats, which then trawl the waters, that pick up the gillnets and longlines left behind by the Spanish trawlers and that are left having to bring them into port for safe disposal.

We are all acquainted with the phenomenon of finding one Department acting in a way that is contrary to the actions of another, but I must point out that the Department responsible for the fight against plastic pollution is the same Department responsible for fisheries management. It is remarkable that this situation has been allowed to continue in the way that it has and to come to a head in the way it now threatens to do. I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), in her place this afternoon, but I hope she will take the message back to her Department that, from the point of view of sustainability as well as plastic pollution, this now requires urgent attention. We must have cross-Government, joined-up thinking to ensure that from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs regulating fishing practices, through to the Department for Education procuring sanitary products for school, some of which, regrettably, involve single-use plastic, the Government are testing every proposal and policy to ensure that it is plastic pollution-proof. On cross-Government work, colleagues across the House will, no doubt, be aware that about 90% of the world’s plastic pollution comes from 10 rivers in Africa and Asia. So while we in the UK must ensure that we do our fair share to end plastic pollution, the Department for International Development should be giving that leadership around the world, working with our partners and friends to cut plastic waste around the globe.

Before we can lead, however, we must get our own house in order. In the northern isles, as is often the case, we look to our nearest neighbours in Norway to see how that can be done. Norway has one of the best stories to tell on this. It was always fairly low in the amount of plastic waste it disposed of, but it has now reached a recycling rate on plastic bottles of about 97%, with 92% going on to be plastic bottles once more and 1% ending up as waste. Norway’s example shows what we can achieve, and it sets an example to the rest of the world. We, too, must have the ambition to eliminate plastic waste for good, which is why this Bill and the campaigns that inform it are so important.

The Government have already outlined policies for reducing plastic pollution and I welcome the high-level consideration that there has been on this issue. We can disagree and debate whether those policies are enough. I have concerns that the Government are not doing enough and not doing it fast enough, but it is good that the debate is about how much we should do, rather than whether we should begin to do it. So I do give some credit to the Environment Secretary for his engagement and recognition of this as an issue.

Behaviour changes are going to be key in winning the war against plastic pollution. Interestingly, the Conservative leadership candidates are today debating the efficacy of “sin taxes”, but this is an area where I hope the sin tax will not come under any challenge, because it is clear from what we have seen, for example, with the tax on plastic bags, that such a sin tax is effective and urgent, and we need to see more of this. Plastic is merely one part of our unhealthy approach to litter and waste, and we must build a more circular economy, where everything, or as close to everything as possible, is recycled or reused. This is a process and it is never going to be an event, and never has that been more clear than in this case.

I am realistic about the prospects of success for my Bill, which starts as a ten-minute rule motion today, but it deals with an issue that is not going to go away. That is why there is enthusiasm beyond the walls of this House today for meaningful change. The Government have to listen to people across the length and breadth of this country to deliver meaningful change in order to protect our natural environment for generations to come. This Bill would be a start to that process. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr Alistair Carmichael, Tim Farron, Ben Lake, Scott Mann, Kerry McCarthy and Alex Sobel present the Bill.

Mr Alistair Carmichael accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the first time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 415).

Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) (No. 3) Bill

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 56), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Question put forthwith, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In the time it took the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to pour himself a glass of water, the House authorised the Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) (No. 3) Bill, which, among other things, includes

“authorisation for the use of resources for the year ending with 31 March 2020”

to be

“increased by £348,553,768,000.”

It goes on to authorise all the rest of the expenditure of similarly great magnitudes that the Government expect to use over the next couple of years, without any possibility of debate or amendment, which is not what Members from the Scottish National party were led to believe when the English votes for English laws process was introduced. We were told then that the estimates process would be how we would scrutinise the Barnett consequentials of estimates.

The Bill represents the supply element of the confidence and supply arrangement that one of the other parties in the House has with the Government—it is good to see that at least a couple of them are here, which is more than there were the last time the supply estimates went through the House. Will you advise me, Madam Deputy Speaker, as to whether any other mechanisms are available to groups of Members to secure £1.5 billion of funding for their constituencies without any of them really having to show up very often?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and understand the point that he has made. I will separate his party political points, which of course are not a matter for the Chair, from his procedural points, which are partially a matter for the Chair.

I advise the hon. Gentleman that although he and his colleagues might not have had the opportunity to examine every line of proposed expenditure, we had two days of debate—yesterday and the day before—on some aspects of the matters in the Bill that the House has just passed. The hon. Gentleman makes his point well, and I fully understand his criticism of the procedure. It is not for me to agree or disagree with him, but I am quite sure that the Procedure Committee and others will take seriously the points that he has made.