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Taxation: Plastic Bags

Volume 737: debated on Monday 28 May 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are considering introducing a tax on plastic bags.

My Lords, the Treasury keeps all tax policy under continuous review. The Government are aware of the initiatives on the taxation of carrier bags in the devolved Administrations and will be interested to see the evidence of their effectiveness and administrative costs.

My Lords, each year we use 6 billion plastic bags in UK supermarkets. Does the Minister recognise the success of the taxation schemes in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Wales which have resulted in a 90% drop in plastic bags and have raised revenue to help deal with the environmental problems caused by these icons of a throwaway society?

My Lords, I have learnt a lot about plastic bags over the past couple of days. As I am sure my noble friend knows, there is a voluntary scheme in this country which has reduced the use of single-use bags by some 45% across the UK. The first evidence of how the Welsh scheme, which started on 1 October last year, is doing will come out imminently. Scotland is about to issue a consultation document about possible charging for carrier bags which we will look at, and it is intended that the Northern Ireland scheme will come in in April 2013. I think it is as yet a little early to see what has happened in the devolved Administrations.

The Minister says that it is a little early to see what has happened in the devolved Administrations, but surely the evidence from Wales is already clear. When one goes to a supermarket, one pays 5 pence for a plastic bag, and there has been a very substantial reduction in their purchase—I heard that it is 70% rather than 90%—as a result. Are we now in touch with the Welsh Assembly Government, who have got there first?

My Lords, as I have said, we will look carefully at the evidence. The first official figures are due to be released shortly and we will see what they show.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that over the past six years the issue of plastic bags has decreased by some 40% and that 4 billion fewer bags are used now than six years ago? More recycled plastic is used in the bags that are produced so that the use of virgin plastic has reduced by 61%. Is it not right that a lot of supermarkets have quite sophisticated schemes for encouraging their customers not to use plastic bags? When my wife and I shop at a branch of Sainsbury’s in west London, we are given a credit if we bring our own bags.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that progress has been made. We would like to see more progress, of course, but all that has been done without a minimum charge or any form of taxation. The Government encourage all these initiatives.

Will the Minister extend his concern to the equally wasteful and annoying practice of sending out parliamentary mail in plastic bags that are very difficult to open, not to mention the plastic bags you have to use for little bottles of liquid when going through airport security? However, the mail coming from Parliament is especially wasteful of plastic.

My Lords, I am sure that the authorities of the House have listened carefully to that bit of advice.

Is the Minister aware that he must be the first Treasury Minister in history who seems not to want the money when there is pressure for a tax? The fact is that the voluntary scheme is useful, but does he not agree that taxation could significantly reduce the number of plastic bags in use, thereby saving the environment and perhaps giving the Treasury some more money?

My Lords, this is also a Government who take the burdens on business through red tape extremely seriously. We have to balance the various factors at play here.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the amount of plastic we are saving from the shops has been overtaken by plastic bags that purport to collect clothing for various charities? Have the Government looked at this? They are very useful for recycling in rubbish bags but I am sure it is another unnecessary use of plastic.

My Lords, when my noble friend is considering this matter—bearing in mind all that has been said and the dramatic diminution in the use of plastic—will he also bear in mind that for many people shopping is quite difficult and hazardous? Even if you are only on a very modest diet of bread and butter, butter and bread have gone up a very great deal and it is a little hard for many people to have to pay increased amounts for the things they really must have to live, and then pay again to put it in bags to take it away because they cannot carry it all by hand.

My Lords, this is true, although I note that as early as 1997, Waitrose introduced its “bag for life” scheme; for 10p it sells a bag that is replaced free of charge when it is worn out. There are imaginative schemes out there that supermarkets are taking on which will not incur large costs for the consumer.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the scheme in Wales and implied that it would be very difficult for the Government to make an assessment because the scheme is quite new. What assessment has the Treasury made of the success of the scheme in Ireland? That scheme is probably eight years old and has been spectacularly successful. Dealing with the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, people take in their own shopping bags. There has been a great public information campaign and preparation, and a 90% reduction.

My Lords, we take all the evidence into account. As we have heard in this interesting discussion, there has been a very significant reduction right across the UK without compulsory measures. We will look at the evidence from Wales and the other devolved Administrations when it comes in.