Monday 19 April 2021
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now begin. Some Members are here in person, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I must ask Members in the Room to wear a face covering except when seated at their desk, to speak sitting down and to wipe down their desk, chair and any other touchpoints before and after use. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes.
Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction) (England) (No. 2) (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, the instrument before us today prevents enforcement agents—bailiffs—from attending residential premises in England to execute a writ or warrant of possession except in the most serious circumstances. The House will be familiar with the structure and content of this statutory instrument as it is the fourth that the Government have tabled to restrict the enforcement of evictions since November last year.
The instrument applies to enforcement action in England. It amends the Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction) (England) (No. 2) Regulations 2021 in only one respect: by amending the expiry date of those regulations from the end of 31 March 2021 to the end of 31 May this year. On 18 March, when we debated the previous statutory instrument, a number of noble Lords expressed concerns about the short-term nature of these regulations and suggested that both landlords and tenants would benefit from greater clarity about how long the restrictions would be in force.
I explained in the last debate that the Government have to balance the need for clarity against ongoing developments in the pandemic. We believe that retaining the restrictions in this instrument until 31 May while the Covid-19 restrictions remain in place will align with the broader strategy for protecting public health and will continue to help to reduce pressure on essential public services as we move out of lockdown. Indeed, as I explained last time, the extension to 31 May, which I headlined in that debate, is broadly in line with the road map out of lockdown. Step 3 of the road map will be taken no earlier than 17 May following a review of the relevant data. That step will see a number of restrictions being lifted, including—importantly, in this context—the restrictions on domestic overnight stays.
Noble Lords might say, “Why 31 May and not a date linked to step 4, which is scheduled for no earlier than 21 June?” The short answer is that we must remember, when considering the date of 31 May, that in most cases bailiffs are required to give 14 days’ notice of an eviction. In practice, therefore, protection from the enforcement of evictions will be afforded in most cases until mid-June. We have sought to strike the right balance in the prevailing circumstances.
I am sure that noble Lords will be familiar with the content of the statutory instrument. We have put a ban in place but there are the by now familiar limited exceptions to the ban in cases where we believe the competing public interests in ensuring access to justice, preventing harm to third parties or taking action against egregious behaviour and upholding the integrity of the rental market sufficiently outweigh the public health risks. The exemptions are: first, where the claim is against trespassers who are persons unknown; secondly, where the order for possession was made wholly or partly on the grounds of anti-social behaviour or nuisance, false statements, domestic abuse in social tenancies, or substantial rent arrears equivalent to six months’ rent; or, thirdly, where the order for possession was made wholly or partly on the grounds of death of the tenant, and the enforcement agent attending the property is satisfied that the property is unoccupied. In each case the court will have to be satisfied that the exemption applies, and that will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
We therefore think it is fair and proportionate to allow for an exemption to the ban in cases where a landlord has sought a possession order on the grounds of rent arrears, and where a full six months of rent arrears has accrued. We know that private landlords, in particular, can be vulnerable to rent arrears; 45% of them let just one property, and 29% rely on rent for over half their income.
Data from sources such as the National Residential Landlords Association and the Resolution Foundation indicate that the vast majority of renters who are in arrears will not have built up the extreme level of rent arrears—six months-worth—that would allow the landlord to apply for an exemption to this public health measure. We continue to monitor the impact of the exemptions.
In cases where a court has decided that an exemption applies, bailiffs have to give tenants at least 14 days’ notice of an eviction, in most circumstances. They have been asked not to enforce evictions where a tenant has symptoms of Covid-19 or is self-isolating.
In addition to these regulations, we have also introduced a requirement, in the Coronavirus Act, that landlords, in all but the most serious circumstances, must give six months’ notice before beginning formal possession proceedings. That is another protection for tenants. That means, essentially, that most renters served notice now by their landlord would be able to stay in their homes until October 2021. This measure will remain in place until at least 31 May. We will consider the best approach for after this date, taking into account the prevailing circumstances at that time.
I have set out in previous debates on such statutory instruments the significant help that the Government have given to try to prevent people getting into financial hardship by helping businesses to pay salaries—frankly, that is the most important measure to enable people to pay their rent—through the furlough scheme, which has been extended until the end of September. The Self-employment Income Support Scheme has also been extended, and we have boosted the welfare safety net by billions of pounds. The Committee will be aware that in the Budget we announced that the universal credit top-up of £20 per week would continue for a further six months, and there is a further one-off payment of £500 for eligible working tax credit claimants.
In the Budget there was also a recovery loan scheme, which was launched to ensure that businesses, in particular SMEs, are well supported in their ability to access the finance they need throughout 2021. More than 1.5 million businesses have benefited from Government-backed support, receiving over £70 billion in total.
Ministry of Justice statistics show that the number of possession claims being made to the courts has fallen significantly. The most recent statistics show that applications to the courts for possession by private and social landlords were down 67% in the last quarter of last year, compared to the same quarter in 2019. Temporary court arrangements and rules, which have been put in place by the Master of the Rolls working group, include a review stage at least 28 days before the substantive hearing, so that tenants can get legal advice. Any cases started before August 2020 have to be reactivated by landlords before the end of this month, and we are also putting in place a free mediation service, as part of the possession action process, to support landlords and tenants to resolve disputes before a formal court hearing takes place.
Let me reiterate that I am aware that there are landlords who have been adversely affected by these regulations. As I have also said on previous occasions, we have sought to strike a balance—to enable tenants to pay their rent, but also, in egregious cases, to enable landlords to obtain possession. We remain grateful to landlords for their forbearance during this unprecedented time. We consider that these regulations strike an appropriate balance between the interests of landlords and those of tenants, and I therefore commend them to the Committee.
My Lords, I welcome these regulations on evictions and thank the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, for his clear explanation. I should be grateful if he would consider another suggestion to deal with the way in which home owners and would-be home owners have been hit by Covid. There has been considerable distress and hardship among those hoping to move or to buy a first home but who, as a direct result of the pandemic, have experienced a sudden and unexpected collapse in their income, triggering a sale collapse and loss of deposit after contracts had been exchanged, through absolutely no fault of their own.
One proposal is to insert for the duration of the pandemic a new Covid regulation containing four key elements: first, that the party’s right to serve a notice to complete will be suspended while an event directly related to Covid-19 prevents the other party from completing; secondly, that a party will not be in breach of its obligations because of a delay caused by Covid-19; thirdly, that either party may terminate the contract if completion does not take place by a specified longstop date, fixed at an agreed date beyond the contractual completion date; fourthly, that there will be a moratorium—with retrospective effect from the first national lockdown imposed by the Prime Minister on 23 March 2020—on deposits so that home buyers do not lose them because a Covid-19 impact prevented sales being completed.
Could the Minister bring forward new regulations, like the ones we are debating today, which would, in effect, freeze transactions due for completion after March 2020 but which, for Covid-related reasons, could not be completed because of an abrupt and dramatic change in financial circumstances? I should be grateful if the Minister looked at this.
My Lords, it was on 18 March that we last debated this matter. We knew then that there would be yet another extension—and here we are. However, I am left wondering what the Government’s plan is. Indeed, I wonder whether they have a plan at all.
We are now a year on from the introduction of the ban on evictions; a year in which more and more tenants fear becoming homeless—one in four, according to Shelter; a year of not addressing the pending crisis in landlords’ loss of income; a year of building up the backlog of claims for possession.
Landlords’ and renters’ organisations have talked to each other and have come up with a plan for a Government-led rent relief scheme which would help both landlords and tenants. We should bear in mind that Scotland and Wales already have schemes in place.
A year ago, the Secretary of State gave a commitment that no one would be forced out of their home because they have lost income as a result of coronavirus. He also said that no landlord would face unmanageable debts. Given that, what discussions have the Government had with those organisations about their proposal?
This further extension is clearly right, given the circumstances, but the problem is not going away because many tenants in the private rented sector are carrying substantial debt and must rely on that sector, because they have no choice. This is the consequence of the failure to build enough homes for social rent, which is making the situation so much worse.
My Lords, it is very good that the ban on commercial evictions has been extended to 30 June and the bailiff-enforced eviction ban has been extended to 31 May to protect residential tenants. As president of the CBI, I should like to say that we are very grateful for the many times that the Government have listened to business and shown flexibility and adaptability.
It is right to continue supporting renters with the cost of living and to align this with the Prime Minister’s timely road map, particularly when tenants may continue to be on furlough or working in sectors that cannot reopen for some weeks yet. For the some 49% of hospitality workers who have suffered so much during this pandemic, and the 36% of retail workers currently renting, the new measures will protect jobs as businesses reopen and many more renters can return to work.
However, landlords may be asking how, in some cases, the growing rental debt will be managed after the protection ends. The issue cannot be addressed if parties fall out with each other the moment the protection ends. The Government should be seeking to avoid a cliff-edge in June for residents and landlords and, where possible, helping tenants and landlords to work together to secure fair tenancy agreements moving forward. That should be a priority, as the Minister will agree.
The Government have promised mediation support for resolving issues where disputes arise, and this must be available to all who need it. We could produce a heavy caseload for mediation if the Government can publish guidance for tenants and landlords that will help negotiations to be held in a fair and transparent manner, in good time ahead of May.
It is positive that the Government continue to be clear about giving at least six months’ notice for evictions where eviction notices are necessary, as the Minister said. The Government appear to have launched a new free mediation service for disputes, so you can add this free service’s helpful support for tenants at what could be a difficult time, hopefully avoiding the need for court action. Can the Minister confirm this?
There is still so much uncertainty for the rest of the year around people’s employment as the economy reopens. Health and caring responsibilities continue to impact on people’s ability to work, so it is right that tenants are protected from evictions and given the opportunity to resolve them.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. I thank my noble friend the Minister for setting out the regulations with his customary lucidity and precision. Of course, we have been here before, so it could be argued that he has had plenty of practice.
I certainly support the regulations. Clearly, we should extend help to tenants who would otherwise face eviction as a result of coronavirus. What we must now provide as we emerge from the shadow of Covid is long-term help for both tenants and landlords. Tenants still owe rent. Landlords are still owed rent. The whole system is in danger as the creditworthiness of hundreds of thousands of tenants is undermined by the current situation. There is a very real danger of masses of tenants facing eviction, even if it is six months away, as the system of respite from evictions comes to an end.
As the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, noted, a scheme is already in place in both Wales and Scotland. May I press my noble friend the Minister to ensure that a specifically tailored financial package is put in place for tenants? The alternative will be landlords seeking judgments against tenants who are in debt. It would not be correct to assume that the bulk of landlords are vastly wealthy. This needs urgent action from the Minister and the Government, as I have mentioned before. I am still not convinced that we have in place a plan—one is sorely needed—to ensure that, as I say, we do not face a serious problem with the eviction of private tenants as we emerge from the shadow of Covid.
The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, has withdrawn so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick.
My Lords, I welcome these regulations. I have several questions for the Minister, building on what we dealt with during our debate on 18 March.
Covid-19 has changed every aspect of our society and economy. The private rented sector has been impacted to a significant extent, with many people living in fear of evictions as they are now without a job and have little money with which to pay their rent. Many private renters are struggling to pay. More than 800,000 renters may have built arrears since lockdown measures started a year ago. As the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said, many landlords are not property tycoons and are also struggling; they, too, need assistance.
With Ministers committing to a tapering-down of emergency restrictions in the sector from the start of June, tenants and landlords need a comprehensive, cross-departmental road map to tackle rent debts, speed up the operation of the courts and carefully taper down the current extended possession notice periods. In view of that, what plans do the Government have to prepare for the implementation of the road map to assist private renters and their landlords?
Furthermore, it needs to be recognised that the majority of tenants now in arrears do not qualify for financial support in the form of discretionary housing payments. What assistance can be provided for them? This is supported by Citizens Advice, the Resolution Foundation and the debt charity StepChange.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I welcome this statutory instrument and the delay until 31 May, but, like others, I would like an assurance from the Minister that the promised return to normality will encompass all the ministries involved in this complicated issue, such as the DHCLG, the DWP, the Treasury and, of course, the Ministry of Justice, so that a comprehensive solution is delivered rather than the current series of sticking plasters. Such is the conclusion of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee.
The biggest problems are with the private rented sector. Among the actions needed are measures to tackle growing rent debt so that existing tenancies can be sustained and tenant credit scores are protected from the consequences of county court judgments on evictions. It is also inappropriate to regard the private landlord as a bank. Most landlords are private individuals and have their own financial commitments to discharge. Hence, I repeat the request, mentioned also by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, that the Government give interest-free hardship loans, payable direct to the landlord and repayable as tenants’ finances recover. Similar schemes exist in Scotland and Wales and have been welcomed by some housing charities.
Secondly, the speeding up of the court process, which has been called for by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, is essential. Can the Minister comment on the possibility of remote hearings using video technology? At present, I understand that, even without the effect of Covid measures, it takes an average of 12 months for a landlord to secure possession.
As the noble Baronesses, Lady Uddin and Lady McIntosh of Pickering, have withdrawn, I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia.
My Lords, this SI has been prepared by the Ministry of Justice. Its purpose is to protect public health and reduce the public health risks caused by the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, which causes the disease, Covid-19. The SI prevents the enforcement of evictions against residential tenants other than in the most serious circumstances and was originally extended to 21 February 2021. By restricting the enforcement of evictions at a time when pressure on public services is acute and the risk of virus transmission is high, this measure will help control the spread of infection and prevent any additional burden falling on the NHS and on local authorities in their work providing housing support and protecting public health.
A previous version of this statutory instrument was introduced on 7 January, when the previous regulations expired, having been made under the emergency procedure and automatically ceased to have effect.
My Lords, as the Minister may recall, I spoke on these regulations back in February when they were initially brought before this House, so I shall not speak in any detail today. I am a landlord myself, as disclosed in the register of interests, but I think these regulations are needed. However, I wish to make a general observation regarding timing. It helps neither tenants nor landlords for these regulations and any extension to them to be brought in so very late in the day and then brought to this House afterwards. Given that we were in national lockdown from January, with the road map beginning to lift restrictions only from 29 March 2021, it can have taken no one by surprise when the regulations were brought before the House in February that a deadline at the end of March would be far too soon and would need to be extended.
I wonder whether the Minister would be better off setting a longer deadline now. It cannot help tenants living on the edge of whether they have protection, nor landlords seeking their properties back, to have a date which rolls ahead at such short notice. Anecdotally, I have heard of some tenants gaming the six months or more rent arrears provision in the regulations, leaving their landlord unable to gain possession yet still suffering five months’ rent arrears. If these regulations return to the House for a further extension, will the Minister look at whether there is some way to help landlords in these gaming situations?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the welcome extension until 31 May 2021 of the ban on bailiff enforcement, as described by him in the previous debate on this statutory instrument on 18 March. We recognise the work he has put in, particularly over the past few months, to ensure that this extension was already in place, but if we look over the past year of this pandemic, I think he would agree that to say that this approach has been piecemeal is an understatement. As ever, it is an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, who made the same point.
Last Friday marked the second anniversary of a promise made by this Government to scrap Section 21 no-fault evictions. Gemma Marshall, who has spoken out, with the support of the Renters Reform Coalition, works in a school providing pastoral support. She, her husband and her children have been served with two Section 21s over the past two years and as a result have had to move four times. Her family is now in the middle of their second Section 21 and is facing the serious prospect of homelessness. Her son Jacob is autistic and finds change extremely stressful. I think all noble Lords would agree that the threat of eviction during a global pandemic is extremely stressful anyway, let alone for a nine year-old child.
I hope all noble Lords will support the newly formed Renters Reform Coalition, which includes Generation Rent, Crisis, Shelter, Citizens Advice and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. As my noble friend Lord Shipley pointed out, the historical lack of the safety net of a good supply of social housing has resulted in people relying too often on a private rented sector that is not built to replace the welfare state. Gemma’s case is not an isolated one. Some 700,000 renters have been served with no-fault eviction notices during this pandemic year, despite a government promise to scrap the practice. That estimate is based on polling of a cross-section of private renters in a Survation survey commissioned by Shelter and published last week. Some 8% of them have received a Section 21 notice from their landlord since March 2020—that represents 694,000 private renters across England. A further 32% were worried that they would be asked to move out this year.
While 8% sounds small, the size and growth of the private rented sector over the past 10 years means that even 8% is nearly 700,000 cases—cases like Gemma’s, which I have described: often families who, through no fault of their own, have been served with an eviction notice without reason or explanation.
This SI stops bailiffs, but only at the final stage of an eviction. Your landlord may still serve an eviction notice and you may still have to go to a hearing. From the minute the eviction notice is served there is limited ability for discretion in the legal process. I asked this question last time and I am not sure I quite got an answer to it. Will the Minister undertake to re-examine allowing judges to have discretion to prevent an eviction if rent arrears are due to the Covid pandemic? The Government might argue with the methodology Shelter has used. If so, will they agree to establish a way to identify who is currently losing their home?
Tim Farron, who speaks on Housing issues for the Liberal Democrats in the Commons, asked the Minister, Chris Pincher, whether he had made any assessment of the merits of requiring landlords to register eviction notices at the point of delivery, so that his department could have a more accurate picture. I asked in the previous debate whether the Minister could share with us what evidence he has that landlords are serving notice in only the most egregious of cases. I not sure there was a clear answer to my question and the Minister, Chris Pincher, said there are currently no plans to collect this data.
I hope that the promise to reform Section 21 will soon be delivered. I thank the National Residential Landlords Association for its helpful briefing on this issue. As it points out, the Housing Secretary’s promise that
“no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home”
is simply not being met. Indeed, I believe that the recent change to include six months of arrears is a direct contradiction to that promise. The fact that we know that there are 700,000 such renters means that people get evicted all the time without it necessarily reaching the knowledge of the Government via the courts. Along with many other organisations, the NRLA is asking that a financial package be put in place to help tenants to clear arrears—this was described by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, who is highly knowledgeable on this issue, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, who also has long-time experience in this area—or there is Generation Rent’s proposed Covid rent debt fund.
It is particularly important to note that the NRLA is saying that most tenants now in arrears do not qualify for discretionary housing payments. It is vital to remember that the people we are talking about are ones who, Citizens Advice tells us, are tenants who would take seven years to pay off the arrears that they have accrued during this period. I still find shocking the disparity in subsidies to home owners—even more of them were announced today—in comparison to the subsidies necessary, which do not represent a vast sum of money.
So, there have been two broken promises, which have an impact on hundreds of thousands of people like Gemma and Jacob. They deserve better.
My Lords, as the Minister said in his introduction, this is the fourth time that this instrument, or a similar one, has been introduced into this House. The Explanatory Memorandum states:
“This instrument extends the prevention of enforcement of evictions, including the service of notices of eviction, at residential premises, and including in repossessions cases, other than in the most serious circumstances, from 31 March 2021 until the end of 31 May 2021.”
It makes no further changes to the previous regulations and only extends the time period during which those provisions are in force.
My recollection is that the bulk of our previous debate—on 18 March—was about how to avoid the cliff edge; a number of noble Lords have referred to that in this debate. The Minister’s speech concentrated on the timetabling and the justification of the various timetabling measures that have been taken; it did not dwell on the substance of the financial support that needs to be introduced to avoid mass evictions, unsustainable levels of debt and turning the current health crisis into a potential homelessness crisis.
It appears that we all received the briefing from the NRLA; the noble Lords, Lord Carrington, Lord Shipley and Lord Bourne, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Grender, referred to it. I thought that it was balanced and put forward a clear case for interest-free, government-guaranteed tenant hardship loans. As we have also heard, the Scottish and Welsh Governments have put in place their own form of financial support for tenants. My noble friend Lord Hain brought up an additional factor, on which I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response, which is to look at modifications to the home-buying process for people whose attempted purchases of houses have fallen through because of Covid restrictions.
The Labour Party has put forward its own six-point plan, which I shall briefly go through. It plans: first, to extend a ban on evictions and repossessions until restrictions are over; secondly, to extend mortgage holidays; thirdly, to raise the local housing allowance to cover median market rents; fourthly, to reform housing law to end automatic evictions through the courts—a point on which the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, elaborated to great effect; fifthly, to reduce the waiting period to receive support for mortgage interest payments; and, sixthly, to retain the £20 uplift to universal credit beyond six months, end the five-week wait and suspend the benefits cap.
On 18 March, when we last debated a similar measure, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, described himself as a
“humble Ministry of Justice Minister”—[Official Report, 18/3/21; col. 481.]
and undertook to consult his MHCLG colleagues about the Scottish scheme. I would not presume to judge whether he is humble or not but he speaks for the whole of the Government when he speaks as a Minister, and the substance of today’s debate, as it was on 18 March, is financial support, which all noble Lords are looking to hear about. I look forward to him saying with more substance when we are likely to hear what that financial support will be.
My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I shall try to respond to the points in the order in which they were made but some were made by more than one contributor so, with their permission, I may lump some noble Lords together.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, made an interesting point, if I may say so. One must distinguish the cases into two groups. The first is where contracts were entered into after the start of the pandemic. In those cases, one would have expected the parties’ lawyers to advise them not to enter a legal commitment to make a purchase unless they knew that they could complete; the government guidance on moving home during the pandemic has been in place since 26 March 2020. However, in so far as people entered into legal obligations before that date, there are principles of English contract law, such as frustration, which might be relevant in this context. That is the sort of point on which, if the noble Lord will allow me, I will write to set out in a little more detail what I understand the legal position to be.
Turning to a number of points made by noble Lords, first, I should make it clear that, on 18 March, I set out that the Government would extend the SI not just to 31 March but to 31 May, so criticism that we have been doing this on a short-term basis is not well made, certainly in that respect.
A number of noble Lords asked about the plan for when we come out of the pandemic. I reiterate that I am a humble Ministry of Justice Minister. There are cross-government conversations about what will be put in place but, so for as a specific financial package is concerned, we have already done a number of things. For example, we have increased the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile of local market rents in each area. We expect that to provide 1.5 million claimants with around £600 per year of housing support more than they would otherwise have received. Those increased rates will be maintained at the current levels, in cash terms, in the current financial year—even in areas where the 30th percentile of local rents has gone down.
Going forward, however, I emphasise that this ultimately becomes a housing issue, not a Ministry of Justice issue. Of course, there are conversations across government; as I said, I will specifically bring the detail of this debate to the attention of Ministers in MHCLG. Although I appreciate that this point was made by a number of noble Lords—my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Grender—there is nothing more substantive that I can say this afternoon, bearing in mind that, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, reminded me, in whatever I say, I commit the Government too.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, rightly emphasised the important work that the Government have done with regard to commercial evictions. In both the commercial and residential contexts, it is our intention to avoid any sort of cliff edge.
I underline the noble Lord’s point about the importance of mediation. Mediation in civil disputes is always a very good idea. It has played a part in our civil justice system over the past 20 years or so and its importance is increasingly recognised. In the context of housing, we hope the free mediation service for landlords and renters will enable many landlords and their tenants to reach an agreement about the way forward without a formal court process, which must be to everyone’s benefit.
When I mentioned my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, I should also have picked up the beautifully double-edged compliment that he paid me, which started so well and ended so badly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, asked a couple of questions about speeding up the operation of the courts. There are a number of things that I should say in this context. First, as I say, landlords are obliged to reactivate old cases in order to make sure that the courts are not faced with cases that have become moot—for example, where the tenants have already moved out. Secondly, the introduction of mediation also speeds up the court process because it takes some cases out of the system.
Further, and in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, one has to remember that parts of the court process lie outside government purview. For example, listing is a judicial function, and the order in which the judiciary prioritises cases is and remains a matter for the judiciary. However, the Master of the Rolls’ working group has put in place temporary court rules and arrangements to ensure that cases proceed through the courts as quickly as possible and that delays are kept to a minimum.
I respectfully agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, that private landlords are not a bank. I have already said that there will be discussions across government about the position that is put in place when these regulations come to an end.
The noble Lord asked specifically about video technology to speed up the court process. That is already being used throughout civil courts. In this as in many areas of life, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced or perhaps encouraged us to do things that we probably would have done anyway but over a longer period. Video technology in court is certainly one of those things; it is now part of our civil justice system and I am sure it will remain so in future. The noble Lord is certainly right that video technology has the potential to speed up cases and enable them to be heard more quickly, and indeed to enable more cases to be heard at once.
The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, emphasised in his remarks that what is sought to be achieved here is ultimately a balance between the various interests, and I respectfully agree with him.
I hope I have responded to the points made by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes. I have dealt with the date point. We believe that 31 May is now the appropriate deadline for these regulations. We hope that the position will improve as per the road map and that we will not need to extend them thereafter, but obviously we have to keep that under constant review.
In the time that I have left, I turn to the points made by the Front-Bench speakers. I have already dealt with one of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, but in response to her important point on Section 21, the Government are committed to bringing forward legislation to deliver a better deal for renters, including repealing Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, once the urgencies of the pandemic have passed. That would represent a generational change to tenancy law in England, so we have to make sure that we get it right and that we balance the interests of landlords and tenants appropriately. If we are giving tenants more security of tenure, we must also ensure that landlords can recover properties where they have valid grounds to do so.
As far as the noble Baroness’s other point about giving judges more discretion in possession cases is concerned, we do not intend to bring forward such legislation. We believe that the current support package strikes a fair balance and that the rights of both tenants and landlords are appropriately balanced in this area. However, as I said, we plan to bring forward a renters’ reform Bill in due course, once the urgencies of the pandemic have passed. Respectfully, I therefore do not accept that promises have been broken. We made a promise to do the best we can in these difficult circumstances, and we have certainly fulfilled it, as I have explained on several occasions.
The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, asked about the package going forward. I have said what I am able to say about that today. Like me, he found the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, about home buying interesting. I will ensure that he is copied into my letter to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, on that matter.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for outlining the Labour Party plan in this area. I do not want to introduce too much of a political element to these exchanges, but the plan highlights the point about where you draw the line. For example, we were told that the £20-per-week universal credit increase would remain beyond six months, but until when?
Ultimately, we must strike a balance in this area. I submit that these regulations strike the correct balance in difficult circumstances. I hope that we will not have to extend them further and that life will return to something approaching normal, so, although I have some regrets that this may be the last outing for these regulations, I commend them to the Committee.
The Grand Committee stands adjourned until 3.45 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I must ask Members in the room to wear a face covering except when seated at their desk, to speak sitting down and to wipe down their desk, chair and any other touch points before and after use. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes. The time limit is one hour.
Civil Proceedings Fees (Amendment) Order 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
This instrument aligns the fees for online and paper civil money and possession claims. The instrument applies to fees in the civil courts of England and Wales and will come into force in May 2021.
First, I shall say a word or two about the purpose of the instrument. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service plays an essential role in our society. Courts and tribunals provide a place where people can vindicate their rights and where the rule of law is upheld, and which is accessible to all who need it. I am proud to say that our courts and tribunals deliver a world-class justice system which is admired by all. The people it serves interact with it at some of the most difficult times of their lives and they trust it to be fair and effective.
For many years, the service has run on the principle that those who use courts and tribunals should pay the full cost of the service they receive, if they can afford to do so. I am sure that the Committee will agree that fees are a reasonable means of ensuring an effective and efficient justice system that is neither solely nor entirely sustained by contributions from the taxpayer. Fees are the main source of direct income for courts and tribunals, and the instrument I am submitting to the attention of the Committee today will further aid this endeavour.
Civil money and possession claims, which are the type of claims affected by this instrument, are regulated by the Civil Proceedings Fees Order 2008. Currently, the fees order offers lower fees, and some exemptions, for civil money and possession claims submitted via online platforms, with a higher fee payable for the same claims issued via the paper route. The instrument before us today removes the online discount and thus aligns the online fees with the paper fees which are currently charged in the Civil Proceedings Fees Order. More specifically, this instrument aligns fees for users of the County Court Business Centre, Money Claim Online, Possession Claim Online and online civil money claims.
Aligning these fees will create a single fee structure which will result in one, consolidated fee, payable by both online and paper users. In doing so, it will also provide much-needed additional funding to our courts and tribunals service. The need to ensure that courts and tribunals continue to perform efficiently and effectively is compounded by the challenges we are facing due to the pandemic.
This, therefore, is the right time to consolidate these fees. The online services were first introduced 20 years ago, in 2001, as part of the Government’s ambitious plans to digitise the service and contribute towards improved performance and increased functionality, while streamlining existing processes. To encourage uptake of what was then a new digitised system, a number of fee discounts for the online processes were introduced. They have therefore been enjoyed by users for many years. Users who issue bulk claims have had a discount on the issue fees since 2004, fees for claims issued via Possession Claim Online have been discounted since 2006, and fees for claims issued via Money Claim Online have been discounted since 2015.
I am pleased to say that the Government’s efforts have paid off. In 2018-19 online applications for civil and possession claims accounted for just under 90% of all claims up to the value of £100,000. So, the modern service is allowing 90% of users to enjoy a seamless journey from lodging a claim right through to settling the dispute as simply as possible. As part of this, users have the opportunity to access mediation as part of efforts to support more proportionate and appropriate dispute resolution.
The Committee will need no reminder from me of the Lord Chancellor’s personal and statutory duty to protect access to justice. The Government remain committed to upholding this fundamental principle, so we must provide an effective and efficient justice system that works for everyone. That means it has to be funded appropriately.
Removing the online discount does not infringe the principle of access to justice. Paper users are already paying a higher fee, and generally those individuals are over-represented among groups with protected characteristics. So, while we want the system to be funded effectively, we also want to build a fairer system that puts neither paper nor online users at a disadvantage.
The Committee should be familiar with the fees we are debating. They are enhanced fees, meaning that they are set above the cost of the service. Such fees can be set only with explicit parliamentary approval, following the introduction of the “enhanced power” provision in Section 180 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. The enhanced power is therefore used in a judicious and limited manner, because most fees in courts and tribunals are set not under the enhanced power but at or even below the cost of providing the service.
The income raised from enhanced fees such as these enables us to cross-subsidise other parts of the courts and tribunals system. That enables us to ensure access to justice for everybody. We do so to protect the most vulnerable members of society. This is not an exhaustive list, but, for example, no fees are now charged for applications for non-molestation orders, occupation orders, forced marriage protection orders or female genital mutilation orders—or for cases before the First-tier Tribunal concerning mental health.
Despite the provision of these enhanced fees, the income currently received from fees covers less than half the costs of running the courts and tribunals. In 2019-20 there was a net fee income of £724 million, against running costs of about £2 billion. That significant gap in funding should highlight for the Committee why the fee increase that this instrument introduces is appropriate, balanced and fair.
Of course, I do not claim that the additional income generated by these proposals will, alone, fill the gap. But it will certainly help the justice system to be better equipped for the many challenges it faces and will supplement the additional funding already being provided by the Government to aid Covid-19 recovery.
I should emphasise that for the vast majority of fees affected by this instrument, the proposed increase is generally modest, ranging from about £10 to £45—and every pound can be reinvested in our ambitious plan for the future of the Courts and Tribunals Service. That is in addition to the £377 million for the criminal justice system in England and Wales, including £275 million to manage the downstream impact of 20,000 additional police officers and to reduce backlogs caused by Covid-19 in the Crown Courts. There is also an investment of £76 million to increase family court and employment tribunal capacity to reduce backlog, £43 million to ensure courts and prisons remain Covid-safe, and £105 million for improvements to the court estate.
The Committee will be aware of the unprecedented challenges that this country has faced because of Covid-19. However, it is important—indeed, critical—to ensure that our world-class justice system operates efficiently and effectively, while minimising the cost to the taxpayer. This instrument allows us to do more work to achieve that aim. It aligns fees for civil money and possession claims, contributes towards the funding of courts and tribunals, and ensures that the existing civil fee structure is both fair and consistent. I therefore commend these fee changes to the Committee.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I have joined the Grand Committee’s consideration of this instrument this afternoon as much to learn as to contribute. Given the expertise of those few Members online, I am hopeful that I will be more enlightened at the end of this discussion than I am now at the beginning of it.
I very much appreciate the importance of raising the funds necessary to enhance the tribunal and court system. I understand entirely from the explanation given of the £724 million that has been raised towards the £2 billion total cost of the process. However, I am unclear about the exact cost of this particular process—that is, the procedure in relation to the restriction of funds and property. I would be really grateful if the Minister could clarify this small point for me in his reply. He was good enough to indicate that more money is raised from these charges than the cost of the service itself.
I understand why the list of tribunal activities that the Minister gave us in his earlier contribution should be free. It seems right that the taxpayer should pick up those particular examples because, of course, they relate to very personal issues, such as mental health issues, that require us as a community to fund them. However, it appears that what is actually happening is we are asking those who use the procedure that we are discussing this afternoon to enhance payments in order to subsidise precisely those kinds of activities. It would therefore be useful to know the true cost of this particular element of the courts and tribunals system and of the procedure that we are discussing.
I have no objection to aligning the fee between paper and online in the way that has been described, although clearly it will be an increase for the vast majority of potential users compared with the situation today. It would be helpful to know just how much that additional contribution of between £9 million and £25 million, which will come in next year, will actually make given the cost of implementing the procedure as a whole.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has withdrawn so I call the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.
My Lords, this is the sort of instrument to slip under the radar at the end of a Session. The proposal is to increase the fees for bringing money and possession claims, for the benefit of the Treasury.
It was a benefit to individuals, and to businesses both small and large, to commence proceedings by way of an online application. I can remember my days as an articled clerk when I made out the paperwork, physically took it to the registry of the High Court or the county court, handed it over the counter and payed the fees. Obviously, it is infinitely preferable to do all this online, not only for the poor old solicitor’s clerk but for the court staff in the registries up and down the country.
There must be an enormous saving in efficiency and time. It is not surprising that, as the Explanatory Notes made clear, 90% of claims are now launched online. To incentivise this increase in efficiency, fees were reduced for online applications, presumably still covering the reduced costs of filing. So there were, and are, two levels of fees: those for online applications, which are efficient and take less time, and those for paper applications in the old way, which obviously consume more time and resources.
One might have thought that in order to help, in particular, individuals and small businesses, who are the people most often chasing money from larger clients such as government departments, the Government would have equalled the fees by choosing the lower figure, but not at all; the watchword is “levelling up”. So this instrument is brought forward to make sure that individuals and small businesses pay more in order to pursue their claims. At a time when small businesses in particular are suffering greatly, many unlikely to survive the pandemic crisis, the Government are loading more expense upon them to the tune of up to an expected £25 million next year.
To add insult to injury, the note accompanying this instrument and the impact assessment proceed upon the curious premise that there is no impact at all on businesses and individuals because this is not an inevitable business expense. You can choose to pursue the money that you are owed—or recover the premises, if it is that sort of application—or, on the other hand, you can decide to do nothing. If you decide to do nothing then you do not have to pay any fees. That is the incredible argument for saying that there is no impact.
The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, asked a very pertinent question: what is the actual cost of the filing of these proceedings? I have other questions. What percentage of the stakeholders on the consultation that took place responded to say that they were in favour? How many said they were willing for the fees for the more efficient online commencement of proceedings to be raised to match the fees for the less efficient paper service? I hope the Minister will answer those questions.
My Lords, we on the Labour Benches accept that those who cannot access the internet for one reason or another should not have to pay more for the same service. Having accepted that, we note that there is a net increase above inflation for most users—that is, the 90% of users who currently access civil proceedings online.
We accept that HMCTS is running at a huge deficit and the Government must take action in the interests of justice to reduce that deficit. In his introduction, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, gave the figures that are in the Explanatory Memorandum: in 2019-20 there was a net fee income of £724 million against £2 billion of running costs for HMCTS, and that gap in funding has to be paid for by the taxpayer.
The question that we have heard asked by both the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and my noble friend Lord Blunkett is about the likely overall impact of this change in fees. From my reading of the papers, the impact assessment claims that the alignment of the fees could save about £20 million per year. That saving in comparison to the massive deficit shows that it really is a drop in the ocean.
The problems faced by HMCTS are colossal and represent decades of underinvestment that have brought the system to its knees, with a record backlog to match. HMCTS has lost one-quarter of its budget in the last decade. Courts have been sold and sitting days have been slashed, and all this was happening long before Covid. It is the victims of crime who are paying the highest price for this negligence. While we support—or rather we will not oppose; I will phrase it like that—this increase in civil proceeding fees, we think there is a much larger problem to be addressed. I look forward to the Minister’s explanation of how the larger funding problems will be addressed.
My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions to this short but important debate; anything to do with our justice system is important. Perhaps I may therefore pick up in turn the points made by noble Lords.
The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, asked about the principle of cross-subsidy and the amounts involved. I shall deal with each point in turn. The principle of cross-subsidy is in primary legislation; it was considered by Parliament as a matter of principle and considered correct for those who can pay more than the actual cost of the process to do so, so that other people can pay less than the actual cost of the service. So the principle of cross-subsidy is in primary legislation, as I have set out.
As to the figures involved, the Courts & Tribunals Service produces an annual report. The accounts for the year ending 31 March 2020 show that approximately £550 million of fee income was collected from court users in civil proceedings after fee remissions, whereas approximately £545 million was spent on civil jurisdiction, leaving a surplus overall of £4.9 million. Civil business as a whole—that is, civil and family jurisdictions together—showed a deficit of £80.1 million in the financial year, which was funded therefore by the general taxpayer. I shall look at the Official Report and, if I can provide the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, with any further detail on particular figures, I shall write to him and set it out and copy my letter to other noble Lords who spoke in this debate.
I turn to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. This provision is not being slipped “under the radar” at all. I have to say that I was a little surprised that the import of the noble Lord’s comments appeared to be that those who did not have internet access or capability should continue to pay more—more, indeed, than 90% of users of the service. I find that a remarkable proposition, but it is the necessary import of the approach that the noble Lord took. That is even more remarkable when one recalls, as I said when I opened this debate, that the paper group, if I can call them that, contains more people with protected characteristics proportionately than the online group. When one has 90% of people online, one has to level the fees.
The only real question is whether you move the online to the paper or the paper to the online. The position is this: were we to move paper to online, that would cost another £5 million in lost income to the service, which is another increase that the taxpayer would have to fund and a greater loss that the courts and tribunals would therefore be working under. Although I agree with the principle of equalising fees, one ought to equalise online to paper and not paper to online. The justification for a lower fee for online users, which was originally brought in to encourage people to go online, is, for the reasons I have set out, no longer present.
So far as the stakeholders are concerned, it is fair to say that a minority of respondents supported the proposal, but the main sticking point was the principle of cross-subsidisation in the first place. As I have said, that principle was established by Parliament in the Act that I mentioned and is therefore the legal background against which we operate.
Finally, on the, if I may respectfully say, more realistic contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, he will understand that I do not accept the adjectives he used about the Courts Service, but I certainly agree that, after Covid, we need to rebuild the Courts Service and ensure that people obtain in the courts and tribunals the sort of service they are entitled to expect. He focused on the victims of crime. While I do not minimise the issues which we have to deal with in the criminal justice system, I hope he will allow me to say that because this is a civil measure, I will not respond to those comments in detail today. I am sure we will have many opportunities in the Chamber and in Grand Committee to debate the criminal justice system, the Crown Courts and the magistrates’ courts, and I look forward to engaging with him—I am sure constructively—on those occasions. For today, the instrument before us focuses solely on civil justice and, for the reasons I have set out, it is a measure which is both necessary and proportionate. I therefore commend it to the Committee.
The Grand Committee stands adjourned until 4.20 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person, respecting social distancing, while others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I must ask Members in the Room to wear a face covering except when seated at their desk, to speak sitting down and to wipe down their desk, chair and any other touch points before and after use. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded, or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes.
The time limit for debate on the following statutory instrument is one hour.
Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) (Amendment) Order 2021.
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, the statutory instrument before the Committee today was laid before this House on 4 March 2021. The Government are committed to eliminating plastic waste and the terrible effect it has on the environment. The use of single-use plastic items and their inappropriate disposal continue to raise significant environmental issues.
Unlike other materials, such as paper or wood, plastic can persist in the environment for hundreds of years. If released into the environment, items such as single-use plastic bags can damage habitats and endanger wildlife, as plastic items are often mistaken for food by animals. Furthermore, plastic that escapes into the environment will eventually break down into microplastics, which permeate our food chain as well as ending up in our soils and seas, the full impacts of which are still being uncovered. Even when single-use plastics are properly disposed of, they will typically end up in landfill or be incinerated, which releases carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
So action is needed to curtail the use of single-use plastics and their release into the environment. The proposed measures in the resources and waste chapter of our Environment Bill will transition us towards a more circular economy and change the way we use and consume resources by keeping them in the system for longer to extract maximum value from them, but there is much that we can already do to address the issue of single-use plastic, including through our highly successful carrier bag charge.
This statutory instrument will amend the Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) Order 2015 to extend the requirement to charge for single-use carrier bags supplied to customers to micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises and will remove the exemption from charging from airport sellers. It will also increase the minimum mandatory charge for single-use carrier bags from 5p to 10p.
Since the charge was first introduced in 2015, the Government have successfully prevented billions of plastic bags being sold and ending up in the ocean and environment. We have seen a reduction in the use of single-use carrier bags by 95% in the main supermarkets and more than £150 million donated to good causes. As a result of the carrier bag charge, the average person in England now buys just four bags a year from the main supermarkets, compared with 140 in 2014.
By extending the charge to all retailers, Ministers want to see bag usage cut significantly in small shops as well, with customers incentivised to use long-life bags made from more sustainable and environmentally-friendly materials. Micro, small and medium-sized enterprises circulated around 3.2 billion single-use carrier bags in 2018, which accounts for more than 80% of the single-use carrier bags in circulation in England.
This intervention is a strong marker of the Government’s intention to clamp down on single-use plastic pollution and protect our environment for future generations. When taken in conjunction with our wider policy approach to transition to a more circular economy, this will be another landmark moment following the straws, cotton buds and stirrers ban in October last year. To reduce the burdens on businesses, reporting requirements on the number of single-use carrier bags sold annually will not be extended to businesses with fewer than 250 employees.
We are determined to get this right, and it is vital that businesses and the public are informed about what they can and cannot do. Guidance will be published shortly after these debates explaining the legislation in detail to businesses and the public. Informal guidance has already been shared with businesses to help them prepare for the upcoming legislative changes. To ensure compliance, we have given trading standards authorities the powers they need for this type of restriction, for example, to enter and examine premises they suspect are in breach of the law. Anyone found not to be charging for single-use plastic bags in line with this legislation could face civil sanctions such as stop notices or a variable monetary penalty. Of course, we hope that these enforcement measures will not be necessary, but the regulations need to have teeth to show that this Government take plastic pollution seriously.
These new regulations send a signal to industry and the general public that we need to think carefully about the bags we use and the materials from which they are made. The regulations will help people to make more sustainable choices and are an important step towards a more circular economy. I beg to move.
My Lords, this order, with its 10p charge, will have little effect on a huge problem that is well known to this Minister, with his long and admirable track record on the environment.
I have a single question, which I have already notified to the Minister’s officials. Why do we not just set a date in law, perhaps up to two years beyond which it would be unlawful to sell or supply single-use product packaging in the form of a plastic bag that is not fully biodegradable? Here, biodegradable is to be defined as being capable of decomposition by bacteria or other living organisms within a six-month period in any conditions, to include open disposal sites or the natural environment. At the moment, no such product exists.
Secondly, why not set clear minimum standards on the distribution of a reusable bag for life to include biodegradability requirements with a two-year delay but with an extended biodegradability lifespan of up to two years? I understand that such products are on the cusp of availability but lack legislative incentive and are therefore uneconomic to produce. I support the Green Alliance’s proposal for a 70p bag, but it should be top-sliced by law to fund biodegradability research on a bid basis. I also argue that prices should fall as biodegradable target thresholds are met, perhaps to zero for single-use products.
What would the impact of such measures be on manufacturers, distributors and consumers? There would undoubtedly be a shock wave throughout the packaging industry, with howls of protest followed by a measured response and, ultimately, the inevitable avalanche in original thinking, with new products. This is Britain, and that is our forte. Coronavirus vaccine research and research into AIDS antivirals offer clear pointers about how the public and private sectors respond and work collaboratively when faced with crises and problems that require early resolution. Plastic pollution is a crisis.
As to the position of distributors, in which I include the retail trade, they will inevitably encounter problems over price and availability. Experience from Ireland suggests that a major shift in reusable bag usage occurs when consumers are faced with sharp increases. Our objective must be to reduce, reuse and recycle if we are to clean up the environment.
During my research, I spoke to an E Dyas store employee who expressed concern over increased pilferage, as it would be more difficult for till-keepers and shop assistants to monitor and police the handling of goods in store if E Dyas was to pursue the approach that I am advocating. She pointed to resistance even to single-use bag charging. These problems clearly need to be addressed, but they are not insurmountable, perhaps with an element of paper substitution.
Finally, on the impact on the consumer more widely, our objective must be to influence personal conduct. I believe that heavy charging for bags in the period of change will help to educate a population with mixed views on environmental protection. I have no doubt that there will be resistance. In a conversation with Mr Zak Lowe of Euro Packaging, Birmingham, a highly informed expert in this trade, with 20 years’ experience, his emphasis was on public education. I am afraid I am not convinced that that is enough. However, he had an open mind. I hope that the Government talk to people like Zak. He stands on the front line and would be a good sounding-board for reform by government.
My Lords, I agree with a great deal of what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said, particularly about education. I am not generally in favour of banning anything, but I say to the Government that the fee they instigated for single-use plastic bags has been remarkably successful. I therefore applaud further movement. However, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, did not mention how many bags for life are bought. The Green Alliance told me in a briefing that a staggering number of bags for life have been bought and some people buy one a week, which rather spoils the point. I would like the Minister to reply to that.
The Minister talked about plastic and litter pollution, which is what this order is about. He said, “Action is needed”, and, “The Government take the issue of plastic pollution seriously”. So do I, and so do most people in this Committee. May I take the Minister back to 24 September, when I asked him a Question about how to educate the public? Education surely starts with children. I know from experience, and I suspect other noble Lords know as well, that if your children are banging on at you about something, apart from a swift clip on the ear, which is not allowed these days—certainly not in Scotland—you tend to have to pay attention to what they say. I suggest, as I suggested on 24 September, that every school should spend one afternoon in a child’s education—in year 6, say—picking up litter. If children learn that picking up litter is what one should do rather than throwing it, it will eventually—it will take time, possibly a generation—permeate through all sections of society and all age groups. Frankly, it seems a very simple thing to do.
Unbelievably, the current lockdown has led to a huge increase in litter on beaches and in beauty spots. One might have thought that people would go out in the Peak District and not leave litter, but the contrary is true. I was in Devon at the weekend—legally, I should say—with my extremely ill mother-in-law. On Dartmoor, there is a huge issue of people going out and dumping litter. We need to educate people. It is not difficult. It does not have to be about banning things or big fines; we just need to educate people and to start with children in schools. As we all know, children are very keen on environmental matters, if things are presented properly, so I suggest that the Minister goes back to the department and considers what I said to him on 24 September: that I would be happy to join him in a meeting with an Education Minister to explore ways in which we can introduce—perhaps informally to start with—into every child’s education an afternoon picking up litter. I did it when I was child; I still do it at nearly 70 in the lane outside my house. My children do it—not all that happily nowadays, in their 20s—to help me. Let us educate children.
There are issues, of course. When I first raised this in the House about three years ago, the Labour Front Bench spokesman accused me of wanting to send children back up chimneys, which seemed slightly far-fetched because I do not. I want children to realise the consequences of dropping litter. There are real safety issues on roads, but there is a safety issue every time a child crosses the road. I plead with the Minister: if we, as a Government, really are going to take litter and plastic pollution seriously, action is needed—to quote his words back to him—and we need to educate children on litter.
The order in hand goes some way, so let us applaud that, but to the Minister—he does not just say all the right things but is, I know, really committed to environmental improvements—I say this: this is one way we could do it and make our lanes, roads and cities a great deal nicer, and, indeed, save a huge amount of money in the long term on clearing up litter.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak on this instrument. Like the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, I absolutely agree that the Minister has a fantastic and admirable track record on the environment. As previous speakers have said, in future, we should be thinking about an overall plastic ban. However, I appreciate that, on the basis of statistics such as those the Minister outlined, the initial 5p charge for single-use carrier bags has been a huge success since it was implemented.
The statistics say that the potential rise to 10p will bring an expected overall benefit of more than £780 million to the UK economy, up to £730 million for good causes, £60 million of savings in litter clean-up costs and carbon savings of £13 million. I would like to ask the Minister about that £730 million for good causes. I see a range of good causes on the government website, but would it not be a good idea for the money made from plastic bag charges to go towards something specifically to do with the war on plastic? We need to incentivise customers to use long-life bags made from sustainable and environmentally friendly materials. I am not sure whether the Minister has come across Toraphene, an environmentally friendly artificial plastic that costs the same as plastic bags. What about making its use compulsory, as an alternative?
As the Minister will know, I have a habit of listening to schoolchildren. This morning, I spoke to the wonderful children at St Augustine’s, in my home town of Burnley. In this time of coronavirus, they have done some innovative work with their local pharmacy to give the elderly some good ideas when they go to collect their prescriptions, keeping them motivated and inspired. They have drawn lots of pictures to make people happy. Something that struck a chord with me was a young child talking about getting rid of plastic and making sure that our oceans are plastic-free.
This is an important instrument that will act as a further deterrent and raise significant money. We need to work out what the Government should do to enhance the education programme further, as previous speakers have mentioned. Overall, the 25-year government plan fits into that. On the subject of cleaning plastic from our oceans, beaches and other areas where it has become an unfortunate cancer in our society, may I ask the Minister what the scope is for using gasification instead of incineration, which still causes pollution and adds to the problems with our ozone layer?
It is heartening to know that the higher charge will come into place but we have to do much more. I think that this will ultimately end in a ban on plastics but, in the meantime, I recognise that this is a positive step forward to add to the previous decision, which the statistics and the evidence show is working well.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for introducing this measure. I shall concentrate my remarks on the effectiveness—or otherwise—of the proposed increase in the charge for disposable carrier bags from 5p to 10p, subject to the existing legislation.
The speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, reminded me of hearing, possibly apocryphally, during my days as an undergraduate at University College, Oxford, about a thesis aired by the former and eminent professor of jurisprudence at Oxford, Professor Goodhart—a fellow at Univ, and subsequently master of our college. He put the academic case to his students at a tutorial in college that the optimal way of ensuring total compliance with road traffic law was to issue no fines or penalties but place the name of everyone who had committed an offence into a lottery, draw the tickets each year on New Year’s Eve and execute the unfortunate individual whose name was drawn first. So, he argued, the incidence of traffic violations would be solved, and began interesting tutorials challenging students to consider the principles of proportionality, deterrence and behavioural patterns.
When the levy was introduced at 5p and followed by Scotland, which I expect again to be the case on this occasion, my neighbours living in Scotland, on the Ayrshire coast, welcomed the fact that after Scotland’s original introduction of the charge in 2016, the number of carrier bags found on Scotland’s beaches fell substantially—in fact, by 40%. The Marine Conservation Society determined that there was a further drop of 42% between 2018 and 2019. Adding a value to throwaway items results in long-term behavioural change.
The statutory instrument in front of us today challenges us to question the effect a price rise from 5p to 10p will have on behavioural patterns, if any, and whether a move to 10p, 20p, 50p or, indeed, £1, would have a significant or marginal deterrent effect. Simple changes to our daily routines need catalysts for change, and these charges are a good example. We should also keep in mind the importance of a single coin facility, so it is worth considering whether a 10p, 20p, 50p or £1 charge would meet the relevant punitive threshold and provide the tipping point to see a major change in the use of single-use carrier bags.
For my part, I believe that those who argue that moving to 50p would generate unnecessary controversy are out of touch with public sentiment—and, indeed, the views expressed by the Committee today—as the value of the deterrent is critical in considering what further shifts in consumer behaviour would result. At present, we alleviate our consciences with an associated policy of contributing to good causes. However, ultimately, an entirely successful scheme would result in no money coming in at all.
Of course, this charge applies not just to single-use plastic carrier bags but to all single-use bags; it is not simply about plastic. However, as the Minister has pointed out, this policy must be part of a panoply of measures to encourage good environmental behaviour overall, with the ultimate end of single-use carrier bags in the non-exempted category. The Marine Conservation Society and, in particular, Dr Laura Foster and her team, have done some excellent work on the campaign to add value to throwaway items, but we are a long way from the day when I can walk at low tide on a calm afternoon along Prestwick beach and not have to constantly pick up suffocating plastic washed up on the coastline, which is catastrophic to the marine environment. While I welcome this step, it is only a step, a means towards an end, not an end in itself, and I am not convinced that such a marginal change will see behavioural changes compatible with the proposed charge.
In closing, I hope that the Government will simultaneously make further progress by introducing bag deposit/return schemes, similar to those for drinks containers to encourage people to take back their drinks containers and carrier bags. I also believe a tax on on-the-go items, such as coffee cups, water bottles and plastic cutlery would encourage people to carry reusable cups and bottles, help reduce litter and increase recycling rates. I also support imposing a ban on single-use plastic when dining in restaurants and cafés. As we support this measure today, we should not lose sight of the fact that we still use well over a billion bags a year in the UK. We should be encouraging bags for life. Fortunately, there are other ways to reach the goals, which I share with my noble friend the Minister, without resorting to Professor Goodhart’s challenge.
My Lords, we have moved quickly from the moderate social democracy of the Minister’s proposals to the radicalism of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, with his high charges and potential executions. I perhaps do not go quite as far as the noble Lord in some of the hints and suggestions that he proffers to the Minister. However, the Minister is a young lad and he does not have the memory of most of us in here—perhaps not all but certainly that I have—of remembering a life before the plastic bag, when one could buy one’s shopping with paper bags, or indeed had one shopping bag in which most things were ceremoniously placed, and we were all the better for that. Therefore, it is no surprise to me that the general public, led by wise elders with that experience, have taken very readily to the fact that they do not want to pay for something that is quite superfluous and often a nuisance but which, being very British about it, most are too embarrassed to reject when given, because they do not want to upset or offend the shopkeeper.
Therefore, if we increase the price, people will be even more pleased—not less—because people do not want things they do not need. There is no additional use. I congratulate Morrisons. I am a new convert; I believe that a second delivery arrived this morning just as I was leaving of Morrisons products—traditional products, of course, from the north of England. Nevertheless, there were no plastic bags. I am almost inclined to say that that will be a supermarket of preference, but perhaps the Co-op will quickly catch up with them. But how sensible! I do not need loads of plastic bags for something that is delivered at home.
The Minister needs to look at other departments. Let us have an all-government approach. Someone can go down the road and throw out their McDonalds package, and they can be fined, of course—but how about taking their licence off them? A six-month ban for throwing such rubbish out of a car on to a public highway would affect behaviour and be good not just for the environment but for the safety of every other driver and, indeed, those walking or conveying themselves by other means alongside a highway.
What about this building—the disgrace of all disgraces, the mother of Parliaments, the Palace of Westminster? The Lords is somewhat better than the Commons in the fact that in the Lords it is possible to have—I am certainly offered—non-plastic cutlery. If you go down to the Commons, not just do you get plastic cutlery, but if a simple soul like me wants merely a bowl of porridge and cup of coffee on a morning, they have to have a plastic-wrapped plastic knife and fork along with a plastic spoon. Can the Minister not have words, using his authority, on this absurdity? A spoon would suffice, preferably a washable metal spoon, perhaps made in Sheffield from stainless steel; that would suffice very well—I have managed all my life on them. I do not need a plastic substitute for it with all the other garbage.
When you go for a cup of coffee, in this place like everywhere else, you get a takeaway. But hang on a minute—I do not want to take it that far, I just want to sit down and have it. I would quite like a mug or a cup; a mug will do fine, not a plastic-embossed paper cup with a plastic lid placed on top of it with my health and safety. I have managed, as we have all managed all our lives, for the whole of the last century, to drink tea and coffee out of cups and mugs. We have not needed to have disposables for it. That culture needs changing.
The Minister has a key role, as we all do—but his young energies should be put to this, and this place should be an exemplar not a laggard in dealing with plastic.
I also welcome this statutory instrument and the regulations before us today and congratulate my noble friend on introducing them so lucidly. I declare my interest as the chair of the Proof of Age Standards Scheme, through which I work closely with the Association of Convenience Stores.
What is curious is that plastic bags are a relatively recent phenomenon. While it may seem very quaint now, I remember that when I went shopping as a youngster with my mother, she always had material or cloth bags, and several of them. I am not quite sure how we disposed of that habit as easily and quickly as we did to embrace this relatively new culture of plastic bags.
I would like to hear more from my noble friend about how the Government intend to incentivise non-use. That is the problem—we can charge for plastic bags as much as we like but, if they are there, we will continue to use them. I do not think brown paper bags are an alternative because when they are wet, as I have found, the produce just slips out of your hands and ends up on the floor. It will be interesting to see how we can explore more positive alternatives.
While I welcome the order, it is some considerable time since the consultation, to which my noble friend referred, concluded on 22 February 2019. I wonder why it taken quite this long to table the amendment order before us today.
I want to press my noble friend on the start date when the regulations will come into effect. Can I assume that the start date is confirmed as 30 April? If that is the case, it does not give businesses very long to introduce the new provisions of the order.
Having said that, I welcome the fact that the Government are going to be sending less to landfill overall and that we will be seeking to recycle more. It is interesting that Denmark has a very good record on reducing single-use plastics and plastics overall. While it was very quick to incinerate and it did so effectively, it is now going away from incineration towards more recycling. We should pause to recognise just how effective many of the recycling schemes by our councils have been, and we should all encourage those which perhaps do not have such a good record to recycle more. However, it is good that my noble friend expressly stated the implications and consequences of the order before us for the circular economy.
I want to press my noble friend on how the Government will prepare customers for the changes, in the sense that it will no longer be a voluntary charge in smaller stores but will be compulsory. I am sure we are all only too aware of the somewhat unwarranted and potentially aggressive responses that have been seen from certain customers going into stores of all sizes—large and small stores—who fail to wear a mask when asked by those working in the stores for what reason, if they are not exempt, they are not prepared to wear a mask. It is important that we understand precisely how the Government will prepare not just businesses but customers, who are going to be the end users, that they will have to pay these charges now.
Otherwise it is fair to say that businesses are embracing the order. The sector has widely adopted voluntary charging before now, and certainly the Association of Convenience Stores welcomes the exemption from reporting requirements for small businesses.
With those few remarks, with the precise request that I have made that we look to incentivise non-plastic bag use and the use of other materials, having pressed my noble friend on specifically what the Government are doing to encourage those entering small stores to be aware of the new provisions and, lastly, having asked to understand precisely when the order will take effect, I welcome the order.
My Lords, like all other noble Lords in Grand Committee today, I support this statutory instrument and thank the Minister for his eloquent introduction.
This measure will certainly be a means, but still only one step, in helping to tackle the damage that plastic causes to our environment. It is no surprise that I support it since it was the Liberal Democrats in the coalition Government who championed the introduction of a levy on plastic bags. Given the success of charging for single-use carrier bags in driving down usage, it is right that we now raise that charge to help to drive it down even further, as the Government’s impact assessment indicates that it will.
Equally, I support extending the obligations to all retailers. I was not persuaded at the time of the merits of exemption. Indeed, a number of representatives of small businesses said at the time that they did not oppose being included, so I see the measure as a belated rectification of that.
Having said that, I have three questions for the Minister, which I informed him of in advance. First, why are the Government making the reporting requirements less onerous for franchises? In the draft guidance to retailers on the reporting and record-keeping requirements, there is a section which states that if you are part of a franchise model, whether you report and keep records depends on your size and not the size of the franchise overall. If you own 10 corner shops, each staffed by 24 full-time equivalent people, your total staff head count of 240 people would be below the 250 FTE threshold and you would not have to report. That is different from the way that franchises are dealt with in the current packaging regulations. There, a franchise is covered by the requirements depending on the size of the franchise overall, not the size of the individual franchise businesses. In other words, you could get out of doing anything only if the franchise as a whole fell under the de minimis threshold of how much packaging you used each year.
Will the Minister explain the rationale for the decision to introduce less robust reporting? While it is reasonable that a single family-owner corner shop should not have to report and keep records on bag use, many franchises which are perfectly capable of recording and reporting this information via their head office will not have to as long as they make sure that none of their individual franchises employs more than 250 people. If you run a few corner shops but are part of a franchise, you would get your single-use carrier bags via its head office to reduce packaging run costs and maintain consistent branding. The head office could therefore provide the information for all franchised shops to obey the reporting requirements. Without this, we will not know whether all smaller shops are charging for bags unless local authorities mount secret shopper expeditions. Frankly, given how hard-pressed local authorities are, we know that that is just not going to happen. This is an unnecessary exemption and a retrograde step.
Secondly, do the Government have any plans to introduce mandatory reporting for bags for life? The reporting requirements for single-use carrier bags will change next January, but there is mounting anecdotal evidence of a shift from single-use carrier bags to bags for life. Research in 2019 found that the 10 largest retailers were handing out more than double the number of bags for life anticipated in the Government’s initial impact assessment. There have been welcome initiatives. The noble Lord, Lord Mann, referred to one of them: Morrisons’ commitment to stop selling plastic bags for life. That it says it will remove 3,200 tonnes of plastic and almost 100 million plastic bags every year gives a sense of the scale of the remaining challenge—as I would call it, the plastic drift from single-use carrier bags to bags for life.
The drift may be accentuated by the low cost of these bags for life—20p when I asked in my local Sainsbury’s at the weekend, whereas Green Alliance and the EIA say that Ireland charges the equivalent of 70p, which has led to a 90% reduction in sales. There is also the fact that the money that retailers make on bags for life is all bottom-line profit; unlike with single-use carrier bags, they do not have to donate the money to good causes. I therefore urge the Government to require retailers to report so that the data can be collected so that we will know the size of the bag-for-life market and can determine whether a rise in their cost is now needed.
Finally, I welcome this statutory instrument and other government action, such as the ban on plastic cotton buds, straws and stirrers. Other initiatives, such as the proposed tax on plastic packaging, the Environment Bill’s delayed bottle deposit return scheme and the confirmation in a recent Written Answer to me that the Government are minded to ban oxo-degradables, which break down into tiny microplastics, will all be welcome when they eventually see the light of day. In the meantime, there is a real need to tackle myriad other single-use plastic items bloating our supermarket shelves in coffee pods, teabags, single-serve sachets, biscuit trays and fruit punnets, to name but a handful. What further steps are the Government taking now to help retailers get similarly problematic and unnecessary plastic off our supermarket shelves and to enable consumers to play the part they really want to play in tackling plastic waste to protect our precious environment?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to this SI. We have ranged far and wide in this debate, even going as far as public executions, but I want to concentrate on the specifics of the SI. Like other noble Lords, I do not oppose the basics of it. However, I must say to the Minister that it is, quite frankly, embarrassing that it has taken the Government so long to bring this proposal forward. Wales introduced a fully comprehensive charge on single-use bags back in 2010. We had to wait another five years before the UK Government introduced a half-measure ban in England applying to larger retailers.
Now, in 2021, the Government are finally catching up with the good practice that the devolved nations have had in place for years. This is despite the fact that, three years ago, the 25-year environment plan committed to extending the application of the 5p plastic bag charge to small retailers and despite the fact that the public consultation on this proposal ended two years ago, in February 2019. That consultation showed there was enormous support from consumers and considerable support from businesses for the proposal, so it certainly does not feel that this simple and popular proposal has been anywhere near the Government’s priority list.
However, we welcome the proposal before us as far as it goes, but I have a number of questions which flow from it. First, we support the increase in price from 5p to 10p for a single-use plastic bag, but can the Minister clarify the impact this is likely to have on the sale of the more substantial bags for life, which are currently sold at between 10p and 30p? As has been said, there is an added incentive for supermarkets to prioritise the sales of these bags as they can keep all the income without making a donation to good causes. Already there is evidence that the 95% reduction in single-use plastic bags has seen a corresponding increase in the purchase of bags for life, with the average householder buying 57 bags for life a year according to research from Greenpeace. Has any consideration been given to a substantial increase in the price of bags for life? It has been suggested that a price of 70p would prevent the perverse consequences of this policy change, following the example of Ireland, which priced the bags at 70 cents and thereby cut their sale by 90%. Otherwise, is there not a danger that more bags for life will be purchased for single use, with the consequent increased damage to the environment?
Secondly, why have the Government exempted SMEs from using a proportion of the money raised from the sale of the bags to donate to good causes? This provision has worked well for the larger supermarkets, so I am not sure that the argument that it would be too complex to administer really holds water. Most small shops have a charity box and many are part of larger franchise arrangements. It seems wrong in principle that they should benefit from a new revenue stream for selling goods which pollute the environment. Also, will there be a requirement for the supermarkets which already administer the 5p charge to donate all the additional 5p to good causes given the additional administration in increasing the price will be negligible? Does the Minister agree with my noble friend Lord Khan, who rightly made the point that donations should be made to charities specifically involved in protecting the environment or clearing up the litter that plastic bags cause?
Thirdly, back in 2019, the resources and waste strategy set out a plan for resource efficiency and a circular economy which included an ambition for all plastics to be biodegradable. As my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours made clear, the environmental damage caused by single-use bags would be somewhat mitigated if there was a requirement for them to be biodegradable. What steps are the Government taking to prevent plastics, including plastic bags, that are not biodegradable being in circulation?
Fourthly, why are the enforcement mechanisms restricted to being
“light touch, pragmatic and complaints led”?
This issue was raised by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. There is some concern that trading standards and local authorities simply will not have the resources to ensure that the ban is truly effective. It would be helpful if the Minister could comment on that.
Lastly, what further plans do the Government have to make the manufacturers of single-use plastic bags more responsible for the environmental damage that they cause? Both the resource and waste strategy and the Environment Bill talk about extended producer responsibility based on the principle of “the polluter pays”, so when are we going to start charging the manufacturers for producing these bags rather than putting the onus on the consumer to change their habits? That is much talked about as a policy but we are yet to see real action. Perhaps the Minister could reassure us that the comprehensive extended producer responsibility package will be introduced into the Environment Bill. I give notice now that that is an issue that we will pursue when the Bill comes before us in the Lords.
I thank noble Lords who have contributed to this debate today. In order for us to leave the environment in a better state than we found it for the next generation, it is essential that we have the right legislation in place to limit the impact that our use of resources has on the natural world. Plastics are causing incontrovertible harm to our marine and terrestrial environments and we need to act now. These measures are an important part of our wider strategy to tackle plastic pollution and serve as an important marker that our reliance on single-use plastics must be reduced.
I will do my best in the time that I have to answer the questions put to me by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, asked, effectively, “Why not simply ban single-use plastics?”, a point echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley. Like both noble Lords, I wish to see an end to plastic waste, full stop. Clearly this statutory instrument alone is not going to achieve that, but it is just one part of a much larger of package of measures. For example, in October 2020 we introduced restrictions on the supply of plastic straws, plastic stirrers and plastic cotton buds. In 2018 we banned microbeads in rinse-off personal care products, a world first at the time. We are seeking powers in the Environment Bill to charge for single-use plastic items, introduce a deposit-return scheme for drinks containers and reform the packaging waste regulations. The Environment Bill will also provide powers to introduce extended producer responsibility measures to make producers bear the full cost of the environmental impacts of their products. We are also taking action to boost the quantity and quality of recycling—a consistent set of materials will need to be collected from all households and businesses in England—and to ensure clearer labelling on packaging so that we know what it is that we can recycle. We are ready to do much more if and where necessary.
My noble friend Lord Robathan initially expressed a concern about the principle and the idea of banning things. When it comes to individual responsibility, I would instinctively agree with him, but he would probably agree with the point that I am about to make: the use and disposal of single-use plastic imposes a heavy cost on all of us and indeed on the world that we share. This happens against our will, in most cases. It is an area that needs, merits and justifies intervention.
My noble friend stressed the importance of education and suggested that every single school should spend time litter picking. That is a suggestion that I fully agree with. I will convey his message to the Department for Education, and if need be I will involve him in those discussions. It is very hard to disagree with him. Young people are very much instinctively onside. I have never spoken at a school where I have not been asked questions about pollution, particularly plastic waste, so there is no doubt a market there waiting to be tapped.
Education and awareness are already a key element in the litter strategy for England. Around 70% of schools in England, for example, are already members of the Eco-Schools programme, which is run by Keep Britain Tidy. Schools can also participate in challenges such as the Keep Britain Tidy Great Big School Clean, the Marine Conservation Society’s Great British Beach Clean and the Canal & River Trust’s Plastics Challenge, joining other community-minded individuals to tackle litter all over the country.
The noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley, made the important point that in reducing plastic waste we are saving an enormous amount of money at many different levels. He has made the specific suggestion that the £730 million raised through this charge should be reinvested—recycled, if you like—into the waste and plastic agenda. That is a valuable suggestion and one that I will take back to the department. The only thing that I will say from a personal point of view is that I think the remit should be relatively broad, focusing broadly on the environment as a whole, given that the effects of plastic pollution are predominantly environmental.
For a second time in a week, the noble Lord has stressed the positive interactions that he has had with schoolchildren on this issue. My very first school visit to Parliament as an MP shortly after I was elected in 2010 was with a bunch of children from Barnes Primary who were accompanied by a giant papier-mâché whale, which they wanted to take to No. 10. It would not fit through the door, so we had to go to Parliament Square. This whale was made by the children as a direct response to the sad death of the whale that had been seen—I am not sure that it was swimming past Parliament, but certainly it got caught in the River Thames. When it was dissected shortly afterwards, its belly was found to be full of plastic waste and, in particular, plastic bags. That was rightly very shocking for the children, so they wanted to engage in a protest.
The noble Lord asked about gasification. I am unable to give a proper, authoritative answer, I am afraid, because I am not qualified to do so, but I shall get back to him and will ask my officials to help me to respond in detail to him. I know he will agree that the key is to stop producing products designed only to be used for seconds or perhaps minutes which then take centuries to be disposed of.
The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, talked about the balance between deterrence and raising funds for good causes. He questioned whether raising the charge to 10p would have much of an impact. The evidence that we have suggests that it would, but he is right that alone that additional charge is not enough. I hope that I have provided reassurance in answers to other noble Lords that this is just part of an overall strategy. He suggested that we should ban further single-use items; he knows that we have banned plastic stirrers, straws and cotton buds, but I wholeheartedly agree with him that we should look for opportunities to go further.
That point was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, whose passion for this subject I very much share and enjoy. He made the point that, on the whole, people neither need nor want much of the plastic packaging or throwaway items that we are given—and he is right. Most people, when they go to a shop to buy a spring of parsley, do not particularly welcome the brick of plastic that encases it, which is why the emphasis in our approach to tackling plastic is very much to move away from consumer to producer responsibility.
The noble Lord is also absolutely right that we should be leading by example here in this place. It is appalling that we are still offered plastic cutlery and wrappers in this House; it is lazy and irresponsible, and it is completely unforgiveable. We should be leading by example, and I am certainly not going to pretend that I disagree with him on that point. On the resource and waste strategy, we committed to removing single-use plastic from the central government estate, including the Palace of Westminster, and the results of that exercise will be incorporated into the greening government commitments from 2020 onwards. As part of that, every department’s progress will be published annually in the annual report. Some departments are reporting early success, but we do not yet have all the published statistics. I certainly hope to see good results and, if not, I shall certainly use my office—and I know that my colleagues in Defra will do the same—to press for real and meaningful results. Much of this waste is inexcusable.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked about the coming-into-force date, which we described on being the day after the day on which it is made, rather than having a specific date. We were concerned that the packed parliamentary timetable as a result of Covid-19 and EU exit could result in delays to debates and Parliament proroguing before the instrument had been debated. To avoid the instrument being withdrawn and relaid in the next session, we decided to specify the coming-into-force date as simply the day after the day when it is made. However, I stress that in August last year the government response to the consultation made it very clear that the extension and increase of the charge would enter into force in April 2021. The announcement was widely publicised in all the national press, broadcast and media, and Defra considers it reasonable to assume that businesses are aware of the Government’s intention that these changes would come into force in April. Indeed, I believe that we secured a number of front-page news stories on this issue.
The noble Baroness also mentioned paper bags, describing them as not a particularly good alternative. I shall slightly distort her question here, if I may, in order to wedge in an important point. If we judge an item only on the basis of its carbon impacts, we can end up with a perverse answer. Yes, paper bags need to be reused three or four times to have the same carbon impact as single-use plastic bags. But it is wrong to look just at the carbon impact. Plastic bags take centuries to decompose. They are routinely mistaken for food, and choke hundreds of thousands of animals, particularly marine animals. They cause terrible littering and blight, and even when they break down, on the whole they become micro-plastics, which then enter the food chain and poison everything in it, including us. So simply taking a narrow carbon approach is misleading and wrong.
Finally, the noble Baroness asked what we are doing to prepare customers. Again, we believe that the change we are introducing is pretty widely known—but maybe the odd customer will turn up at a shop unaware of it. We have to be realistic about that; it is unavoidable. Some customers will go to a shop without being fully prepared. But it is unlikely that they will make the same mistake twice, or three or four times. The choice is there: bags will be there, available for purchase. But ultimately, we are talking about behaviour change. That does not normally happen overnight, and we need permanent reminders that we are, we hope, moving on a path towards minimising our impact on earth—on the planet—and reducing our environmental footprint.
The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, asked several pertinent questions. I shall focus, if she does not mind, on the issue of franchises—the subject of her main question. She asked why we are exempting shops that are part of a franchise. All franchises, regardless of total and individual size, will be required to charge for single-use carrier bags. That we know. The noble Baroness’s interpretation of reporting obligations is correct, as franchises will be judged on individual size and not on that of the franchise group as a whole. We made that decision because we recognise that such businesses usually operate independently, so do not benefit from the economies of scale available to large businesses. However, retailers with a chain of shops will be counted as a large retailer if they have more than 250 employees. We are currently exploring options to introduce reporting for producers of plastic packaging as part of their obligation under the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007. Any bags used by individual franchises will be reported on through that mechanism, which will, I hope, avoid unnecessary burdens.
Incidentally, the noble Baroness was right to say that many smaller retailers did not initially want or welcome the exemption included when this initiative first came in a few years ago. As someone who, as part of the coalition Government, campaigned hard for this change, I made that point many times during the debate. I too see this as a sort of catching up, or the correction of an initial flaw.
The noble Baroness asked, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, whether the Government had plans to introduce reporting on bags for life. We are reviewing the reporting for single-use carrier bags, and we will consider extending the reporting requirements to bags for life as part of that.
Finally, the noble Baroness asked what further steps the Government were taking to get other problematic plastic off our shelves. In addition to the measures that she mentioned, we are delivering on promises from the resource and waste strategy through seeking powers in the Environment Bill to do a whole range of things, including: charging for single-use plastic items; introducing, as I said earlier, a deposit return scheme; reforming the packaging waste regulations; introducing greater consistency in household and business recycling collections; and more besides. We are currently assessing whether there are additional items for which a ban would be suitable and proportionate, and I would welcome ideas from her and her colleagues—and, indeed, from anyone else who has taken part in the debate—as we undergo that process.
That brings me to the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. I thank her for prior notice of her questions, and for her and her party’s support for this measure. First, she too asked what the Government were doing about bags for life. I have addressed part of her question already, but I should add that bags for life are designed for multiple reuses; that is the whole point of them. Customers should therefore be encouraged to reuse them. If they are reused sufficiently, they have a lighter environmental impact than single-use bags. Clearly, if they are used only once, they do not. There will be an increase in the number of bags for life—we know that—but the policy change will lead to an overall reduction of at least 24% in the number of bags across all types. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that bags for life are not a proper long-term solution. They are not. The more progressive and thoughtful supermarkets are already planning their switch away from all plastic bags; a number of noble Lords have mentioned Morrisons.
The noble Baroness asked whether we will hike the price of bags for life, as did a number of noble Lords. We are considering that as part of the post-implementation review. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Khan, suggested that money should be recycled back into plastic and waste-related causes. Again, I will convey that message, but I would prefer money to be recycled into a wider remit, something environmental and local as far as possible.
Secondly, the noble Baroness asked how the UK will encourage manufacturers to take responsibility for plastic bags. We are committed to introducing a new, world-leading tax which will apply to businesses producing or importing plastic packaging which does not meet a minimum threshold of at least 30% recycled content from April 2022. Combined with our reform to the packing producer responsibility system which will apply to all packing, including single-use plastic bags, it will change economic incentives by encouraging more use of recycled plastic and drive up recycling rates. We are doing what we need to do to shift the emphasis away from consumers to producer responsibility.
Finally, the noble Baroness asked why all plastic bags—
I am sorry; we are running out of time.
I apologise. I think I have answered the questions that were put to me and any more is merely an indulgence, so I will simply say that we are taking steps to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics and to explore more sustainable alternatives. This draft order will help us to do so, and I commend it to the Committee.
That completes the business before the Grand Committee this afternoon. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Committee adjourned at 5.21 pm.