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Plastic Bag Charge

Volume 799: debated on Wednesday 17 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the response by Lord Gardiner of Kimble on 17 June (HL Deb, cols 645-7), whether they plan to announce the introduction of the 10p plastic bag charge in England in the next month; and if not, what was meant by “very soon”.

My Lords, this important measure affects small businesses. To ensure effective policy, we have asked the Regulatory Policy Committee to scrutinise our evidence of costs and benefits, as set out in the impact assessment. That is in line with the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015. We expect the comments in mid-August and, subject to them, we intend to publish our proposal as soon as possible afterwards. An affirmative SI will be required to introduce any changes.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. His department indicated previously in a Written Answer that usage of plastic bags among small and medium-sized retailers will drop by some 2.2 million a day when the policy is introduced. Therefore, since my last Oral Question on this subject on 17 June, 75 million plastic bags have been brought into the waste stream unnecessarily, into the nation’s rivers and the world’s whales. Will my noble friend please indicate more specifically when he is likely to implement a policy that has worked well in Wales and Scotland for a number of years, and how much charities have lost in the period since his last Answer to me?

My Lords, I first salute my noble friend’s tenacity on this matter. We do want to make progress. We estimate that, overall, surplus income to charities from charging would be £29 million in year one. Clearly, I recognise the importance of reducing bags in circulation, and it is important to register that six out of seven supermarket chains are phasing out the single-use carrier bag by the end of this year. The whole point of the charge is to change consumer behaviour—that is really what this is all about.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, has hit the nail on the head. The Secretary of State has been strong on rhetoric but weak on action. Yesterday, he made what was billed as his farewell landmark speech. The truth is that this Government have failed to bring forward a single piece of primary legislation on waste since the last election. So, before he goes, will the Minister put in a special plea to his boss for urgent action to end single-use plastics and introduce the plastic bag charge for which we have been waiting for a very long time?

My Lords, I very much hope that it is not the Secretary of State’s farewell message, because he has shown great leadership in ensuring that the enhancement of the environment is in everyone’s mindset. We introduced a world-leading ban on microbeads in rinse-off personal care. We announced a ban on the sale and distribution of plastic straws and stirrers, and plastic-stemmed cotton buds, which is due to come in next April. There is plenty of work. I always wish to take speedy action on this, but we need to get it right and we will need to do research on things such as biodegradable plastics so that we make the right choice for the environment.

My Lords, £50 million was raised from the plastic bag levy last year. Given that retailers do not have to say where the money goes, and last year only 60% chose to do so, what confidence do the Government have that this money will end up going to good causes?

The noble Baroness is right that it has gone to very good causes, and it is a matter of social responsibility that the charities that benefit from the charge should receive that money. I mentioned in my earlier reply that six of the seven supermarket chains are phasing out single-use carrier bags this year, so we will see a change. Although we will continue to have charitable donations, this is about changing consumer behaviour, and charities will need to recognise that.

Does the Minister accept that, while the primary objective is clearly to reduce the use of plastic bags, with the benefits that will come from that, our experience in Wales is that there is a secondary benefit in tidying up the environment, particularly the hedgerows, where there are far fewer plastic bags now lodging? Will he bear that in mind in driving this policy forward?

We discussed these matters earlier this week in relation to littering. The evidence is very clear that the reduction in the number of single-use carrier bags has had a dramatic effect, particularly in terms of marine litter. There has been a very considerable reduction in the appearance on beaches and in the oceans of carrier bags. Of course, most marine litter comes from land sources—so I agree with the noble Lord.

My Lords, while I appreciate the 10p tax, why can the Government not go further and ban these bags? Certain plastic items are being banned. There are 500 billion single-use plastic bags made in the world and they have a shelf life of 12 minutes, apparently. New York is about to ban them. California has banned them and so have 32 countries around the world. We can see where consumer interest is going. Why are we not doing this?

My Lords, what is happening with the supermarkets—and, indeed, with the 10p charge —shows that we are changing consumers. Yes, we can ban certain things, but if we are to command the consent of most people in this country we have to encourage each and every one of us to change our consumer behaviour. That is why the 5p charge has already had a dramatic impact and why we believe that the 10p charge to all retailers will have a considerable impact. I think that that is the way forward. Banning things is a last resort.

While the noble Lord is struggling with the problems of consultation in relation to plastic bags and their distribution by supermarkets and others, will he perhaps turn his undoubted abilities to something nearer home: namely, the plastic bags in which we have mail forwarded to our domestic addresses? They are very heavy plastic, they are almost impossible to open and they come at great cost to the taxpayer.

My Lords, I have enormous sympathy with that. It is obviously a matter for the House authorities. Those of us who subscribe to various societies and organisations are now starting to see that, for instance, the Royal Horticultural Society has biodegradable envelopes rather than plastic ones. That is the way forward. Everyone who is a member of a society or an organisation should perhaps encourage them to start thinking more about the circular economy and not using plastic in it.