My Lords, I apologise for the fact that I was not able to speak at Second Reading on the Bill. I wish to speak to Amendment 124 in the name of my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market. I hope the House will allow me to use this amendment to probe with the Minister not the disposal of single-use plastics but the banning of them, and the aspirations of the Welsh Government to do just that.
To understand the drive towards such a ban in Wales one has to understand that the pursuit of sustainable development is central to the Senedd’s devolved powers. It is expressly mandated as a core aspiration of the Welsh Ministers under Section 79 of the Government of Wales Act.
Like most countries throughout the world, Wales has its concerns about the prevalence of single-use plastics and the pollution they cause in our cities and towns, on our beaches and in our seas. In 2019, the Great British Beach Clean weekend organised by the Marine Conservation Society found an average of 322 plastic items per 100 metres of beach it surveyed, while in its 2018-19 street cleanliness survey, Keep Wales Tidy found fast-food litter on 20% of the streets that it surveyed across Wales.
The Welsh Government want to use their powers to ban 19 types of plastic items. As well as hoping to ban plastic-stemmed cotton buds, the Senedd wants to ban plastic cutlery, plastic plates, plastic beverage stirrers and plastic straws, as well as food containers and beverage cups made from expanded polystyrene. This is all very sensible—so sensible that our wonderful catering facilities in the House of Lords had already achieved all this before the pandemic struck. Obviously, where the House of Lords leads, Wales is keen to follow.
The problem is, of course, the impact of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act, which would mean that any single-use plastics permitted or imported into the rest of the UK could still be sold in Wales, in effect negating the Senedd’s aim. In January of this year, the Counsel General for Wales sought permission for a judicial review of the position but the application was denied on the basis of prematurity. I believe, however, that the Court of Appeal has granted permission to appeal the Divisional Court’s decision and that a hearing will be listed in due course. I do not expect the Minister to pre-empt any decision that the Court of Appeal may come to. Can he say, however, whether he or his civil servants have had any discussions with their opposite numbers in Wales on single-use plastics, especially following the election of the new Welsh Government in May, and whether we are any closer to clarity on the situation?
Finally, I want to refer to an excellent article by Dr Richard Caddell, a member of the Wales Governance Centre in Cardiff and a senior lecturer in law. Writing in FTB’s Environmental Law Blog and highlighting the problem Wales faces, he concludes:
“The widespread concern over marine plastics … may potentially persuade some UK regulators to upscale their environmental ambitions to meet those of other devolved actors, in order to stave off this particular constitutional conundrum.”
These are wise words. I find the phrase “the upscaling of environmental ambitions” particularly elegant, providing, as it does, a rather elegant way forward. Rather than insisting on asserting the letter of the law or resorting to the courts, employing a strategy of wholesale upscaling of environmental ambitions could, perhaps be more effective.