Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I note that the Minister said that he does not have any plans to introduce a levy. However, will he outline how he intends to address the issue in the future? Does he wish to introduce a levy, or is he categorically refusing to address the issue in the future?
I used the word “immediate” deliberately, because we first need to identify how successful we have been in reducing the number of plastic bags. Since the voluntary approach was announced in July, there has been a 38% reduction in plastic bags in Northern Ireland. That does not compare favourably with the rest of the UK, in which there has been a 48% reduction. However, supermarket sales in Northern Ireland have gone up. That is good news and is largely to do with the fact that people from the South are coming to Northern Ireland to buy goods. It is, therefore, harder to reduce the amount of bags in a rising market.
The option of doing away with plastic bags altogether raises other issues. First, in the Republic, there has been a larger take-up of plastic bin bags. Therefore, people are not using plastic shopping bags, but they are replacing them with a different type of plastic bag. Secondly, the potential use of paper bags is a problem because they are heavier and their production has more of an environmental impact. Therefore, the issue is not just as straightforward as doing away with all plastic bags.
Nonetheless, we have been successful thus far in reducing the number of plastic bags by 38%. I want to keep the pressure on supermarkets and, indeed, smaller shops, because they have work to do to reduce the percentage further. I will make a decision later, once the voluntary approach has been carried out fully.
If you lived in the Republic of Ireland — you do not, and I suspect that, like me, you never will — you would have had to pay 44 cents a bag. That is not a lot of money to many people; however, to those living on the breadline it is. Therefore, I do not want to impose a levy that will hurt people in a struggling sector when we can introduce a successful voluntary approach instead. The 38% reduction is a success story, but we need to go further. We wish to push that figure up, but if we cannot do that, we will look at introducing a tax on plastic bags.
In my response to Mr McCartney’s question, I tried to explain that there are no easy solutions and that no solution is purely environmentally positive. All of the solutions have negative connotations. Although we want to discourage the use and the multiplicity of plastic bags, there is a good success story to be sold and told. Lots of people now buy the reusable bags for life. I encourage more people to use them, and I encourage shops to be more reluctant to give plastic bags to customers. I will indicate to shopkeepers that I expect that to be the case. The levy is the stick, but let us continue to use the carrot to see whether can get the outcome that we are looking for. [Interruption.]
I have not investigated the amount of money that a plastic bag levy would raise. I would be looking to use such a levy as a deterrent, not as a tax-raising measure. Our party is a party of low taxation, and it is one that allows people to spend their money as they wish. It is also in favour of the Government providing services that are fit for purpose. Therefore, I am not looking for a tax-raising measure; I am looking for and we are working towards the best environmental outcome.