Section 59 — Charges for supply of carrier bags

Climate Change (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3 – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:53 pm on 24th June 2009.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 2:53 pm, 24th June 2009

Group 25 is on charges for the supply of carrier bags. Amendment 2, in the name of Des McNulty, is the only amendment in the group.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

At stage 2, an amendment similar to amendment 2 was defeated on the casting vote of the committee convener. The argument against the inclusion of what is proposed in section 59 remains as strong as it was when the then Environment and Rural Development Committee unanimously rejected the Environmental Levy on Plastic Bags (Scotland) Bill, which Mike Pringle introduced in the previous parliamentary session.

The minister will perhaps argue that section 59 is an enabling measure that could apply not just to plastic bags but to all carrier bags, but he will be well aware—following his meeting with representatives of Scotland's highly successful packaging industry—that its practical impact would be to increase, by 35,000 tonnes, the annual weight of materials used for packaging. That will happen if single-use plastic bags are replaced by other forms of packaging, including paper bags and multiple-use plastic, or plasticised, bags. As well as that additional weight of materials contributing to increased CO2 emissions, we should also take into account the 200,000m3 of additional waste per annum—a substantial increase in avoidable waste going to landfill or to other methods of waste disposal in Scotland—and the extra 600,000 pallet journeys that would result. Those extra journeys and additional pieces of material that would need to be produced and disposed of are significant carbon-using mechanisms, so it is incredibly difficult to see how the measure would contribute to tackling climate change. In fact, the overwhelming evidence is that it would detract from tackling climate change.

As I said in the earlier discussion on the super-super-affirmative procedure, the fall-back position that the Government has adopted simply emphasises the fact that the proposal would adversely affect emissions by the amounts that I have been able to quantify. The proposal was previously tested and rejected by the Parliament.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

In the area that I represent, one town—Selkirk—is now a plastic-bag-free town and another is fast on the way because of the support of the community and of local retailers. Is the member saying that my constituents are wrong to move ahead in that direction?

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

No, I am saying absolutely the reverse. When I was a councillor, I represented a ward that at that time included Glasgow's landfill centre, so my then constituents were very concerned about the amount of waste that was deposited needlessly. People do not want the amount of waste to increase as a result of a flawed measure that is introduced by the Scottish Parliament. The reality is that a charge on bags is the wrong way to reduce the use of plastic bags.

Over the past 18 months, huge success has been achieved by voluntary schemes—precisely of the kind that Mr Purvis mentioned—that have been introduced throughout Scotland. If we can reduce demand voluntarily, why do we need to introduce legislation that, in climate change terms, will make things worse and will not address the problems that people in Mr Purvis's town are presumably concerned about?

The way forward is to have a sensible, rational and science-driven approach. We should take account of the voluntary action that people are already taking. We should not impose an undue burden and a significant disadvantage on a successful Scottish industry. We should not contaminate a climate change bill with measures that will actually contribute to increased emissions.

I move amendment 2.

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat

I listened to Des McNulty's speech with interest, but he simply repeated all the claims that the plastic bags industry has promulgated over the past few years since I introduced my bill. The truth of the matter is that the SNP should be congratulated on including section 59, which is an enabling provision. I agree with Des McNulty that huge advances have been made over the past 18 months or two years in reducing the number of plastic bags.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

If the member feels so strongly about the issue, why did he not seek to reintroduce his bill after engaging in the further consultation that the then Environment and Rural Development Committee asked for?

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat 3:00 pm, 24th June 2009

The simple answer is that I was pragmatic. The fact was that, at that time, the Parliament would not have passed the bill. There seemed little point in reintroducing the bill when the Parliament did not think that the proposal was the right way forward. The right way forward, then and now, is to reduce the number of plastic bags—as has happened over the past 18 months.

Des McNulty is right: there has been a huge reduction in the number of plastic bags; but if that reduction does not continue and section 59 remains, the SNP Government—or a future Government of Scotland—can say, "We haven't gone far enough; there hasn't been enough of a reduction." We need only consider the example of countries all over the world that have gone down the route of charging. Ireland is a good example. In Ireland, there was a massive reduction in plastic bags and a huge increase in recycling. That is one of the reasons why my bill would have been successful. I congratulate the SNP and urge the Parliament to keep section 59 in the bill.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

On the day the bill was published, I read through it and found much that I thought positive, which I have gone on to support and perhaps improve, but when I reached section 59 I thought, "That's cheeky," because something the Parliament had previously considered and rejected had been stuck in the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill. I have felt a degree of hostility towards it ever since.

Much of what has been said so far in this brief debate is positive, and I agree with much of Des McNulty's position. Since Mike Pringle introduced his bill and it was discussed in Parliament and the greater community, this is the one area in which ordinary individuals have been able to do the most to reduce the amount of waste the country produces.

Anyone who goes to a supermarket will see that many people are now using reusable bags, trying to reduce the number of bags they use and doing all they can to reduce packaging. Whatever the motivation for that, it is an example of how everyone is working voluntarily to try to reduce the amount of waste that society produces.

There is ample evidence that people in this country are already doing their bit and are working hard to ensure that we reduce waste. I believe that the carrot is always better than the stick. Evidence presented by none other than Jeremy Purvis tells us that there are two towns in the Borders that are almost completely carrier bag free. That is an example of how the voluntary principle can work most effectively, and it is why section 59 is unnecessary.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I spoke against an amendment to remove section 59 at stage 2 and I speak against one again now. At stage 2, and again today, some members have—accidentally or not—confused the proposal in the bill with the bill that was considered by Parliament. They are not the same. Mike Pringle's bill concerned plastic bags, but section 59 concerns a much broader approach, which is to carrier bags. Alex Johnstone commented a couple of moments ago about towns in the Borders that might be carrier bag free. I am sure that they are not carrier bag free. People still carry things in bags. Carrier bags include all forms of bag, not just plastic ones.

The mix-up between carrier bags and plastic bags is not the only area of confusion. There have been other confused arguments. Des McNulty seems to be unclear whether he is saying that this is the wrong objective or the wrong way of achieving the objective. His argument about the environmental impact of additional pallet journeys and the impact of other types of bags suggest that reducing the use of disposable or single-use bags is the wrong objective, but he went on to say that what he is really saying is that a charge is the wrong way of achieving the objective. We must argue one way or the other: either this is the right thing to do but it is being done in the wrong way or it is the wrong thing to do and we should not be trying to reduce single-use bags at all. Des McNulty needs to be clearer about that.

Voluntary measures have been taken, although they have been patchy. Some people take the issue seriously, others do not.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

When Patrick Harvie is talking about carrier bags, does he mean single-use bags? He seems to be arguing that there is a broader definition of carrier bag, but if that is the case the need to exclude the provision of carrier bags is not so pressing because it is not an issue about the environment.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

When I say carrier bags I mean all forms of carrier bag. Section 59 does not discuss excluding the provision of carrier bags; it gives the Government the opportunity to make proposals, which the Parliament will scrutinise in detail. Different approaches may be taken to different types of bag. It is a straightforward point that the Government has that opportunity.

There are some good arguments about the environmental impacts of different types of bag; some completely spurious arguments have also been advanced, such as the idea that reusing bags will become some sort of public health menace because of their not being hygienic. The only way to quantify the impact of a proposal is to wait and see the detail of it. Deleting section 59, as Des McNulty proposes, would prohibit the Government from making detailed proposals, which the Parliament could examine on their merits, separating the good arguments from the spurious arguments and making a judgment. The Parliament should reject amendment 2 and retain section 59.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Amendment 2 aims to remove the proposed power for the Scottish ministers to require charges for carrier bags. A similar amendment was moved, and defeated, in committee.

Des McNulty's argument appears to have two elements. First, a similar proposal was debated in relation to Mike Pringle's Environmental Levy on Plastic Bags (Scotland) Bill, which was not supported by the Environment and Rural Development Committee. Secondly, a charge on plastic bags would have a negative effect on emissions because of substitution by paper bags etcetera. I direct Mr McNulty to section 59(2)(c), which states that ministers may specify

"the carrier bags to which the requirement applies".

There is flexibility to respond to circumstances were we to do what the Welsh Assembly Government is doing—the Labour minister, Jane Davidson, an excellent minister, albeit of another political persuasion, is moving to implement such a provision in Wales.

We are addressing the issue of carrier bags in general, not merely plastic bags. We rely on independent research from AEA Technology, which shows that a measure such as the one that we are proposing would save 5,000 tonnes of waste a year. That is not a huge saving, but it is a real saving and it relates to a waste stream that is a genuine problem, as any examination of rural fences, urban trees and motorway verges would undoubtedly demonstrate.

The Parliament's work has been examined by the UK Government, which included a power to require charges for single-use bags in its Climate Change Act 2008. The provision in our bill is more carbon-friendly even than the one in the UK act, as ours could require charges for fabric bags for life, as well as for paper and plastic bags. The power is there to be used for that purpose.

In the meantime, the Scottish supermarket summit last year pioneered an agreement that was later extended across the whole of the UK: that the use of bags by retailers would, as at the end of last month, be reduced by 50 per cent compared with the 2006 baseline. We expect the results next month, but the indications are—as Jeremy Purvis and other members have mentioned—that there has been a considerable decrease in use. It is open to debate whether such an agreement would have been arrived at without the prospect of legislation, pour encourager les autres.

If voluntary work by retailers—which Alex Johnstone rightly praised in the stage 1 debate—delivers results, we will not need to use the powers in section 59. We need them, however, in case voluntary measures fail to achieve the results that we have agreed on with the retailers.

Given that we are not in fact repeating work that was done in session 2, but building on its conclusions, and given that the powers in section 59 could bring real improvements, I invite Mr McNulty to withdraw amendment 2.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

It is certainly not my intention that the Government should not introduce legislation on this matter. It is perfectly open to the Government to do so. In fact, it would have been much better if the Government had introduced a bill on carrier bags, on packaging or whatever, constructing a bill in whatever way it found to be appropriate. Then, we could have considered the evidence in detail and the Government would have had to advance a thoroughly well-worked-through proposition on which we could have consulted widely. The problem is that the measure was tacked on to a bill about climate change, and the Government has not addressed that.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Is the member equally uncomfortable that the UK Government's Climate Change Act 2008 contains provisions on carrier bags?

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

Actually, I believe in devolution. If there are good arguments for taking a different approach in Scotland, we should do so. The arguments must be made in this Parliament. Many of them were tested during the passage of Mike Pringle's Environmental Levy on Plastic Bags (Scotland) Bill and found wanting. When it came to the vote, Mr Pringle's proposition did not even get the support of his own party colleagues. If we implement section 59, the risk is that a bill such as Mike Pringle's will come in through the back door, and without the support of adequate evidence.

Ministers consulted on waste issues relatively recently. Of seven propositions, the least popular with the public was the one to do with carrier bags.

That is evidence. The figures that I gave about the increased emissions consequences of the proposal are evidence, too. Patrick Harvie is extremely fond of quoting numbers and science when it suits him and extremely reluctant to accept them when they do not. He cannot pick and choose. Tonnes of carbon emissions would be produced as a consequence of implementing section 59. I see that I have annoyed Patrick Harvie.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I would be grateful for a clear explanation. How on earth does Des McNulty expect us to accept that the impact of the proposal can be quantified in the way the industry suggests when we do not know the detail of what the charges will be, or of how, when or to what they will be applied?

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

If we do not know what the proposal is, what it will do or how it will work, why should we vote it?

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

The question is, that amendment 2 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members:

No.

Division number 15

For: Aitken, Bill, Alexander, Ms Wendy, Baillie, Jackie, Baker, Claire, Baker, Richard, Boyack, Sarah, Brankin, Rhona, Brocklebank, Ted, Brown, Gavin, Brownlee, Derek, Butler, Bill, Carlaw, Jackson, Chisholm, Malcolm, Constance, Angela, Craigie, Cathie, Curran, Margaret, Eadie, Helen, Ferguson, Patricia, Foulkes, George, Fraser, Murdo, Gillon, Karen, Glen, Marlyn, Goldie, Annabel, Gordon, Charlie, Grant, Rhoda, Gray, Iain, Henry, Hugh, Jamieson, Cathy, Johnstone, Alex, Kelly, James, Kerr, Andy, Lamont, Johann, Lamont, John, Livingstone, Marilyn, Macdonald, Lewis, Macintosh, Ken, Martin, Paul, McAveety, Mr Frank, McCabe, Tom, McGrigor, Jamie, McLetchie, David, McMahon, Michael, McNeil, Duncan, McNeill, Pauline, McNulty, Des, Milne, Nanette, Mitchell, Margaret, Mulligan, Mary, Oldfather, Irene, Park, John, Peacock, Peter, Peattie, Cathy, Scanlon, Mary, Scott, John, Simpson, Dr Richard, Smith, Elaine, Smith, Elizabeth, Stewart, David, Whitefield, Karen, Whitton, David
Against: Adam, Brian, Allan, Alasdair, Brown, Keith, Brown, Robert, Campbell, Aileen, Coffey, Willie, Crawford, Bruce, Cunningham, Roseanna, Don, Nigel, Doris, Bob, Ewing, Fergus, Fabiani, Linda, Finnie, Ross, FitzPatrick, Joe, Gibson, Kenneth, Gibson, Rob, Grahame, Christine, Harper, Robin, Harvie, Christopher, Harvie, Patrick, Hepburn, Jamie, Hume, Jim, Hyslop, Fiona, Ingram, Adam, Kidd, Bill, Lochhead, Richard, MacAskill, Kenny, Marwick, Tricia, Mather, Jim, Matheson, Michael, Maxwell, Stewart, McArthur, Liam, McInnes, Alison, McKee, Ian, McKelvie, Christina, McLaughlin, Anne, McMillan, Stuart, Munro, John Farquhar, Neil, Alex, O'Donnell, Hugh, Paterson, Gil, Pringle, Mike, Purvis, Jeremy, Robison, Shona, Rumbles, Mike, Salmond, Alex, Scott, Tavish, Smith, Iain, Smith, Margaret, Somerville, Shirley-Anne, Stephen, Nicol, Stevenson, Stewart, Stone, Jamie, Sturgeon, Nicola, Swinney, John, Thompson, Dave, Tolson, Jim, Watt, Maureen, Welsh, Andrew, White, Sandra, Wilson, Bill, Wilson, John

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

The result of the division is: For 60, Against 62, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 2 disagreed to.