Packaging Industry

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:47 am on 5th July 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley 11:47 am, 5th July 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Meale, for the second time this morning. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend Mark Pawsey for that 47-minute summary of the packaging industry, which demonstrates his knowledge of and enthusiasm for it. He has made almost all the points that I would have cared to make, but I shall reinforce a few of them.

First, we should stress how important the industry is to the UK economy. The data suggest that the UK packaging manufacturing industry has annual sales of £10 billion, employs about 85,000 people and represents about 3% of UK manufacturing. This key industry constitutes a sizeable part of the economy in many of our constituencies, and it is one that we want to protect and encourage.

I have talked to the packaging manufacturing businesses in my constituency. The largest of them is, I think, BPI Consumer Promopack, which made supermarket carrier bags for many years until the business became uneconomic in the UK—the bags are now made in China. The company subsequently changed, and it now makes the heavy-duty garden waste bags that we all buy from the supermarket and spend our weekends filling. One of its product lines is a bag made by recycling the complex agricultural wrap that my hon. Friend Neil Carmichael referred to earlier. The business chose to invest in recycling those complex agricultural films. The films, which can become dirty from lying around in farmers’ fields for several months, are washed in Dumfries, converted into pellets and made back into garden waste bags. Some people are trying to undercut the cost of the process by exporting those incredibly dirty films as clean waste to China, Burma or other places in the far east. It is illegal to export waste that dirty, but they are managing to export it as clean waste, because the regulations are not enforced adequately.

There is a lesson there. If we want businesses to invest in recycling, which we need in the sector, we must be sure that they have a stable regulatory base and that those regulations are enforced, otherwise their investment decisions will not be viable. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby has said, many of our businesses are multinationals, which consider their investments closely at board level. If investing in one territory is substantially less economical than investing in another, the investment will go where the best returns are.

That leads me to concerns about our energy policy. The industry requires substantial amounts of energy to create packaging. It does not count as an energy-intensive industry eligible for the special treatment proposed by the Government, but there is no gain to us in accidentally exporting packaging manufacturing to other countries that probably use less demanding environmental standards and then shipping it back to ourselves. I suspect that that will result in a far higher carbon footprint than manufacturing in the UK, where the industry is fully committed to becoming more environmentally friendly and using less material.

The industry tells me that its customers are adamant in wanting less packaging, because less packaging means less weight, less cost and less expense shipping products around the country. There is huge pressure in the market to make packaging as efficient and effective as possible. We do not need to get out the big stick and force the industry into it, because it has been doing so for years and wants to keep doing so. It is absolutely in its interests for the future of the business that the industry gets it right. It is important that the Government recognise that we do not want to move too fast and make ourselves uncompetitive.

My hon. Friend has discussed how we all go to the supermarket to buy a pack of potatoes and wonder, “Why do I need the plastic tray and plastic film? Why can’t I just buy loose potatoes?” What we do not understand is that from the time food is grown and shipped to when it is sold through the supermarkets and ends up in our fridges, very little is wasted—I think that it is less than 3%. Compare that with the amount of food that we waste once it is in our fridges, when we forget to eat it until it has gone off and end up throwing it away. Around the world, we are having problems feeding the population. Packaging that makes food last longer and ensures that we buy it in a safe, edible condition and do not waste it is vital to an adequate food supply. The last thing that we want to do is damage the industry. It does not have the resources or incentive to invest in the continual improvement of packaging.

I urge the Minister to recognise how important the industry is, both as a UK industry and to various other Government objectives, and ensure that we do not accidentally damage it as we chase laudable goals elsewhere. The industry clearly needs to keep investing in new machinery, new equipment and research and development. It is important that we get the R and D rules right to encourage that research to be done here and that we get the tax rules right to encourage business to invest in new machinery. We had a long debate on that during consideration of the Finance Bill yesterday. I struggled to convince the Government that reducing capital allowances to 18% in a hugely complex way is perhaps not the best way to encourage investment. I will have another go at the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr Prisk to see whether I can get an encouraging reply from that angle, but perhaps I should not hold my breath that he will contradict the Treasury.

Creating a business environment that encourages innovation and investment is the best way to reach our environmentally friendly goals. A big stick and a blunt instrument will, I suspect, lead the trend the wrong way, and we will end up importing from far-flung places things that have travelled huge distances and been made in a less environmentally friendly way than they will be if we can protect the industry in the UK and encourage it to invest.