Packaging Industry

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:54 am on 5th July 2011.

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Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 11:54 am, 5th July 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan, and to hear Mark Pawsey tell us about his background and expertise in the subject. I was interested to hear about it. It shows the value of having Members who have experienced other worlds before coming to this place.

I should say at the beginning that I am a long-standing member of the all-party group on the packaging manufacturing industry, and I have several packaging companies in my constituency, including Ball Packaging, to which the hon. Member for Rugby referred, and Amcor. I confess that when I was elected—I came from another background than manufacturing—I knew little about the packaging industry, but it fast became clear to me that it was an important industry in the area, in terms of inward investment, jobs and profile in the local community. At the time, in addition to those two companies, another company, Tetra Pak, was located just outside my constituency in Clwyd South and employed many people, although regrettably that company has ceased manufacturing in the UK. Its reasons for doing so are relevant to this debate.

Early in my political career, I visited Tetra Pak and got to know the managing director of the plant well. I also visited Ball Packaging, and I was pleasantly surprised when I visited both companies. When I approached the packaging industry for the first time, my default position, like that of most of the general public, was a bit sceptical. We all have visions of toothpaste being packaged in cardboard boxes and wonder why that is, as we know that our society needs to create less waste. I therefore wondered what the purpose of packaging was. Would not an ideal world be one without packaging? Of course, I was entirely wrong in that approach, as I learned quickly. It fast became apparent to me how efficient the packaging industry is. It is efficient because it depends on two crucial drivers: energy prices and regulation. Over the 10 years that I have been in Parliament, the all-party group has always returned to those two things. They are crucial to the future of the industry in the UK.

When I first visited the packaging plants in my constituency, it became clear early on that they were very efficient in their energy use. At the time, they were much more efficient than individual consumers, because they saw energy costs as a crucial part of their bottom line. Whenever they produced items, they were keen to reduce costs as far as possible, and they worked extremely hard to do so, because energy costs are such an important part of their total costs. Energy costs have always been a major driver for the business.

The second important area is regulation. The drivers of the massive changes that have taken place in recycling and elsewhere have been defined largely by elements of regulation, often from Europe. Those drivers have had an enormous effect on progress in recycling during the time that I have been in Parliament. The hon. Member for Rugby referred to the improvement in recycling rates in the industry from 28% in 1998 to 67% nowadays. The reason why that is so important is that it reduces costs and is being done in response to regulation originating at a European level. We still need to pursue that regulatory goal.

[Sandra Osborne in the Chair]

We all agree with, and all three main parties supported, the Climate Change Act 2008, which will be the fundamental driver of industrial policy, and packaging policy specifically, in the UK for years to come. The Act has compulsory targets that we must achieve, because we all believe that it is important to deal with climate change. It is important that we convey the importance of that to the general public. I still do not think that most individuals—it was interesting to read about this in the papers that I received from the all-party group on the packaging manufacturing industry—recognise that climate change should be a driver in the decisions that they make when they purchase items. The fundamental driver, particularly in these difficult times, is cost. If we are serious about dealing with the profound challenges that climate change poses, we have to get across to everyone how important it is as a driver.

We need to get the regulation right, including at a European level, which means that whenever draft regulations are proposed, or regulations are introduced, Members of Parliament should engage as early as possible with business and industry in their communities. It is important that business draws to the attention of elected representatives, whether in the UK Parliament or the European Parliament, the impact that regulation can have on their businesses. It is also important that we ensure that regulation extends as far as possible across the world.

The issue of carbon leakage has been referred to on a number of occasions. Unless we reduce the carbon emissions of the planet as a whole, there is no point in reducing carbon emissions in one country alone. It is important that we reduce carbon emissions on a European level, but it is also important that we do it on a worldwide basis. We need to co-operate across the piece on reducing carbon emissions and put in place the right regulations to do so.

Business is very capable of responding to frameworks, provided that they are set early and are clear, and that they enable business to make the right choices as far as investment is concerned. Even the most challenging goals in regulations can often be achieved by industry, provided there is clarity. That clarity depends, crucially, on the relationship between Government, business and industry, the early interchange of ideas, and a close working relationship. In the past, we have not had as close a relationship as we need with the packaging industry. By contrast, we received very good news recently of substantial inward investment in the automotive sector, and of £72.2 billion-worth of orders from the aerospace sector. We have to ask ourselves why we have massive inward investment in some sectors, and the opposite in others. Last year, Tetra Pak decided, after 30 years in the Wrexham area, to cease manufacturing in the UK and to move the company’s manufacturing responsibilities to mainland Europe. It has decided to move in the opposite direction when other areas of industry are inwardly investing in the UK.

One of the reasons for the success of the UK aerospace and automotive industries is that there has been a close working relationship between Government and industry. There has been early engagement with the important issues we face, such as low carbon, so that we have excellent innovations, such as the National Composites Centre, and the automotive sector has a constructive and positive approach to the low-carbon economy in the automotive sector.

There will be long-term challenges in relation to low carbon, and the packaging industry and the demands placed on it are one of the areas that will be affected. There has to be a closer relationship, and consumers, industry and Government need to have a better understanding of the issues facing the packaging industry. There is a real threat to a large number of jobs; some 85,000 people are employed in manufacturing in the

UK. We all want more, not less, people to be employed in the packaging industry, so we need to make the UK the place of choice for investment in packaging companies. I am afraid that, at the moment, it is clear from the representations we all receive from the industry that that is simply not the case. We need to take a long, hard look at what is different about packaging companies and our successful companies in the UK. We need more successful companies and more successful sectors.

I talked about regulation earlier, and would like to pick up on an area mentioned by the hon. Member for Rugby: consistency of regulation as far as local authorities are concerned. Localism is a little like motherhood and apple pie; everyone is in favour of it, and would like to have a hospital on their street corner and everything sorted out between them and their next-door neighbour. In the real world, however, that is not practical. Localism, with each local authority determining different policies on waste, causes great difficulty, or difficulties that need not be there, for many businesses.

The packaging sector is efficient. I challenge everyone, including Jeremy Paxman, to visit a packaging company. I suspect that he has not visited many during his career, but if he did, he would see that packaging companies are, without exception in my experience, very efficient. If they were not efficient, they would not be in business. Their focus on cost-reduction and energy use is second to none. They work extremely hard at it. We need to ensure that they are enabled by Government to do the right thing. They need to be able to work closely with local authorities, to develop more efficient supply chains through the industry, and to ensure that waste is not made too complicated for business. That is a real problem and is part of the inevitable tension between centralised practices, which in some respects make things much easier for business, and the pool of localism, whereby there are very different approaches in local authorities. I am still unsure about why recycling practices have to be different in every local authority, and I am sure that that makes things difficult for businesses in general.

The Energy Intensive Users Group and the TUC have produced an impressive report on energy. It has some good recommendations, and I urge the Government to look at them. The sector is under pressure. It needs to be listened to more than it has been, and not just by this Government; this has been an issue throughout my time in Parliament, and when I was a Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. This has been a difficult time for the industry, but we still have very good and strong companies in the sector in the UK. We need to ensure that those companies have a future in the UK, and that they work to provide the jobs that we all want to see in the UK economy.

First, we need to educate consumers. The cucumber packaging example that the hon. Member for Rugby gave is a good one—packaging can be a good thing. Secondly, we need a closer working relationship between the industry and Government, and perhaps the Government need to listen a little more to the industry. Thirdly, we need to work hard to get the right regulations in place, and we need to engage with all the institutions that create the regulations to ensure that they are clear and fair. That means having very early engagement.

This is a very important industry for the UK that can have a future, if we make the right choices. I urge the Government to engage as much as possible with not just the industry, but the all-party group on the packaging manufacturing industry. I am celebrating my 10th anniversary of membership of that group this year. Thank you, Ms Osborne—I note that you have magically appeared in the Chair—for allowing me to speak.