Andrew Allison is Campaign Manager for the Freedom Association.
In years gone by we’ve had a window tax, and in more recent times, a proposed caravan tax and even a proposed pasty tax. Now the Coalition Government has decided it’s time for a plastic bag tax. Should the Government have its way, each and every time you require a plastic bag at a supermarket, you will be forced to pay 5p for it.
Already some major retail chains charge for providing plastic bags, but that is their choice as a retailer to do so, and our choice as consumers whether or not to shop there. While the plastic bag tax may appear like a minor intervention, it’s an example of the Government taking away the freedom to choose. Also, as with so many new taxes, it will hit those without the means to pay hardest.
In reality, there is little evidence to suggest that plastic bags are considered an entirely throwaway item. Research conducted by Which? in 2012 found that 92 per cent of those surveyed reuse single-use carrier bags, either for shopping (53 per cent) or as bin liners (74 per cent).
In an era where recycling is common place, these are still impressive figures – but for those who have a hatred of plastic carrier bags, these figures are ignored. Environmentalists paint them as an evil responsible for the premature deaths of much marine life, and for great swathes of pollution. In some countries, which you might expect already have bigger problems to deal with, plastic bags have been entirely outlawed – in Somalia and Bangladesh, for example.
Back in the UK, if you go to Spurn Point (the point where the Humber and the North Sea meet) you will see it’s not just carrier bags that get washed ashore. Every kind of litter imaginable is washed-up, including bottles, cans, and tyres. Carrier bags don’t mysteriously appear in the North Sea; they are dumped there by irresponsible people. If you took the argument to its logical conclusion, you would ban all manner of things.
The reason the Government is planning to impose a 5p levy on each plastic carrier bag a supermarket gives its customers is because it wants to be seen to be doing something. There is far more plastic in a takeaway spoon or cup. Are we going to start taxing them next? How about other single use items? Should there be a tax on plastic bottles and aluminium cans? What about the containers you get from your local Chinese takeaway? Should we tax them too? If you can justify a tax for one disposable item (even though the vast majority of us recycle plastic bags) you can justify it for other disposable items too.
It is gesture politics at its worst, and to try and make us swallow it, the Government has stated income derived from this levy will go to charity. I’m sure that all of us make charitable donations either on an ad-hoc or regular basis, however the important difference is we choose which charity gets our money, not a supermarket. This choice is being taken away from us.
So it’s clear – the plastic bag tax is not really about the environment, it isn’t even really about raising money for charity. It’s an example of Government policy created towards the end of a parliamentary term; quick and simple to introduce – but with a total lack of foresight. The plastic bag tax is nothing more than a political stunt, giving the impression of action while actually restricting the choice of citizens to make decisions for themselves. As soon as it is acceptable for Government to limit choice in minor decisions, we’re at the top of a very slippery slope.