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The plastic-bag charge: a tax on choice

Guy Birchall

Topics Politics UK

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As if losing to Wales in the Rugby World Cup at Twickenham wasn’t depressing enough for the English, we are now adopting the ludicrous practice, pioneered on the other side of the Bristol Channel in 2011, of charging 5p for plastic bags. Scotland and Northern Ireland succumbed to this environmental lunacy in 2014 and 2013 respectively, and, as of today, it has been decided the English deserve to suffer as well.

Once again, the state has decided that we can’t be trusted so has decided to penalise us, the consumers, with one of the most regressive taxes in recent memory. The plastic-bag charge will have no impact on the supermarkets, since they all have to do it by law. The only people who will be in any way inconvenienced are members of the general public who just want to be able to get their shopping home without having to remember to bring along some luggage.

Aside from the fact that plastic bags are patently not worth anything approaching 5p, the use of taxation to moderate people’s behaviour should be a cause of concern for anyone who values freedom of choice. If you don’t like plastic bags, you are free to bring along a bag for life, an old gym bag, or even something horrendously expensive from Hermes. But there is no reason to penalise shoppers who either forget to bring their bags or, indeed, just can’t be bothered to do so.

It should be totally uncontroversial to suggest that if shops are going to flog you stuff as loose items then they should provide, free of charge, some kind of receptacle for you to transport them home in. You wouldn’t buy some furniture from Ikea and expect them to add on an extra few pence for the cardboard box your Billy bookcase comes in, would you? Nor would you expect Starbucks to start adding on an extra 5p for putting your flat white in a cup.

It might seem senseless to get worked up about a few pence for a plastic bag, but it shows a worrying trend. So many things the state has decided are ‘bad’ for us are having their prices artificially raised. Tax on cigarettes accounts for between 77 per cent and 88 per cent of the cost, depending on brand; any litre bottle of 40-per-cent spirit has £11.06 added on to its price, with more if the percentage is higher; and 58p in every litre of petrol or diesel sold goes not to Big Oil, but to Big Government.

Sure, it’s only plastic bags today, and it might only be 5p, but this is just the latest in a long line of behaviour-modifying taxes that have been introduced by the state. Is it not enough that we are taxed when we drive to the shops and taxed on the products they sell in them? If shops want to charge for plastic bags, that is their prerogative. But the government should butt out. This ridiculous piece of legislation is about as welcome as an unexpected item in the bagging area.

Guy Birchall is a writer based in Stoke.

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Topics Politics UK

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