Mixed bag: debate rages over 5p bag charge


As shoppers in Scotland get to grips with the 5p charge on carrier bags, we ask two men on opposing sides of the debate whether legislation was really necessary.

Taxpayers’ Alliance Reserarch Director, John O’Connell, argues against
Taxpayers’ Alliance Reserarch Director, John O’Connell, argues against

John O’Connell: LEVYING a 5p charge on plastic bags is one thing, but that politicians made it law is quite  another. There is simply no need for politicians to legislate on things like this.

Our shopping habits were changing even before the introduction of the plastic bag tax. More and more of us were bringing our own bags to the shop as we became more environmentally aware – indeed, even we at the TPA started giving out canvas tote bags when we were handing out literature.

What’s more, some shops introduced a charge without the need for state intervention. Some went further and hid plastic bags, meaning shoppers had to ask for them.

This is businesses responding to customers – without the need for Holyrood clumsily stepping in.

Step in they did, though. Politicians have a tendency to brandish sticks instead of offering carrots.

It is clear this is nothing more than an unnecessary burden on businesses. In Westminster, politicians are pushing ahead with their own misguided tax but have at least had the decency to exempt small and medium-sized retailers. It’s a welcome relief, but also a tacit admission this will hit businesses.

And what about customers?

Most urban dwellers don’t do a weekly shop – they pick up a few bits and pieces on the way home from work to cook that evening, and with the high price of property in cities the last thing we need to do is put up the cost of living still further. And of course, it will probably mean higher prices. The burden of new taxes, charges or regulations are invariably passed on to consumers in more expensive products. At a time when families are feeling the pinch and the fruits of the economic recovery aren’t being felt in the pocketbooks of people right across Scotland, it’s crazy to introduce new laws which could make that even worse.

Everyone wants to help the environment. Pictures of masses of plastic bags polluting our oceans are shocking. But that has to be balanced against the cost of living and we have to ask whether piling regulation upon regulation is really necessary when people were already responding themselves.

All too often politicians feel they know best, when the reality is the market is adapting just fine to people’s changing preferences. Governments should be encouraging and educating, not imposing and legislating.

Richard Lochhead, MSP and Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, argues for the legislation.
Richard Lochhead, MSP and Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, argues for the legislation.

Richard Lochhead: THE 5p charge for single use carrier bags was introduced on October 20, and as Scotland’s Environment Secretary I am extremely proud of this piece of landmark legislation.

The latest statistics, published in summer 2014, show that in Scotland we use more than 800 million new single-use carrier bags every single year – more per head than anywhere else in the UK. Many of these bags end up on our streets and beaches. This is a significant litter problem, which is a blight on our natural environment and costs a fortune to clean up.

It is precisely because the Scottish Government is serious about tackling this highly visible and harmful form of litter that we’ve brought in the requirement for retailers to charge 5p for single use bags. Receiving strong backing from MSPs, the Regulations were well supported when passed by the Scottish Parliament earlier this year.

This milestone legislation underlines the high regard Scotland has for its magnificent environment – we’re aiming to cut litter, reduce waste and create a cleaner, greener country for everyone to enjoy.

The whole purpose is to attach a value to bags, which in the past many people have regarded as disposable.

At 5p, the charge is modest but is making people think about whether they really need another bag that could end up as litter. We want people to get into the habit of reusing bags and I think that this behaviour change is already becoming established. When I visit my local shops, reusable bags are becoming the norm. Moreover, members of the public are overwhelmingly in favour of the charge, viewing it as a highly beneficial change for Scotland.

The charge also enjoys strong support from the Scottish Grocers Federation, with members backing our proposals from the beginning. South of the border, where bag charging will come in next year, the Association of Convenience Stores and National Federation of Retail Newsagents are arguing the changes should apply to them too, in a similar way to the Scottish model.

And with recent agreement at EU level, we can expect to see more European nations following in our footsteps by charging for single use carrier bags. Anecdotal evidence from major retailers already suggests that bag numbers are falling significantly – with reports of more than 90 per cent reduction in the distribution of single use carrier bags; something I am delighted to hear about, so long may that trend continue.