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A couple of column inches on the front page of today’s Daily Telegraph suggest that payment for carrier bags may be back on government’s agenda. Christopher Hope writes: ‘PLANS to force shoppers to pay for plastic carrier bags could be introduced across Britain after David Cameron praised the way it was working in Wales. Use of plastic bags in Wales has fallen by 80 per cent since a 5 p charge per bag was introduced in October 2011. England remains the only home nation not to have announced a charge for them.. …Zac Goldsmith, MP, who attended the event, described Mr Cameron’s comments as “reassuring”.’

It’s hardly surprising that Goldsmith could muster only a lukewarm response, because we’ve been here before. The issue has been floating around since about 2006, and in February 2010 I wrote a comment piece for Jewellery Focus magazine under the title Taxes in the Bin. I’ve reproduced the text below, and although I correctly predicted the subsequent increase in VAT imposed by this government, I held out little hope that environmental concerns would hold sway. But maybe, three years on, carrier bags will have their day!

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Before Christmas a little note in Retail Week magazine caught my attention . Apparently shoppers in Wales are to be charged for plastic bags before 2011. The compulsory charge is likely to be between 5 – 15 pence and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) has, according to the report, ‘slammed the move’, saying that ‘the best way to achieve lasting change is to educate customers, not punish them’.

Sadly, I must admit to being interested in plastic bags, and have been trying to wean myself off them for a year or so.  I am one of those irritating people who decline a store bag wherever possible; tries to take his own shopping bag with him; and considers it a personal failure to have to accept one on rare occasions in the supermarket. I know I’m not alone in this, but in my position I feel a little ambivalent about my stance because of the retail sector’s reliance on these handy pieces of plastic. After all they are the ultimate disposable convenience; a jolly handy way of promoting a brand; and make for useful bin liners too. But, I ask myself, does society as a whole pay too big a price for this throw-away convenience?

Jewellers are not particularly guilty of producing unnecessary waste packaging, their goods being small; and generally encased in a quality reusable container, but I’m sure we’ve all asked ourselves why the supermarkets feel it necessary to encase four baking spuds in a rigid plastic sarcophagus when a paper bag would do the job perfectly well, or give us yet another variety of individual dessert in an almost indestructible pot. However the plastic bag issue rages on, either because they are believed to be a waste of scarce petrochemicals; because some aren’t biodegradable in landfill; or because too many end their lives littering our highways and bye-ways. INCPEN, the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, dispute all of the above it has to be said, and in the Irish Republic, where a 15 cents tax was levied from 2002, a lively debate has broken out about the pros and cons.

Naturally, the subject of so-called ‘green’ taxes is a hot topic of bar room deliberation, and few among us are not now experts on the theory of ‘hypothecation’ whereby tax revenues are earmarked for a particular purpose? But I suspect it’s not the environmental issues that are vexing the BRC in this case, nor whether carrot is more effective than stick when it comes to influencing public behaviour, but why retailers have to double up as tax collectors once again. I don’t know enough about the proposed tax on plastic bags to comment on the who what and where of its collection, and I don’t want to confuse measures that


are designed to modify behaviour with ones that benefit the public purse, but it did start me thinking about indirect taxation.

Taxes on income are always unpopular, and few politicians want to be identified with them, but indirect taxation is another story. Jewellers are familiar, not to say happy, with their role as unpaid collectors of VAT on behalf of the Treasury. But if my instinct is correct it’s a job that is set to grow in the future, as government looks for fresh sources of money to fund the financial crisis. Not that I predict an increase in the rate of VAT, although I wouldn’t rule it out. What I expect is an expanding catchment area, with more goods and services gradually coming within scope. And I suspect in the first instance we will be sold the idea as a logical ‘tidying up’ of the system. (Why should chocolate covered biscuits attract VAT and not custard creams after all, or printed matter escape the tax?) But as time goes by, more and more commodities will come into scope, until finally it will be the turn of the ‘sacred cows’ such as children’s clothing and groceries. I’d like to be around to see which politician tackles that one!