Leader: Debagging Big Government
PLASTIC was formerly regarded as an asset to civilisation, a multi-purpose convenience to everyday life; today, its benefits are largely taken for granted and it is recognised as a scourge, polluting the planet.
One of its most pervasive presences takes the form of the plastic bag, which presents problems of disposal that now far outweigh its usefulness. So it is understandable that the Scottish Government should be determined to take the offensive against this nuisance. Under the title Safeguarding Scotland’s Resources, it is launching a three-month consultation this week on a range of proposals, including phasing out free carrier bags by compelling retailers to charge a minimum price of 5p on all such thin-gauge disposables. The objective is laudable.
Most people would endorse the government’s aim of discouraging the use of plastic bags. The litter-strewn streets make the case. Beyond that, the difficulties involved in disposing of them are intractable, as landfill sites are reduced and the need for environmentally friendly methods of waste disposal is urgently addressed. This adjustment, however, must be implemented in harmony with society’s other needs.
As last week’s water-treading environmental summit at Rio demonstrated, the rush to Green solutions that seemed an overriding imperative in days of prosperity is being replaced by a more cautious approach, in the light of economic realities imposed by a global recession. The issue of plastic bags is a microcosm of that dilemma. The government’s proposal follows closely upon its minimum-pricing-of-alcohol initiative. Both policies are modest in scope, but they nevertheless represent a government intervention in the market driving prices upward in a time of recession.
Here the principle is important as well as the scale. The minimum alcohol price could yet fall foul of European competition law. It is notable, too, that the government’s proposals are not limited to plastic bags: the thin-gauge alternative carriers that were seen as a preferable substitute for plastic would be subject to the same charge. That would effectively discourage the replacement of plastic. Many shoppers have already adopted reusable bags; the evidence suggests the remainder are determinedly attached to plastic carriers. If a significant number of customers becomes resigned to paying the 5p charge, the main object of the exercise will have been frustrated and the only concrete result will be to extort around £5 million from consumers to be divided, in an undefined way, between retailers and charities. As an exercise in environmentalism, that would be self-defeating.
Is this measure necessary or desirable? In environmental matters, voluntarism is the best route to follow and many people have chosen to do so. There has been a large-scale, voluntary change in Scots’ practices relating to the environment. That is the grown-up approach to Green challenges. This latest government initiative is didactic taxation – directing the public along a path prescribed by authority. There is nothing new about governments using taxation as a device to improve people’s behaviour; but such intervention should be acknowledged and publicly deliberated. Scotland seems to be taking a deliberate turn down that path, where new taxes to condition behaviour are the norm, and that inevitably means Big Government.
Nobody can doubt the good intentions behind the recent moves, but the more fundamental debate about big or small government is just not taking place.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West