From this Monday, the whole might of the law will prevent supermarkets from giving free carrier bags to consenting adults. Not really a proper law, but an Order made under the Climate Change Act, which allows extra regulations like this to be imposed on an unwilling public without too much inconvenient scrutiny; but a law, nonetheless, with transgressors punishable by a fine of up to £5,000. Nanny-state control-freakery, with a hint of crony capitalism; Tony Blair would be proud. Is this really what the Government is for?
The powers-that-be have been checking up on us. Apparently, the average household contains 40 plastic bags scattered around the premises, which is obviously far too many. Never mind that we re-use these bags as bin-liners, or to carry washing in, or pack sandwiches in, or wrap frozen food in, or occasionally to use as an emergency substitute when we’ve run out of certain smaller bags that come in handy when walking the dog. Hell, sometimes we even employ them as something to pop our shopping in so that the journey home from the shop is a little less like that game they used to play on ‘Crackerjack’. But Nanny knows best and a crackdown is clearly long overdue.
When the majority of Brits purchased their shopping from the local corner emporium, many came armed with their own little tartan trolleys or the shopkeeper provided a brown paper bag to shove their spuds and assorted goods into. The coming of the supermarket gradually saw the introduction of the modern polythene shopping bag, which was invented by a Swedish engineer called Sten Gustaf Thulin in the early 60s, an invention boasting such remarkable durability that some estimate it could take centuries for plastic bags to decompose. It is this very durability that has made the humble plastic bag so problematic when it comes to disposing of it. In the developing world, where rubbish collections are haphazard to say the least, a build-up of discarded plastic bags can block drains and cause flooding, as has twice happened in Bangladesh in recent years and as regularly occurs in Manila. In countries such as ours, however, the infrastructure is a tad more professional, which makes the new law somewhat nonsensical.
To prevent criminal supermarkets from cheating, there will be that dependable old tool of the secret state, mandatory reporting. How many bags were supplied to customers? How much was charged? How much VAT? Records must be kept, sent each year to DEFRA and kept on file for three years. No records? That’s another £5,000 fine. And woe betides any business ‘failing to assist the local authority’ when it sends round the Bag Inspectors; that could cost said business up to £2,000. And Bag Inspectors there will be; it’s the local authority’s job to make sure the law is being upheld, and I’m sure there’ll be a quite a queue for the post when it’s advertised. After all, could there possibly be a higher calling in life, one guaranteed to ensure eternal mother’s pride? Maybe the fines will pay for the extra work. If not, I’m sure the council tax and business rates will cover the cost.
The supermarkets will not be at all upset. I suspect they quietly lobbied for this new law with their friends in government. They would have liked to have done away with free bags long ago, but couldn’t for fear of losing customers to bag-giving competitors. Now they can look sad-eyed and say the Government made them do it. And it’s money on their bottom line: no cost of free bags, no liability if the customer’s own bag fails and drops the shopping on the floor; they get to sell more bin-liners and sandwich-bags, and – the icing on the cake – they get to deduct ‘reasonable expenses’ for all the admin and reporting. They do have to give the balance to ‘good causes’, bless ‘em, but I’m sure they will be extremely reasonable in working out the expenses to deduct.
So, everyone benefits. The supermarkets make money, the local authorities increase their power, staff and taxes; green activists get to feel good at solving this intractable problem. Everyone, that is, except the ordinary shopper and householder – deprived of something that was useful and free; and wishing that the Government would just go away and mind its own bloody business for once.