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MPs say plans for England bag charge are 'flawed'

The proposed 5p charge on plastic carrier bags in England would be less effective than the equivalent scheme in Wales, a report by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has said.

Committee chair Joan Walley MP (Lab) said ministers had made a “complete mess” of the charge by making it “unnecessarily complicated”.

The committee launched an inquiry into Defra’s proposals to introduce a 5p charge on single-use plastic shopping bags in November last year.

Unlike schemes in Wales and Northern Ireland, the English charge will only apply to single-use plastic bags and will not be extended to reusable ‘bag for life’, paper bags or biodegradable plastic.

After taking evidence from industry figures, academics and Government officials and ministers, the committee concluded: “The charge scheme that the Government is proposing in England, with additional exemptions for small retailers and paper and biodegradable bags, would be too complex, unnecessarily confusing for shoppers, and less effective than the Welsh scheme.

“The proposed 5p charge should apply to all bag types and all retailers.”

It pointed out that in Denmark, a tax on plastic bags has seen their use drop to around four bags per person a year, compared to 22 per person in Wales and 133 in England.

Walley said: “Experience from Ireland and Wales shows these schemes are popular and can make a real difference. Before the Government reaches the check-out with this policy, it needs to drop the exemptions and keep it simple to help shoppers do the right thing.

“This needn’t be difficult – simple schemes in Wales and Ireland have dramatically reduced bag use, and had positive environmental impact. It’s not too late to start listening and to re-think these flawed plans.”

The report also said paper bags should be included in the charging scheme, and called on Defra to drop the proposed exemption for biodegradable plastic bags.

Walley added: “Biodegradable bags are not as green as they first sound. We heard that they can do as much harm to wildlife as normal plastic bags and could cause big problems for the UK recycling industry, which would have trouble separating and processing the different material.”

A heated debate has been held between sections of the plastics industry over the suitability of biodegradable plastic.

The British Plastics Federation’s Recycling Group claimed that no biodegradable plastics could not be recycled with conventional plastics “without catastrophic effects” to the recycling process.

But the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association said such claims were confusing as they did not discriminate between different types of biodegradable bags.

Professor Tim Cooper, an expert in sustainable consumption at Nottingham Trent University, said: “This tax is long overdue and it is regrettable that Defra now appears to be pandering to vested interests by proposing a host of exemptions.

I welcome the new report by the Environmental Audit Committee and support its conclusion that the proposed 5p charge should apply to all bag types and all retailers. I despair of the Government’s reluctance to shift taxation away from labour and onto finite resources.

Why do we still tax jobs - of which we need more - but quibble over taxing energy, which we must conserve? Put in this context, the bag tax, while welcome, threatens to hide this bigger picture.”

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