Wednesday 16 May 2012

Things that are worth fighting for...

Campaign groups are an essential part of modern democracy and they often articulate public demands well before politicians pick up on them. The Taxpayers Alliance is such a campaign group and its main objective is pretty obvious from  its name. Tomorrow the Group with stage a demonstration in front of the Welsh Assembly against the Carrier Bag charge of 5p which has been introduced a couple of months ago. The legislation has meant that all shops had to levy a charge of 5 pence for each carrier bag handed to their customers. All charges collected by retailers in Wales would then be passed on to charities. 
The idea was that charging for plastic bags would reduce the appetite of the public to use such bags and a reduction of plastic bags in circulation would also lead to a reduction of plastic littering on which local authorities spend about 40 million pounds annually to keep them out of gutters, drains and from the coastline. 
As Tony Blair once shrewdly remarked, there are issues worth fighting for and there are those that are not worth that fight. I think repealing the Welsh Assembly legislation on plastic bags is not a fight any campaign group would want to take up, for mainly three reasons. 
First, the legislation has been passed and is on the statute book. Past experience tells us that repealing existing legislation once it has received Royal assent is fiendishly difficult. The reason is simple: asking politicians to repeal legislation is tantamount to asking those who supported it in the first place to stand up and say that they were wrong. That's not something politicians are eager to do. 
Second, politicians love evidence to support a policy. Although much policy is made on the hoof, they prefer to have incontrovertible evidence to present to the public. Where evidence exists to support a policy, the debate often goes in their favour. The plastic bag charge legislation in question commands almost unprecedented robust evidence: since the legislation has been implemented the large retailers in Wales have reported a drop in bag use by about 90%. It is a tall order to argue against that. Even the argument that small retailers have been hit disproportionately by the measure is difficult to sustain. They had to buy and dispense free bags prior to the legislation, now with a drop in the use of bags, their costs may have in fact gone down, rather than up. 
But the argument that clinches it is the last, third, one. The charges are collected and passed on to charities across Wales. They are by now a substantial part of the charities’ revenue. Anybody arguing against the carrier bag charge will be up against charities that, say support poor old ladies who cannot care for themselves anymore in Aberysthwyth, or, arguably worse, charities that shelter homeless pets. That’s not a fight anybody would be spoiling to have. Charities can be fierce opponents in the public debate and it makes people who argue with them look heartless or callous. 
As Tony Blair said, there are things that are worth fighting for and there are others. 

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