Posted on Monday 11 February 2013 by Ulster Business

Carrier bags

Northern Ireland Retail Consortium Director Aodhán Connolly writes about the impact of the new carrier bag tax to be introduced in April.

Our member retailers have long been at the forefront of making it easier for consumers to be environmentally friendly when shopping, from giving away reusable bags to rewarding re-use and providing facilities to recycle carrier bags in store.

So, as responsible retailers, they understand the Environment Minister's desire to cut single-use bag numbers. It's something we've been working on successfully for years.

Certainly, we're grateful for some of the common sense exemptions the Minister and the Department have included in the Act. For example, allowing free bags for privacy reasons with pharmacy items and for health and safety reasons with hot food and drink on the go.

But this Act will be costly for retailers. The length of time it's taken to reach Royal Assent means, in practice, retailers only have six weeks to train thousands of staff and not the months they would have liked. This levy will take up time at the tills, especially during the early months, which will affect retailers, both small and large, and their customers.

There is also a body of work that needs to be undertaken by the Department to educate the public on the levy. Without the right education and communication there will be confusion and conflict at tills which retail staff will have to endure.

And, even though a light touch, central billing approach to the administration of this levy has been taken, it still places a burden on retailers at a time when economic pressures continue to mount in Northern Ireland.

I'm also concerned customers aren't clear about what the levy funds will be used for. Some are seeing this simply as a 'bag tax'. And, beyond unspecified environmental projects within the DOE, the people paying the charge in Northern Ireland don't know where the proceeds will be going. By contrast in Wales the money goes to community- nominated environmental projects meaning the consumer can directly see the benefits. This transparency promotes a greater good will towards the levy.

So what should the future hold for the bag levy here?

Well, firstly I'd like the Minister to move billing from quarterly to yearly as soon as possible to lessen the administrative burden on retailers.

Secondly, the Minister is due to introduce a bill to the Assembly in spring this year to put a 10p levy on re-usable bags. That would be a mistake. Shouldn't we reward people who are environmentally conscious and utilise re-usable carrier bags not penalise them? And surely we should let the single-use carrier bag levy settle in and measure the results before thinking about adding anything else.

But, if the Minister does push ahead with the re-usable bag levy (which has not happened anywhere else in Europe), he should consider a few points. Set the threshold of the type of bag included as low as possible so consumers can make an environmentally sound choice over which bag to use. And move the date of introducing that new levy to beyond April 2014. Otherwise, the path of this Bill means that, yet again, retailers will only have a few weeks to train thousands of staff and change computer systems.

In short, we will work with the Minister and the Department to do what is best for customers, businesses and the environment and to show that needn't cost the earth.

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