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Scotland: Bottle Deposit Return Scheme

Volume 828: debated on Monday 27 February 2023

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effect of the Scottish Government’s bottle deposit return scheme upon (1) the internal market between Scotland and England and (2) UK manufacturers, businesses and consumers.

My Lords, as waste policy is a devolved matter, the Scottish Government have opted to roll out a DRS independently of the rest of the UK, due to launch on 16 August this year. We remain in close contact with officials and industry to learn from the delivery of the Scottish scheme and align on key decisions wherever possible.

My Lords, that Answer simply is not good enough. This is a unilateral scheme that has been completely ill thought out. Indeed, one of the candidates for the SNP leadership has said it should be cancelled. The deadline for businesses to register is tomorrow. It means a death sentence for small producers of beverages and price increases for Scottish consumers, and it drives a coach and horses through the UK internal market. It requires an opt-out from the internal market Act to proceed. Will my noble friend throw a lifeline to those businesses and consumers?

Let us see whether I can try to encourage my noble friend with this reply. The Government have not yet received an official ministerial request from the Scottish Government for a United Kingdom internal market exemption. There have been discussions at official level. He is entirely right to point out the failures of the Scottish scheme and the impact it will have on Scottish businesses. In November some 600 businesses wrote to the Scottish Minister outlining various reasons why the deposit return scheme is going to fail in Scotland. These include a risk of fraud, major losses in consumer spend, loss of investment in the Scottish economy, and financial and environmental implications for local authorities.

I have to wait and see whether the Scottish Government apply for a UKIM exemption, and then I can answer my noble friend’s question. One of the front-runners to lead the SNP has announced that if it rolls out in Scotland in August as planned, it will create “carnage”. I agree.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the Minister in charge in Scotland, Lorna Slater, has acknowledged that she has not yet submitted a request, she has not consulted any other Governments which have implemented a scheme, and she has no idea how it is going to work but insists it is still going ahead? Is not the reality that we need a UK-wide scheme that will meet the needs of people in Scotland and elsewhere, where it is extremely divisive and clearly incompetent, and, if we have a UK-wide scheme, the Government’s responsibility is to press ahead with it as quickly as possible?

The noble Lord is exactly right. If we were indulging in grown-up politics across all the Governments, we would have a scheme that acknowledged that waste is a devolved but aligned issue. There is undoubtedly an environmental benefit from reducing the amount of waste going to landfill and the amount of litter plaguing our highways, in particular. It is possible to run a perfectly sensible scheme. We have been discussing a scheme with the Welsh and Northern Irish Governments, but it should be run in alignment right across these islands. The Scottish Government have sought to appear more virtuous and to rush this, and they have failed the Scottish people and Scottish businesses. The scheme will result in huge costs and even the risk of booze cruises, so that people can go south of the border to get drink at 50% less cost. This is entirely ridiculous. We want to work with the people of Scotland to make sure we align on this.

My Lords, for once I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth—and that does not happen very often. However, I fear the Minister has underestimated the seriousness of this matter. The Minister dealing with this appeared on television in Scotland yesterday. Although participating manufacturers have to sign up by Tuesday—tomorrow—she said she is reviewing whether there will be a delay of a year. This is total chaos. If the Minister can imagine the situation, if this goes ahead, manufacturers, including small manufacturers, will have to produce separate bottles and cans for Scotland and for England, which will be enormously expensive. If they do not, can he imagine the trade that might take place at Carlisle or Gretna, with people gathering the bottles that are worth 10p and going from England to Scotland and making hundreds and thousands of pounds. The whole thing is total chaos. This is a very good idea, but it must be done on a United Kingdom basis, so there is not this confusion. Will the Minister talk immediately with the Secretary of State for Scotland and see if he can impose Section 35 of the Scotland Act, stop this nonsense straight away and make sure a UK scheme is introduced, which would benefit the whole of the United Kingdom?

I cannot disagree at all with the noble Lord. I agree with everything he said and assure him that I spoke to the Secretary of State for Scotland on this matter this morning. He is absolutely resolute that the points raised by the noble Lord are the case and are a serious problem, particularly in cross-border trade—even the letter that I quoted earlier talks about the risk of fraud. But this fits in with a pattern—on educational attainment, on ferries, on drug policy—that the people of his country have to endure with the Government in Scotland. We want to make sure that on environmental policy such as this there is an alignment. It is perfectly possible for all four countries of the union to work through a scheme and implement it gently, in way that does not have great inflationary costs and does not damage business, but that works with the grain of public opinion, which wants to see more recycling, less litter and a scheme that works.

My Lords, I went litter-picking at the weekend and I am much encouraged by what the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said. Do I understand that, if I were to fill a lorry with all the empty bottles scattered around the lanes of Leicestershire, I could go up to Scotland and make a great deal of money? This is most encouraging as far as I am concerned. I should say that I raised the issue of bottle deposits in my maiden speech in the Commons some 31 years ago.

I can only applaud my noble friend for his virtuous activities at weekends, but, sadly, I have to report that I do not think he would be able to do that. For the Scottish scheme to work, an English drinks manufacturing company, say, would be required to produce a labelled item in a particular way so that it could not be deposited there. The current system is Kafkaesque and it has to be more sensible.

My Lords, in answer to my Written Question on this issue at the beginning of January, the Minister replied:

“Waste is a devolved policy area, and we are working closely with the devolved administrations and industry to support the successful delivery of the scheme across the UK, including mitigating the impacts that arise from differences in scheme implementation.”

Can he tell us what progress has been made since then, beyond the publication of the consultation response? While, clearly, we should not impose a system on Scotland, this opens a window of opportunity for the constituent parts of the UK to agree a joint approach, as other noble Lords have said. Are the Government willing to have the discussions needed to achieve this?

Yes, and we are having those discussions. We are also looking at other countries that run successful deposit return schemes to try to learn from their successes, just as we are learning from the failures of the Scottish system, and we want to ensure alignment across the United Kingdom. I am absolutely on the same page as the noble Baroness.

My Lords, the Minister said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, that not everything being painted here is an accurate picture, and he spoke about a so-called “rush”. These regulations were passed by the Scottish devolved Administration in September 2020; as I believe the Minister confirmed, discussions started with Westminster in 2021; it is now 2023. Biffa, the delivery body for Circularity Scotland, has spent £100 million and 500 jobs are being created. The very principle that this Government say they stand for, “polluter pays”, is being delivered. Does the Minister agree that, if the Government step in at this very late stage—if Westminster stops Scotland delivering what it has a right to do under devolved law—that will mean a collapse in business confidence and we will never see a bottle deposit scheme across these islands after Westminster steps into this business?

I think all of us will feel great sympathy for the noble Baroness in trying to defend what her party is doing as part of a coalition of abject failure. She talks about business; I can only quote what business says:

“Tens of thousands of businesses who produce, can, bottle, distribute, or sell alcoholic or soft drinks in Scotland now have less than a year to successfully adapt their operations, without the necessary knowledge or levers in place.”

It is not the principle of a deposit return scheme—I suspect some of us are old enough to remember the thruppenny bit—but how it is implemented. That, I am afraid to say, is right at the heart of the problem at Holyrood.

Can the Minister tell us what will happen on His Majesty’s warships in relation to beverages? Not that we have many warships, so it is not too big a problem—but will it apply or not?

My Sunday evening has been enhanced by watching what happens to waste on an aircraft carrier and recycling on these facilities. If it lands at Rosyth or Portsmouth, will there be a different scheme? We can say only that it is a mystery wrapped in enigma inside a riddle.