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by Mandy Rhodes
04 June 2023
The deposit return scheme is another example of a government better at virtue signalling than delivering

The deposit return scheme is another example of a government better at virtue signalling than delivering

Back in the early 2000s when the Scottish Parliament was still finding its feet, when the devolution of powers was still being understood, when a falling population was described by then first minister Jack McConnell as “Scotland’s biggest challenge”, there was a desire and an energy to make transformational change in a wee country that had aspirations to walk tall.

Fresh Talent was such an ambition. It used the platform of devolution to best effect, found an innovative solution to a uniquely Scottish problem – a people and a skills gap that sorely needed to be filled – demonstrated a grown-up approach to politics, cut across reserved powers, bypassed tabloid hyperbole, and was forged in cooperative and consensual relations across two governments in the interest of one nation.

That was then, and this is now.

That was about people, this is about packaging. That was about grown-up politics using the power of devolution to effect fundamental change for the benefit of all Scots. That was a first minister who worked quietly behind the scenes with a sympathetic home secretary in David Blunkett and a Whitehall department willing to engage in constructive blue-sky thinking with a devolved partner on an equal footing. 

From start to finish, through thought to implementation, it was achieved within a year, managing to navigate adroitly the ugly politics of division emerging across the UK around immigration and avoid any turf war between Westminster and Holyrood.

So why in God’s name, when that was about a policy area as controversial as immigration, engaging with a department as unyielding and ungiving as the Home Office, and negotiated by an incipient ministerial team with the support of MSPs still wet behind the ears and a UK Government uber sensitive to the potential powers of devolution to fuel nationalism, could that happen then, yet almost two decades on what should have been a fairly simple recycling initiative, full of good intentions about the environment and tackling climate change, has become a shambolic, costly, white elephant that has alienated business, confused the public, split politics, and put some in Holyrood on a hyperbolic war-footing with Westminster?

Seriously, when Donald Dewar said with such optimism at the opening of Holyrood, “this is about who we are, how we carry ourselves”, could he ever have imagined that, almost 25 years later, we now have a parliament embroiled in a bitter constitutional row over an inability to deliver – quite literally – on rubbish? 

The policy graveyard housing abandoned, unworkable, illegal, or just badly constructed laws of this government is a busy one, littered as it is with good intentions, Scottish exceptionalism, and attempts to be a world-first. But the Scottish DRS has been ill-fated from the start because the optimal answer to the question of the disposal of single-use plastics and packaging is always nested in a UK-wide solution that avoids any commercial divergence in terms of production, distribution, marketing, and retail and was already set to go live in 2025.

Under Lorna Slater's watch, the Scottish DRS has become a metaphor for how messed up things really are: virtue signalling with tokenistic policies that are ill-thought out and have catastrophic unintended consequences

It would even be better for the planet, because despite the monstrously exaggerated dystopia painted by the Green minister of the six hundred million glass bottles littering our streets and our beaches if glass is removed from the Scottish scheme, which is the olive branch currently extended by UK ministers to give the internal market exemption for it to launch next March, the reality is that the current system of  kerbside collection of glass is increasingly evidenced as the best bet for recycling and the environment.

But Lorna Slater is a government minister so consumed by her own arrogance that she is willing to present fiction as fact. No doubt shaped by her clear disdain for big business – albeit not when it comes to the big bucks for those who will run the Scottish DRS – she has failed to listen to the substantial evidence from industry voices on the fundamental flaws in the design and timing of her scheme, the potential for wide-scale fraud, or even the unintended consequences it could have for the flagship public health policy of Minimum Unit Pricing, never mind the potentially devastating impact it would have – and has already had – on the Scottish food and drinks industry, especially amongst SMEs. 

Delays, obfuscation, repeated changes in tack, not being across the detail, a disregard for the formal processes of good governance, a regulatory ignorance, a lack of understanding about how the internal market works, a disrespect for the limitations of devolution, a willful lack of clarity on how other DRS schemes work across the world, and the complete intransigence of Slater to accept blame or adopt humility have all contributed to the slow death knell of this current policy. 

Under her watch, the Scottish DRS has become a metaphor for how messed up things really are: virtue signalling with tokenistic policies that are ill-thought out, have catastrophic unintended consequences, are largely unworkable, potentially illegal, and that have major consequences for the real lives of Scots. The Scottish DRS has been in the mix for almost a decade and is still not fit for purpose. It has, in some respects, been overtaken by developments and events, and will do little to address Scotland’s poor record on meeting climate change targets evidenced in this year’s damning Climate Change Committee’s ‘progress’ report, and yet Slater, a Green MSP, has the audacity to not even countenance waiting to be part of a workable UK-wide scheme because she says that it is “not credible” to believe it will be ready to launch.

Slater’s environmentalism has clearly been overtaken by her conversion to nationalism, and the circularity minister, who is famously also a circus trapeze artist, has put to good use her skills in contortion to lay the blame for an utter bonfire of a policy on Westminster.

But business isn’t buying it, the public are bored with it, and Humza Yousaf should take a cue from it. Slater’s performance, both in and out of the parliament, has been dire and while the first minister has enough to worry about, a junior minister from another party bringing yet more grief to his door – over a policy that he himself admitted required “pause”– is surely not worth the “weight in gold” that he has said the Bute House pact with the Greens is worth.

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