DEFRA was ‘not set up’ to deliver waste reforms

DEFRA was not ‘set up for success’ to deliver the proposals set out in the 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy, with the department's permanent secretary telling MPs that in hindsight ‘there are things we would have done differently’.

In October last year, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published a scathing report on the government’s progress on waste reforms, concluding that of the 14 actions listed in the 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy, at the time of publication just three had been completed. 

In a committee meeting yesterday (11 September), DEFRA staff were quizzed by MPs on the progress of these reforms, and asked to explain why the roll out of extended producer responsibility (EPR), consistent collection and the deposit return scheme (DRS) have all been delayed.

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Conservative MP and PAC member, Jonathan Djanogly, told the panel that the committee had received a “significant number” of submissions relating to delays in waste reforms, with stakeholders warning that this is leading to a lack of clarity across the sector. 

Tamara Finkelstein, permanent secretary at DEFRA, said that she “recognises” the delays, but attributed them to some external factors, including the Covid-19 pandemic, political change and the cost-of-living crisis. 

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Emma Bourne, director of resources and waste at DEFRA, said that the department has been engaging extensively with both local authorities and businesses and added that “we continue to communicate how that policy is being implemented and translated into delivery”. 

However, Djanogly said this “does not really tie” with the evidence submitted to the PAC, with the District Councils Network stating: “The continued uncertainty is actively hampering councils from investing in and improving their services, delaying procurement, and undermining local authorities’ efforts to increase recycling rates, deliver greater value to local taxpayers and shift towards net zero.”

Finkelstein said “I would not want to pretend that some of the delays and uncertainties - I can see why that has provoked that”. 

Specifically on the delay to EPR, the Local Government Association told the committee that councils cannot use the additional time to prepare “until they receive a timeline for implementation and confirmation of funding”.

“What local authorities are looking for we hope to give it to them as soon as possible, but I recognise that the delay is really difficult,” Finkelstein responded. 

She added that it was feedback from businesses that led to the delay. 

“Political change meant not just agreeing things within our own department, but across government. [...] Business clearly felt that, given our delays in providing information and the impact that might have on prices, that the date we had for EPR would be too soon.

“We therefore delayed it a year but wanted to give clarity that that was the date we were set on. If you look at the  [Infrastructure and Projects Authority reports, I would definitely say that we were not set up for as much success as I would have liked”. 

“Hindsight is a good thing”, she said, adding that there are “things we would have done differently”. 

On consistent collections Finkelsteine said “we will very much imminently be publishing the [consultation] response”. 

On the DRS, Finkelsteine said that “inevitably, with a major programme, there are complexities that come out of the woodwork”. 

Specifically she said realising that “interoperability was going to be key between the different devolved administrations has been a complexity that we have had to manage”. 

It was this interoperability that ultimately led the UK government to block the Scottish government’s DRS at the last minute.  When asked whether this interoperability point was an afterthought, Bourne said it “certainly is not” and said it has been “baked into the design and the way the programme has run from the outset”. 

A previous ENDS investigation revealed that the UK government was warned of potential trade issues between the Scottish and UK DRS back in 2021, with stakeholders warning almost two years ago that Scotland’s DRS could create an “unlawful” trade barrier. 

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