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Big Interview: Barry Gardiner

The shadow waste minister details his priorities for the sector under Labour, and is critical of the Coalition’s lack of a clear direction.

“If I worked for Defra and I had a secretary of state who ignored the signs and did not believe that anthropogenic climate change was real, I would be pretty demoralised as well.”

Barry Gardiner, shadow waste minister, has apparently cracked the reason for the low morale among Defra employees, an issue highlighted in a recent report by the Efra committee, the department watchdog.

His pithy remark refers to Defra’s political head Owen Paterson, who has often been criticised for his coyness on climate change.

“Fortunately,” continues Gardiner, “this is not something that is likely to happen under a Labour government.” A timely “hurray” from next door – some schoolchildren visiting Portcullis House – follows Gardiner’s thrust into Defra’s chest.

“The GIB should have those borrowing powers that it was promised and be able to work with businesses and with investors to invest in [waste] infrastructure and the supply chain”

Other attacks follow but, it seems, never for the sake of it. Gardiner appears to be in touch with issues affecting the waste industry and is keen to put his points across which, of course, means highlighting what he believes are flaws in the Govern-ment’s attitude or behaviour.

Surprisingly, he also seems to share more ground with waste minister Dan Rogerson than one would expect.

Gardiner’s appointment as shadow waste minister last year passed almost unobserved. It followed a reshuffle and then a restructuring within the shadow cabinet. Gardiner was part of the team of former shadow waste minister Gavin Shuker. 

Waste responsibilities were transferred to Gardiner as part of his brief for the natural environment and fisheries under a new structure headed by Maria Eagle, who was appointed shadow environment secretary in October.

Priorities

Gardiner has a clear vision of Labour’s priority areas for the waste sector. First up is making the Green Investment Bank (GIB) a fully fledged financial institution by allowing it to borrow from capital markets.

The GIB was set up in 2012 by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills with £3.8bn of state support. The chancellor said that he would give the bank full borrowing power once UK debt had shrunk as a percentage of GDP, a constraint which may now not be met until 2017.

Business secretary Vince Cable then announced in June 2013 that the GIB would be able to borrow up to £500m from a Government lending fund in 2015/16 – but for Gardiner this is not enough.

“The GIB should have those borrowing powers that it was promised and be able to work with businesses and with investors to invest in [waste] infrastructure and the supply chain,” he says.

“That would help to achieve the sort of structural changes we want to see in the industry because, at the moment, we are simply not recycling enough domestically.”

A second priority would be reforming the packaging recovery note (PRN/PERN) system. Gardiner notes that UK reprocessors are able to issue PRNs for about 75% of the materials they process, while exporters can claim PERNs for almost 100% of the materials they export.

“It is not a transparent market because it is not comparing like with like,” he says. “This means there is a perverse incentive to export rather than to treat [recyclables] domestically.”

Gardiner rebuts my remark that such an argument could be seen as opposing waste exports.

“I have not said that export is not beneficial for the UK economy,” he quickly points out. “What I have said is that the Government has a role to play in ensuring that the infrastructure for domestic recycling is in place. [The current system] gives exporters an advantage that the domestic market does not have.”

In a reform of the PRN system, however, Gardiner would not envisage the inclusion of what has been dubbed the ‘offset proposal’, a suggestion promoted by the British Plastics Federation, under which producers would be able to offset their PRN obligation by specifying and using recycled polymers instead of virgin materials.

He says the proposed scheme, like other offsetting systems, can appear a good way of achieving an environmental goal at the lowest possible price. But there are other elements to consider such as encouraging the development of new technology.

“If you want to drive innovation in your domestic market so that your industry is at the forefront of technology, it might not the best policy to simply allow your industry to offset willy nilly,” he says.

To promote the growth of the sector, a Labour administration would be prepared to set recycling targets for England, but only after considering the evidence coming from the devolved administrations. Welsh councils met a 52% recycling target in 2012, while Scotland failed to meet a 50% objective for household waste in the same year.

Gardiner queries whether the setting of these targets “provided the sort of security and certainty to business that has led to investments in infrastructure and the supply chain?”

“If they look like good models, then we should certainly look at the lessons that the devolved administration can teach us.”

Targets could be a way to show the Government’s commitment to boosting recycling and a signal that a stable policy framework will be in place. Gardiner stresses that industry craves security
about the direction of Government policy in order to make investment decisions.

“What business wants is certainty. It wants to know that the regulatory goalposts are not going to be shifted backwards and forwards,” he says.

For this reason, he lambasts the coalition for not having announced its plans for the future of landfill tax after 2017.

“Is there going to be a landfill tax and, if so, what level is it going to be? The Government needs to take that decision and it is already late.” Such a lack of clarity is counterproductive, he argues, because it leads to companies holding back.

“What the Government constantly fails to appreciate is that, by delaying a decision, they are not just blocking something in the future but they are stopping investments, and that means jobs, now. And that is a huge failure.”

A “Zero Base Review”

In that case, I ask, what happened to Labour’s own programme, Resource Security: Jobs and Growth from Waste, which was launched in April 2013? The eight-page document was criticised by the waste industry for thin content but, in an interview with MRW, the then shadow waste minister Shuker said that more detailed policies would follow.

Gardiner says the paper represents the latest policy document on waste, but the party is now carrying out a ‘zero base review’ in all areas. Every shadow team is now reviewing its policies from scratch.

“What we are now saying is, if we were starting from nothing, what would we construct?” he explains. “An incoming Labour Government needs to be very clear on what its priorities are. And if we come in and say we did this before [so] let’s continue, or add something here and there, we will not really have examined our priorities closely enough.”

Gardiner maintains that every decision will be taken after consulting industry and looking at the evidence. He stresses that the process will involve dialogue and listening to people in the sector, a remark that criticises the approach adopted by Defra.

“When the department latches on to a policy that it wants to push through, the danger is of going through the motions of being accountable and transparent, but actually is it not.”

Examples of this are consultations carried out during holidays or for periods shorter than eight weeks, which is the minimum time considered as a governmental best practice.

The evidence, though, will have to come from the sector. “The industry knows itself best,” he says. “The capacity of the Government to conduct research has been severely curtailed. It is for the industry
to present the research to the Government.”

I point out that data availability in the waste industry is an issue in itself, with two well-respected consultancies putting forward different outlooks on infra-structure capacity in the UK during the run up to 2020.

“Then what the Government needs to do is look at what sectors of the industry are saying different things and for what reasons, and obviously we will look at that very carefully.”

Gardiner is not willing to speculate on what policies a Labour administration would put forward, and insists that all decisions will be “science-led” and “evidence-led” and in consultation with the industry.

Alongside waste, he also seems to strive to stay in touch with the issues of his constituency, Brent North. He has opened the first MP ‘online surgery’, where residents send their concerns via email.

“It saves the time of my constituents,” he says with a smile. “That is a huge reduction in waste.”

Barry Gardiner’s CV

Gardiner attended Haileybury College and the University of St Andrews, before working as a senior partner in shipping insuranceand arbitration for 10 years.

He was elected a councillor to Cambridge City Council in 1988 and became mayor of the city in 1992. Gardiner was selected to contest the London seat of Brent North for Labour at the 1997 election, which he has held since then. 

He became private secretary to Home Office minister Beverley Hughes in 2002. In 2004 he was appointed undersecretary of state at the Northern Ireland Office, moving to the same position at the Department of Trade and Industry following the 2005 election. He became undersecretary at Defra between May 2006 and June 2007.

He was appointed the Opposition’s special envoy for climate change and the environment in 2011 and shadow minister for natural environment and fisheries in October 2013.

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