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More substance from Whitehall, please

This time last year, Rory Stewart spoke at the annual CIWM/ESA conference and this column responded with the headline: ‘At last a minister shows real passion’. His keynote speech to this year’s gathering came from a politician who remains engaging, charming, open and enthusiastic - but has yet to deliver.

Stewart began by recalling the 2015 event, his first public appearance as resource minister: “I’m a more world-weary, ground down minster than the one who bounded on stage then”, he joked.

Delegates smiled at the self-deprecation but I can’t have been alone in wondering at a hidden half-truth. After all, this was the minister whose suggestion a few weeks back that single-use coffee cups could be taxed a la plastic bags was instantly slapped down by his Defra ministry.

A more cautious attitude was reinforced later in the speech when he said if he tried to talk about taxation “a huge hand from No11 will protrude from above and cuff me”.

For a keynote speech, we got little that was either key or of note. There was nothing on policy, not even a hint about his drive for ‘harmonised’ household collections, an announcement which is expected next month.

He spoke about about the need to communicate more with the public (tell that to local authorities coping with austerity cuts); a ‘back-to-basics’ justification for recycling based on resource depletion; and ‘really, really practical’ examples to justify policy. 

This column has previously wondered aloud at the extent of Defra’s aspirations for our sector. In January the secretary of state talked to Defra’s select committee for 90 minutes without mentioning waste/resource management and in February it was missing from the department’s latest ‘strategy plan’ (although it was a ‘key aim’ in a parallel departmental strategy document).

Two elements of Stewart’s conference appearance resurrected my concern.

The first was in response to a question from last year’s CIWM president John Quinn about variable taxation for products containing secondary materials. The European Commission has decided not to include any direction in its Circular Economy (CE) proposals but instead has put responsibility onto member states to consider such ‘pull’ measures.

The minister appeared not to know this concept, which is remarkable as it has been key policy request from the CIWM and the ESA for a considerable time. “Who would you be taxing exactly?” he asked.

The second concern came with a call to delegates to find ‘best practice’ examples in other countries to justify alternative policies in the UK – and no doubt avoiding the Treasury ‘clip round the ear’.

Stewart said that politicians armed with such examples would be in a more powerful position to suggest change and “reassure officials that it would not be the end of the world”.

He quoted the tax on single-use plastic bags, saying he had justified the tax in England by being able to show its impact in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I fail to see the logic here as SMEs were excluded from the tax in England: hardly the full-blooded adoption of a comprehensive measure that produced strong results elsewhere.

The EU referendum was off-limits during the minister’s address but the outcome will have a major impact on how Defra deals with the CE and, more immediately, which ministers will pick up the reins.

At the 2015 conference, Stewart had declared: “I want to make the UK the best country in the world for recycling”. One year on, with static household rates and rock-bottom material prices, it remains a welcome - but distant - goal.

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