The multinational whisky industry has been by far the biggest lobbyist against the Scottish Government’s deposit return scheme for drinks containers, prompting accusations it is trying to “sabotage” the anti-waste scheme.

A joint investigation by The Herald and The Ferret has revealed that over the last eight months whisky companies have lobbied politicians and officials on 37 occasions, 20 of them during visits to distilleries or other whisky sites.

They have met with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, three other ministers, two political advisers and the government’s most senior civil servant. They have also lobbied 25 MSPs from the SNP and opposition parties.

Other businesses lobbying with concerns about the scheme included retailers, independent brewers, grocers and the hospitality industry. Those lobbying against or with concerns outnumbered those favourable or neutral by nearly three to one.

Campaigners attacked businesses for trying to “fight progress” by putting profits before the environment. The Scottish Greens described the lobbying as “almost industrial in its scale” and criticised some companies for being “bitterly opposed to the polluter-pays principle”.

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But the whisky industry argued that the Scottish Government should “avoid regulations which have the potential to add further pressure on business” in order to ease the cost-of-living crisis. 

The deposit return scheme (DRS) is due to come into force in Scotland on 16 August 2023. It was originally scheduled to start in July 2022 but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit.

DRS will mean that consumers will pay a deposit of 20p when they buy a drink in a single use container made of plastic, metal or glass. They will be able to reclaim the deposit when they return the containers to be recycled.

The aim is to reduce waste, litter and climate pollution. As The Ferret has previously reported, the scheme has been fought by the drinks industry since 2015, though it is now backed by soft drinks companies.

In the last few months ministers have been coming under increasing pressure from businesses to delay DRS. On 30 March a spokesperson for the new First Minister, Humza Yousaf, said he was “considering” pausing the scheme.

The Herald:

The Ferret analysed the Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register for any mentions of DRS between 1 August 2022 and 10 March 2023. Of the 87 recorded entries, 64 were opposed or expressing concerns, and 23 were favourable or neutral.

The 37 entries from the whisky industry represented more than half of all the lobbying against or with concerns about the scheme. The vast majority of the lobbying was carried out by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which represents over 80 small and big distillers, including multinational drinks giants such as Diageo and Chivas Brothers.

In August 2022 the SWA’s chief executive and former UK Government ambassador, Mark Kent, met with the Scottish Government’s Permanent Secretary, John-Paul Marks, at New St Andrews House, Edinburgh. Kent warned there was “significant risk” involved with introducing to DRS.

In September 2022 an SWA lobbyist talked to the then Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, at a “Scotch Whisky Showcase” event at the Signet Library, Edinburgh. He highlighted “concerns” about the impact of DRS and urged him “to urgently review the scheme”.

A few days later Kent and other SWA officials had a meeting with the then First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, at Bute House to reiterate the industry’s “concerns” about DRS. In November SWA lobbied two of the Scottish Government’s special political advisers, Emily Mackintosh and Catriona Matheson, at the Scottish Parliament.

The Herald:

SWA also lobbied the rural affairs minister, Mairi Gougeon, during a visit to the Scapa distillery near Kirkwall on Orkney in September. On a visit to Miltonduff distillery, Elgin, in December, Chivas Brothers asked the SNP MSP and just transition minister, Richard Lochhead, to “intercede” to explain “how damaging” DRS would be.

SWA lobbied the Green MSP and circular economy minister, Lorna Slater, who is overseeing DRS, via video on 10 March. Along with others, it highlighted the “specific challenges” faced by smaller producers and the need to allow them “a more phased entry into the scheme”.

Since August SWA has lobbied 24 other MSPs, 18 of them at local distilleries or other whisky facilities. Chivas Brothers lobbied one further MSP at a distillery.

Most of the MSPs were Conservatives, amounting to 12, with two lobbied three times and another two twice. The others comprised seven from the SNP, five from Labour and a lone Liberal Democrat, who was lobbied twice.

After the whisky industry, the second biggest lobbyist expressing concerns about DRS was the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC), which represents supermarkets. It has recorded 14 meetings in the lobbying register since August.

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SRC has met with Lorna Slater four times, highlighting “concerns”, “issues” and “practicalities”. It has also lobbied the public finance minister, Tom Arthur, government special adviser, Leanne Dobson, three Conservative MSPs (one three times and one twice) an SNP MSP and a LibDem MSP.

The Society of Independent Brewers, which represents 750 craft breweries in the UK, has lobbied Slater three times to raise concerns. The Scottish Wholesale Association, which represents 100 food and drink wholesalers and suppliers, has lobbied Slater and two other MSPs.

UK Hospitality Scotland, which represents pubs, hotels and restaurants, lobbied Swinney and a Conservative MSP. The Scottish Grocers Federation, which represents convenience stores, lobbied Slater twice.

The Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, which has been campaigning for a deposit scheme since 2015, pointed out that businesses were divided. Some had already made substantial investments in preparation for the launch of DRS on 16 August, it said.

"However, some, such as the Scotch Whisky Association, are still trying to sabotage the Scottish deposit system with less than five months to go,” the association’s director, Dr Kat Jones, told The Ferret.

The Herald:

“Right now local taxpayers and our environment pick up the bill for recycling and waste, not producers, so it's no wonder some producers still want to cling to the failed status quo.”

She added: “If the Scottish system is disrupted again it might also threaten the similar systems planned across the rest of the UK, and that would be absolutely disastrous for waste, litter and the climate.”

The Scottish Greens warned that lobbyists must not be allowed to “ride roughshod” over democracy. “The volume of lobbying by sections of the drinks and retail sectors has been almost industrial in its scale and poses serious questions about their influence,” said the party’s climate spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.

“There is undoubtedly a self-interest from such lobbyists who are so bitterly opposed to the polluter-pays principle. They don’t want to foot the bill, despite getting away with polluting Scotland’s landscapes for generations.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland argued that most people in Scotland wanted DRS to go ahead. "The intense lobbying from industry makes it clear that rather than getting ready for the scheme, many businesses have been battling it, pushing politicians to put these profit seeking interests ahead of the public and the environment,” said the environmental group’s Kim Pratt.

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Greenpeace called on companies to stop “fighting tooth and nail against progress” and “see the way the wind is blowing and help make the DRS a success”. 

The Scotch Whisky Association highlighted that economic pressures had significantly changed since the scheme was first proposed. “With inflationary pressures hitting pockets and bottom lines across Scotland, the focus of government must be to do everything possible to ease the cost-of-living crisis and to avoid regulations which have the potential to add further pressure on business,” said an SWA spokesperson.

“Neither business nor consumers have all the necessary information to achieve the successful launch of the scheme, despite engagement over many months seeking answers to key questions.”

The SWA spokesperson added: “We want to play our part in moving towards a circular economy and will continue to work constructively with the government to make changes to the scheme that will enable us to continue to drive forward ambitious environmental targets in a way that is cost effective to business.”

The Scottish Retail Consortium estimated that Scotland’s retailers face a year one bill of around £250 million to deliver the scheme. “This is being done within a confusing miasma where government, alongside the scheme administrator and regulators, have woefully failed to provide the clarity necessary to deliver the scheme for the benefit of customers,” said a spokesperson.

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“It is therefore entirely appropriate for retailers to question ministers on the timeframe, and to raise concerns about the policy and legislative elements of the scheme which are not being delivered.”

According to the Scottish Government, it was right for ministers to meet with a range of stakeholders to inform their thinking. “Scotland’s deposit return scheme will make producers responsible for recycling the bottles and cans they put on the market,” said a spokesperson.

“Similar schemes are common in other European countries and have been shown to be very effective at reducing litter and increasing recycling rates.”

Chivas Brothers did not respond to requests to comment.