Humza Yousaf has been urged to take responsibility for the controversial deposit return scheme off Lorna Slater.

Scottish Labour's call follows a backlash by some businesses about the initiative and fears it will hit the pockets of consumers amid the cost of living crisis.

The scheme has been under fire for months but the minister for green skills, circular economy and biodiversity has repeatedly dismissed concerns.

Setting out his policy programme in Holyrood yesterday Mr Yousaf announced it will be delayed until March next year - a move welcomed by many drinks' suppliers.

Mr Yousaf said it was part of a "reset" between government and business.

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The scheme, which would see customers pay a 20p deposit on drinks in cans and bottles that will be paid back when the containers are returned, has come under fierce criticism in recent months.

It will require an exemption to the UK-wide Internal Market Act, given by Westminster, to be able to go ahead given possible implications elsewhere in the UK and it is not known whether the exemption will be given.

In a letter to the First Minister, Scottish Labour’s spokeswoman for Net Zero, Energy and Just Transition Sarah Boyack branded the recycling initiative a “farce” and questioned whether Ms Slater, one of two Scottish Green ministers, was capable of regaining the trust of the sector. 

"Scottish Labour has always supported a viable deposit return scheme from the beginning, as part of our drive towards net zero - we need action to boost recycling rates, but this farce has delivered nothing but chaos and confusion," Ms Boyack said.

"Over recent months it has become clear that the current planning by the Scottish Government and Circularity Scotland ahead of its launch later this year does not command the confidence of consumers or businesses nor would the scheme meaningfully contribute to reaching net zero. 

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"The delay you announced yesterday in Parliament is welcome, but long overdue. In your statement to Parliament yesterday you said, “I – and the Circular Economy Minister- have heard the concerns of business, particularly about the Scheme’s readiness for launch this August.

"However, the reality is that the minister has denied the inevitability of this delay for too long and now the whole scheme is in jeopardy to the point you have had to announce a delay. 

"Stakeholders have repeatedly expressed their frustration that the minister does not meaningfully engage with them on amendments or revisions to the scheme and that she often passes the buck to Circularity Scotland, particularly in relation to the impact of the scheme on existing recycling and waste management schemes.

"However, Circularity Scotland is of course an organisation set up by industry, is not accountable and is exempt from standard transparency mechanisms such as FOI.    

"Having listened to businesses and other stakeholders over the last few months and raised their concerns both in Parliament and directly with the Minister, I strongly believe that to make the most of this further delay ministerial oversight and that leadership must also change."

She added: "Lorna Slater as the minister in charge has repeatedly dodged the most basic questions in an attempt to avoid acknowledging the failures in the proposed scheme. Scottish Labour believes that a Government that does not take responsibility for governing, or for its mistakes, is not a Government that can make better choices moving forward.   

"A change in approach from the Scottish Government is required and given the Minister’s previous intransigence I would question whether Lorna Slater MSP can regain the confidence of the sector. I am therefore calling on you to remove Ministerial responsibility for the Deposit Return Scheme from Ms Slater. 

"In doing so I believe your Government must take responsibility and demonstrate that it is serious about re-setting the relationship between your Government and businesses and that you are changing your approach so that we can implement a Deposit Return Scheme that works and delivers for Scotland." 

Asked by The Herald if she has confidence in Ms Slater in delivering the DRS, SNP Net Zero Secretary Mairi McAllan said: “Absolutely.”

She added: “These are these our colleagues. It is co-produced. We take these decisions together.”

Speaking in Holyrood yesterday Mr Yousaf said: "I remain committed to this scheme as a way to increase recycling, reduce litter and help achieve our net zero ambitions.
"But we recognise the uncertainty that continues to be created as a result of the UK Government delaying the decision to exclude the scheme from the Internal Market Act. We had hoped for that decision this week - but it has not come.

"At the same time, I - and the circular economy minister - have heard the concerns of business, particularly about the scheme's readiness for launch this August. As a result, we will now delay the launch of the scheme to March 1 2024. This provides 10 months for businesses to get ready.

"We will use that additional time to work with businesses, and Circularity Scotland, to address concerns with the scheme and ensure a successful launch next year."

A package of measures, Mr Yousaf said, would also be put in place to "simplify and de-risk" the scheme with details due to be unveiled in Holyrood tomorrow.

The announcement fell just minutes after Ms Slater fielded a topical question about the scheme's future, where former Scottish Government minister Fergus Ewing described the initiative as a "Green poll tax".

Mr Ewing - who has become a fierce critic of the government, particularly around its powersharing deal with the Greens - said business organisations had written to the First Minister to say the DRS would increase prices on consumers - something previously accepted by the head of the company charged with implementing the scheme.

"Even David Harris, the boss of (Circularity Scotland Limited), paid £300,000 a year, admits that is the case," he said.

"Does the minister agree with the boss of her own agency? And if so, why is she so intent as a Green Party representative of imposing at the height of a cost-of-living crisis, price hikes to the poorest people in Scotland, a kind of Green poll tax?"

Responding to the accusation, Ms Slater said: "I will remind the member that Circularity Scotland is a private, not-for-profit company, not an agency of the Scottish Government.

"And I will also remind the member that the regulations for the deposit return scheme were passed by this parliament and we are implementing those regulations."

Speaking after the First Minister's statement in Holyrood, Ms Slater rejected assertions from the UK Government there had not been a formal request for an exemption to the Internal Market Act.

"That is absolutely not the case," she told journalists.

"There are formal processes involved through the frameworks by which the governments work together and the UK Government has agreed that at every point we followed the process exactly."

A spokesperson for First Minister said: “The Deposit Return Scheme will be a major part of our efforts to reduce littering, cut emissions and build a more circular economy. Lorna Slater is the best person to take forward DRS and she will continue to do so.

“Businesses have welcomed our announcement of a six-month delay in the introduction of the scheme and committed to working with us constructively to ensure it can go ahead. But it cannot go ahead without an exemption under the Internal Market Act, which we have been discussing with the UK Government for almost two years – and it says it all about Labour that nowhere in their lengthy letter do they even mention Westminster’s outrageous attacks on devolution.

“In their desperation to get Keir Starmer into Downing Street, Labour have thrown core commitments to LGBT equality, to devolution, to climate change and much more out the window – and at every step of the way, the Scottish Labour branch office have compliantly acquiesced.

“The Scottish Government will continue taking the ambitious action needed to reduce litter and tackle climate change – and we’ll leave Labour to wallow in their own hypocrisy.”