23rd Jun 2023

Spirited Away: What do we know about the demise of Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme?

Juliet Swann

Senior Policy Officer

Juliet (she/her) is based in Edinburgh and leads our work outside of Westminster - primarily in Scotland, but also with local government in England and with an eye on Wales and Northern Ireland. Prior to joining TI-UK Juliet worked for various Scottish NGOs across the democracy, participation, human rights and environment sectors. This included working to introduce the Lobbying (Scotland) Act 2016, advising the Scottish Government and other stakeholders on inclusive and effective public involvement in decision making, and delivering engagement projects including Scotland’s Climate Assembly. She is a member of the Scottish Civil Society Open Government Network Committee.

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Analysis of Scotland’s lobbying register submissions for 2022 and early 2023 show that whilst environmental NGOs in support of the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) had 12 meetings with MSPs and Ministers, trade organisations with concerns had 218. One lobby group, the Scotch Whisky Association, alone held 42 meetings. Five of these were with Ministers including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as well as a meeting with the Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government.  

While we know these meetings took place, we don’t know what happened next – how decisions were made and what consequences were weighed up before a final position was taken. But what we can see, and why lobbying transparency is important, is that small civil society groups are not seeing the same access to decision makers as large corporations and trade bodies.  

Why does this matter? 

Whatever your opinion of the merits of the scheme, or the competence of its delivery, the fact remains that its collapse has a direct financial impact on organisations and individuals involved, from large retailers like Aldi or Sainsbury’s, to small businesses like local convenience stores or micro-brewers.  

And with DRS delayed, potentially indefinitely, and industry withdrawing support, Circularity Scotland (the managers of the scheme), has called in the administrators. As a result, up to 60 people find their jobs at risk.  

The Deposit Return Scheme 

To briefly re-cap: The Deposit and Return Scheme for Scotland Regulations were passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2020. The regulations required that the purchase of all single use drinks containers, plastic and glass, to include an extra 20p charge, refunded on return of the empty vessel at a reverse-vending machine. 

In March 2023, Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack granted a necessary exemption from the Internal Market Act 2020 only if glass were excluded, preventing the scheme going ahead as planned.   

Implementation of the DRS has now been ‘paused’ until a four nation approach can be developed, with the UK Government set to introduce its own scheme, excluding glass by 2025. 

The role of lobbying 

At Transparency International UK, our concern is not with whether the Scottish Government mishandled the introduction of the DRS. Nor is it about the constitutional implications of the intervention of the Secretary of State for Scotland.  

What we are interested in is what led to the decision of the Secretary of State to make that intervention, and what else might be influencing the position of the Scottish Government and Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs).  

In Scotland, we are able to see the meetings that MSPs, Ministers, Special Advisors (SpAds) and senior civil servants have had with outside interests - including those regarding the Deposit Return Scheme. At Westminster, lobbying meeting transparency is limited to ministerial meetings. The two make for interesting comparison and highlight some of the UK’s lobbying blind spots. 

Analysis of meetings in Whitehall show that in 2022 (the latest data available) ministers met with Coca-Cola, the British Beer and Pub Association, the Scotch Whisky Association and Greene King to discuss the DRS.  

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Description automatically generated with low confidence 

Source: Open Access 

And the Scotland Office frequently met with several whisky manufacturers.  


Source: BBC News Online  

The greater detail available in the Scottish lobbying register lets us know just what these organisations were advocating for – from the exclusion of glass from the DRS to pressing for the scheme to be delayed or its extent limited. So, we know more about efforts to influence the scheme in Holyrood than we do in Whitehall, whose ministers eventually scuppered it. 

What we know 

Our analysis of the Scottish lobbying register shows that of 250 registered meetings that mentioned DRS between 1st January 2022 and now, just 19 can be deemed to be supportive of the DRS (these included Friends of the Earth Scotland, the Action to Protect Rural Scotland (APRS), AG Barr – the makers of Irn Bru, Changeworks, Greenpeace and Scottish Environment LINK), and 13 could be said to be more positive than negative (including 10 meetings Circularity Scotland themselves had with MSPs from all parties). The remaining 218 were meetings with various trade, industry and retail bodies who were all either opposed to, concerned about implementation of, seeking glass excluded from, or supportive of a delay to the scheme. 

Of those, 98 meetings were with organisations involved in distilling, brewing and selling alcohol and 42 were held by the Scotch Whisky Association.  

Those opposed to the DRS met Ministers on 50 occasions, and with the First Minister (FM) three times. They had 86 meetings with the Conservatives, 41 with SNP and 26 with Labour MSPs, with a handful of meetings with Green and LibDem MSPs.  

Of those lobbying for the DRS, Friends of the Earth Scotland met with Ministers twice, APRS three times (all with Lorna Slater) and Changeworks and AG Barr both met Ministers on one occasion (Lorna Slater and Humza Yousaf respectively). Small civil society organisations supportive of the DRS never met with the FM. 

But these records only provide part of the picture. Because of the ‘zoom’ lobbying loophole in Scotland, any phone calls, letters or emails to ministers and MSPs aren’t covered by the rules. There are many additional issues with relying on Whitehall departments to report who’s lobbying ministers south of the border due to significant holes in the public record there. Were both the Scottish and UK lobbying rules more comprehensive in their coverage, we’d have much greater insight into what led to the DRS’ demise.  

While there will always be a role for lobbying in politics, the public ought to be able to see not just what meetings are happening but also how much has been spent, and greater clarity on what impact that lobbying had. 

Because as the DRS saga shows us, the consequences of lobbying are not just alterations in policy decisions, but they can have massive financial impacts, implications for our environment, and very human repercussions for ordinary people across Scotland.  

As accusations continue to fly, surely the least we deserve is to know who, how, and why the decisions that have brought us here were made? 

Transparency International UK would like to see: 

  • Improved reporting of ministerial meetings at Westminster and Holyrood. 

  • Reform of the lobbying register in Scotland in line with recommendations from the Public Audit and Post-Legislative Scrutiny Committee, and the introduction of a new, expanded statutory lobbying transparency regime at Westminster.  

  • A commitment from decision makers to ensure that stakeholders who may not have equal resources are not given inequal access.