Baroness Parminter: 'The government can't even produce their environment plan'

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:

The Lib Dems’ environment spokesperson, Baroness Kate Parminter, discusses past and present campaigns, the government’s green record, engaging the public – and Brexit.

For an industry starved of government attention, it was a breath of fresh air to hear Baroness Kate Parminter, Liberal Democrat spokesperson on the environment, give a keynote speech at Resourcing the Future conference at the end of June.

You could feel the collective sigh of satisfaction from the conference attendees that, at long last, here was a politician speaking a language that the waste sector understands.

“The UK is not on track to meet EU recycling targets,” warned the Lib Dems’ deputy leader in the House of Lords. And the fault, she told RtF 2017, lies squarely with the government.

“If the UK is to retain meaningful access to the EU, it is certain that complying with the Circular Economy [Package] will be necessary. Future progress is being hampered yet again by this current government’s failure to set out clear policies. It is very worrying about its approach to resource efficiency,” Baroness Parminter told the conference, before adding that “the topic ought to be at the centre of political debate”.

This, of course, is music to the ears of an industry that feels itself badly let down by policy-makers who have become deaf and dumb to any subject other than Brexit.

It should come therefore as no surprise that the Baroness is claiming the resource efficiency spotlight. She is eminently suited for it.

Until May 2015, she was a member of the House of Lords EU Select Committee and Sub-Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment and Energy, and that year was a member of the Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment. She has also been appointed a member of the Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act.

And it is a subject she clearly enjoys. Appointed Lib Dem environment, food and rural affairs spokesperson just over two years ago, Parminter says “a week doesn’t go by when there isn’t an issue that affects Defra; whether it’s waste, bees or fisheries. Every week is different with this brief and there is never a dull moment.”

From an early age, she says she has “always been passionate about the environment”, before adding that “it’s great to be responsible for the environment, which I really care about”.

The Baroness was one of the campaigners who worked tirelessly for the introduction of the plastic bag levy. Indeed, she sees it as the highlight, so far, of her tenure as Lib Dem spokesperson.

“Securing the five-pence charge on plastic bags after having spent a lot of time persuading less keen Tory partners to sign up to it has been one of the highlights of the last couple of years,” she says with obvious satisfaction.

Disposable coffee cups

A campaign that is now firing her enthusiasm is a similar drive to implement a charge on disposable coffee cups.

“The coffee cups campaign is gaining traction. When we first launched it, people might have felt it was a gimmick, but academics have done research into how we can harness consumer power and they think it could work,” she explains. “I’ve had conversations with coffee retailers which have been useful and, although it takes a bit of time, it is satisfying to see that the whole issue of plastic waste is shooting up the political agenda, especially with Sky running its Ocean Rescue campaign and helping make it an issue that the people on the street can understand.”

She pauses before adding: “People lead incredibly busy but fragmented lives so they need prompting about the consumer choices they make. If someone makes their lives easier, they are going to use shortcuts unless they are told there is a hidden cost either being borne by wildlife, the environment or children’s health.”

On the subject of the repercussions of decision-making, Parminter is scathing when it comes to the government and its “broken promises” on the environment.

“At the moment I’m not seeing any signs that the government is listening to the resource efficiency debate. They made the commitment in their election manifesto ‘to leave the environment in a better condition than they inherited it’, and yet they can’t even produce their environment plan. It may not even come out this year. This signals a lack of concern when we need clarity on strategic policies as we move outside the protective framework of the EU.”

She enthuses about the reception she has received from the resource efficiency sector.

“The waste industry is starting to come together in the way that agriculture and fisheries have been mobilised. There is a massive prize for the UK to be at the front of low-carbon and resource-efficient technology. We have the people, we have the expertise, we have the strands the industry needs to help the government which, instead, is moving towards a low-regulatory, buccaneering approach.

"If an industry is fragmented, it can’t get its message across, and anything that organisations can do to bring the industry together is to be applauded.”

Returning to the impact she has made on the waste sector, Parminter stresses: “The industry doesn’t get any leadership from the government, so to have a politician saying it’s an important economic agenda and that we could make progress is why the industry is pleased to hear what I have to say. Normally, the issue of waste management only hits the headlines when something goes wrong.

Baroness Parminter speaking at the Resourcing the Future event

“When you use the term ‘circular economy’ you get a glazed reaction,” notes the Baroness. “Even though it is at the heart of the issue. There is definitely a job to be done with language. It is not rocket science as we use products to help us live our lives and we have to think about what happens to them at the end of their life.

"We have to find terms to enable the public to understand what we are talking about. With the plastic bag levy, we knew that people could relate to it as they are familiar with plastic bags. The industry needs to collectively think how we could simplify some of the issues about end-of-life products as the public doesn’t understand terms like ‘resources’.”

To bring resources up the political agenda, Parminter is calling for the establishment of an office for environmental responsibility; something along the lines of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility.

“This will help the new government draw up business plans, it can scrutinise and query Defra and other government departments’ key decisions and would carry out an analysis of environmental performance. The structure we have now doesn’t help embed environmental objectives into policies and we need to do this if we are really serious.”

On the more contentious issue of whether or not the UK should hold a second EU referendum, the Lib Dem spokesperson refuses to eschew the party’s cherished internationalism.

“It was in our manifesto. We are a passionate internationalist party and while we recognise the EU has many faults, it is nonetheless in our best interests to stay close to Europe. As it stands, the general public started the process and, while someone has to decide whether we accept the deal put on the table, we will do all we can to ensure we expose the government in terms of the deal it makes. It is up to the people to decide in a referendum if the government’s deal is right for the UK.”

Finally, Parminter emphasises the importance of introducing a proposed Zero Waste Act.

“Now that it is likely we are heading out of Europe, we need our own legislation. The Climate Change Act is not perfect and we are not going to hit all our carbon targets; however, it is still useful to move people towards a goal that includes legally binding targets, and also to look at incentives for businesses to improve their corporate social responsibility. We need an equivalent Act if we are to seriously improve levels of resource efficiency, recycling and waste minimisation.”

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