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12.10 pm

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), who deserves our thanks for allowing us to debate the important issue of climate change. I am also happy to assure hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), that Conservative Members take climate change seriously. Although there is still some scientific controversy about whether climate change is caused entirely by human activity or by a curious cyclical pattern that we do not yet understand, I certainly feel that the precautionary principle should apply, and that we should not take the risk with our planet of not doing something about such change.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said that the Government have more to do at Bonn, and I entirely agree with him. Moreover, quite apart from Ministers' own activities--which I shall deal with in a moment--one might wish that they would be more persuasive than they have been to date in persuading the United States Government to sign up to the international commitments on climate change, as that would send the most important signal in persuading other countries to fall into line.

Many hon. Members have dealt with the fuel duty escalator. It is absurd for Liberal Democrat Members to advance the proposition that, once a tax has been introduced, it should not only continue for ever, but be

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increased for ever. That seemed to be the position that they were expressing in this debate. I remind the House that the tax was introduced as an escalator. What does one do when reaching the top of an escalator? One gets off it. One does not say, "We are staying on the escalator, and we shall make it even steeper."

We have all read leaked reports that the Chancellor has listened to focus groups and is planning either to drop the escalator entirely or to modify it. I therefore caution those Labour Members who have spoken so strongly in favour of the escalator that they may be going off message.

Mr. Brake: The hon. Gentleman did not hear me or my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) express the view on taxes that he attributed to Liberal Democrat Members. The fuel duty escalator can, of course, be revisited. The official Opposition should perhaps also revisit their own budgetary figures, which still include the fuel duty escalator.

Mr. Green: I am happy to receive the usual confirmation that the Liberal Democrats are capable of changing policy in the course of a one and a half hour debate.

The hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Mr. Williams) made a very important point on forestry and the use of trees as a counter-balance to CO 2 emissions. I entirely support him on that important initiative, and urge him and other hon. Members to act strongly against the type of planning proposals made in the past few weeks by planning inspectors, particularly in the south-east of England, which would entail concreting over large green areas and, inevitably, the loss of much tree cover. Giving effect to such proposals would be extremely dangerous.

The hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr specifically mentioned various parts of the country that once had many trees. Our remaining areas covered by trees are precisely those that the Department's own planning inspectors are advising should be concreted over. [Interruption.] I am fascinated that Labour Members find that amusing, but suspect that their constituents might take a different view on the matter.

At Bonn, Ministers will have to defend their record. Before the general election, they set their sights very high, claiming to be the first truly green Government whom Britain had ever had. Only Labour Members who are very deluded or very desperate for office could believe that that promise is being met. However, those who are most concerned about the environment in the United Kingdom certainly do not believe that it is being met.

The head of policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has said that the Prime Minister

Friends of the Earth, commenting on the so-called green taxes in the most recent Budget, said that the Chancellor's

    "so-called 'green' Budget measures are just tokenistic. They will not combat climate change."

Rebellion is mounting even inside the Labour camp. In the past couple of weeks, the general secretary of the

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Fabian Society--which is possibly not often quoted by Conservative spokesmen--has published a pamphlet stating:

    "It's evident that new Labour is not comfortable on this territory. Labour does not perceive environmental issues to be major priorities for ordinary voters. In fact they tend to see them as positively anti-voter."

I could not have put that better. The Fabian Society believes that the Government are not interested in environmental measures, but actively hostile to many environmental policies.

Before the general election, the Government not only wished to sign up to the Kyoto commitments, as they eventually emerged, but set themselves an extra, voluntary hurdle. Subsequently, we have seen the Government consistently slithering around on the issue, consistently softening their language, so that a commitment has become an "aim", a "target" and a "goal". One thing that the Minister could do today is to give the House a firm assurance that the Government's commitment on the more stringent target is not being watered down.

I shall not enter a debate on whether and how many Ministers should resign if the commitment has not been met because, as has already been observed today, it is not due to be met until 2010, and, very possibly, we may all be occupying different Benches by then. Nevertheless, the commitment is important, and I hope that the Government will stick to it.

What have Ministers done to combat climate change? The answer is, not much. Their first act was to change the planning system for power generation, to make it easier to build coal-fired power stations and to impose a moratorium on the use of gas, which is much cleaner. Although we all know the political reasons why the Government made the change, it would be hypocritical for any Government to make such a change and still to claim environmental credentials. Such a policy is simply not consonant with good environmental practice.

The Government's record on renewable energy has been equally bad. Solar energy has been mentioned often today, but hon. Members should be aware that solar energy is taken much more seriously in other countries. The German Government, for example, have established an explicit target of fitting 100,000 homes with solar panels. Japan's target is 70,000 homes. However, the British Government--who came to power claiming that they would be the greenest Government in history--have established a target of precisely 100 homes. I hope that the Minister will be able to express some contrition about that.

Environmental groups have noticed the Government's record on renewable energy. The RSPB has said that the Government's renewable electricity generation target is not clear and unambiguous--which, perhaps, it should be.

One thing that the Government can do is to set an example--which, in words, they certainly do. There is a fascinating document, entitled the "DETR Greening Operations Policy Statement", which is available on the DETR website and includes as part of the Department's own targets the reduction

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In July, in a parliamentary question, I asked a previous DETR Minister what percentage of the Department's refrigerators used hydrofluorocarbons, to which he replied:

    "Decisions on the purchase of refrigerators are for the Department's local property centres and details are not recorded centrally."--[Official Report, 12 July 1999; Vol. 335, c. 12.]

The Government have set their Departments a specific target on how to deal with what they acknowledge to be a very important matter, but they do not collect centrally details on achieving that target. Perhaps the Government's target was, appropriately enough, simply hot air. If they will not set themselves targets or collect information on them, they are simply not taking the matter seriously.

I cannot improve on the arguments that have been made against the climate levy by hon. Members on both sides of the House. If the Government think that the levy is an appropriate green tax, they are simply wrong. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) said, the levy would be perversely redistributive. Subsequently, some hon. Members discussed how to establish new and complex distributive mechanisms, whereby the tax would be taken from companies in one part of the United Kingdom, distributed to companies in another area--where they may not deserve it--but then taken back by the Government, to be redistributed to more deserving areas. The levy will not be an effective brake on carbon emissions and the need to devise elaborate redistribution mechanisms shows that the Government should do more than the softening that one assumes that they will announce next week. They should scrap the levy so that they can start again with something more appropriate.

The Minister should go to Bonn with a deep sense of humility. Britain's contribution to combating global warming under this Government has been profoundly inadequate. Hon. Members on both sides must hope that Ministers will do better on that vital issue in the second half of this Parliament.

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