Sixth Environmental Action Programme

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Mr. Sayeed: I welcome the European Union's sixth environmental action programme and the proposals included in it. Here, the lack of major environmental

improvement is a clear example of what happens when there is a failure of coherent political will. I absolve the Minister from that criticism, because I have no doubt about his green credentials, though at the risk of embarrassing him yet again, I note with regret that others are not listening to him as avidly as we have been this morning.

The Government are ever ready with green words and the parroting of good intentions, but when it comes to action they demonstrate incoherence, as they did with domestic waste; incompetence, as they did with fridges; or indolence, as they did with flooding. Sometimes they have shown all three.

The sixth environmental action programme highlights the need to align economic growth and environmental progress. It focuses on

    ''areas where more action is needed and new European initiatives will make a difference''.

It goes on to state:

    ''We particularly need to encourage business to go further, on a voluntary basis and through legislation. Increased attention to environmental measures will improve efficiency and productivity. The expanding market for green goods will lead to increased innovation and expanded job opportunities. European businesses will prosper in this expanding market.''

The recognition that people need jobs and that private businesses provide them is one that more people here should heed, because companies have been consistently penalised by the Government in their interpretation of environmental targets. The willingness of the Government to interpret directives damagingly and embellish them needlessly has increasingly put this country at a competitive disadvantage. The action programme proposes management by results and we welcome that, because Governments cannot run businesses. It is far better that, rather than meddling in the detail, the

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Government determine the direction and let companies get on with the implementation in the way that best suits them.

Conservatives believe that caring for the environment must be approached by educating people and instilling collective responsibility. Governments must work with all people: those who manage our countryside, business people who produce our wealth and every householder whom we serve. We should align people's best interests with their self-interest. That view is mirrored in this programme.

Plans to encourage more businesses to assess their environmental performance and to help them to understand European Union rules are to be welcomed, because that meets with the Conservative belief that, first, businesses should be aware of their own performance, and then they should be allowed to evaluate how they might improve that performance, rather than being stifled with unnecessary bureaucracy and crippling costs, often imposed without consultation.

Conservatism and conservation go together. My party is passionate about preserving the UK's natural heritage and the future of our planet. The four priorities of the action programme are the obvious starting points: tackling climate change; protecting nature and wildlife; addressing environment and health issues; and finally, preserving natural resources and managing waste. However, to do it effectively in a way that encourages corporate involvement and individual support will require politicians to deny themselves the luxury of micro-management and damaging taxation.

It is time for politicians throughout Europe to lift their horizons. If we fail to act now on issues such as climate change and appropriate waste management, we risk bequeathing a poisoned legacy to our children. One way to conserve our resources is to harness new technology. Renewable energy will play a greater role in all our lives in the years to come. With the right incentives, more households will transform the way in which they power their homes by embracing this new technology. With the right approach from Government, energy companies will seize these opportunities, and in doing so they will be tapping into a major growth market for British enterprise and British jobs.

Britain has the capacity to generate 30 per cent. of all the renewable energy needs of the European Union. It is a matter of regret and, I believe, shame that at present only 3 per cent. of our energy consumption comes from renewables. Promoting renewable energy should be a key component of the UK's overall strategy for combating climate change. It also happens to be a policy area in which disappointment with the Government is at its most intense. The Science and Technology Committee report on wind and tidal energy finds that

    ''for many years, the DTI has stated its belief that wave and tidal energy technologies are ten years away from viability.''

One witness described that statement as a ''negative self-fulfilling prophecy''. In the past, the Conservative party has been supportive of the Government's target

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that 10 per cent. of our electricity should be generated from renewable sources by 2010. With recent dramatic improvements in the technology surrounding renewable energies, Conservatives believe that the current target is now overly modest and would like to see an appropriate increase. What are the Government's expectations beyond 2010? Will they consider extending the target to ensure that 30 per cent. of all electricity should be generated from renewable sources? When will the PIU report be completed and will its findings be published?

The action programme proposes a strategy for Europe as a whole and Conservatives recognise that our responsibilities do not stop at home. We believe that we must be supportive of those countries that are candidates to join the EU in meeting their environmental obligations. The action programme report notes that those countries have environmental problems and that the key will be the effective and swift implementation of European environmental laws. We agree.

Putting legislation into practice effectively is one of the problems addressed by the action programme, a matter that was subject to close questioning this morning. The report admits that the legal process is still slow and cumbersome and years may pass before it brings results. Other methods can effectively speed up the process. It states that transparency, by making information widely available, helps to create public pressure for a rapid response and embarrasses laggards by highlighting how they are not delivering their commitments to our future. I welcome that admission wholeheartedly.

The European Union proposes first to monitor how European laws are applied and compile a regularly updated scoreboard, and secondly to implement a name, shame and fame exercise that will publicise the success and failure of different national Governments, which I welcome. I also hope that it will discourage the gold-plating of EU regulations, a trait so commonly displayed by successive UK Governments, and yet simultaneously ensure that the UK follows a coherent and effective environmental strategy that will ensure that targets are met. I especially agree that success rates should be regularly monitored throughout the European Union, but I want to know how swiftly penalties for non-compliance would be imposed.

The action programme focuses on another key issue: waste management. England and Wales alone produce about 400 million tonnes of waste every year. Conservatives have long called for a focus on waste minimisation, as landfill cannot be the principal answer to disposal, and incineration is no easy substitute. The only answer is far less waste, much more recovery and recycling and a Government who talk less and act faster—a view echoed by the action programme. Its approach to waste management is to prioritise waste prevention, followed by recycling, waste recovery and incineration, with landfill as a last

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resort. The target is to reduce the quantity of waste going to final disposal by around 20 per cent. on 2000 levels by 2010 and by about 50 per cent. by 2050.

The term ''sustainable development'' has limited appeal. However, when it is put in the context of everyday experience, and people can do something close to home, sustainability will meet with success. That is why the Conservatives' recycling policy is significantly greener and more radical than any other party's. For some time, we have proposed a target of 50 per cent. of household waste being recycled or composted by 2020, which is significantly higher than the Government's target. That is why we said we would introduce doorstep recycling for all households; I wish that the Government would match that, as the alternative is a dirtier Britain and fines of up to £500,000 a day if EU rules on landfill sites are not met by 2010.

Belatedly, the Secretary of State announced a consultation paper on how to spend the £140 million that the Government allocated to local authorities to promote recycling, but I want the Minister to tell me whether that money will be available in time for us to meet our recycling obligations and avoid harsh EU-imposed penalties.

I look forward to the implementation of the EU action programme, which aims to ensure that the polluter pays, that people are able to make environmentally friendly choices, that waste is kept to a minimum and that all countries are aware of and meet their environmental obligations. The action programme clearly demonstrates, probably for the first time, that there is an intention to listen to business. With the accession of so many more countries, perhaps this represents a view of the new Europe. It certainly demonstrates a new realism, and the old Conservative party supports it.

11.45 am

Matthew Green: We welcome the paper, but only as far as it goes. It is a missed opportunity. It includes few targets, and the Minister was at pains to say that it was not a technical document. He claimed some of the credit for the UK Government for pushing for some of the targets that were included. Will he confirm, in relation to article 3, paragraph 4 on encouraging reforms of subsidies that have considerable negative effects on the environment, that there was a move to establish targets of an inventory of environmentally negative subsidies by 2002, and elimination by 2005? The Government resisted that, and I would welcome an explanation of why that was the case.

I want to return to the issue of implementation and enforcement, which was raised frequently in questions. The Minister said regularly that the Commission would be able to ask for information from member states, and pointed out that the document was not a technical one in relation to which sanctions might apply. However, the document does contain targets, so what sanctions will apply to ensure that the targets contained in the document are met? What sanctions will apply if member states do not provide the information? He has always said that the Commission

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will ask for the information, but how can the Commission ensure that that information is available and made accessible to the public? After all, the impact on individual states' electorates in terms of knowing information that their Governments might not want to be in the public domain is the most potent weapon.

The documents also demonstrate welcome moves by Europe to accept parts of the Kyoto agreement. Clearly, the United States has moved away from adopting Kyoto. What moves will the UK Government and the European Union take to ensure that the United States comes on board? Kyoto becomes just an aspiration in terms of the long-term impact on climate change if the United States is not part of it. We have great concerns that, although it sounds very good and welcome, it is only a small step if the United States is not helping.

I am fascinated by the Conservatives' conversion to the cause of the environment, and delighted that they want to push targets even higher. I welcome the fact that they seem to be moving towards strengthening EU enforcement procedures, which is not what I would have expected to hear. It is welcome, and it probably means that all three of the major parties are united on the principle. We wait to see the detail.

To return to the document, there is a great danger that the action programme will be heralded as a major step forward. Without proper enforcement, without as many targets as there should have been, and without clear audited steps towards achieving those targets, however, the reality is that the programme will end up as fine words and, sadly, it will fail on delivery. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that that is not the case, and that it will lead to a considerable change in Europe on tackling environmental issues.

11.49 am

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Prepared 16 January 2002