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House of Commons

Thursday 10 February 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Environment Agency

1. Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What steps she is taking to improve the capacity of the Environment Agency to tackle illegal waste dumping and fly-tipping. [215588]

The Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): A number of measures have been included in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 and the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill.

Mr. Sheerman: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Environment Agency does a very good job and that it is increasingly being given new roles with European directives, one after the other, on waste electrical and    electronic equipment, end-of-life vehicles and hazardous waste? At the same time, the Government are saying, through the Gershon review, that we must make all Departments cut back, and the James report from the Conservative party says that the Environment Agency should lose 1,200 jobs. Is that the way to ensure that the Environment Agency has the capacity to look after our environment?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The James report is not a ministerial responsibility.

Mr. Morley: I welcome that guidance, Mr. Speaker, but I certainly join my hon. Friend in welcoming the work of the Environment Agency. Indeed, its role is absolutely vital in environmental protection, environmental standards and the collection of waste. Any ill-thought-out measure that would seriously weaken its environmental protection department would be bad for the community and bad for the environment.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend plan to publicise the new regulations on waste tipping, which could be introduced as a result of legislation being passed by the House? Might he consider giving anyone with a farm or premises where
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fly-tipping is taking place a large notice telling the men in white vans that their vehicles could be confiscated, and the costs of recovering those vehicles would have to be paid by them, if they continue to fly-tip in the future?

Mr. Morley: It is certainly important that we raise awareness about the penalties for fly-tipping in particular. The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill will strengthen the penalties that can be applied and give local authorities and the Environment Agency more powers, including on the seizure of vehicles, as my hon. Friend rightly suggests. We have been working well to raise awareness with a range of stakeholders, including the Country Land and Business Association, the National Farmers Union and the Local Government Association. I have been pleased to see the targeted action that the Environment Agency has been taking with various campaigns to seek out areas at high risk of fly-tipping and, along with the police, to stop and search vehicles.

My hon. Friend might also be interested to know that under the BREW—business resource efficiency and waste—fund, which comes from landfill tax, we have made available to the Environment Agency £2 million in additional funds, in particular to tighten up the permitting and transfer of waste.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): In Burnley, waste dumping and illegal fly-tipping is a major problem. We get waste dumped in the backyards of empty properties and the council is clearing it up all the time. One of the biggest problems is that small builders who are working on one property dump the waste in the backyard of another property. Should we not impose draconian penalties on those people and, if necessary, put them out of business because that practice is unacceptable?

Mr. Morley: I agree with my hon. Friend. Fly-tipping is antisocial, selfish and, of course, brings with it environmental risks, and we must use all the measures that we can to stop it. Under another measure in the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill, site plans must be produced for large construction works to make it clear where the construction waste will go, so those sites will be clearly identified. Of course there is a threshold for that—it will not apply to small operators—but the Bill also contains measures to ensure that the landowners of empty properties take action either to secure the property or to clear it up when it is used as a tip, and that people who are responsible for fly-tipping take on the costs of the clean-up as well.

Climate Change

2. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the scientific evidence presented at the avoiding dangerous climate change conference. [215590]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): The conference on avoiding dangerous climate change, which was convened by my Department from 1 to 3 February, concluded that the risks of climate change were even more serious than previously thought. It provided new
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scientific evidence that underlined the need for urgent work on both climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Tony Lloyd: My right hon. Friend once again deserves the thanks of the whole House for convening that important conference. As she pointed out, its conclusions were consistent with recent reports showing that climate change and the pace of change are worse than we thought. Although I welcome the implementation of Kyoto next    week, it was disappointing that the European Commissioners announced that they will not establish targets on climate change under Kyoto beyond 2012. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether we can use our EU presidency to ensure that we firmly push forward the agenda, perhaps change the Commissioners' view on the matter, and make sure that Europe takes the lead with the United States, Japan and, importantly, the newly industrialising world so that we get a grip on the problem of greenhouse gases now? Frankly, if we do not do that now, we are betraying future generations.

Margaret Beckett: I take entirely the point that my hon. Friend makes. We will be engaging with some of the newly developing countries, especially those with substantial and growing energy needs, at a further conference that we are convening in the middle of March. I understand his worry about whether further targets will be set. We anticipate that we will discuss that issue during the March Environment Council. Our likely discussions will centre on whether the scientific and economic analysis informs dialogue and debate on whether further targets should be set, when they should be set and what their form might be. It is important for us to have an evidence-based discussion of the kind that we held in this country before we published our energy White Paper.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Was any evidence presented at the conference on the effect of default demolition, which English Nature estimates costs the equivalent of 3,000 gallons of petrol for every Victorian terraced house? The Daily Telegraph described the demolition of homes as "Prescott's 'first resort'". Has the Secretary of State discussed with the Deputy Prime Minister whether that fits neatly with her green agenda?

Margaret Beckett: I am afraid that the conference did not concentrate on default demolition. It considered what the key impacts of climate change are likely to be for different regions and sectors, as well as for the world as a whole. It also considered what levels of climate change imply about the stabilisation and concentration of greenhouse gases, the emission pathways that would enable different stabilisations and concentrations to be reached, and the technological options. With due respect to The Daily Telegraph, the scope of the discussions was a little different.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that public understanding about the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change is still at a comparatively low level? People now clearly understand the links between tobacco and
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cancer, and between junk food and heart disease, but we have a long way to go before most of my constituents clearly understand the impact of burning fossil fuels. Is there more that the Government can do to improve public awareness?

Margaret Beckett: Yes, I take my hon. Friend's point entirely. He is right that the links are less well understood in this area, which is at least in part because in the effort to ensure that all points of view are heard, media coverage tends to put a disproportionate emphasis on the views of those who are way outside the scientific consensus on the matter. He is entirely right that we realise that there is more to do to increase communication on the issue. We have given extra resources to both the Carbon Trust and the Energy Saving Trust—he might have seen the new campaign that the Carbon Trust has started to run—and we are getting advice about a further communication programme to be run by the Government, for which we were given money in the spending review.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): I join the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) in congratulating the Government on holding the conference last week. Given the serious conclusions, are the Government worried that carbon dioxide emissions have not fallen since they came to power, that they will miss their own target for cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 2010, that their renewable energy target is no longer credible, and that because of their incompetence, British companies cannot take part in the European Union emissions trading scheme? Is it not all too clear that a far more urgent response to the threat of climate change is now needed and that no amount of fine words from the Prime Minister will cover the gaps in the Government's policy?

Margaret Beckett: Of course we are disappointed that CO 2 levels have not fallen, but the hon. Gentleman is stretching things to say that we will miss our target. We are not in 2010 yet—in fact, we are some five years away. It was intended from the beginning, when the climate change programme was established in 2000, that the programme would be reviewed. It was always thought likely that the measures would not be sufficient to get us to our 20 per cent. target by 2010. No such target was missed by the previous Government because they did not have a target for meeting carbon dioxide levels.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): That was before Kyoto.

Margaret Beckett: Yes, but we have moved substantially beyond the levels of greenhouse gas emissions that we inherited from that Government. I am not criticising them because they made progress, but we have made still more and have, indeed, exceeded our Kyoto target.

On the emissions trading scheme, I know that it is too much to expect consistency from the Conservatives, but considering how much they criticised us when we announced our initial proposals for a national allocation plan—

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): And they prayed against the regulations.
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Margaret Beckett: Indeed, they also prayed against the regulations. So it is a bit ironic that they criticise us for trying to amend that plan.

Mr. Yeo: However hard the Secretary of State tries to mislead people—[Hon. Members: "Oh."]—about the Conservative party's attitude to emissions trading, nothing will stop us telling the truth about the Government's failures. [Hon. Members: "Withdraw."] We have always supported the principle of emissions trading—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members sometimes tell me how to do my job. The hon. Gentleman is in order, but he is close to the edge.

Mr. Yeo: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Speaker.

Is it not disgraceful that at the time when the Prime Minister is putting climate change at the heart of Britain's presidency of the European Union, Britain, along with Greece and the Czech Republic, are not even in the emissions trading scheme? We all support the principle of targets, but it will not add to the Government's credibility if they defy the clear evidence that their targets for renewable energy and cutting carbon dioxide emissions will be missed, despite the fact that, after five years of continuous economic growth under the previous Government, they inherited falling carbon dioxide emissions.

The next Conservative Government will make transport greener, do more to promote energy efficiency for the benefit of households and business, and develop a wider range of renewable energy sources than Labour has done. Does the Minister realise that if we are to achieve our objectives and obligations, those are the very steps that the Government should be taking?

Margaret Beckett: I reject utterly any suggestion that I misled the House. All I did was remind it that the Conservative party—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman said I was misleading people. I was not. I referred merely to the simple fact, which is on the record, that the Conservative party prayed against the emissions trading scheme regulations. I was delighted to be told the other day that, nevertheless, the Conservative party supported the principle of such regulations. I have not since said, and will not say, that the Conservatives oppose the principle, but I am entitled to draw attention to the record. I am certainly entitled to draw attention to the Conservatives' inconsistency in criticising us, as they did, for hitting British industry when we published our original proposals and now criticising us for trying to amend them.

I have made no attempt to deny where we are with the targets. It should concern everyone in the House that we are not finding it as easy to meet those targets as had been thought, and we will have to do more. I trust that we will get support from the Conservatives for the measures proposed in the climate change review programme.

As for the notion that the Conservatives would do more on energy efficiency, the Conservative Government did not recognise the issue of fuel poverty, and certainly no steps were taken on energy efficiency to
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help the millions of people who have been helped by this Government. The hon. Gentleman says that we need a wider range of renewables. I agree absolutely. What a pity, therefore, that the Conservatives cut the funding to programmes such as marine and coastal renewables when they were in power.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will know that nine out of 10 of the most costly insured weather catastrophes since 1970 happened in the past 15 years. Was the insurance industry represented at the conference? What prospect does she see for engaging that industry in urging those who are rather laggard in realising the dangers of climate change to take more urgent action?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right. The dangers to which she draws attention are very real. The insurance industry was not represented as such at the conference. It was a conference of scientists that was convened and run by the scientific community. My hon. Friend is right that there is increasing awareness not only in the insurance industry but, as I heard myself during recent conversations that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had with the World Economic Forum in Davos, in the banks, which are increasingly warning those who use their services that their preparations for and understanding of the risks of climate change will, in the long term, be a factor in the assessment of their financial record and probity.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): May I welcome the work that the Secretary of State's Department has done in co-ordinating the scientific evidence on climate change? It has taken a lead within the Government in promoting the necessary radical action that we need, although sometimes it has lost out to other less enlightened Departments, which demonstrates the importance of the departmental structure. Have discussions been taking place within the Government on the possible abolition or reconfiguration of DEFRA, to be announced shortly after the election?

Margaret Beckett: I am not aware of any such discussions. I am constantly urged in conversations, particularly, for example, with non-governmental organisations, that my Department should take in all of energy policy, all of planning or all of transport. That is all very interesting, but I am aware of no plans that we should do so. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks.

Alongside the concerns expressed and warnings given about the increased danger and urgency of the problem, the scientific community also judged that many of the technological options for tackling the problem already exist, and that significant moves forward could be made at a lower cost than some had previously believed. That is an important and worthwhile message that I hope will come out of the conference.

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