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Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD):
Far be it from me to interpret the Conservative motion, but I read the concern expressed in the first line not as a criticism of what the Prime Minister has done, as many of us recognise that he has done a lot this year, but as a concern that in his efforts to achieve an international agreement, he might have concluded that the way to do so is to abandon the idea of mandatory national targets.
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Margaret Beckett: I know of no evidence that backs up that concern. There has been much over-interpretation of some remarks that the Prime Minister made in New York, not least, I might addI am not sure whether this is wholly clear to Members of the Houseas a result of a rush of blood to the head on the part of some in the United States who still cling to the notion that there is no such problem as climate change, and who leapt immediately to the conclusion that the Prime Minister was agreeing with them, which would certainly be a first.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): We should not labour this point, but the Prime Minister did say that he was changing his mind, did he not?
Margaret Beckett: As I said, there has been a certain amount of over-interpretation. The Prime Minister has not changed his mind about the need for future international action in any way, shape or form.
Mr. Letwin: We may be making significant progress here, and perhaps I have misinterpreted the Prime Minister. Is the Secretary of State saying that the Government still believe that it is necessary to reach, after whatever technological investment programme might take place, a series of national and binding targets across a wide range of nations, including the United States, China and India?
Margaret Beckett: If I may, I will deal later in my speech with the shape of how international discussions might go forward, as I think that people are getting several steps ahead of themselves. I will say two things that might reassure both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman. First, in the discussions referred to in New York, the Prime Minister said specifically:
He then talked about how we move forward post-Kyoto.
We can all, I hope, sign upalbeit with varying degrees of commitmentto the need to tackle the impact of climate change. As was said in an intervention, that is the easy bit, but there is not much point in reaching a consensus on the problem if, the minute difficult decisions on what to do about it come along, the would-be consensus rats and runs away. So let us rise above such silliness in the motionI accept the right hon. Gentleman's point about misinterpretation and hoping to be proved wrongand consider what this consensus might consist of, apart from agreement that there is a problem.
The Conservatives seem at last to agreethe right hon. Gentleman said that this has been his party's position for some timewith the Government's major target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent. by about 2050, as set out in our energy White Paper. He is being unjust to himself in suggesting that this is a longstanding Conservative commitment; but however recent it is, it is certainly welcome. But what else is there? I looked for clues in the motion, which talks about an independent body to monitor emissions. Indeed, that was the tenor of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, but it is not entirely clear to me why he thinks that such a body would be a major help.
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Our emissions data are already compiled according to international guidelines, and they are scrutinised byamong othersthe National Audit Office and are subject to international peer review, under guidelines agreed by the United Nations framework convention on climate change. Far from there being concern about the UK's work on emissions monitoring, it has an outstanding international reputation.
So is there something more for which the right hon. Gentleman is calling? Perhaps I am now over-interpreting, but a clue might be found in a 20 September article in The Daily Telegraph. Charles Clover reported what was said to be the right hon. Gentleman's view that
this takes us back to a point made in an earlier intervention on the right hon. Gentleman
which should be achieved through a 3 per cent. per year cut in emissions. But although the Bank of England's independent role in the economy is crucial, it is specific and limited. It sets the level of interest rates, so what would this new body control and how would it control it? If the intention is to influence the price of carbon, would such a body control fuel prices under the next Conservative Government? Would that include controlling the price of oil, gas and coal?
Mr. Letwin: I have undoubtedly made myself insufficiently clear, given that I failed earlier to persuade the right hon. Lady of my point. What I meant to say is that there needs to be a body that predictsin the way that the Bank of England predicts, through its probabilistic analysesthe chance of the Government of the day's meeting a set of year-by-year targets relating to the policies of the time. That is a very specific and extraordinarily important role which is not based on current monitoring, but which looks forward to 2050.
Margaret Beckett: If I may return to the analogy that the right hon. Gentleman himself drew, such a role forms a small part of any comparison with the role of the Bank of England, which, as I said, does not merely comment but holds some of the levers of power. I am slightly disappointed in the right hon. Gentleman's response, and I am inclined to turn back on him an observation that he made to me. Perhaps it would have been better to secure agreement among his own Front BenchersI take his point about policy entirely, and I do not criticise the Conservatives for reviewing their policiesand to have established a more detailed proposition that is genuinely in keeping with how the Bank of England operates.
I did wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman had it in mind that such a body would advise on building standards, so as to ensure greater energy efficiency. I take his point that he was confining his remarks to the question of monitoring. However, listening to this exchangeI look forward with great interest to hearing the supporting comments of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker)I wonder whether, when we next hear from the spokesmen for the fuel protests, both parties will urge the Government not to be flexible. That would certainly be interesting.
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Let me make it plain, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would welcome a real cross-party consensus on climate change. We would probably never reach the stage of total agreement on every policy, but a recognition of the need for harsh choices and a willingness to face up to them would definitely be steps in the right direction. I acceptmy hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Ed Balls) may be less keenthat the Opposition include those who dislike the climate change levy. For the sake of this debate, let us say fair enough, but what would they do instead that might deliver the same results? Let us not forget that, for all the criticismsome of it unjustifiedof the Government's record, our technical advice is that, without the totality of the measures in our climate change programme or something of equal magnitude to replace them, our carbon dioxide emissions will be 5 per cent. up on 1990, instead of more than 5 per cent. down.
Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is moving in the right direction on tackling the problems of climate change that lie ahead of us, but many problems are already with us. On 30 June, my constituency experienced a major flood and our sewers were unable to deal with peak loading as a result of the heavy rain. The water authority told me that the problem was not unique to Newcastle, but probably applied around the country. Has my right hon. Friend or her colleagues in other Departments made an assessment of what needs to be done, and has she talked to the water authorities about those matters?
Margaret Beckett: I cannot honestly say whether a specific assessment of the problems arising in Newcastle has been made. I am sorry to learn about how my hon. Friend's constituents have been affected, but I can certainly confirm that it provides a classic example of the potential impact of climate change. We are seeing signs that the nature of our rainfall is changing. The way in which we handle it, the nature of our infrastructure and water storage, as well as our water use, must be kept under review. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government view those issues as of considerable importance. We are concerned not just with flood prevention schemes and the like, but with much wider issues. My hon. Friend makes an important point about the overall impact of these problems.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am certainly prepared for the time being to give both Opposition spokesmen and their parties the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, I will even stop pointing outnot least because I suspect that it is as much an embarrassment as it should be to the hon. Member for Lewesthat the Liberals campaigned successfully against a congestion charge in Edinburgh. On domestic policy, I give them both noticeI shall leave the point herethat we will judge them as they claim to judge us: by their actions and not just by their words.
I want to turn now to the international scene, where I hope we might find common ground more readily, as long as we all understand the true position. A year ago, there was no willingness in the international community even to mention the future beyond 2012the end of the first Kyoto commitment periodlet alone to begin to think about dealing with it. Before anyone on any side of the House grabs for the easy option and starts muttering
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about George Bush, let me be crystal clear about it, so there can be no doubt in any part of this House. I mean no willingness outside the ranks of the EU and those countries that can already see their very existence threatened by global warming.
The fact that at Gleneagles not only the G8 themselvesitself no small featbut Brazil, India, China, South Africa and Mexico agreed to begin to engage in just such a discussion is, frankly, a major and personal diplomatic achievement by our Prime Minister. Nor are we just pursuing dialogue. It was a UK-led initiativeit has not had much publicity, so it is entirely possible that hon. Members are not aware of itin which, so far, my Department is bearing the lion's share, with support from the Department of Trade and Industry. At the EU-China summit in September, the initiative led to the signing of an agreement to pilot a clean-coal power plant in China. That is a massive and practical step forward.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has signed a climate change partnership agreement with the Government of China. Moreover, during the UK's presidency of the EU, we also agreed a joint initiative with India. I know that I am saying the obvious, but it is always wise for the House to bear it in mind that countries such as those have immense and pressing problems of development, even without the already damaging impactsin the present and the futureof climate change.
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