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12 Oct 2006 : Column 498

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): Is my hon. Friend as frustrated as I am that so many questions about Conservative policy are being asked when the Secretary of State’s speech included nothing of substance about the precise measures that the Government propose to ensure that we reach our Kyoto targets, in an environment in which our CO2 emissions are increasing?

Mr. Ainsworth: I thank my hon. Friend. Of course, I am always happy to answer questions about Conservative policy.

Mr. Bailey: Bearing in mind the hon. Gentleman’s earlier comments about taking people step by step, I was astonished by his comment, as I interpreted it, that Conservative Members are entitled to oppose their party’s policy on energy conservation in their constituencies. Does he agree that that is a strange way of taking people step by step?

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not really see the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but perhaps our liberal Conservative party has a less overbearing whipping system than the hon. Gentleman enjoys in the Labour party—[ Interruption.] The Secretary of State says from a sedentary position that it is Stalinist. Let us leave that on the table.

The question is: what do we need to do? First, we need to change the mindset. We need to change the way that the Government think about climate change. Incidentally, I welcome the establishment of the Office of Climate Change. I query, however, whether just one office with 15 people in it will be resourced sufficiently and, more importantly, will have the clout across Government to make the sort of changes that we need, although I guess that it is a step in the right direction. Famously, the Prime Minister said that he wanted the environment to be at the heart of policy making. We must do that. It is not just about making policy, however, but about the way in which the Government do business. As the Sustainable Development Commission pointed out last year, carbon emissions from the Government estate have increased by 8 per cent. since 1999.

Were the Government to divert a small proportion of their massive procurement budget towards encouraging sustainable technologies and products, it would make a huge difference to creating critical mass in such emerging markets. I urge the Secretary of State to take that message away and make even more effort than I know that he is making to use the mighty arm of Government spending to lever in real improvement. I note that just one Department—it is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—has, for example, allocated any money from its building budget to micro-power generation.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): On greening government, on which, under my hon. Friend’s stewardship, the Environmental Audit Committee has been strong for several years, will he confirm my understanding that the latest contract from Government, the gigantic DHL outsourcing contract, does absolutely nothing to green government any further?

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Mr. Ainsworth: I am afraid that I can confirm that. I hope that the Secretary of State or the Minister who winds up will clarify that that is exactly the sort of issue in which the new Office of Climate Change will be involved—making sure that when other Departments issue contracts they take sustainability and the environment into account.

The need to change the mindset in Government is one of the reasons why we are supporting a new climate change Bill in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech—a Bill that would set statutory interim targets to ensure progress towards at least the 60 per cent. target for 2050 on which we all agree. It would also establish an independent body to monitor the science of climate change and make recommendations in much the same way that the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England does. [ Interruption] Indeed, as the Secretary of State notes from a sedentary position, we need a decision-making body, not just one capable of recommendations—not decisions over policy but over the trajectory and the direction of travel and what we need to do to meet the threat. Policy should be left to politicians.

In a climate change Bill, we would also wish to see an annual report to Parliament so that Ministers are truly accountable for their actions in that regard. I was very interested to hear what the Secretary of State had to say about that and it sounds as if he is giving thought to making encouraging proposals along those lines. I hope that he will do so, when he does, in a spirit of co-operation and open dialogue, because it will be important to reach cross-party agreement on the way forward.

Colin Challen: I add my praise for the hon. Gentleman in his role as Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee and for being a good parliamentarian on these issues. I make the same point to him as I made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, which is that the science and the analysis are pointing in the worst direction possible and we will have to go beyond the 60 per cent. target by 2050. If we are to have new legislation, surely it should be framed in such a way that we are not necessarily bound to a figure that is then overtaken at a later date, as the science improves. Will he commit his party to that approach so that we can move with the times, instead of presenting to the public as an established solution something that will not actually solve the problem—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I point out to the hon. Gentleman and the House that long interventions are not helpful, especially when the Member making them is seeking to catch my eye a little later?

Mr. Ainsworth: As we are in praise mode, let me add to the heap of praise showered on the hon. Gentleman by the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman has a distinguished record on this issue and he makes a fair point. It would be the purpose of the independent body that I have mentioned to assess and evaluate the science consider the shifting evidence and make authoritative pronouncements about what we need to achieve as a society to reduce the risk of climate change.

A climate change Bill, if and when the Government get round to introducing one, would also show that
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they are taking a lead. It would help the public to make the changes that they will need to make if they can see that the Government are taking the matter seriously and legislating to discipline their own activity. We look forward to a forthcoming announcement on the subject.

There is so much more that we could be doing. We have already heard mention of energy efficiency, which is the no-brainer option in this debate, but we are still building homes that fail to live up to decent standards of energy efficiency. We need much tougher ecological building standards. Some 43 per cent. of houses tested by the Building Research Establishment in a recent trial failed to meet existing building standards despite having an energy performance certificate.

We need to do much more to make people aware of what they can do to reduce energy use and save money at the same time. Some 8 per cent. of all electricity consumed in our houses is for things that we are not actually using at the time. If every conventional light bulb in our homes were replaced by an energy efficient light bulb, the total demand for electricity would fall by 3.5 per cent. So there is much more that we can do.

We can also do more to promote decentralised and community-led solutions. We need to rework the tax system so that it forms part of our armoury in the fight against climate change. On that front, the Government started well. The statement of intent on environmental taxation in 1997 committed the Government to shifting the burden of tax from goods to bads and implementing the polluter pays principle. Figures from the Office for National Statistics, released today, show that the shift has gone the other way. Environmental taxes, as a percentage of total tax and social contributions, have fallen from 8.3 per cent. in 2004 to 7.7 per cent. in 2005. The percentage was lower still in 1997. We need to get back on track with the tax system as part of our armoury.

Dr. Whitehead: In the context of environmental taxation, does the hon. Gentleman accept that capping and trading carbon emissions is a development from taxation, in which the market undertakes the work that taxation might otherwise do? Would he include in his analysis what is happening to European emissions trading and will he be active in ensuring that the emissions trading system 2008 to 2012 really works?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who also has a distinguished track record on these issues. He makes a good point and I am coming to that subject in a moment, if he will bear with me.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): In the spirit of consensus, does my hon. Friend share my concern that the climate change levy, of which the Government have been so proud, is actually a tax on energy use rather than a direct tax on carbon emissions, and may not be having the effect that it could if it were otherwise framed?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am grateful for the opportunity to comment on that point and I agree with my hon. Friend. The climate change levy has been a moderately
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useful instrument, but it does not do what it says on the label and we propose replacing it with a carbon levy that would reduce carbon emissions rather than being solely a tax on industry’s use of energy.

Tax is not the only solution, as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) points out. We also need carefully targeted regulation. I know that it is not conventional for Conservatives to talk positively about regulation, but I do so in the sure knowledge that progressive industry is crying out for clarity and new regulations that can unlock markets—

David Miliband: Watch out behind you!

Mr. Ainsworth: I am well aware of who is behind me. I am merely repeating what I have been told by senior representatives of UK industry. They are looking for clarity in the regulations. We probably have too many regulations. They also lack clarity and can be conflicting. Properly targeted regulations can unlock markets, provide the certainty for investors that industry seeks and drive new, clean technology. Technology is also part of the solution, but it cannot do it on its own. It needs politicians to provide a positive framework in which it can flourish.

Mr. Redwood: I hope to move my hon. Friend on from the slightly difficult passage he has reached in his speech . [ Laughter. ] Does he agree that one of the reasons we have too many transport emissions in this country is the complete absence of adequate network capacity? We have planes stacked for up to half an hour flying over London burning fuel when they should be able to land. Planes on the ground, waiting to get on a runway to take off or to find a place to park, may spend 15 or 30 minutes with main engines running. Would not it help if we had adequate road and airport capacity so that we did not burn fuel unnecessarily?

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is aware of the work that is being done to encourage the continuous descent procedure for aircraft, which could dramatically reduce noise and climate changing emissions—

David Miliband: The right hon. Gentleman knows about continuous dissent.

Mr. Ainsworth: It is good to see the Secretary of State in such a jolly mood.

In the past, much of the green movement has had it in for capitalism and it is a fair cop, in that it is as a result of unbridled capitalistic activities over 200 years that we have ended up in the mess that we are today. Capitalism is the most powerful force for change on the planet. It is essential that we harness industry’s imagination, creativity and investment power, as well as its abilities in design and technology, to help us get us out of the mess that we are in.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mrs. Moon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I cannot, as I must make progress.

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In that context, I turn now to emissions trading which, as the hon. Member for Southampton Test (Dr. Whitehead) said, certainly has a part to play. It is unfortunate that the EU’s scheme has gone awry—mainly because of how it was structured in the first place—but that does not undermine the principle of using emissions trading to drive down carbon emissions. I welcomed what the Secretary of State had to say about what he was doing in that regard. We very much support more auctioning of permits to pollute, and want to get away from the type of back-door negotiations that have resulted in a system that is not working. We want more transparency in these matters.

As for the EU, I confirm that, although the Opposition can disagree about the euro, the constitution or some of the regulations that the EU produces, we have no doubt that it has a crucial role to play in climate change. It is the biggest market in the world, its buying power has an enormous capacity for good, and it is also a major voice in world affairs. Of course, therefore, we must work closely with our EU neighbours on climate change.

David Miliband: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s flow, and I am delighted by what he is saying. Does he therefore believe that the European Commission should be given the power to set national caps for the EU emissions trading scheme? Is that the sort of integration that he has in mind?

Mr. Ainsworth: That is a good question. The matter is being actively considered in my party’s policy review process, although it has not yet been resolved.

We must redouble our efforts to forge a genuine international agreement to succeed the Kyoto process. I believe that that agreement should be based on an international trading system that is fair, equitable and effective, and able to meet the needs of the developing world, the rapidly developing world and the developed world. That is a big ask, but I am glad that the Government are on the case and I was interested to hear the Secretary of State’s report from Mexico.

No speech on climate change would be complete without reference to aviation—

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Before the hon. Gentleman skates over the question of regulation, will he give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I thought that I had dwelt on regulation rather extensively, but I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Sheerman: Does the hon. Gentleman admit that the antipathy that many of his colleagues exhibit towards Europe means that they oppose any European regulation? The example that I would give is the landfill tax: does he agree that we would have got nowhere with that without European standards and regulation? Is he using his Front-Bench position to say that he now embraces that sort of regulation?

Mr. Ainsworth: For a start, the landfill tax is rather a bad example, as it was introduced by a Conservative Government. Secondly, Conservatives have always been prepared to regulate. As far back as in Disraeli’s time, the public health Acts cleaned up the River Thames,
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and I have no doubt that men in stovepipe hats told the then Prime Minister that that legislation would be a terrible burden on business. Similarly, a Conservative Government introduced the clean air legislation in the 1950s—[ Interruption.] I do not see any stovepipe hats in the Chamber this afternoon. We are not at all afraid of regulation that is targeted, carefully structured and able to create opportunity. The hon. Gentleman might be interested to learn that, only earlier this week, Conservative Members of the European Parliament voted to toughen the regulation relating to the substitution principles in the REACH directive. That gives a clear signal about our strong commitment to use regulation to improve the environment and the health of everyone.

I had just begun to speak about aviation—in my view, the hardest nut to crack in the whole issue of climate change. There is no technological quick fix and it is, by nature, international, but that is not an excuse for ignoring it in the official statistics on climate change. We must recognise and face up to its impact, so of course we must include it in the EU emissions trading scheme and in the existing emission reductions target. In addition, we should look at restructuring air passenger duties, for example, and bear down on emissions rather than passengers.

Climate change is the greatest challenge facing this generation of politicians, worldwide. If we are to rise to the challenge, we must put aside politics as usual, and work together. Our door remains open, to the Secretary of State and to the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, if either of them wishes to come and talk openly about climate change and about how we can meet the challenge together. We will not succeed, nor will we earn the public’s respect, if we continue to bicker among ourselves. We should start by recognising that this beautiful, fragile earth has natural limits, to which we are all subject whether we like it or not, and we have a frighteningly short space of time to start living within them.

2.44 pm

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): As other Members have said, it is most important that Parliament is debating climate change—and on only the fourth day back. Our debate has mobilised the local radio station in my constituency, BBC Radio Stoke, to cover energy issues on its morning programme during the whole of next week. I hope that our proceedings today will encourage such debates all around the country. I particularly look forward to the Secretary of State’s contribution to those radio programmes next week.

Our debate today is an opportunity for us to congratulate everybody who is doing so much to put climate change at the top of the agenda. Only if we all act together can we respond to the challenge of climate change. If we ignore that challenge, we will leave our grandchildren, and even our children, to suffer the consequences.

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