Previous Section Index Home Page

3.31 pm

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I had intended to talk exclusively about climate change and the Climate Change Bill, but I would like to make some quick comments about a couple of things that have come up in the debate.

The first is migration and, in particular, the migration from eastern Europe that several Members have mentioned. I am becoming increasingly concerned about the tenor of the debate on the issue. For example, I saw a tabloid headline last week that screamed, “All jobs created have been taken by migrants”. That is clearly nonsense.

Last year, the Trade and Industry Committee produced a report on the impact of the extension of the European Union to the east. As part of that process, we tried to get a handle on exactly how many migrants had come to the UK. We had before us the statistician from the Department for Work and Pensions and we tried to find out how many Poles, Lithuanians and others were in the UK. Frankly, he did not have a clue; he could not tell us. The main reason why he could not tell us is that, although it is relatively easy to count the number of people coming into the country, it is not so easy to count the number leaving. That is an important point. I appreciate it is difficult to count the people leaving the country because of free movement within the EU, but many people from eastern Europe come here to work on a temporary basis.

There is now a significant eastern European population in my constituency. Some of them are settling, but many more come in the summer particularly to pick raspberries and strawberries. The industry would collapse without the labour from eastern Europe. Indeed, many growers are becoming concerned that too much of a crackdown on Romanians, Bulgarians and Russians will lead to a labour shortage in parts of the industry. There is a huge eastern European population in my area in the summer, but most of them go home in the autumn. Many of them are students who return to university and who have come here to earn money to help with their studies. That is perfectly legitimate and we should not get to the point where those people are penalised or stop coming here because of fears about migration.

The second point regards council housing, and I listened with interest to the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). I remember that as a councillor in the early 1980s, we sold off huge numbers of council houses after the right-to-buy-policy was introduced. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the policy, the effect was that all the best council housing was quickly sold off to people who had lived in it for many years.

The real problem was not selling the houses, but the fact that the money we received from selling the houses had to go to paying off housing debt. We could not build new council houses with that money and the
8 Nov 2007 : Column 330
problem was exacerbated later when the legislation was changed. Although previously one could sell at a discount or for the outstanding debt on a house, the latter option was removed, so the sale had to take place at a discount. In effect, when any new houses were built, they were often sold off without getting enough money back to cover the debt on the house. No council in its right mind was building a great number of council houses in those circumstances.

The new Government in Scotland have taken action on that. We intend not only to build new houses, but to amend the right to buy to tackle the problem. Only the two measures together—more social housing and ending the right to buy at less than the cost of building—will result in a large number of new houses.

Let me move on to what I intended to speak about: the Climate Change Bill. We generally welcome the Bill. Climate change covers many matters, both reserved and devolved. The Scottish Government have accepted the need to work with the UK Government to meet the challenges of climate change, which obviously affect us all. The statutory target in the Bill is a 60 per cent. reduction in emissions by 2050, but as has been noted, that covers only carbon dioxide, not the other greenhouse gases. We do not think that the target is sufficient. Many scientific studies indicate that a reduction of at least 80 per cent. will be required to avoid the 2° rise in global temperature that would lead to a sharp increase in the expected impact of climate change. That impact is already being felt in many developing nations throughout the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific islands and south-east Asia. We must move quickly and as far as possible.

The Scottish Government are consulting on proposals to establish both mandatory targets and monitoring arrangements to reduce Scottish emissions by 80 per cent. by 2050. That would cover all greenhouse gases, not just carbon dioxide. We are also encouraging Scottish industries to invest in low-carbon technologies because that would be a way forward both to help our industry and to tackle climate change.

While the Scottish Government are looking at creating legislation that would lead to a greater reduction in emissions of not only carbon dioxide, but other greenhouse gases, it is encouraging and welcome that the Secretary of State has been reported recently as suggesting that it might be necessary to increase the target above 60 per cent. and that other greenhouse gases might need to be included. That suggests that there might be scope for cross-party agreement and progress as the Bill makes its way through the House. I certainly hope that that will be the case. However, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) noted, there was a previous agreement among various parties. While we all agreed on some aspects, I recall that the process broke down because of disagreement between the Liberals and Tories, although I am not quite sure what it was about. Prior to that, the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and even the Democratic Unionists had joined the consensus. It was a pity that the agreement broke down because achieving consensus is important.

How does the Secretary of State intend that the UK carbon reduction target will work in the various devolved Administrations, given that the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies will have an interest and
8 Nov 2007 : Column 331
will, I presume, put forward their own legislation on the matter? If any of the devolved Administrations achieve a much bigger reduction than their appropriate share of the UK target, how will that be reflected? Would such success be likely to let other parts of the UK off the hook, or will the Secretary of State be giving each area a specific part of the UK target?

Colin Challen: If Scotland wants all the benefits of oil, will it also take responsibility for the emissions from that oil?

Mr. Weir: Most of the oil is coming south at the moment. If we are given all the oil, we will be delighted to take responsibility for it.

A further problem relates to the five-year carbon budgets because it appears that we are missing any indication of what, if anything, will be done to get us on track if it seems that we are not making real progress towards the ultimate target. A five-year carbon budget period will last longer than one Parliament, which will make consistency much more difficult to achieve. We would have liked some more interim targets along the way. I reluctantly accept, I suppose, that strict annual targets may be too restrictive, but some mechanism is required to make sure that we are on target and can adjust if we are off-beam.

Hon. Members have talked about ensuring joined-up government, and have mentioned the energy Bill. The hon. Member for Cambridge talked longingly of the Government giving up power in that area. One of the problems is that the climate change problem affects many Departments, and things are not necessarily joined-up. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) made a good point about the regulator; I have serious difficulties with the way in which Ofgem operates. The generation of electricity is obviously an important part of the climate change issue. Renewable energy will, as he rightly says, be a major issue in the coming years, in terms of combating climate change. Scotland has not only oil but massive potential for renewable energy, whether it be wind, wave, tidal, water or geothermal. You name it, Scotland has the potential for it.

The problem is that it is becoming difficult for many renewable generators to get their energy to market. That is partly because there is a problem with the planning system; Scotland’s system is separate from England’s. There is a queue to link up to the grid, irrespective of how likely a person is to get planning permission for their development. That is one problem. Another problem is the way that Ofgem charges. I noted last week that Ofgem has issued a sustainability report and congratulates itself on its contribution to sustainability. I had to laugh a bit at that, because in Scotland the opposite is happening, as there is an unnatural obsession with locational pricing. That is undermining a great deal of potential renewable generation in north and west Scotland. I have often raised the matter in the Chamber with Department of Trade and Industry Ministers, but it is the first time that I have raised it with a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We will see whether we get a different response; I doubt it, somehow.

The system is discriminatory, because it means that anyone generating electricity in the north of Scotland, far from the south of England, pays more to connect to
8 Nov 2007 : Column 332
the grid. Not content with that, Ofgem has now proposed introducing locational distribution pricing. Generators in more remote areas suffer the discrimination of paying more to link to the grid, but if the proposals go ahead, they will also face greater costs when transmitting their energy across the grid to the ultimate market, whether it be in another part of Scotland or south of the border. Frankly, that is madness, and it can only undermine the move towards cleaner and greener electricity. Rather than giving that power away to unelected quangos such as Ofgem, the Government should get a bigger grip, and make sure that we have a system that delivers the clean, green energy that we need.

I have often mentioned the issue of carbon capture and storage, and the fact that a scheme was ready to go ahead in Peterhead but is basically now on hold because the Government decided to go down the road of a competition. That is missing an opportunity, and it is a pity that they did that.

Time is running out, but I will make a couple of quick points about the marine Bill. We would all like a marine Bill to be introduced. There is particular interest in that in Scotland, not just from a marine environment point of view, but from a fishing point of view, as the Secretary of State may well be aware. We want to see how fishing will be treated in the Bill. A report this week showed that Scottish fishermen were the greenest in Europe. They have certainly come a long way to have a sustainable industry, and that should be reflected.

There is also the issue of ship-to-ship transfers in the firth of Forth. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment wrote to the Secretary of State about that on 7 September, and he still awaits a reply. That is an important issue concerning a practice that may endanger the natural environment in the Forth estuary. I ask the Secretary of State to consider the issue, and perhaps to take the matter up again. I have run out of time, so I shall end my remarks.

3.44 pm

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Before I commence my speech, the House may wish to know that I chair the Community Development Foundation, which administers grant programmes for both the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, although I have no pecuniary interest in that process.

The three main themes of the Queen’s Speech are security, aspiration and democracy. Security means continuing the battle against crime and antisocial behaviour. At the same time, we must celebrate the confidence with which the police and the communities in which neighbourhood teams are well established do so, while redoubling our efforts to thwart terrorists. As for aspiration, no youngster should leave education without the necessary skills, and no one should be denied basic skills in adulthood. We want to ensure that every family has a decent and affordable home, and we want to ensure and enhance dignity at work through greater flexibility for employees and the enforcement of rights such as the right to the national minimum wage. On democracy, we demand that our services should be truly accountable and personalised, and that all decisions are taken at the appropriate level of government. I will come back to that issue later.

8 Nov 2007 : Column 333

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is in the Chamber. When he was at the Department for International Development, I was his Parliamentary Private Secretary for four years, and with due diligence, I notice that he has been present in the Chamber even longer than me today, missing only 10 minutes of debate. He will be aware that climate change is one of the biggest issues, if not the biggest issue, confronting us. I want to raise two things with him. First, climate change has a political architecture: individuals, communities, Governments and international organisations must work together and take co-ordinated initiatives to tackle the problem. It has the same political architecture as fair trade and the global relief of poverty, and his experience in the Department for International Development of working on the Make Poverty History initiative puts him in an ideal position to apply those principles and leadership to climate change.

Secondly, I would rather that we had an 80 per cent. reduction target for CO2 and fail by 5 per cent. than have a 60 per cent. target and exceed it by 5 per cent. Not only is the target about meeting our share of international responsibility but it may well have to make up for others’ shortcomings. Whatever experts say, the 80 per cent. target gives us some wobble room if we need it, whereas the 60 per cent. target does not do so. Those issues need to be tackled early, as other hon. Members have said.

My High Peak constituency covers most of the bases in DEFRA’s portfolio, and I should like to draw a number of issues to my right hon. Friend’s attention. First, the aggregates levy sustainability fund, which is administered by DEFRA, puts money back into communities affected by quarrying. It is currently under review under the comprehensive spending review procedure, but because that money is hypothecated, it must go into communities affected by quarrying. I hope that my right hon. Friend can give me an undertaking, not necessarily today, that this will continue to be the case.

Hill farmers in High Peak are almost all in the 10th decile of income, as they farm land with a low productivity. They are concerned about the nitrate vulnerable zone regulations, and they require an assurance that they will receive help to meet those new challenges.

The national park dominates the geography of my constituency. The principles behind the park are well understood and supported by the Government, but rural housing is a problem. Housing in national parks is a particular problem, because in rural areas, wages are generally lower than in urban areas but house prices are higher. Social housing in rural areas per head of population is less than half that available in urban areas. In addition, the particular constraints on planning in national parks and the extra costs of building, where that is possible, make energy conservation in both new homes and old homes extremely difficult and exacerbate the problems of rural housing. These problems are largely seen not in rural areas but in the cities, where young rural families migrate when they cannot get homes in rural areas.

8 Nov 2007 : Column 334

Finally on DEFRA, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State knows, because I have told him often enough, that High Peak is the spiritual home of the right to roam. We had the Kinder trespass in 1932, and earlier this year we marked the 75th anniversary, which our right hon. Friend the present Foreign Secretary attended as the then Environment Secretary. A couple of years ago I was delighted to be present to welcome the first open access land designated under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. I am disappointed that we are not going to extend that right yet to coastal areas. After we brought in the CROW Act, we spent three years working out the detail of implementing it. I am sure that we can do that with the right to access the coastal areas, and I hope my right hon. Friend will look into the possibility of bringing that forward separately from the rest of the marine Bill.

I shall address the rest of my remarks to the Department for Communities and Local Government, and make one or two observations about the nature of democracy in the 21st century. Initially, perhaps, democracy was about communities looking after their own and being entirely self-sufficient—the idea of communes, kibbutzim and so on—but in an interdependent world, that is not possible. Yet the idea of electing people to look after our interests is only 200 years old in this country, and even that took 140 years to mature. Next year it will be only 60 years since we abolished the university vote and the double vote that some people had, when they could vote at both residential and business addresses. We have had our present franchise for only 60 years.

Although there are those who want to return to the era of rotten boroughs and who would support the right of millionaires to pump tens of thousands of pounds into selected local Conservative campaigns in order to ensure that the sheer firepower and weight of money behind their campaign might achieve what the force of argument clearly cannot—that is, Conservative victories—I am delighted that we will deal with that under the legislation proposed in the Queen’s Speech.

Today we have a 24-hour global news media. More people rely on the internet than on newspapers for news. We can attract thousands to petition No. 10 Downing street on a website within hours. We can make or break careers by voting people out of “Big Brother” or into the final of “Strictly Come Dancing”, and we can also force leaders of the G8 to stick to their resolve to tackle global poverty by mobilising globally on the scale of Make Poverty History.

When there is such a groundswell of opinion, people expect something to happen. They understand why some collective ambitions cannot be fulfilled, if it is explained to them. People understand when politicians try hard but temporarily fail to achieve those ambitions. Being British, we also understand the historic art of compromise. However, people do not understand when politicians do not try to understand and resolve their problems. The lesson from this is that democracy is not something that happens every four years, but something that happens 24 hours a day.

In response to those pressures and demands, I welcome the recent comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about the empowerment of communities. The CDF, the organisation that I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, has been asked to take
8 Nov 2007 : Column 335
forward the initiative on empowerment by bringing together third sector organisations involved in communities and involved in helping local people have more control over the issues that affect their local environment.

A mechanic goes underneath a car to look up and find what is wrong from the bottom. He has a better understanding of what needs fixing in that car and how than does the garage proprietor, who looks from the skylight and sees only the bonnet and the roof. Our communities are the mechanics. They are constantly looking up and seeing how things work or why they do not. They often know better than the one looking down from on top what needs doing. Councils are better at their job when they ask people what they think of the services that they receive, when they take public concerns on board and when they see themselves as the servants of the people.

Communities, as well as individuals, can have aspirations. Lower crime, better lighting, less dog fouling, more play areas, a better balance between the needs of the motorist and those of the pedestrian, better disabled access, faster clearing of blocked drains—all are community aspirations that have been brought to my attention in the past two weeks. If it is legitimate for communities to influence such issues, why not allow them to influence major capital investments made locally, the deployment of staff in their communities and the ownership of community assets?

The issue is about campaigning and empowering communities and the organisations that represent them. The message that communities send out to politicians, particularly local politicians, is, “You are part of the democratic process, but you are not the democratic process itself.” The people in communities have to be part of that process and must be able to influence what goes on around them. I am proud that we are getting to grips with the issue, finding out what works, disseminating good practice and calling all politicians to account for themselves. Through our commitment in the Queen’s Speech to improve the security of all, to recognise the aspirations of all and to recognise the democratic aspirations of communities, I am sure that we will continue to deliver the progress that we have started on for another 10 years and more.

3.56 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): My principal concern with the Government’s approach to environmental issues is not about a lack of good will on the part of the Government—we have heard a great deal of it today—but about a lack of urgency and ambition. I am also concerned about the failure to extend interest in the environment sufficiently beyond the narrow concerns of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and into other parts of Government, including the Department for Communities and Local Government, whose programme we are also considering.

Next Section Index Home Page