Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Dr. Whitehead: Opposition Members have made a number of important points this morning, but there has also been quite a lot of mealy-mouthed talk, which augers badly for the progress of the Bill in Committee on the basis of consensus. I am concerned about the insertion of the principal aim clause in the other place, because it may have been designed not so much to emphasise the principal aim as to beat the Government around the head on the grounds that they are not really committed to that principal aim because they will not put it in the Bill.
As I said in an earlier intervention, it is possible to put all sorts of things in such clauses. We could have a whole list of things that we are committed not to do and on which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North has said, we have no traction. I really do not want to see polar bears disappearing from the north pole, but I would not be prepared to stand in this House and place in legislation that the UK Government have a duty to ensure that polar bears do not disappear in the Arctic.
An important question on the overall mechanisms in this Bill, which it is very important that we get right and which will be the subject of our debate this afternoon, is what will the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State or whoever it is be faced with in 2051 when they come before the House of Commons to say what they have done. Let us say that that person stands up in the House and says, “Great news! According to our carbon budgets, we have reduced our emissions by 80 per cent., and therefore we have succeeded in what this Bill set out to do all those many years ago.” Somebody else could say, “No, sorry, you have not actually kept below 2° C, and therefore you have failed.” One approach involves what we can do as far as the UK is concerned; the other involves what we might do if many other countries were to enter the process of making sure that there are international commitments that enable both reductions in emissions to be undertaken in particular countries and an overall reduction in emissions across the globe as a result of those commitments. Then the global targets on parts per million and temperature can be achieved.
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That, of course, depends on crucial upcoming negotiations and discussions. If, for example, the United States continues on a path of not wishing to address seriously the sort of emissions that are envisaged by the Bill, or if other countries do the same, the percentage that the UK will have to undertake if we are to succeed will be different. However, if the United States and other countries take a different path—as I hope that they will—achieving something getting on for 80 per cent. would represent a move very solidly towards the idea of keeping the world within a 2° C temperature rise and restraining the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to around 450 ppm.
To suggest that everything hinges on this clause, and that if we do not go for the clause, we are not serious about all the rest of this, is not just overblown but, frankly, a little insulting to those people who are trying to draft legislation that will get those mechanisms right for this country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North said, the Bill will demonstrate to several countries that are looking very seriously at our climate change legislation that devices can be introduced in legislation that enable a country to play its proper role in reducing emissions. If we fall at the very first hurdle—before we have even started looking at how to put this together—frankly, to paraphrase the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, our grandchildren will say “What were they doing? Why were they not constructing serious legislation on what the country could properly do as far as carbon emissions are concerned? Why were they posturing and deciding what should or should not go in declaratory parts of the Bill at the expense of making the Bill work?”
The Committee is seriously concerned with making the Bill work. My modest suggestion, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North, would be that if we were to make any changes, we should place the principal aim of the Bill in the long title. I appreciate that we cannot put all clause 1 in because the long title has to reflect what is in the Bill. Yet, surely the whole Bill is for this purpose, and placing something like that in the long title would mean that those who have made serious comments this morning about how to ensure that business proceeds properly could be satisfied about the intentions of the Bill. That would also make sure that the Bill worked not just to satisfy the ambitions of our country on addressing climate change, but to ensure that other countries follow our lead with similar legislation.
Gregory Barker: This has been a most instructive and interesting sitting. I disagree profoundly with the hon. Member for Southampton, Test because our proceedings augur very well for the debates and discussions that we will be having in Committee over the next few days. The debate has been by no means a diversion. Our discussion goes to the very heart of what we are trying to achieve, and I do not think that the debate has detracted in any way from the meat of the Bill, or from the frameworks, mechanisms and committees that it will establish.
If I may respond to the hon. Gentleman directly, his suggestion that the debate has taken place at the whim of Opposition parties—either Conservative or Liberal Democrat—was beneath him. He knows that non-governmental organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace—I am sure that he and, certainly, the Ministers hold those organisations in esteem—have given vociferous support for the principal aim. I propose to address my remarks to that aim, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York spoke extremely eloquently about amendments Nos. 43 and 44.
At the outset of the debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal really set the benchmark for this Bill by making a wonderful and inspiring speech that I hope his children and many other children will read. It reflected the ambition that we all have for this Bill and reminds Members on both sides of the Committee why we came into politics, why we get out of bed in the morning, why we are proud to be Members of Parliament, and why we campaign: because there is a higher purpose. It is very easy to lose that higher purpose in the tit for tat trading of brickbats across the Committee. My right hon. Friend really rose above the party political divide, and he reminded us how profoundly important the Bill is and what we are all about.
Ms Buck: In the spirit of bipartisanship, and given that we are all highly committed to the overall end, will the hon. Gentleman recognise that we are discussing not a principal aim, but a process: the extent to which the Bill give us the right framework? There may be a disagreement about that, but it does not go to the heart of the question of the aim. Will he take this opportunity to put on record that he does not believe that any disagreement about process reflects a fundamental wavering by the Government or the Minister on achieving a 2° C reduction?
Gregory Barker: I certainly agree. I am not here to question the Government’s commitment to 2° C, although at the tail end of an Administration, it is not this Government who should greatly concern us, but the commitment of future Governments, whether they are formed by my party, the Labour party or any other. We are talking about a process that will run for decades and decades. When people look back at the measures and technicalities to which the meat of this Bill addresses itself, it will be important that its overall aim is clear in their minds. We are beginning our discussions with the first page of the Bill, and it is important that the aim is there, clearly and squarely.
Mr. Chaytor: The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal made a very thoughtful and interesting speech, but he threatened that if clause 1 were withdrawn from the Bill, he would travel around the country and launch a campaign against the Government for doing precisely that. I am inclined to invite him to my constituency because that could be very helpful to my cause—I might issue him with a personal invitation—but how can the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle reconcile that threat with his assertion that the right hon. Gentleman was able to rise above the party political divide?
Mr. Gummer rose—
Gregory Barker: I would love to answer that, but I fear that my right hon. Friend could answer it even better.
The Chairman: Order. I am reluctant to allow any kind of response to an intervention from someone who was not even holding the Floor.
Gregory Barker: I think that I follow that advice, Mr. Cook.
I think that my right hon. Friend was trying—no doubt he will correct me if I am wrong—to challenge Labour Members, whom I know in their heart of hearts most emphatically endorse the aim, to have the courage of their convictions, to be bold and not to listen to the siren calls of the civil service chiming in from behind Ministers—
The Chairman: Order. It would now be correct for the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal to intervene. That keeps both the Committee and the Chairman in order.
Gregory Barker: I give way—spontaneously—to my right hon. Friend.
Mr. Gummer: Did my hon. Friend notice that the hon. Member for Bury, North made a partial comment about what I said? I said that I did not want the Government to put themselves in a position in which one would be tempted to behave in such a way. I was trying hard to get the Government to recognise that the more they enable people to keep the Bill consensual, the better. Perhaps I have been misinterpreted. If I was so opaque as to make it possible to believe such a thing, I apologise. However, if I remember rightly, the hon. Member for Bury, North was, perfectly reasonably, making the kind of mischief that is perfectly reasonable across the Floor. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle that it is my intention to keep the Government on the straight and narrow.
Gregory Barker: Indeed. That is what we are all endeavouring to do.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, who was the Minister who represented the UK to great effect at the Rio conference, drew out a very important point that answers many of the points that were raised quite validly by Labour Members. This Bill is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. It is more than just a collection of technical measures. It is more than a series of sensible measures to bring to life committees, reporting mechanisms, budgets and commitments to report further and to make public appointments. It is so much more than that.
We will be doing a disservice to the public, to the layman, to students, to children and to interested parties who have heard so much about the Climate Change Bill in the press if, when they pick up the Act that the Bill becomes, they are immediately confronted with quite technical gobbledegook that is meaningless in the overall battle to keep down the rise in temperature. Putting a clear aim in the Bill is not just totemic, but common sense.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood reminded us of the costs and catastrophes that would befall the world if we did not keep the rise below 2° C. He also reminded us of the excellent report by Lord Stern commissioned by the Government.
I could not quite follow all the argument outlined by of the hon. Member for Bury, North because while he clearly set his face against supporting the clause, he said that he would be in favour of including its wording in the Bill’s long title. He seemed to accept the principle but then, because his own side is against the practice, he did not support such wording in the clause. I am advised—I will stand corrected if I have wrongly interpreted the advice—that it is not possible to revise the long title of the Bill, and nor is it possible for the Committee to insert a preamble into the Bill, although I believe that the Government could do so. I will come back to that in my closing remarks. Perhaps a chink of light is being shed on our proceedings.
The Chairman: Order. Perhaps I may help from the Chair. The title can be changed as long as the changed title does not impinge on the content of the Bill. The title must still reflect the content of the Bill.
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Gregory Barker: Indeed, Mr. Cook. The problem that we would encounter in changing the long title of the Bill is that that which we sought to put in the long title would not be in the Bill if we removed it from clause 1. Is that correct, Mr. Cook?
The Chairman: The purpose of holding the title of the Bill until the closing stages is to ensure that it reflects everything that has gone before, by agreement.
Gregory Barker: Indeed. I do not profess to have a monopoly on wisdom, but it would be difficult to incorporate something into the long title if there was no mention of it in the Bill. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test is making wonderful gestures. He would find it difficult to interpret in the long title something that was not stated specifically in the text of the Bill.
Dr. Whitehead: The long title reflects what is in the whole Bill. If the Bill is about climate change and temperature rise, which is a concomitant of climate change, it is perfectly reasonable for that to be reflected in the long title, whether or not there is a specific mention within the Bill of the precise description that is in the long title, provided that it does not stray outside the subject matter of the Bill. That was the basis of my suggestion.
Gregory Barker: That is very interesting, but while the hon. Gentleman was making his speech I sought informal advice, and I am given to understand that what he suggests would be difficult to accomplish. I understand the point that he makes, but technically speaking, it would be difficult to incorporate that reference into the long title at the end of the Committee, for the reasons that I mentioned.
Mr. Gummer: Will my hon. Friend at least reassure the Minister that, were he to give us an assurance that he would seek to do as we propose, we would be happy for that to replace the clause?
Gregory Barker: My right hon. Friend has robbed me of my coup de thÃ(c)âtre at the end of my speech, for which I thank him, although I had been warned by colleagues about his ability and talent for so doing.
Mr. Chaytor: I am sorry that my remarks earlier were not entirely clear. I was trying to draw a distinction between the validity of the reiteration of the objective of securing as a global limit a 2° C temperature increase, and its relevance—whether it should be in the text of the Bill at this point. My reference to the long title was not intended to trigger a serious debate as to whether the long title could be amended. I was certainly not suggesting an amendment to the long title, but perhaps the Minister would give that some consideration and report back later.
Gregory Barker: A consensus is starting to emerge, which can only be a good thing. That is the result of a rather robust conversation this morning. It is an example of the robust scrutiny that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal mentioned earlier during discussion of the programme motion.
I shall summarise the primary arguments in favour of the clause and our criticism of the Government’s argument. The Government’s opposition to this important clause is based on three arguments: that the principal aim is unworkable and unenforceable, that Britain alone has no control over keeping global warming under 2° C, and that the Government have stated in the past that the principal aim is without precedent. We believe that none of those three arguments holds up under scrutiny.
First, we all understand that the UK cannot be held responsible for all the world’s emissions, but that is not what the clause says, or what it aspires to. There is nothing in the principal aim that places an obligation on the United Kingdom to deliver single-handedly the ambition to keep global warming under 2° C. We understand that even if global emissions stopped today, there is no guarantee that we would not exceed the 2° C target.
The principal aim set out in the Bill does not offer such a guarantee. It states that the United Kingdom should be committed to doing its fair share to prevent a dangerous outcome and should show international leadership. The aspiration to limit the global average temperature increase to not more than 2º C above pre-industrial levels is not some obscure aspiration dreamed up by those on the Conservative Front Bench to bait the Government with, or plucked from the sky. The Prime Minister said last November:
“Our vision has one overriding aim; holding the rise in global temperatures to no more than two degrees centigrade.”
The 2º threshold is the agreed policy of this country and, in writing, the stated aim of the entire European Union. If the Government are truly committed to this “overriding aim”, why are they so timid and cautious about saying so in a landmark Bill? Why have they committed to a target with the EU that they will not put in this unprecedented domestic legislation?
Neither the Minister nor any of his successors should fear being hauled off to jail should temperature rises exceed 2º. Even if that dangerous 2º scenario is reached, the UK Government would still have fulfilled the terms of the principal aim as long as they had made emissions cuts which, had they been replicated across the developed world, might have prevented such a rise.
What of the argument that the principal aim is inappropriate, or “unprecedented” in UK legislation? Evidence suggests otherwise, and I thank Friends of the Earth for looking into the matter so carefully. There is a sizeable list of laws on the statute book which set out the broad aims of Acts and the purposes of the bodies that they set up. For example, in the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, section 1 states:
“The principal aim of this Act is to promote the sustainability of local communities.”
For that, I pay handsome tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood.
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