Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Gummer: Does my hon. Friend remember any argument during the passage of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 in which the Minister suggested that such a phrase would be inappropriate at the beginning of the Act?
Mr. Woolas: Better not.
Gregory Barker: I hear from the Minister that he was given the advice, “better not”, but clearly, on that famous Friday he came to the House having eaten three Shredded Wheat, and his political convictions got the better of him. I am sad that the Minister has not had his breakfast this morning.
Ms Buck: Does the hon. Gentleman remember any discussions during the passage of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 that required the UK Government to promote sustainable communities in America, Africa, Asia, Australasia and indeed across the world? That is the point—the Sustainable Communities Act applied to what lies within the powers of the British Government.
Gregory Barker: Nevertheless, the Minister, or subsequent Ministers, will not be hauled off to jail if they fail to deliver sustainable communities in the UK.
Mr. Gummer: The hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North has shot her own fox. The difference is this: the Government’s purpose is to make sure that other nations follow us. If the Government do not bother to do that, by their own admission they will be letting down not only this nation, but future generations throughout the world. It is exactly as the clause outlines.
Gregory Barker: My right hon. Friend is correct. Surely the Bill, which was devised and introduced by the Government, is not a timid piece of domestic legislation. It is legislation of which we can be rightly proud, I hope, and which will be an example around the world. It is about asserting international leadership. Surely setting out the principal aim of a Bill at the start makes that clear.
I give another example. Many Acts give principal aims to public bodies. For example, the Environment Act 1995 states:
“It shall be the principal aim of the discharging its functions so to protect or enhance the environment,”
It is no more specific than that. Other broad aims appear in the Food Standards Act 1999, the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales Act 2001, the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 and the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.
Beyond the national precedent, there is international precedent for including a purpose clause in the Bill. Although the UK was the first in the world to commit to introducing a Climate Change Bill, progress has not been as speedy as we would have liked. During the period of procrastination in bringing the Bill through Parliament, it appears that the Canadian Parliament may have got there before us. Interestingly, the Climate Change Accountability Act in Canada includes a purpose clause which was recently passed by the Canadian House of Commons, and it reads thus:
“The purpose of this Act is to ensure that Canada contributes fully to the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”
So the clause is not without precedent, at home or abroad. It is not a subtle attempt to legislate for the rest of the world. It does not place any obligation on the UK to deliver the principal aim single-handedly, nor does it leave any Minister—particularly any future Minister—liable, should the global effort fail.
It is worth noting that the legislation is called the Climate Change Bill. It is not the Carbon Emissions Reduction Bill. It is the Climate Change Bill—the global Climate Change Bill. [Interruption.]
Mr. Gummer: Nor is it the Climate Change (UK) Bill.
Gregory Barker: My right hon. Friend is right. This is the Climate Change Bill. What this principal aim does is to anchor what is otherwise—
The Chairman: Order. I am trying to preserve a fairly free and easy exchange of opinions here and to that extent, I am happy for everyone who needs to do so to make an intervention on anyone who is holding the floor. What I cannot stand—partly because of my partial deafness—is the amount of chuntering that is going on. It is unnecessary. It is unparliamentary, so please take my advice and chunter not.
Gregory Barker: Thank you, Mr. Cook. It is worth noting that the legislation is called the Climate Change Bill, not the Carbon Emissions Reduction Bill. It has a global leadership purpose and we should be proud and celebrate that fact. The principal aim clause anchors what is otherwise just a framework of targets to a central ambition and purpose that we all share: for Britain to do our part in the battle against dangerous climate change.
The principal clause lifts the Bill from simply being a series of technical and administrative reforms and innovations. It gives the legislation a clear statement of our national shared intent, our national purpose and the ambition that I believe all members of the Committee have, in their heart of hearts, for the Bill. As another member said, let us pin our colours to the mast and put at the very start of the Bill a clause of which we can proud.
We had intended to vote against the Government on this most important clause. However, I am advised that, although the Committee cannot do so, it is possible for the Government to insert a preamble to the Bill. I am advised that it would be difficult to insert an effective form of wording into the long title. The idea has merit, but technically that would not be feasible. However, the Government could bring forth a preamble. I invite the Government to consider that proposition, in the spirit of consensus and in the spirit in which all members, on both sides of the Committee, wish to work in scrutinising the Bill. Let us see whether, between us, we can come up with a form of words, as a preamble to the Bill, that would be acceptable to all members of the Committee.
12.45 pm
Mr. Woolas: Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Cook, and for allowing us to have an extremely useful and wide-ranging debate. I want to use this opportunity not only to answer questions, but to explain why the Government do not want the clause in the Bill. Opposition Members are motivated by the fear that the Government are trying not to commit to 2 C as a target. They are trying to strengthen that target, and I do not challenge their motive.
I will try to put the matter in an international context. Within the United Nations negotiations and talks, the European Union—of which we are a leading member in those talks—is committed to the 2 C bloc. We are seen by the world as the leaders. There is a group of countries that does not support 2 C: the Pacific island states. For them, 2 C is too much, because that means that they disappear. Other countries are not prepared to commit to a long-term goal of a 50 per cent. reduction in emissions by 2050, which is how the 2 C limit is expressed in terms of emissions. The poorer countries are not prepared to commit to that at this point because they fear that doing so, without legally binding commitments from the richer countries, would put too much of a burden on them. So, there is not a consensus around 2 C from those countries. Some members of the G8, particularly the United States of America, but also Russia and Japan, are also not prepared to commit at this point to 2 C. The consequence of that situation is that if we were to legislate for something outside our control, we would be passing legislation that, in our view, would be meaningless, thus damaging the credibility of the Bill.
Miss McIntosh: My understanding is that the EU will negotiate en bloc. It will negotiate from a position of 2 C.
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Lady is right. Her argument fails to understand—I would ask Opposition Members to ask themselves this question—why the European Union has not legislated for 2 C. It has not done so because, as in my argument, that would be a meaningless act. Legislating for a global goal of 2 C, and whether or not we are committed to that, are separate questions. That explains both our stance and that of the European Union.
Mr. Gummer: I genuinely would be on the Minister’s side if I thought that that was what the paragraph meant. All the clause says is that the
“principal aim of this Act is to ensure that”
“ not exceed the level necessary”—
in effect, to make up our contribution—
“to limiting the global average temperature increase to...2C”.
It says nothing about us legislating for other people; it says that about us.
Subsection (2) says that the
“functions under this Act must be exercised with”
that objective. I cannot see the “better not” in saying that.
Mr. Woolas: When I reach the end of my argument, the right hon. Gentleman will see the logic of my point of view. He is one of the most experienced Ministers in the history of our country. I think that I am right in saying that only four other people in history served a longer period in the UK Cabinet, so he is an extremely experienced legislator. He knows that when one gets advice that says “better not”, “resist” or “resist if pushed”, one has to take a decision. He also knows that the advice that is given to Ministers from parliamentary counsel and officials is often to resist on the grounds of legislative incoherence. The strongest thing for a Minister to do is to put aside party political objective. It would be easy for me and the Government to say, “We accept it, and it is our policy.” We are basing all of our efforts on getting 2 C, so why do I not just put it in the Bill? The answer to that is rather than saying “better not”, such a decision would render the Bill meaningless
Let me explain to the right hon. Gentleman why that is the case. I have not had a chance to check Hansard, but I bet that during consideration of the Environment Act 1995, there was advice that said, “Do not accept a purpose clause.” Incidentally, the clause to which the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle referred was the primary purpose of the Environment Agency, not the Bill.
Let me explain my argument. I refer the Committee to clause 2 because it directly relates to this question. It is the other side of the coin of why the Government do not want clause 1. I beg the Committee’s indulgence, but I will keep my remarks very brief.
Clause 2(1) does two profoundly important things—let me take the second first. It considers the target of “at least 60 per cent.” on the 1990 baseline by 2050. Where does that figure come from? It has been subject of national debate, and of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of communications. That figure comes from a royal commission report that recommended the cut in emissions that would be required in the United Kingdom as a contribution to the world effort to do the same thing, assuming that the world signed up to that and that the science did not change. Since then, the science has changed, which is why the Government have changed the original royal commission recommendation of 60 per cent. to “at least 60 per cent.”
Let me answer the question of whether or not the target should be higher. First, the year 2050 and the figure of 2 C are based on the royal commission’s recommendation, and that is our policy. Secondly, and this is the crucial point, in the first part of subsection (1), the Bill goes far beyond other legislation—far beyond what the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and the Environment Act 1995 did. The Bill puts a legal duty on the Secretary of State—the Government—to ensure that they act to achieve the objective of “at least 60 per cent.” cuts in emissions in the UK, or more depending on what the committee advises. If there were an additional clause, for example existing clause 1, that rendered it impossible for the future Secretary of State to act legally because of the actions of other countries, we would be undermining the ability of future Governments to implement the Bill. We would also put other people or organisations, such as local authorities that have duties under the functions of this Bill, in a position in which they would be acting illegally and in impossible circumstances. We would take away the very certainty that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood sought for businesses and third parties and render impossible the very basis of cap and trade and the top-down approach of the European Union and this country, as against the bottom-up pledge and review approach of other Governments. It would be easy for me to say that I accept the clause, but I do not, precisely because I am committed to the working of the Bill.
Martin Horwood: The Minister is trying to make the case that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the target of 60 per cent. in clause 2 and the target of 2 C in clause 1. He suggests that that introduces some legal uncertainty. In fact, the target of 60 per cent. is explicitly based on the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s report in 2000, which was itself explicitly based on the IPCC second assessment report, which was in turn based on a stabilisation target for the number of degrees of global warming. There cannot be inconsistency between those two targets. I do not see where the legal uncertainty he talks about arises.
Mr. Woolas: Let me try to explain more slowly and more clearly. Clause 2(1) puts a duty on the Secretary of State
“to ensure that the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 60 per cent. lower than the 1990 baseline.”
That is within his power, and if he fails to achieve that, he can be subjected to legal action. Future Governments, of whatever persuasion, will have to be accountable in that way. However, clause 1 puts a duty on the Secretary of State to do something—control the temperature—that is based on the actions of the rest of the world. That he cannot do.
Martin Horwood: The Minister is introducing inconsistency when there simply is none. Clause 1 does not oblige a Minister to do anything outside his power. It simply defines the aim, and the aim is precisely the same as that explicitly adopted by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution when it came up with a 60 per cent. target. There cannot be an inconsistency in aim.
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman is missing the purpose of legislation. If, in 10 or 20 years, the rest of the world has not acted in accordance with the demands of the United Nations framework convention on climate change; if deforestation has not been stopped, as urged by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal; and if global temperatures have increased in such a way that it is not possible for the target in clause 1 to be met—
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