Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Gummer: That last speech led me to be very worrying indeed. If we are proposing that the targets we set should be affected by our ability to meet them rather than by the danger posed to the future of the world, we may as well pack up and go home. The target has to be set on the basis of what we need to do if we are to protect the climate for our children and grandchildren. There ought to be no argument in the Committee as far as that is concerned. We can argue about where to put the target and how to reach it, but the Committee must be united on the basis that the target is unconnected with our ability to deliver it, because it is forced on us by the effects of climate change. To say otherwise would be like saying we will fight a war when we know we have enough guns, but in the meantime, if we are overrun, we cannot fight the war.
Linda Gilroy: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to clarify my point. It was rooted in his earlier observation that the credibility of politicians is low, while the credibility of those on the Committee on Climate Change is much higher. The people who need to be persuaded to take action will therefore be much more likely to sign up to doing so if target setting can be accompanied by a delivery plan.
Mr. Gummer: That is all right as long as the hon. Lady agrees with me that the two things are separate and that we need to have an accredited body give us the figure at which we have to aim seriously—rather than aim with the thought that we might not get there—and which would deliver our real purpose. We already have such figures, and most of us think it will be something in the region of 90 per cent., though it might be more than that. Our real purpose, which we have had a long discussion about, and which we have agreed on, is to keep the temperature rise below 2 C. We recognise that the UK has to give more than its fair share, for all kinds of historic and moral reasons. The question is how we deliver that target. I am instinctively an enthusiast for getting down to it, pushing up the number and telling people exactly what we are going to do. That is the way I work.
I am very concerned, however, about the nature of this committee. If the Government had not done what they have done, I would have been wholly happy with putting in a new target. But they have put us in a very difficult position by saying that they think the committee ought to fix the target, showing that they recognise that the target is likely to require upward revision by putting these changes into the Bill, and giving the committee as its first task the need to review the target in the Bill.
The hon. Member for Northavon said clearly that, even if we were to agree with him, the Committee on Climate Change would still have to look at the target figures, so I do not think that any argument about the committee being very busy holds up. It will have to do that anyway. If I were chairing a committee of that sort, the very first thing I would want to do would be to review the terms under which we were working and see that we were on all fours. Otherwise, we might find that we were halfway through some serious discussion and discover fundamental flaws in the understanding of this very eminent committee as to where it started from and where it was aiming. I do not think we can avoid that discussion, and as we are all agreed that it is going to take place, we ought not to give the committee any more to do.
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The problem for me is this: we know that the 60 per cent. figure is in the Bill because all those years back, when the Bill was first read, that was the most sensible figure to put in according to science. We could have given no figure at all. The hon. Member for Northavon is right about that. Most of us would have been unhappy with that, because it would have introduced a degree of vagueness. I would not have liked it much, but we could have done that. However, we did not.
The Bill has been discussed throughout with the figure of 60 per cent. in it. As the Minister said, it has gone through the full parliamentary procedure on that basis, and here we are now. The question is how we think the target should be revised in future, given that we all agree that revision upwards is necessary. We now have provision for a committee, which we did not two years ago when the Bill was first drafted. By some sleight of hand—I do not know what, and I shall not criticise it because I am very pleased about it—it appears that the chairman has already been selected, even though we have not got the Bill through yet. Nevertheless, that seems perfectly reasonable because we all agree that we want it.
We have the committee and it can get on with its job. As its first task, it could produce a clear figure for the target. There would be great advantages to that, and they were presented well by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle. Now that we have a committee, it is sensible for it to be the body that fixes the target. If we did not have a committee, we would have to do something else. In the past, because there was nobody else, politicians did their best. Now that we have a committee, I am happy with the Government’s proposal for it.
I am less happy—indeed, dismayed—that that there is not a natural, full part of that proposal that states, “When the committee that we have had the confidence to appoint decides what the target ought to be, we, the Government, guarantee that we will implement it.” That seems to me a clear distinction between the position that I hold and the Minister’s position. I want him to understand how serious the situation is. There are those who want to put the 80 per cent. target in the Bill, and many of us would normally be happy to do that. We are held back from feeling that way because the Government have instituted what could be a perfectly proper procedure that we would like to follow. This will be not be the only time when the figures need to be revised. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton, is right that we should have a system that people recognise as a proper one for such revisions.
The hon. Member for Angus pointed out the problem that, if the Government are to be able to make changes as we go along, it is conceivable, although unlikely, that they could make changes downwards, against the science. The best protection against that—on this point I disagree strongly with the hon. Member for Northavon—is to have a very clear process whereby the Government ask the committee to set the target and then agree to make the order for a target change to take place.
Mr. Gummer: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that point and I shall explain why, because there is an important distinction to be made. We have a real problem in this country understanding and supporting the battle against climate change. Those of us who believe that this is the most important physical threat to civilisation—I think that every Committee member does—are clear that, once we have taken that view, we are bound to do something about it, not just for scientific reasons and not even just for personal reasons and to save our families, but for moral reasons. If this threat exists, we have to do our bit to defend the future against it.
In setting targets, we are giving people the best indication of the scientific demand. The morality arises in respect of the need to take the measures that are necessary to meet that best indication. In other words, the figure has to be fixed on the best science that is available, because we have to be able to tell the doubters, who are not in any particular party. One of the most vociferous believers in what I shall call, for the sake of shortness, the Lawsonian thesis, is a Liberal Democrat.
Martin Horwood: Give us his name and address.
Mr. Gummer: I will not name that person, because it would embarrass both him and me.
The figures will have much more power if they are clearly the result of the scientific assessment of the situation. We are the people who will then say, “If that is what the science says, we as politicians will make it the political figure.” I hope that we, as moral politicians, believe that we have a moral imperative to ensure that the measures that will ensure that we meet those figures are passed and carried through and acted on by business and individuals. If the figure is to have the proper effect on the public as a whole, its establishment must be regarded as untainted, if I may use a biased word, either by politics or some moral order. The figures should be as scientifically clear as possible, although we are dealing with a complex science.
Steve Webb: I share the right hon. Gentleman’s view that the Government should listen to and follow the expert committee, but he said that we are afraid that they may not do so. In the event that they do not listen, does he accept that the number in the Bill is our only insurance policy? He said himself that the number should be based on the latest science.
Mr. Gummer: I am trying hard to create the best circumstances to ensure the success of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman tempts me to become cynical, but I will not be cynical because I have been impressed by the fact that the Government have moved further than I thought they would on a number of issues, although there are many things on which they have not done enough. I shall not talk about hydrofluorocarbons and a range of other things that I could list, because I know that almost every Labour Committee member agrees that those things should have been done. We draw a line under that. However, we accept that a range of things have been done, including this Bill.
The Committee has a duty to try to make this as good a Bill as possible and to enable the Government to give as much as they can to it. I have done the job that the Minister is doing, in effect, and I know that it is not always easy to win even one’s immediate friends over on some of the essential issues. I accept the Minister’s argument, which is that the Government have already shown that they have tailored the Bill to use the committee to proper extent and that they are asking it to set a new target and to indicate that a new target is likely to be necessary. The one thing that remains is an assurance that, when that is done, the Government will accept that target.
Mr. Chaytor: Is not the difficulty with the right hon. Gentleman’s argument simply that he puts enormous emphasis on the importance of following the most expert scientific advice but that the most expert scientific advice actually comes from the IPCC? The Committee on Climate Change is not made up entirely of scientists. In fact, as his colleague pointed out, the chairman is a part-time chairman who was previously a director of the Confederation of British Industry. The committee is made up of some scientists, some economists and others with whose specialisms I am unfamiliar. If he really believes that the target must be based on the best available science, it must be based on the advice of the IPCC. It really is not good enough to say that because it is an international committee of experts, it is somehow less important than a British committee of people who are not entirely experts on climate science.
Mr. Gummer: I will not go too far down that road, but it seems that what we have is an argument about the nature of the committee. As I understand it, we have set up a committee that has a strong scientific membership, a strong economic membership and a strong membership who can look at such things in the round. Some of the things that it will be asked to do will not primarily involve science but the interpretation of science within the economic sphere, so the committee has to have a balance of people. When the committee comes to make decisions on the science, it will, of course, draw properly and entirely on the best available science. The fact that Lord May is one of the members makes that absolutely clear. It will then make its considered judgment.
It will be difficult for the public to argue in any sense that the judgment is a political one. It will be difficult to make the argument that some newspapers will try to run that it is a decision of the Government, or of enthusiasts. It will be seen as being as good a statement of the science as can be made, not just by scientists but by those who are looking at the science from an economist’s point of view. That is actually rather important, because some people attacked the IPCC for saying that the science was very good but the economists were very bad. That is one reason why Nick Stern was asked to do the job. He upset the sceptics because they thought that he would say the opposite of what he said. As a result, what he said was stronger.
I find it difficult to believe in that possibility. Imagine this: the Government ask the official committee, which they set up, to produce something, and then they say, “We are frightfully sorry, but we will not accept it.” Do the Government really think that that is a political possibility? It is a further step down the slippery slide that they have been going down. I cannot believe that they really mean to suggest that they want to hold in reserve the ability to say to the Committee on Climate Change, “We asked you to give us a target. We have accepted that the target in the Bill is wrong, but we will not accept your target.” That appears to be what the Minister said.
For me, the key issue is that that approach has put the Opposition, and, I believe, Labour Members, in a difficult position. There are Labour Members who would be perfectly prepared to go along with this arrangement—many would have some sympathy with what I have advanced as the philosophical basis for what is being done. They are going to have to come to terms with the Minister explaining to them that, despite all that, the Minister will still retain the choice. That would not even be a theoretical choice. He has not said, “We cannot conceive of occasions in which we would not.” Such a phrase is possible, but he has not said that. He said no. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said, that was not a glimmer, but a spotlight—no.
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As much as I am pleased that the Minister’s reply was not a wriggle—he does not wriggle and said he cannot, which fascinates me physiologically—I must say that he now has an untenable position. I do not think it possible to say to the Committee, “I want the independent committee to make that judgment, because it is better made there than by politicians. I have asked it to do that, and I have amended the Bill so that its making that judgment would be a natural consequence of adding ‘not less than’, but I am not necessarily going to accept it.”
Martin Horwood: The right hon. Gentleman makes a strong case for Labour members of the Committee feeling uncomfortable with the scenario that he has described, but a lot of Labour Members do not support that scenario. They say that we should have a tougher target of 80 per cent. in the Bill Surely the Members who are in a difficult position are those in the Conservative party who are tempting Liberal Democrats and others to say that the Labour Government are being rescued by the Conservative party.
Mr. Gummer: No. Being frank with the hon. Gentleman, I am keen to make sure that our commitments are clear, because we will have to carry them through. To be blunt, it is all right for the hon. Gentleman, because he will not have to carry them through, but we will. We are committed to carry through what the Climate Change Committee asks of us, and we have made that absolutely clear. Therefore, it is of considerable importance that we put the Government in the same position. It does not matter, frankly, what the Liberal Democrats or other people think about it. What matters is whether the succession of Governments commit themselves to do what the body that they have set up asks, or are we going to treat it as a kind of advisory council? If the Government mean that the committee is not the one that we all fought for, that goes way beyond the goal of 80 per cent. and to the very heart of the Bill. That is the real issue for all of us.
If the Climate Change Committee is merely an advisory committee with no other strengths, the Bill is not the one that I fought for, that Friends of the Earth drew up and that the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and other parties stood behind. The Minister is putting forward a solution that ought to be a joint solution—a solution of the consensus. Frankly, if he were to say that the Government agree to implement the committee’s decision at once, some of his hon. Friends would not be too unhappy, even though they would like to change the wording in the Bill, and the Minister would find that any revolt would at least be reduced. However, if he repeats that he is not prepared to implement a committee decision, it seems to me that it is extremely difficult—not for the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats or the Labour party, but for the Bill—because that would mean that the committee we believe in would not be the committee that the Government think that they are setting up.
I know that the Minister thinks that we are buttering him up in the hope that we will get a bit more out of him, but that is not the case. He has shown himself to be one of the good Ministers. When people ask who the good Ministers in government are, we put his name on the list. I know that that is embarrassing for him, and it will probably stop any possible promotion, but there is no doubt that that is what we say. We say it because he has always been as good as his word. That is what worries me, because his word in this case is pretty frightening. I am not keen on this at all. It seems to me that he has given us reason to doubt something that is much more fundamental than the 70, 80 or 90 per cent. What we are doubting here is that the Government have the same view of the Committee on Climate Change as the rest of us. We therefore need a reply from the Minister not only to this debate, but to that deep concern.
Even those Labour Members who want to vote with the Minister—the case was beautifully presented by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton, who is just returning to her place—will ask themselves, “What has happened to the Climate Change Committee?” When the hon. Lady talks to all those students, they will say, “This Government are not going to listen to the Climate Change Committee.”
The Government have now said that the committee is merely advisory. If that is the case, the members of the committee will wonder why they are members. Why do we have such a good committee? Like us, its members thought that the committee was going to be, in a real sense, the setter of the course for this country to give a lead in the world on how to deal with climate change. That does not mean to say that the Government would have to sign up to every jot and tittle, but they would have to sign up to the target. If the committee cannot even set the target, what is the Bill about?
The Opposition parties, along with Friends of the Earth and others, agreed that we needed to set a target when we compiled the “Quality of Life” report, which I had the honour to chair—my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood was a member of the central committee, if that is not too socialist a phrase. We saw the target as the driving force in our battle against climate change.
I came to this Committee believing that the Government had the right answer. I was willing to support the Government, because I believed that they were offering us the right way forward. I hoped that this Committee would provide another example of the consensus that I am trying to build. However, I am afraid that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury has caused the trouble. His accurate memory of what the Minister said means that the Minister has either got to change what he said and re-establish our belief in his belief in the primacy of the Committee on Climate Change, or we will have to consider very carefully not only this part of the Bill but every other part. Unless the Government are bound into the consensus that caused the Bill to be created, we are in a really difficult position.
Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under you again, Mr. Cook. I apologise to the rest of the Committee for not being able to be present for the whole of the sitting, because I had an unavoidable constituency commitment. I have signed the amendment, and I believe that the solution to the difficulties described by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal is in amending the Bill to make the target 80 per cent. rather than 60 per cent.
The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned the Ipsos MORI poll in The Observer at the weekend, which apparently showed that a large number of people are sceptical about climate change. I have looked up the results of the poll, which asked people to agree or disagree with the statement that many scientific experts still question whether humans contribute to climate change. Six out of 10 people who were asked that question agreed with the statement. Rather confusingly, however, later in the poll three quarters of people who were asked professed to being concerned about climate change, and we can take comfort from that finding. I must also say, Mr. Cook, that I am grateful to my portable computer for that information.
As I have said, I take comfort from that finding, and I also take comfort from the fact that the 80 per cent. coalition includes not only well-respected NGOs such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF, but the women’s institute and indeed Eurostar, from which I received a briefing. The combined membership and influence of the vast number of NGOs that have come together in that coalition will help to drive understanding in this country on the importance of climate change. I believe that there has been a sea change since the election of 2005, which has put the environment and climate change right at the top of our agenda. That is another reason why, as a Government, we must show our understanding and commitment to upping the climate target to 80 per cent., because the people and groups in that coalition will be looking to us for a very strong signal that we take this issue seriously.
A number of Committee members have discussed the basis for the 60 per cent. figure, which is a 2000 report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. That report is already eight years old, and it was based on IPCC evidence from 1995, which has been updated twice since then. It is 13 years since the scientific evidence was published, and we know that the scientific data and our understanding of them have vastly improved since then. Rightly, the Government have said that the 60 per cent., 80 per cent. or whatever target must be based on good science, but I wonder whether basing a target on evidence from 13 years ago is good science. We need to re-examine that issue. If we are going to put our faith in the Climate Change Committee, which I thoroughly support, we should set it stiff targets, because the scientific evidence exists.
So, the upper limit must be changed. I do not want to speak too long on this issue, Mr. Cook, because many Opposition Committee members have been waiting patiently to speak, and I have jumped in ahead of them. I believe that the science is there, and our constituents up and down the country, as well as the NGOs, expect us, as a Government, to back the higher target. Also, 82 hon. Members, many of whom are Labour colleagues, have signed the amendment, and more than 400 hon. Members signed a previous amendment and early-day motions. The will in this House is there to make the target stiffer. Like Opposition Members, I know that this is a good Minister who listens and takes action. I hope that he will listen to the arguments about upping the climate change target to 80 per cent. and take appropriate action.
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