Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Weir: It is a pleasure, Mr. Cook, to serve under your chairmanship on this Committee.
Climate change is obviously an issue that has huge resonance with the public, and I have probably had more letters and e-mails on it than on any other subject over the past two years. Many organisations, including Friends of the Earth, Christian Aid and Oxfam, have encouraged their members to lobby on this issue. It was fairly apparent from the cards that I received that some of my regular writers are members of numerous organisations, and they sent me cards from them all.
The Bill states that the target is “at least 60 per cent.” I acknowledge that that gives scope for setting a higher limit after the report from the Climate Change Committee is received, but why the delay in agreeing the inevitable, which is that 60 per cent. will not be sufficient? It is also worth noting that the Bill places no obligation on the Government to accept that recommendation, although I accept that politically it would be very difficult for them not to do so.
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There is an inherent contradiction in the Conservative party’s position, which was ably put by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal. The argument seems to be that a scientific committee will carry more weight than politicians and that people will accept it more readily. The Ipsos MORI poll has been mentioned, but on many other occasions—we could all come up with our own examples—the public have remained utterly unconvinced of an argument, despite the weight of scientific evidence. It is a fallacy to assume that a scientific committee will carry much more weight than this committee or Parliament would. As I understand it, the Committee on Climate Change has been asked to recommend a target, but responsibility for formulating and implementing policy to meet that target remains with us. I suspect that putting the matter to a scientific committee will not necessarily get around the problem.
There is a further inherent contradiction: we might put in the Bill the committee’s recommendation for 80 per cent., or whatever it comes up with but, as has rightly been noted in interventions, the Bill provides the Secretary of State with the power to amend that target by order. I should perhaps ask the John Bercow question: will that be subject to the affirmative or negative procedure? In any event, however, there is no guarantee that the committee’s recommendation, if accepted, would remain unchanged. Furthermore, the final impact assessment makes it quite clear that economic factors could be brought into play when deciding whether to amend the target.
The Bill also makes it clear that economic and social factors can be taken into account when deciding upon the target. Under the Bill, therefore, the decision will not be based purely on scientific evidence. That is where the argument seems to fall down. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle said that the Conservatives would accept the recommendation, but I suspected that he was slightly hedging his bets even on that, because of the provision allowing it to be amended. There is no guarantee that it will not be amended. Everyone seems to be hedging their bits.
I believe that we have to opt for the 80 per cent. target. Much has been said about the report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which is eight years old. Its chairman, and two former chairmen, have written to the Government saying that they support the 80 per cent. target. Friends of the Earth has also pointed out that although the commission’s target included all sectors, the Government’s proposal excludes aviation and shipping, which accounts for between 7 and 10 per cent. of current emissions. If that is correct, the target eight years ago would have been higher, if those emissions had been included. However, we will come to that later.
The WWF pointed out in its briefing that the IPCC concluded that to keep increases below 2 C, worldwide emissions must be reduced by 50 per cent. by 2050, and a study by Ecofys concluded that the UK needed to achieve a reduction of between 80 and 95 per cent. If that is correct, even if we accept 80 per cent., we will be at the very bottom of the recommended range, so we might have to go higher. Even the Minister would probably accept that 60 per cent. is unlikely to be enough. I wonder if, like the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, the Minister is waiting for someone outside the political process to say, “This is the target that you need to go for.”
It does not seem to make any sense to put the figure of 60 per cent. in the Bill when we all realise that the true figure must be much higher. Whatever the figure in the Bill, it must be regarded as a floor to be exceeded. I would argue that we need a realistic figure for that floor to make a real attempt at tackling climate change.
Although this may be the first Bill to have a target in it, others are committing to targets for their own economies of at least 80 per cent. Norway, an oil and gas-producing nation like Scotland, had proposed a commitment of 100 per cent. Germany has proposed 80 per cent. and France 75 per cent. The Scottish Government are to introduce a climate change Bill with an 80 per cent. target, and even several US states, despite the Americans’ status as the bogey man of climate change, have set an 80 per cent. target. Whoever is the next President of the United States is likely to be much more amenable to setting targets for the whole of the United States than the present one, and I understand that Barack Obama has committed himself to an 80 per cent. target.
If we do not set this 80 per cent. target, we might find that rather than leading, we are at the back of the pack. Whatever target we set, however, we have to accept that measures will have to be introduced to meet that target, and we face the real challenge of persuading business and our constituents to take the actions necessary to achieve it. I suspect that, in the long run, that will be much more difficult than agreeing on what the target should be in the first place.
Tony Baldry: It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook and I know that you will show your usual tolerance. I am not a climate change scientist, but I am a lawyer and I have spent the last 35 years of my professional life construing Bills. This Bill has been very cleverly drafted to make it almost certainly judicial review-proof. Whoever drafted it provided the fewest possible opportunities for anyone to seek judicial review against the Government for not delivering on the terms of the Bill. Interestingly, the bits of the Bill from the Lords that the Government want to take out are the measures that would actually provide some opportunities for judicial review.
It is quite clear that the Government are seriously concerned that there should be nothing in the Bill that would ever provide opportunities for judicial review. It is a process Bill; a Bill that is about a target and a committee. That committee has to have credibility. Ministers say that so far as the targets are concerned, the Government will simply take the advice of the Climate Change Committee, but they will not. All of us have been Members long enough to understand the concept of the line to take. On Second Reading, the Minister was asked whether he would accept the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal said, there was absolutely no dissembling, and the Minister was perfectly clear that the line is to take was, “No, there is no undertaking.” If there is no undertaking, we are pushed back to the question of the extent to which we trust Ministers. As my right hon. Friend also indicated, we have to be concerned about credibility, but I shall come on to that in a second.
The longer I am in this place, the more I become crabby, liverish and bad tempered. I find that Ministers want more and more wriggle room. Let me give the Committee a very simple example of that, based on my experience today. I apologise that I was not here this morning. The reason—it is relevant to trusting Ministers—was that I was visiting a site of special scientific interest in my constituency on which the Government wish to build an eco-town. I was there with the shadow Minister for Housing and representatives of the local wildlife trust.
The Minister for Housing had told Members of Parliament that none of these eco-towns were to be built on green belt, but 25 per cent. of this proposed eco-town is on green belt, so I have been chuntering to her a fair amount. Earlier this week, she wrote to me to say:
“I have previously stated that no homes will be built on green-belt land as part of these eco-town proposals.”
The shadow Minister for Housing thus said to the developers this morning, “I understand you are not going to be building any houses on the green belt.” They said, “We are not going to be building any houses, but we are going to be building commercial development on the green belt.” The line to take was totally accurate—there will be no building of houses on the green belt—but there will be commercial buildings on the green belt, so is it any wonder that I am becoming increasingly liverish, crabby and distrusting of Ministers? In the just over a quarter of a century that I have been in the House, I have learned that one needs to tie Ministers down to the line to take so that there is no wriggle room whatsoever.
Mr. Gummer: I wonder whether my hon. Friend remembers the definition of truth that Cardinal Newman put forward: truth is measured by what the audience hears, not the words that the individual utters. In other words, it is what something means to the person who hears it. That Minister meant my hon. Friend to believe that there was to be no building on the green belt. I want to know from this Minister that the Climate Change Committee will be able to recommend what it thinks right and that this Government will accept it.
Tony Baldry: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. I think that the Minister has probably been doing some maths during this debate. Between now and Thursday, when the Committee next sits, I hope that he will reflect that it might be sensible to review his line to take on this, because this addresses the whole integrity of the Climate Change Committee.
I want to echo the points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal made: the whole thrust of this Bill relates to targets and the work of the Climate Change Committee. This is a process Bill. If Ministers are effectively going to say, “We are only going to treat the Climate Change Committee as an advisory committee—no more and no less,” what is actually left in the Bill? If the Climate Change Committee is simply going to be some advisory committee, the recommendations of which Ministers may or may not follow, it seems to me that this is a pretty hollow Bill.
All members of the Public Bill Committee can quote endlessly from the organisations that have said that the target should be over 80 per cent. Practically every moment, we see something from yet another organisation on our e-mail systems. Let me give one example, chosen totally randomly from the papers that I picked up this morning. The Royal Institute of British Architects, the UK body for architecture, which has 40,000 members, states:
“The evidence does suggest our greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced by 80 per cent. We strongly believe that it is essential for the UK to achieve an 80 per cent. reduction by 2050.”
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I suspect that not a single member of the Committee believes that we will not need a reduction in emissions of at least 80 per cent. by 2050. There is no dispute about the target; the debate is simply about the mechanics. Unless Ministers are prepared to give an undertaking that they will implement the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change, I cannot see how this Public Bill Committee, or the House as a whole, can put trust in them. We will have only a process Bill that allows Ministers maximum wriggle room to wriggle out of making any difficult decisions. We should not have such confidence in Ministers—this is too important for that. Unless the Minister for the Environment is prepared to change the line that he takes on the respect that he will give the Committee on Climate Change, the House and this Committee will have to reflect on that when deciding how to vote.
Martin Horwood: I apologise for being absent from the Committee for part of the sitting. I was attending an event involving older constituents who had travelled all the way from Gloucestershire. I thank you for being tolerant of that, Mr. Cook.
Some difficult arguments are being made. The hon. Member for Banbury has just made a strong case for the need to remove wriggle room. I was disappointed by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, who normally makes a very strong case for the toughest green measures possible, with which I agree fully. I believe that he is co-author of the Conservative quality of life commission report, which stated:
“In our view, the existing 60 per cent. goal is likely to prove inadequate. Therefore our policy work will be guided by the premise that UK emissions will have to be reduced by at least 80 per cent by 2050.”
Mr. Gummer indicated assent.
Martin Horwood: The right hon. Gentleman is nodding. If that is still what he believes, I find it amazing that he has essentially argued that we should have in the Bill a target that he knows to be wrong. The hard-won progress in the opinion polls made by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) for the Conservative party has been based at least partly on the proposition that voting blue means going green. That proposition could die in this Committee Room if this critical test of our commitment to combating climate change is failed by the majority of Conservative members of the Committee.
Mr. Gummer: I am sorry to say this, but the hon. Gentleman will search for every means of trying to make party politics out of things. I know that he will, because I have heard it before. I am not prepared to do that, but I am prepared to say to him that the Government have revealed a far more important issue: the nature of the Bill. It does not matter what figure we put in the Bill. We will need a reduction of about 80 per cent, and that is what the committee will say, so the issue is marginal.
The fundamental issue is whether the committee will be merely advisory, or whether its decisions on key issues will be taken as a clear fiat that the Government will implement. Unless the Government tell us that they will treat the committee properly, two things will happen. First, they will find it difficult to get support from Conservative Members on many other issues on which we might otherwise be prepared to support them. Secondly, and in a sense more importantly, I do not think that they will have a Climate Change Committee. Its members will not sit on it if they think that when they make decisions in the areas that are supposed to be their competence, those decisions will be ignored by the Government. That is much more important than anything else.
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Prepared 25 June 2008