Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Dr. Whitehead: I am somewhat dismayed that my attempt to elucidate matters was not followed in the way that I had hoped. For clarification, clause 20 of the draft Bill, which has the heading,
“Advice in connection with carbon budgets”,
describes a function of the Committee on Climate Change:
“It is the duty of the Committee to advise the Secretary of State, in relation to each budgetary period”.
That clause has been transposed in the current Bill to clause 34, which has exactly the same wording. At no stage in the proceedings has anyone sought to amend it, and there is no amendment on the amendment paper today to suggest that that function should be changed.
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): With respect, no one is disputing that it is the duty of the committee to advise the Government. The Opposition question whether the Government will heed the advice. From what they said, it was always our clear assumption that they would do so, but in the Chamber and in Committee to date there has been some equivocation, which is giving rise to concerns that the Government may not heed the advice in full.
Dr. Whitehead: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, as it shows progress in understanding the point. It anticipated the second part of my 10-peso version of the explanation, which is that if it were considered that any function other than an advisory function for the committee should to be placed in the Bill, someone at some stage should have tabled an amendment to illustrate that. That has not happened and no such amendment is before the Committee now.
Gregory Barker: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is deliberately obfuscating. What the official Opposition are saying is clear. We are not disputing that the role of the committee should be advisory. We are saying that the Conservative party in government would implement the advice in full. What we have heard from the Government Front Bench to date—I hope the Minister will clarify this—is equivocation as to whether his Government would implement the advice in full. We are looking for a clear promise from those on the Government Front Bench that they will implement the advice in full. We are not trying to change the terms of the Bill.
Dr. Whitehead: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, which is consistent with what I am about to say. If the committee is, indeed, advisory, it would be an abuse of the English language to say that its advice must be taken under all circumstances. Therefore, on the question whether the Government must under all circumstances take the advice of the committee, the answer logically—not to abuse the English language—must be no.
If the question were whether the Minister can easily envisage circumstances in which the committee’s advice relating to a change from a 60 per cent. minimum to 80 per cent. would not be taken, I am certain that a different answer would be given. However, a debating point cannot be made of the fact that, as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle said, the committee is advisory. Unless Opposition Members wish to change that status, the answer to the general question about the committee’s advice always has to be no. There is no logical escape from that position.
Mr. Gummer: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Minister is a very intelligent member of the Government—some of us would say one of the most intelligent? When asked such an important question, he is perfectly capable of saying, “This is an advisory committee. I can assure the Committee that on this point, which lies at the heart of the committee’s remit, we cannot think of circumstances in which we would not accept its advice.” However, he did not say that. He said no. It is insulting to him to suggest that he cannot understand the point made so laboriously by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test. If the Minister is now willing to say, “I can conceive of no circumstances in which I would not accept the advice”, I would take that to be as near to a yes as is possible. Unless he can say that, however, his no is a serious no, because he is a serious man.
Dr. Whitehead: The right hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways—[Interruption.] I accept the conditional validity of that statement about the right hon. Gentleman. If the Minister is asked a straight question, he will give a straight answer, but he was not asked such a question. That is my point. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not try asking him a straight question? He might find the outcome interesting.
Tony Baldry: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can help me. Is this a Whip’s brief, or is he an 80 per cent. man? If the former is the case, I know that I can ignore it, but if the latter, he is working hard to persuade me not to support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bury, North, which I was previously minded to support. Will he explain where he is hoping to take us at the end of the argument?
Dr. Whitehead: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that interesting intervention. I assure him that this is all my own work, based on my understanding of the present Bill, the original Bill, amendments to it and how statements should be interpreted in that context. I trust that he will take that at face value. I invite the Committee to reflect on what the Bill says, as opposed to what people might like it to say about how its provisions will work.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Atkinson. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. We have had an interesting debate, and it is getting more interesting.
On clause 2, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle clearly stated our position, which is that we look to a strong and independent Committee on Climate Change. It is empowered to make recommendations on the basis of science, not politics, which is why we argued in another place for the committee to be empowered to review the 2050 target and to report to the Secretary of State before the first five-year carbon budget is set. My hon. Friend said that we would be wedded to the advice handed down by the committee. Of course, nothing in the Bill prevents deeper cuts or more ambitious targets in future.
Will the Minister consider a question that has not been raised so far? Clause 2(2) reads:
“‘The 1990 baseline’ means the amount of net UK emissions of targeted greenhouse gases for the year 1990.”
Would he be minded to seek advice from the Committee on Climate Change on extending the list of recognised greenhouse gases? Will that be one of the first things that the Government ask it to do?
During the debate, there was much discussion about public scepticism. It is important that we carry the public with us. The Minister has been kind enough to correspond with me on a number of constituency cases, to which I shall refer later. This is a good opportunity to thank him for being so assiduous in his work, as it is an enormous help when he responds fully.
Constituents and the public generally want to tackle climate change, but they do not want to do so personally. They believe that someone else will tackle it. With regard to the debate today on wind farms and where they should be placed, our problem in north Yorkshire is that most of the pylons connecting wind farms to the national grid come through our territory, and we would much rather they went through someone else’s. It is often the case that we want to battle climate change in principle, but we would rather someone else took the pain.
I would like to raise with the Minister some of the points that he was good enough to set out in his letter of unspecified date in June, which I received this week, in response to the concerns of my constituent Mr. Colin Inglis about the Bill and in particular early-day motion 736.
I am trying to help the Minister because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle said, we believe that he may be prevaricating. Obviously, the Minister might like some wriggle room, but it is important, particularly in the context of the debate on the amendment and clause 2—the 60 or 80 per cent. debate—to pin him down. He helpfully writes:
“The Prime Minister has already stated that evidence now suggests that developed countries may have to reduce their emissions by up to 80 per cent. if we are to have an effective international agreement to tackle climate change.”
There is no argument there. The Minister continues, equally helpfully:
“The Government is therefore asking the new independent, expert Committee on Climate Change to carry out a review of the 2050 target and, as we announced on 18 February, the Government has proposed making this review a statutory duty under the Bill.”
He goes on:
“Before taking any decision, we need to properly understand the implications, costs and benefits of different options. For example what would be the economic costs and benefits of different levels of the 2050 target?”
I shall focus on the costs and benefits and try to get some information from the Minister about the cost implications.
The Minister continues:
“How would this be affected if the rest of the world was also taking meaningful action to tackle climate change, or if the UK was going it alone?”
To me, this is the key passage and the Government’s commitment:
“This is why we have asked the Committee on Climate Change to review the 2050 target, and advise on whether it should be tightened up to 80 per cent.”
The Minister states:
“I agree on the need for an urgent decision, which is why the review will be one of the Committee's first tasks, alongside its work on advising on the first three carbon budgets.”
The Minister is keen for a decision. Is he saying that the Secretary of State will take a decision on the basis of the advice from the Committee on Climate Change, and that, assuming the advice is in favour of 80 per cent., the Minister will accept it? He has committed himself to taking a decision. I am trying to clarify, on behalf of Mr. Inglis and the Committee, the basis on which the Minister or the Government would not take that advice. Would it be on the basis of alternative scientific evidence? Presumably, if the Government are committing the Committee on Climate Change to undertake the review—the Minister said that that is why they are setting up the Committee—they will have access to the greatest expertise.
The Minister goes on to say:
“We are keen to get the first three budgets in place as quickly as possible in order to ensure that there are binding constraints on UK emissions which inform investment decisions now.”
9.30 am
Going forward, we must recognise those who are going to take the hit, especially in the business community. A York brick company in my constituency has been badly affected by the climate change levy, and I am sure that it will take a big hit, whether there is a 60 per cent. or 80 per cent. reduction. We owe it to businesses in this country to say what we think the target will be and to give them enough time to prepare for alternatives.
Turning to the final impact assessment of April 2008, will the Minister clarify on what basis the Government are proceeding with their thinking about the advice that they will receive from the committee? The impact assessment states:
“The Stern Review concluded that, based on an extensive review of the current literature, the long run costs of global action”,
assuming that there were concentrations of 550 ppm carbon dioxide, would be
“around 1 per cent. of GDP by 2050, within a range of +/-3 per cent.”
That is obviously quite a big leverage. Paragraph 2.1.7 of the impact assessment says:
“It is possible to calculate the present value of the cumulative cost of reducing emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050.”
It states that the reduction in GDP would be between 0.3 per cent. and 1.5 per cent. in 2050, which would be
“in the order of £30 to £205 billion.”
Does the Minister still stand by that assessment?
Turning to the costs of the higher target, page 16 of that assessment states:
“Under an 80 per cent. reduction scenario, costs have been estimated to be between 1.1 per cent. to 2.6 per cent. of GDP in 2050, depending on the assumed level of future technological change, fossil fuel prices and availability of particular technologies.”
My understanding is that the actual range of the costs to businesses within the context of the impact assessment, whether we have a 60 per cent. or an 80 per cent. target, is very small. Does not the Minister think that it would be fair to give businesses the longest possible lead-in time that they could have?
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I am struggling to understand the logic of the hon. Lady’s position. She seems to be saying that the committee’s advice should be binding on the Government and that they must always take its advice. She seems to be not only contradicting an amendment that she has tabled to clause 4, which is about the mechanism by which the Government can disagree on occasion with the committee, but, by asking the Minister to take a view on the impact assessment, she is asking him to take a view on the circumstances in which different issues might be measured regarding whether to take the committee’s advice. In a sense, is that not irrelevant if the committee’s advice is always to be treated to as binding?
Miss McIntosh: I am trying to understand the Minister’s thought process. It would be helpful if he would refer to the basis on which the Government have reached the decision on 60 per cent., and how they will make their mind up. Will the Minister confirm that they might decide not to accept the recommendation of the Committee on Climate Change? If that is the case, in what circumstances would he be prepared to reject its advice? He should be mindful of implications for the business community. The Opposition have made our position extremely clear, and we seek guidance from the Minister on how, in precise circumstances, the Government will react to the advice of the Committee on Climate Change on whether to set a target of 60 per cent. or 80 per cent.
Linda Gilroy: It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I want to make it clear that I am an “at least 80 per cent.” woman. Given the advice that I am receiving from marine scientists, I might even advocate a higher figure. That is because the complexity of what we are facing is significantly greater than some people might have realised. There might be time at a later point to say more about that.
Incidentally, I am greatly reassured by what Adair Turner said on 26 March. He said that he would be very surprised if he and his committee simply came back and said
“60 per cent. is absolutely fine, end of story.”
He also said: “I do think” a figure
“is a perfectly sensible thing to hand to the Committee to express a point of view on, rather than simply leap into let us not do 60, let us do 80, because...there is a value (even if we do end up simply saying yes, 80 per cent. is the right figure) in setting out the reasoning of why it is and also perhaps exploring a set of alternatives because we do not have to say 60 or 80, we could say 70. We could say 70 per cent. in 2050 but 90 per cent. by 2070; we could say 70 per cent. as a UK unilateral commitment but 85 as part of an international agreement”
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Prepared 27 June 2008