Climate Change Bill [Lords]


[back to previous text]

Martin Horwood: I apologise for not saying when I first spoke how good it is to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson.
If we accept for a moment the hypothetical possibility that at some stage during the next 40 years there might be a Conservative Government, I suppose that it is wise to be cautious about their ability to wriggle out of certain commitments. It might be more likely that there will be a Liberal Democrat Government in that time scale. Who knows? The Leader of the Opposition might be from the Green party. If we accept that there will be Governments of different colours and opinions, it is wise to propose amendments that would make processes more watertight and transparent, so, in that sense, I support the spirit of the amendment and certainly accept the Conservative Front Benchers’ good intentions. However, I do not think that amendments Nos. 57 and 70 are as critically important as amendment No. 56.
In the circumstances that amendment No. 57 envisages—when the Government appear to be obstinately refusing to take account of the committee’s advice—it is likely that we would all be able to draw our own conclusions about the likely impact of climate change on the UK. If we do not, civil society and non-governmental organisations will do so in our stead.
Mr. Weir: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying and agree to a large extent, but amendment No. 57 proposes that the Secretary of State
“shall consult the Committee on the effect”.
Does not that give the committee the chance to say, when the Government do not accept its advice, that that will mean X, Y and Z? Given the argument about the importance of scientific evidence, it would be useful for Members of Parliament to have that before them when they debate the matter in the House.
Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but I do not think that that is necessary in the context of the Bill as a whole because the committee’s responsibility is to adjust the budget and look sector by sector at the impact regarding the future plans. It will still be mandated to only those targets and will make further advice based on the Government’s revised position, including their refusal to accept a target at that position. Therefore, the committee’s processes will reveal a lower opinion on the impact and certainly the steps that need to be taken. He might be right that that could be useful. It would certainly serve one purpose: to add to the embarrassment of any Government who were needlessly wimping out of tough decisions. In that respect, I have enough sympathy with the amendment to allow it to go forward.
Mr. Gummer: I will try to resist the temptation to remark that some Committee members find it impossible to put party politics aside, even when they clearly do not arise, and that is always true of the Liberal Democrats, as one of their Members has shown regularly in this debate. That is sad, because this is an issue on which we ought to try as hard as possible to have a common view.
The reason why I hope that the Minister will find a reason to go at least some way towards this relates to the simple matter of the Environment Agency. I happen to have invented and set up the Environment Agency, so I know what I got wrong. I thought that I had set up an independent agency that would provide advice from which the public and Ministers could take their view. Over the years, the Environment Agency has come to provide advice that fits in with the budget that the Government set for things, and that is altogether different from the original intention.
In my constituency, for example, the Environment Agency advises the Government on coastal defence on the basis of the three-year budget that is put in place, even though the advice ought to be based on what might happen over the next 100 years. I had hoped that the Environment Agency, as is stated in legislation, would announce its advice in general on various scenarios so that the Government could then decide on a scenario, take responsibility for it, accept the agency’s independent advice on the cost, and then decide what had to be done and what the timetable would be.
That experience leads me to be concerned that the Minister and the committee, because of their good heartedness, believe that no one would behave differently from them. I feel rather bitter about that example because the result is not what I thought would happen. It would be helpful to make it clear that at the point at which Parliament is discussing that disagreement, there will be a real objective assessment of the difference between what would happen if we followed either the Climate Change Committee’s proposal or the Government’s alternative suggestion. This would not tie the Government any more. It does not make this less of an advisory committee; indeed, it makes it more of an advisory committee. However, the amendment does mean that if we were faced with such a situation in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, we could say, “This is what the committee says. It is not worth making this change; we have to tell the Government that really the cost of this is not satisfactory.” We would be able to debate the matter without trading disagreeable bits of science.
2 pm
I do not want to enter into this issue too deeply, but one of the problems with the science is that it is rare that there is much agreement on a specific thing, although, for example, there is widespread agreement on a target of 80 per cent. plus. However, many bits of the science are much more complex, so arguments can be deployed on either side.
Parliament would do well to insist that it had the latest judgment of the committee on the Government’s proposals in its debates so that an informed decision could be taken. That would underline the role and the importance of Parliament.
I cannot imagine that this Government would not go back to the committee or that they would not tell people what the committee had actually said and pretend that it had said something else. However, I hope that they will be prepared to accept the amendment simply because it would do them no harm. It would not do any harm to the next Government, but it might ensure that at some time in the future, when times were tough just before an election, somebody would not try to do something through which Parliament was not given the truth.
Martin Horwood: I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman a serious question, and also, as a flood-hit MP myself, pay compliment to his achievement in setting up the Environment Agency, which was appreciated last year. The body of work required to deliver on the amendment is substantial. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that by the time that work has been completed and the committee has delivered its conclusion on the likely impacts of the change, it might as well have undertaken the work of the reassessing the carbon budget?
Mr. Gummer: That intervention worries me, because the sort of changes that we envisage are changes of considerable importance. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that Parliament would have to rubber-stamp or agree to the Government’s changes without those changes being satisfactorily tested against the knowledge and the science, that would be very dangerous. The committee would have to get a wiggle on, talking about wiggle in a different sense. It would have to do the work and provide the Government with a clear indication of the consequence of the decision to ignore its advice. That advice to the Government should be available to Parliament so that we can make a sensible decision. If the Government had got it right, no doubt we would support it, and if the Government had got it wrong, no doubt we would oppose it, but at least we would do so in full knowledge of the facts.
Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle for moving the amendments. Let me make three points to back up my argument that the amendments are reasonable, but the process is covered by other clauses, particularly clauses 33 and 55.
My first point is the most important. There is a danger of us misunderstanding the relationship between UK emissions and temperature in the UK. The UK’s contribution accounts for 2 per cent. The change in the target is very important for the carbon budgets, and only in the context that I described could it take place. The link between the possible change in target and the potential change in temperature is less than the margin of error in the calculations in the first place.
We must always remember that our emissions do not dictate our average temperature. A constituent of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford asked her the other day whether she could avoid climate change by going to her house in France, which rather crystallises the difficulty that some people have. I am not suggesting that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle has that difficulty, and certainly not that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal has. It was just a point worth making.
Clause 33(2) states:
“Advice given by the Committee under this section must also contain the reasons for that advice.”
It is envisaged that the committee will put forward various public scenarios containing ranges, given that we are talking not about arithmetic but about science. As the months and years roll on, the United Kingdom climate impact programme, which we will publish in November, will play an important role. It is relevant practically to the Bill, and it will set out the United Kingdom’s best science to give us the range of scenarios based on parts per million and on temperatures.
Amendments Nos. 57 and 70 are already covered by the processes in the legislation, and because of the scenarios that I have described, the amendments would not achieve precisely or even generally what the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle seeks. I shall back up that point. Clause 4 already requires the Secretary of State to set out his reasons, and if he were to set the 2050 target at a level different from that which was recommended, there would still be transparency, because in those reasons, one would see the scenario with which he had differed from the committee. That is a long-winded way of saying that one would already be able to see the committee’s advice in the Secretary of State’s scenario, were it to differ from the committee’s.
Mr. Gummer: What happens if the committee gives three scenarios and the Minister decides not to take any of them? The Bill does not say that he has to take any. He could take one that was mid-way between two of them. In other words, he could modify the scenario, and there would be no independent evaluation of what happens. Indeed, that is exactly my concern. In those circumstances, lay people—Ministers are usually lay people—would be able to say, “It looks more or less right. I think we can’t quite do that, but if we come in between them, it ought to be okay.” There might be very good reasons why that would not work satisfactorily, and I should be happier if I knew what the committee thought about, let us say, a mid-point between two of its scenarios.
Mr. Woolas: I take the point, but in practice the committee’s publication of its advice and reasons would cover those potential circumstances. It would be like publishing a logarithm book. It would contain all the options. Because the relationship between UK emissions changes at the margin, remembering that we are talking about the cumulative amount of carbon in the air under the curve of the trajectory over that long period, the relationship between UK emissions and the global temperature is less than the margin of error in those scenarios, even on current knowledge.
There could not be any gap. Parliament would go bonkers and would turn down the affirmative resolution if the Secretary of State were to deviate from the accepted advice of the committee. I cannot see that arising, as the committee’s advice would be public. The UK climate impacts programme will be hugely important in setting the scenario, and will evolve. It is not conceivable that the Secretary of State would deviate from the target in a manner that was not based on the scenarios and premises of that programme’s report. I urge the Committee to consider achieving the hon. Gentleman’s reasonable objective through clauses 33 and 55.
Gregory Barker: I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. It is considerably more sensible and rational that the disappointing partisan comments from the Lib Dems which, if anything, water down and weaken the Bill, rather than improve it.
I understand the Minister’s argument, but I do not agree that clauses 33 and 55 achieve exactly what my amendments propose. Amendments Nos. 57 and 70 would bring greater clarity and certainty to any future decision-making process. However, I appreciate that a further layer of the onion lies beneath those clauses. If it is intended to publish a range of scenarios, more information will be available than one would have anticipated from a straight reading of the Bill. On the understanding that that is how it is intended that the Bill be interpreted and the committee will function—
Mr. Woolas: Has the hon. Gentleman considered that the devolved Administrations would have to be consulted? I am sure they would set out their reasons. That might give him further reassurance.
Gregory Barker: Yes, the devolved Administrations are an interesting element of the Bill. We will discuss their role later, particularly the ability of the Secretary of State, rather than the Prime Minister, to have a genuine locus in the decisions taken by the devolved Administrations. What we have is not perfect, but I take on board the Minister’s arguments and reassurances. On balance, and in the interests of forging consensus where possible, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: It may be opportune to point out that we are about a third of the way through the Committee stage and have just finished clause 4. There are another 89 clauses and six schedules to deal with.

Clause 5

Carbon budgets
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Miss McIntosh: I am mindful of your strictures, Mr. Atkinson. I refer the Minister to my earlier comments and to the point raised by the CBI. Clause 5 deals with the setting of five-year carbon budgets, on which we all agree, and the setting by 1 June 2009 of three consecutive carbon budgets for three-year periods. The CBI broadly supports that. The Federation of Small Businesses also supports it, but commented:
“The balance between economic growth and environmental legislation must be maintained because only by increased investment in research and development by the private sector will we find solutions to the problems of climate change.”
The CBI says that it wants a credible framework within which to work towards a low-carbon economy, and it believes that the interim target and rolling carbon budgets could help by giving the right balance of certainty and flexibility. It goes on to say that
“alongside the risks, the shift to a low carbon economy offers the UK a unique opportunity to develop innovative environmental technologies of the future and prosper in new, multi-billion-dollar world markets—but only if research funding is better co-ordinated and prioritised.”
Today, at Innovation, Universities and Skills questions, the Minister for Science and Innovation announced, in response to a question, a multi-million pound research programme for delivering the building of a low-carbon economy.
2.15 pm
In the interests of joined-up government, can the Minister give the Committee an assurance today that he is going to satisfy the points raised by business, through the Federation of Small Businesses and the Confederation of British Industry, that targets will be set? His own final impact assessment, to which I referred in relation to previous clauses, and page 17 of the Stern review suggest that industrial sectors with high-energy intensive production exposed to international competition are probably going to face the most adverse impact on output and employment.
I am trying to support what the Minister is doing, but can he satisfy business that there are going to be measures whereby the environmental targets that he is expressing in the Bill are balanced by some degree of inducement to change behaviour, perhaps by using alternatives to fossil fuels, and encourage less intensive energy burning of fuels generally? In trying to change business behaviour through the carbon budgets imagined in clause 5, is it the Government’s intention to use the moneys that they have set aside to encourage businesses to change their practices in that way?
 
Previous Contents Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 27 June 2008