Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Clause 14

Duty to report on proposals and policies for meeting carbon budgets
Mr. Woolas: I beg to move amendment No. 4, in clause 14, page 7, line 20, leave out ‘Prime Minister’ and insert ‘Secretary of State’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendment No. 5.
Amendment No. 33, in clause 18, page 10, line 4, leave out ‘Secretary of State’ and insert ‘Prime Minister’.
Amendment No. 76, in clause 36, page 19, line 10, leave out ‘Secretary of State’ and insert ‘Prime Minister’.
Amendment No. 77, in clause 36, page 19, line 13, leave out ‘Secretary of State’ and insert ‘Prime Minister’.
Amendment No. 85, in clause 36, page 19, line 19, leave out ‘Secretary of State’ and insert ‘Prime Minister’.
Mr. Woolas: We move on to clause 14. The reason for the clause is that an essential objective of the Bill is to provide transparency about the Government’s plans and actions for tackling climate change. As part of that transparency, the Bill requires the United Kingdom Government to publish their proposals for meeting each carbon budget. The report produced must be laid before Parliament as soon as is reasonably practical after the setting of the budget. By providing a clear indication of the strategy, the Government aim to reinforce business and public confidence that robust plans are in place to ensure that the budget will be met.
The 15-year plans published under clause 14—the three five-year budgets—play an important part in providing the greater predictability that the Bill aims to introduce. Businesses and households that are planning investments will want to know not just the overall level of the UK-wide budget, but the choice of policies that could be implemented to ensure that the budgets are met.
At present, clause 14 places the duty on the Prime Minister, reflecting a change made to the Bill in the other place. I agree that, to tackle climate change, we need a strong effort, not just across Government, but across society as a whole. All parts of our society will have a role to play. It is also the case that the Prime Minister is personally committed to the fight against climate change.
Gregory Barker: The Minister refers to the Prime Minster who, with the best will in the world, does not have a long tenure left. Speaking about legislation that he hopes will run to 2050, surely the Minister cannot make such a reference and expect the Committee to accept arguments based solely on the current occupant of No. 10? We do not know what the personal commitment of any given incumbent of No. 10 will be in 2020, 2030 or 2040. It does the Minister no good at all to set out a personal conviction about the current, temporary occupant of No. 10 when defending the legislation.
Mr. Woolas: I am grateful for the intervention. I was taking the opportunity to make a partisan point. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee do that and the Government have the right to do so as well. I do not argue that we should take direct reference to the Prime Minister of the day out of the Bill because the current Prime Minister is personally committed to the policy goals of the Bill. My argument is based on the definitions of how we make legislation in this country. Bills refer to the duties of the Secretary of State and throughout the years that has clearly been interpreted to mean the Government collectively. That is why actions and instructions are given in that way.
By placing specific duties on the Prime Minister of the day, the wrong interpretation could be given and political mischief could be made. The Daily Mail and The Guardian might suggest that not putting the words “the Prime Minister” in the Bill could be interpreted as meaning that the individual Prime Minister of the day was not committed to the aims of the Bill, which would not be fair.
David Maclean: Please correct me if I am wrong, but does not Lord Stern continue to report to the Prime Minister on forestry issues? If that is the case, surely it is inconsistent for the clause to refer to the Secretary of State instead.
Gregory Barker: My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border makes a good point about Lord Stern, but he is not the only senior policy adviser on climate change issues who reports not to DEFRA but to the Prime Minister. Johan Eliasch, whom the Prime Minister trumpeted with great publicity last year during his brief honeymoon, is another individual who reports directly, privately—I have not seen any of his advice published or any interviews that he has given—and confidentially to the Prime Minister. How are those considerations likely to be elucidated by the Secretary of State for the Environment?
Mr. Woolas: We are talking about law. It is the custom and practice in the United Kingdom Houses of Parliament that duties are placed upon the Secretary of State. As I have already explained, that means the Government collectively. The Secretary of State delegates his or her duties to his or her Ministers and we are all appointed by and are accountable to the Prime Minister. That is clearly understood.
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There are two intentions behind placing the duty on the Prime Minister. One is including the Prime Minister’s name as an indication that the Government accept that this is a most important matter—we have described it as the most important matter facing humankind. The argument put by others is, I believe, politically motivated, given that a responsible Minister would take the advice of parliamentary counsel. There are important reasons why, under legal process, the Secretary of State is used. I am advised that it is not possible to take legal action against the Prime Minister individually. It is possible to take action against the Secretary of State only, the meaning of which is the Secretaries of State collectively. There is good motive and bad motive behind this attempt to include the Prime Minister. As ever, I am being honest with the Committee.
Tony Baldry: Can the Minister help me on a boring machinery of government point? We all understand how, for example, public spending is worked out. Departmental Secretaries of State have bilaterals with the Chief Secretary and eventually the Budget gets carved up. Clearly, getting the carbon budget sorted out will require a fair amount of negotiation among various Departments as to where the burdens fall. It would help the Committee if we could understand whether a Cabinet Sub-Committee will do this and, if so, whether that will be chaired by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Given that I suspect that there will be some fairly serious horse trading on this matter, one might imagine that, at some stage, the Prime Minister—whoever that might be—will have to adjudicate. Can the Minister give us some guidance on the machinery of government process for setting the budget? That is something of a policy wonk question, but the answer will be helpful to the Committee.
Mr. Woolas: That is an important question. I bet that neither the Daily Mail nor The Guardian will report the answer, but that is probably because it is an important subject. I shall stop making digs at those two newspapers as it is probably a bad career move.
The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is, as he will expect, that the Cabinet will take overall responsibility, but there is an existing Sub-Committee on Environment and Energy—the ED(EE). I occasionally get sent to it. The Cabinet Sub-Committee is dedicated to the environment and energy and is chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Its membership includes the Secretaries of State with responsibility for environment, energy, transport and communities and local government, and people from other Departments. That Committee has been established under the authority of the Prime Minister to take collective decisions in this area. We envisage that the Cabinet itself will take the final decision. I hope that that has shed some light on how we intend to proceed.
Several hon. Members rose
Mr. Woolas: Rather than stopping interventions, I have now prompted more, as transparency always does.
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that Prime Minister Blair chaired the energy and climate change Sub-Committee under the previous Administration?
Mr. Woolas: I cannot confirm that, but I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman. The Cabinet Sub-Committee structure is much improved in my view. It is much more streamlined, much clearer and more pragmatic. Sofa government has ended and proper decisions are taken in proper places under the new structure, which I welcome. The hon. Member for Banbury asked an important question because behind it is recognition of the importance of the carbon budget-setting process and the policy-setting process that flows from that.
Steve Webb: One of the Minister’s arguments against including the words “Prime Minister” in the provision was essentially that we do not do that kind of thing in legislation. I am sure that he will have been briefed and will thus be aware that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 places a duty on the Prime Minister to report to Parliament. One reason for that was that there were concerns about the power and it was felt necessary to assure people that the Prime Minister was involved. If it was okay in that instance, is not the present one even more important?
Mr. Woolas: Perhaps I may deal first with the point made by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood: the previous Prime Minister chaired the previous Committee on energy and the environment, and the Deputy Prime Minister was the deputy Chairman. The Committee is now chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood on his recollection and, perhaps, homework.
To return to the question asked by the hon. Member for Northavon, there is a difference. I have checked out the list of things that the Prime Minister is required by legislation to do, in contexts where my predecessors as Ministers in this situation lost the argument. There are some pretty obscure ones, but the difference is that the very nature of the Bill, as the hon. Gentleman accepts, is to put a legal duty on the Government to meet their carbon budget. It is not possible, I am advised, to take legal action against the Prime Minister. Legal processes relate to the Secretary of State. That should give the hon. Gentleman the reassurances that he needs.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I mean to help the Minister. He says that he does not want the Prime Minister to be mentioned in place of the Secretary of State in the provision because the legal action that might arise could be pursued against only Secretaries of State collectively. However, does he realise that what we want the Prime Minister to do in this instance is report on the policies, not deliver on them? If we consider the percentage of carbon emissions for which DEFRA is responsible, the Minister will know that the bulk of such emissions fall to other Departments. That is an additional reason to agree to including the Prime Minister in the provision—purely with respect to the duty to report to Parliament—rather than the Department, whose duty it will be to deliver.
Mr. Woolas: I take the hon. Lady’s point, although I am disappointed that she does not support my efforts to increase the standing of the work of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in future—the provision would have consequences in that regard. My arguments about breaking with the way we do things remain valid—I do not use the term “break with tradition”, as I am all in favour of that if it makes an improvement, unlike, often, the hon. Lady’s party. The traditionalist wing of the Conservative party argues that we should keep things as they are unless there is a good reason not to. A good reason has not been put forward. Therefore, to be consistent, the traditionalists should support the status quo.
My point is that there is a good reason for designating Secretaries of State in law, rather than the Prime Minister or other Ministers. It is not just a matter of tradition, but part of our legal framework. I ask the Committee to accept my explanation. I think that I have answered the question asked by the hon. Member for Banbury by explaining the seriousness that is given to the matter within the machinery of Government. I hope that the matter will not be pressed to a vote.
Gregory Barker: I also want to move amendments Nos. 46 and 47 to 51.
The Chairman: Order. The amendments being debated with amendment No. 4 are Government amendment No. 5 and amendments Nos. 33, 76, 77 and 85. Amendments Nos. 46 and 47 to 51 are in the next group and are not to be discussed yet.
That was in the days in which there was a much stronger Department of the Environment in the simple sense that—and I make no criticism—it had control of local authorities. It spent a quarter of the budget of the nation. It controlled planning, water and other resources. It was a Ministry that had in its own hands the mechanisms of delivery of many of the issues of sustainable development. In particular, it had the mechanisms by which we would meet our carbon budget. Even in those circumstances, and with a Secretary of State whom I think most would admit actually cared about these matters, and was in the same position as the present Secretary of State for EFRA—I am not making a distinction—it was felt by the Government to be far too important not to commit the Prime Minister to that purpose.
In the days when I had to explain that, because the concept of climate change was nothing like as central as it is today, I used to use the example of the Health and Safety Executive’s belief that if one runs a business, even if one has a special health and safety director or officer, health and safety should be the responsibility of the chief operating officer. In every company on whose board I have ever sat, I have always insisted that that should happen. Only by doing that does one say that the most important thing about the business is that people go away at the end of the day as healthy as they can. That is duty No. 1 of any employer. It is a mechanism of showing that a business has chosen to emphasise what is the key issue for its future.
The key issue for the future of the United Kingdom and the world is dealing with climate change. In history, in circumstances when that was much less understood, the Prime Minister took that responsibility. Rather slowly, it has emerged that under the Cabinet arrangements under the previous Prime Minister, he took that view too. I remember the announcement when he said that he had to be chairman of this, and the Deputy Prime Minister had to be his deputy, because it was so important. I did not choose the Deputy Prime Minister; he did, and that is the situation, but if he were the Prime Minister, that was the right thing to do.
The body is now chaired, if I may so, by the one man who appears to know nothing at all about the issue, but who is there because it is accepted that one cannot deal with these matters unless not just the responsibilities of DEFRA, but the energy bit as well, are treated together. As neither of those Secretaries of State could chair it, we have to have somebody else. As happens in all Governments, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is given the job, whether he knows anything about it or cares about it. I think that that is a thoroughly bad way forward.
In the quality of life commission that I had the honour to chair, we proposed that the new Department that we would create would be a much more powerful version of DEFRA and would retain and bring back some of the powers that were sadly removed from it ad hominem, or ad feminem—we all know how DEFRA was created. Our idea was that there would be somebody in that Department who was the equivalent of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury so that it was accepted that the carbon budget would be a tough one and somebody in that Department—the Minister might find himself in that position—would have the power that the Chief Secretary has to say not just to DEFRA, but to all Departments, “You have to meet the budget.” No doubt people would come to that Minister, even though he was a junior in the Cabinet. The one time someone goes to a junior Minister is when they go to the Chief Secretary to argue their case. The Secretary of State for Defence would be there arguing with the Minister about his carbon budget, although the hon. Gentleman would then be a right hon. Gentleman and a very powerful man.
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That is the concept that we had. We recognise that it demands a serious change in the structure of Government. If we could have put that in the Bill, that would have been good. It would be non-party political to say that the two Departments created ad hominem and ad feminam have failed because they were each built for a person and not for a purpose. That is one of the problems with the Department for Communities and Local Government, and it is the problem with DEFRA too. I have no doubt that any Government, including the present one, will change the structure of Government given the effluxion of time, so that they face what has to be done, rather than operating on the basis of personalities, of who has to be given what.
If that is the case, we will have a more powerful DEFRA, so the argument could be that DEFRA should have the responsibility. However, that argument does not stand, for a simple reason. It will be an uphill battle for all of us to make people understand that doing the job that we need to do is the central purpose of Government. We need those token statements. I say that as a traditionalist. We should never change things unless we can show that they are broken, but if we can show that they are broken, we should change them rapidly. The present system is broken. The Department is not strong enough. It does not even chair the Committee that it should be dealing with. There is nobody in the Department who has ever shown that he could make other Ministers meet DEFRA’s the demands. I say that with great sadness, because it ought not to be so.
We have to find a way through, and I beg the Minister to think again. He is making the situation worse. He knows perfectly well that if we had “Prime Minister” in those places in the Bill, the difficult legal situations would not matter a fig. I remind the Minister what I said about the lawyers in the Department of the Environment when I went there: they are there to deliver what the Government want in a way that makes what the Government want legal. They are not there to explain to the Government why they cannot have what they want. If the Government wanted the words “Prime Minister” in the Bill, they would appear there. That is a fact. The Government would tell the lawyers to go where they ought to go, to the underground dungeon where they find the legal mechanisms to deliver the policies that the Government decide on.
I do not support the proposition of the interesting argument about who one can sue who for what. I just want to say to the Minister that if he takes the words “Prime Minister” out of the Bill, he will say something very clearly to the public. He may not mean it, but he will say, “The Government do not take the same view of the importance of the Bill as the House of Lords took.” It may have been better for the House of Lords not to put “Prime Minister” in, although I do not happen to think so, but as those words now appear in the Bill, I beg the Minister not to remove them.
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