Climate Change Bill [Lords]


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Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has read the Prime Minister’s speech to the low carbon economy summit on 26 June.
Gregory Barker: I have not, but I have seen what the Prime Minister has and has not done over the past 12 months. However, I do not want to be drawn into discussing the Prime Minister’s record.
The Chairman: Order. For the moment, let us confine our attention to amendment No. 102.
Gregory Barker: It would greatly help to inform the debate and the decision-making process later in the year if we had access to the committee’s views. Opposition Front-Bench members hold to the position that the critical decision to set the target should be taken on the basis of the committee’s informed opinion, and it would make eminent sense to move forward by one month the date on which the committee must advise the Secretary of State on the resetting of the 2050 target. I have not spoken to Adair Turner, but there are concerns that by truncating the process, we might limit the scope of the committee’s considerations or place on it an unwanted additional burden.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Northavon, and I am willing to take at face value what he said about his discussion with Lord Turner, without attributing anything directly to the committee chairman. It is important that we take into account the committee’s views, if possible. The inconvenient truth is that the Bill will not have received Royal Assent by 1 November 2008, and we worry about how to legislate for a deadline that will have passed by the time the Bill becomes law. I hope the Minister will clarify today exactly what powers the shadow Committee on Climate Change will have prior to the Bill’s enactment.
The amendment draws our attention to how slow the Government have been in taking the Bill through Parliament. If they had followed the timetable that we all expected, the Bill would have passed through both Houses and become law by the summer recess, or sooner, which would have given the Committee on Climate Change exactly six months in which to produce its report. As it stands, however, the shadow committee will be official for a number of weeks at best before it must report on the 2050 target. That situation is far from ideal, and I commend the Liberal Democrats for tabling the amendment, if for no other reason than to highlight the Government’s procrastination on such a vital piece of legislation.
Although I am slightly aggrieved that the Liberal Democrats have stolen my intellectual copyright, the amendment has some merit and I hope the Minister will respond sympathetically. My comments on Tuesday did not refer only to bringing forward the date of the full report, but left open the option of an interim report. Furthermore, I do not think that 1 November is the only date that could be considered for either the full or the interim report.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North speaks with characteristic profundity, to quote the hon. Member for Northavon. I will remind him of that on future amendments.
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I am grateful to the hon. Member for Northavon, who has helped the Committee. He talked to the Secretary of State, giving notice of his intention, and credited my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North in that conversation. The hon. Member for Northavon has also talked to the chairman of the shadow committee to see what is possible. Let me try to help the Committee in two ways—to echo you, Mr. Cook, the good news and the bad news. I think that the good news outweighs the bad news, unlike your news, Mr. Cook—we will miss you this afternoon.
The Chairman: Flattery will get you everywhere.
Mr. Woolas: That is what it says in the brief.
I shall help the Committee by quoting subsection (3):
“The Committee must give its advice under this section before 1st December 2008.”
When we put the figure in, we were not in the position that we are in now—we did not know when Report and Third Reading would be. Indeed, the suggestion by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle on the alleged delay would have made the problem worse. Pragmatically, we felt that a requirement to provide advice before December gives sufficient time.
As has been said, at the moment the committee is a shadow one. In accordance with the conventions of Parliament, the committee can spend taxpayers’ money, because the Bill has had Second Reading. However, anything that the committee does before it is vested has no legal import. Therefore, the advice itself, and the relationship of the Government and Parliament to that advice, is not based in statute—our Bill—until the committee has been vested, which cannot take place until the Bill has received Royal Assent. I had hoped that I would get credit for what I thought was beautiful tapestry with the date, because 1 December is the day before the Queen’s Speech—I thought that that would be obvious, but it clearly was not. Seriously, the date means before 1 December, and I am more than happy to make that clear to the shadow committee and its chair.
Secondly, advice on the 2 target and what we may be able to do under our Bill is in the interests of Parliament, and I have given a commitment to seek advice and to take a decision on that. Having interim advice on, for example, the long-term target would clearly benefit Parliament and deliberations on Third Reading and Report. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle was cruel to my leader, saying that he has been “battered by expediency”, although I point to last night’s vote for a case of battering with expediency. However, I will keep away from partisan points.
If we were simply acting expediently, we would accept the point of the hon. Member for Banbury and agree with the amendment. The person whose life would be easiest as a result would be my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—or mine and my hon. Friend’s. Seriously, if we were to pass the amendment as it stands at the moment, the committee would still not be based on statute, because of the lack of Royal Assent. We have to remember that the committee does not legally exist.
Gregory Barker: Is anyone really saying that they will not accept the advice of the committee, if the committee does not legally exist? Surely what we want in Parliament, and what the public wants, is the advice of the committee. We do not want some technical, legal assurance that the committee exists in statute. We want to know the advice of those wise men—[Interruption.]and women. It is not the legal definition, but the opinion of that group of experts that we seek.
Mr. Woolas: I understand the political point that is being made—of course I do—but I am seeking to defend the status of law. Opposition Members have said that it is not DEFRA Ministers whom they do not trust, but the rest of the Government. One cannot knowingly table an amendment to instruct a committee that does not exist, because it would have no status in law. Clearly, if the committee were able to make public its views and its interim advice, if we can use that phrase, it would have a huge policy import. However, all the debates that we had on Tuesday about the relationships between the committee and the Government, and the Government and Parliament, would mean nothing. It would be a Del Boy clause.
Tony Baldry: As the Minister probably gathered, no one particularly wants this amendment, but we want an undertaking from the Minister that he will write an elegant letter to the chair of the shadow Committee explaining that we would like this advice before Report and Third Reading. It is very simple. What we really want to hear from the Minister is how he gets off the hook. The most shocking thing that I have heard today is the idea of a Liberal spokesman rampaging across the machinery of government speaking to chairs of shadow committees. The Minister should get a grip on this, and we will not have the Liberals interfering in the machinery of government, which they have absolutely no place to do. That is the most shocking thing about all this. If the Minister can get a grip on the matter, and ensure that by the time that we come to Report and Third Reading, we can elegantly deal with without anyone feeling betrayed, it would be really wonderful.
Mr. Woolas: I will take the hon. Gentleman’s sound advice. I have tried to answer him and give him the undertaking that he needs by pointing out the clause’s reference to “before 1 December”, and I undertake formally to bring that to the attention of the chairman of the shadow Committee.
Large numbers of hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that we should do what is being said. I do not see this as a partisan point. I am sure that there will be those who say that if we are able to do this, the Government are caving in under pressure. There is a range of views on this, and it is wrong to say that it is the members of the Government who are looking for a way out of this. It was the Prime Minister in his speech in November who put the question before us.
Steve Webb: We are grateful for what we have just heard. Would the Minister be willing—I cannot think why he would not—to place in the Library of the House a copy of the letter that he sends to the chairman of the Committee?
Mr. Woolas: Yes. Like, I hope, all my letters, that letter will be elegant.
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I have listened very carefully to the Minister’s argument, which appears to be rooted exclusively in issues of law. He has not mentioned to the Committee any concerns about practicality or pressure. Can we take it that his understanding is that the November deadline will not create practical problems?
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman is astute. I have not used those arguments, because the answer is that I do not know. When we looked at the timing, we judged that before 1 December, which is a Monday, was reasonable. I do not know the answer, and I do not know for sure the view of the chairman on the question whether making an interim report, or some such advice, public would separate the long-term goals from the medium-tern goals. In my view, is possible to do that, but I do not know whether that is the chairman’s view.
Mr. Hurd: If the Minister’s position is rooted in honest ignorance, may I make a suggestion? One of my concerns about practicalities is that the committee will have another extremely important job to do by 1 December, which is to pass comment on not one but three carbon budgets. Those are incredibly important judgments to make, so I am a little puzzled why there is such a hard line on 1 December. Is there room for some flexibility?
Mr. Woolas: The answer concerns the relationship between that advice and the Chancellor’s Budget in March, if one sees the beautiful tapestry. There will be the pre-Budget report, the advice and then, of course, the Budget. Remembering that the pre-Budget report is a consultation, the committee’s advice will dovetail with those events. The key words are “before 1st December”.
To answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, the Bill creates the committee. The Secretary of State will make a commencement order to bring the committee into existence before its advice is given, but, obviously, that can happen only after Royal Assent. Ahead of that date, the committee cannot legally exercise any of the legal functions that the Bill grants it, which is the formal legal position.
I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Member for Northavon. His point is helpful to the good sense of the debate in Parliament and consequently to the Government —I nearly said “for once”, but that would be unfair.
Steve Webb: The debate has been very constructive, despite my amendment being called the Del Boy amendment and being accused of rampaging across the machinery of government.
Let me state my understanding of what the Minister has said. He has emphasised that the law requires the matter to be dealt with before 1 December, which does not necessarily mean that date, and he has undertaken to write to the chair of the committee and to publish that letter. I understand and hope that that letter will make explicit reference to the parliamentary timetable and the advantage to Parliament of receiving an interim indication of the committee’s thinking prior to our further deliberations.
Mr. Woolas: My emphasis was on drawing attention to the words “before 1st December” in clause 33(3), and on pointing out the parliamentary timetable.
Steve Webb: That is very helpful. On the basis of those assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I am disappointed that we will be deprived of your tender stewardship for the remaining stages of the Committee, Mr. Cook.
Let me press the Minister for clarification on three points. I do not want this to turn into the war of the Select Committees, but the excellent report of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the draft Bill raised certain points about the committee’s powers under clause 33, the resources available to it, its independence and the duty on the Government to accept its advice. The Select Committee clearly stated in paragraph 85:
“The Committee on Climate Change should not be a policy-making or delivery body. It should be focussed on the provision of advice...but it must not be prevented from advising the Government on any policy matters that may come to its attention while carrying out its duties.”
Paragraph 86 states:
“In order to establish the independence of the Committee on Climate Change, the Secretary of State should be required to accept its recommendations without further debate.”
The Committee concluded that that would place
“the Committee’s advice alongside that of the Monetary Policy Committee whose interest rate decisions are not challengeable by the Chancellor of the Exchequer except under very extreme circumstances.”
In paragraph 88, the Committee stated:
“We do not see that the Bill prevents the Committee on Climate Change from recommending the mid- and long-term targets, but it is not clear that the Committee will have this power. We recommend that by 2009 the Committee should review and recommend to the Secretary of State what the 2020 and 2050 target should be... In addition, the Committee should have the power and responsibility to make recommendations to the Secretary of State at any time regarding the mid- and long-term targets.”
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The Committee went on to consider what resources there should be. In response to the earlier amendment, the Minister said that, legally, the committee does not exist. However, it is currently being resourced in shadow form and the resources will go up incrementally as the committee takes legal effect.
In paragraph 101, the Select Committee states:
“It is imperative that the staff and information resources available to the Committee on Climate Change are completely independent of Government. We recommend that independent consultants be asked by the Government to recommend the correct level of resources available to the Committee in order to establish that it is properly resourced.”
I do not see any opportunity in the later stages of the Bill to discuss the important matter of resources. Usually such discussion takes place in one of the debates on the schedules, but I see no reference to resources in schedule 1. Will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State will be obliged to follow the advice? We have established that the advice will be published and debated. Will the Secretary of State be obliged to follow that advice? Are we satisfied that the committee will be independent of Government, and can the Minister convince us that the resources available to the committee to perform its functions are adequate for its task?
 
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Prepared 4 July 2008