Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Gregory Barker: Of course that is a danger, but we should at least be asking those questions, and I think that we should be able to hold to account civil servants and Ministers who come before Select Committees and the scrutiny of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. They should have to defend their judgment that the Bill that they are introducing is compatible with this Bill and stand by the fact that it is appended to the front of the Bill.
Mr. Gummer: Is that not surely the point? Those people would have to ask themselves a very difficult question: “Can I honourably sign this document and say that it is commensurate with the Climate Change Act?” It is tremendously important to ensure that that is done.
Gregory Barker: I attach value to that judgment, given my right hon. Friend’s previous experience as a Secretary of State. However, the hon. Member for Northavon is right to say that it is not a failsafe. If a Government or a Secretary of State is determined to get around it, and can sleep easily with his conscience at night, it would not provide a failsafe. However, as a parliamentary barrier providing the checks and balances that are available to us within the system, it represents a useful mechanism for ensuring that there is a greater, if not complete and infallible, compatibility across the legislative process.
In the Government’s version, even with a preamble, there will be no active duty on Whitehall to give serious consideration—total consideration—to climate change impacts. In our version, including the statement of compatibility, that would be an integral part of the initial process, before a Bill even came to Parliament. That would be the value of it, as my right hon. Friend implied.
I understand that some legislation would be affected in less severe ways. The Bill that became the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, for example, was an extremely important Bill that was going to have a more or less minimal impact on carbon emissions. It would be relatively easy for a Minister to make such a statement on such a Bill. However, for the Planning Bill, it would require a tremendous amount of work on the part of officials for the Minister to make such a statement.
The new clause is about placing climate change issues at the heart of Government decision making. It would make certain that the unified approach that is so necessary to success was taken in practice. We all know that half measures will not suffice. A change of awareness, as well as a change of policy, must be driven right the way across Whitehall. We need a complete change of culture, and the new clause would help to drive that culture change. If the Government are truly committed to the ambitious and dramatic action to stop climate change that we need, they will support the new clause.
I asked the Department involved about the decision to close 2,000 post offices. I asked what measures it had taken regarding the effect on emissions of closing post offices. I asked both generally and particularly. I had asked those questions of the Post Office, which told me that the Government had told it that it was to close the 2,000 post offices and had not told it anything about any need to measure the emissions relating to that. The Department said that it did not know what the emissions were as a result of the closure of post offices either in general or in particular. It did not say, but the answers to the questions certainly suggested that it did not care much either, because that had not been part of its calculation.
It seems that if we are to take this Bill seriously, we must start by taking it seriously at the heart of Government. That means that the Department responsible for the Bill has to recognise that it is, in a sense, a missionary to the dark interior, that the dark interior is much of the rest of Government and that however strongly we and the Department believe, that does not make it a general belief. I say to the Minister that this is one of the moments at which the phrase that I mentioned at the beginning of our debates, “Better not”, is very dangerous indeed. He needs to accept that he requires our help. He needs a statutory basis on which all Departments have to take seriously this Bill, not in general but in particular. Whenever they present something to Parliament for Parliament to consider, they must previously have asked themselves what it will mean when it comes to be measured against the climate change requirements to which this Government, this nation, the European Union and, I hope, people beyond that have agreed.
This is a difficult thing to say, but I have to say it. Civil servants are a vital part of the whole structure of government. Their most important role comes when they are powerful enough to say to Ministers, “Actually, you can’t do that because the law says that you can’t”. Twice in my ministerial life the permanent secretary has come to me regarding a decision that I wanted to make. The first was my refusal to close a ministerial office in Cornwall because I thought that it was wrong for Cornwall to have no offices from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries of Food. The second was my decision to spend Government money on the cleaning up of the site of the dome—I thought it wrong that an area so close to London should be carcinogenic and that that needed to be done. In both cases, I had to sign a document accepting that the permanent secretary had advised me that I was going against the advice of civil servants, and that I had made a political decision against that advice. I am proud of both decisions and do not mind saying when they were.
This is a framework Bill because it changes the framework within which political decisions are made. Our problem—and I return to the phrase—is that in that sense we are missionaries to the dark interior, not only within the Government but within the Opposition and the Liberal Democrat party. However much we say that everybody is convinced about this issue, we all know that among our colleagues there are some who are burning with it, some who accept it and some who just about accept it. That is true for all of us. The hon. Member for Cheltenham may shake his head, but I know some of his colleagues whom I would not trust with an environmental policy for very long and he knows them too. That is the truth.
This Bill is the means with which we change the way that everybody operates in a real sense. That is why the Government must start there, and why this offering to the Minister is worth taking up. It will mean that the whole force of the civil service will be able to act when Ministers try to swing the lead whenever it is convenient, politically acceptable or because certain circumstances arise. All Governments are involved in this. I do not want to say this in an unpleasant way, but this measure is probably more likely to affect those of us on the Conservative Benches than those on the Labour Benches, at least at the moment. We do not do this to make things difficult for the present Government—I want Ministers of every Government under every circumstance to understand that they must take the issue into account.
I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle on this matter. He mentioned the question of a legal Bill. I am appalled that the policies of the predecessors to the Ministry of Justice, for example, meant that our decisions about magistrates courts and courts were made totally unthinkingly. In my area of the country, we thought that we would save money by concentrating magistrates courts in particular places, but we have hugely increased the carbon impact. Policemen now have to come from all over the county—they have to go to one place—and the same applies to witnesses.
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That was all paid for by the Ministry of Justice, or whatever the Department was previously called. It found that its budget had reduced, but the move increased the Home Office budget—the police budget—the local authority budget and most individual budgets, and, above all, it increased our carbon budget. If the Department had had to say to Parliament that its policy would have had an effect contrary to the intentions of the Bill, it would now have to explain itself.
This is part of the transparency agenda that the Committee seems universally to support. I hope that the Minister will see the new clause as lifeline for him and for DEFRA, and that they will not dismiss it because of those who say, “Better not”. The biggest better-notters are those in the Treasury. I bet that they have said, “Better not,” with an enthusiasm that suggests that the Minister had better not fail to listen.
Mr. Woolas: A very important point has been made. My attitude, and that of the Government, is again, not surprisingly, to support the sort of locking-in mechanism of which the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal spoke in favour. Such locking-in legislation is required, but we believe that the superstructure of the Bill already provides for it.
I am in danger of repeating my arguments on new clause 10. We agree that an important point underlies the new clause. It is about ensuring that the Government of the day take account of the full range of policies, including those that increase emissions as well as those that bring them down. However, as I said in response to the debate on new clause 10, we believe that robust processes are already in place to ensure that, at every stage of policy development, the carbon impact of policies and legislation are assessed. I certainly agree that legislation is often the end of the process, so it is important to build that in.
A similar measure was debated in the other place. As a result of deliberations, we made a commitment to amend guidance in the explanatory notes. Such notes accompany all primary legislation. The change requires that the section of the explanatory notes covering the impact assessment makes specific reference to the more detailed carbon impact assessment. That is important when taken in the round with the carbon budgets, the carbon reduction commitment and, perhaps, future cap-and-trade schemes.
The new policy is that revised guidance will be published in time for Bills to be introduced in the 2008-09 Session, but I confirm that that change has been applied to legislation being considered in this Session. At page 66 of the explanatory notes, in paragraph 402, the Committee will see the result of that process. The section that summarises the impact assessment now includes a discussion of the Bill’s carbon impact. By explicitly detailing the carbon impact of each policy in the overall cost-benefit analysis, and, when applicable, the package of parliamentary documents, we can ensure that the objective is met.
A compatibility test, in addition to the points that I have made, would, I fear, have limited practical effect. The difference between that idea and the Human Rights Act compatibility test, on which I believe the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle based his new clause, is that while with human rights we can look at every individual measure, it would, in practice, be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate that a single piece of legislation was, on its own, incompatible with the aims of the Bill. It is better to look at the carbon budget policy, backed up by the other measures that I have mentioned.
The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal cited the interesting example of the Post Office, but the new clause would not catch that because it deals with primary legislation, which is only part of the picture, although that is not to diminish the right hon. Gentleman’s point. In the new politics, if may use his phrase, we believe that the carbon budgets that flow from the Bill, which, I agree, create the new epoch, will fundamentally change the way in which decisions are taken, not just across Whitehall but across the wider economy.
Taken together, the package will achieve much more than a compatibility test just for primary legislation. While I accept that it would be a high-profile statement, in practice it would be very difficult, if not impossible in some cases, for legislation to fail the test. I fear that the measure would not add anything.
Gregory Barker: I am disappointed by that response. I appreciate what the Minister says about how processes will change and about the legislation that will be considered, but there is another test that he did not mention. It might not be the legal or technical tests that we are used to, but it is the embarrassment test. That is probably what lies at the heart of the Government’s reluctance to accept the new clause. They know that to bring forward measures that would allow coal power stations to be built unabated, a third runway at Heathrow airport, or other such measures that we cannot anticipate now but will come forward in time, would run counter to, and fly in the face of, a progressive climate change strategy to reduce our emissions. Everybody knows that; one does not need a degree in politics or an understanding of the administration of government to realise that. A brazen statement stamped on the front of legislation saying that it was incompatible with the Climate Change Act would be deeply embarrassing for the Secretary of State and the ministerial team responsible for bringing it to Parliament. The Minister knows that much legislation would fail the embarrassment test.
Mr. Gummer: The Secretary of State would have to work harder to win the case, and that loads the dice against taking easy ways out. The proposal is worthwhile. Why do we not do implement it for that purpose? If it does not do any other harm, it is not unreasonable to add it to the Bill.
Gregory Barker: I think so. It is a shame for a further reason. I do not know how one would measure this, but the proposal would add to the Bill’s long-term effect. The ministerial team must take a great deal of credit for the effect that the Act, as we hope it will become, will have. It was not the Secretary of State, but the Minister of State—the Minister for the Environment—who brought it forward on Second Reading, and it is the two Ministers before us who have piloted it through Committee and who will be responsible for it. They will have an extraordinary legacy for any parliamentarian: an Act that will hopefully last for decades to come. This is a pioneering piece of legislation and the new clause would make it more effective. I will not suggest that it would make it incredibly more effective, but it would give it more teeth and add to its likely impact. Therefore, it is sad that the Minister has not resisted the other forces at work within the Administration—those who say, “Better not,” as my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal points out—and has set his face against accepting a common-sense, practical and workable addition to the Bill.
In the light of a lack of support, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
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Prepared 9 July 2008