Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

4.26 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, we on these Benches believe that this is, on the whole, a Bill to be welcomed. We are grateful to the noble Viscount for explaining it so carefully and fully. I am particularly pleased to welcome the speech of the noble Lord, Lord

15 Dec 1994 : Column 1384

Williams. On these Benches we had rather given up any thought that we might have an ecological overview from anyone in his party except possibly the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, on the Back Benches. In both Houses of Parliament, we had rather given up hope that green inspiration would dominate the programme of the Labour Party. We are absolutely delighted that the party has now seen the error of its ways and is picking up a part of its tradition--once a very real part--which appeared to have been abandoned.

The Government are keen on measures which appear to simplify the answers to problems. That is not in itself bad although oversimplification tends to mean that some important parts of problems are overlooked. And there are dangers in the process itself. In the course of pulling things together governments are always tempted to accumulate too much power in the hands of Ministers, to give them too much unaccountable discretion, and to drop those parts which do not quite fit the tidying process down the interstices of their cobbling. In addition, there is a tendency to water down or qualify previous bold, or moderately bold, initiatives. In this specific case, I believe that Mr. Gummer personally wants all the right things, but he appears to be surrounded to a certain extent by those who have either had pasts or expect to have futures in the Treasury --with the attitudes that that appears to imply.

It is the duty of the Opposition parties to see that watering down does not occur. On these Benches, we shall be as vigilant as possible in this task. In the debate which we believe is going on, we are on the side of Mr. Gummer; and I never thought that I would make such a remark from these Benches. In particular, we shall have to take care that this stays an environmental protection Bill in spirit, even if the title has been slightly worryingly changed to leave out the word "protection". We must see that it does not become primarily an industry protection Bill.

I do not wish to be misunderstood about that. Of course, industry must be protected and a first glance at the Bill does not suggest that the Government have got it seriously wrong. But there should be no doubt about where the main emphasis must lie. We are living in a world where an unparalleled and previously unthinkable commitment to a sustainable economy was made by the nations of the world in Rio. This change of paradigm must have changed all our thinking. The result is not so much that we must now all be good little ecologists, whereas before we might have been big bad capitalists. It is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, pointed out, it will now pay us to be good because that is how the world is going to work from now on.

Things which would in the past have seemed harsh restrictions on industry will now be recognised as encouraging progress towards efficiency, frugality and good practice to the profit and pleasure of all. So the environment, in the widest sense of the term, comes first because it will be leading the way.

Within that framework, there are a number of different considerations which we shall bear in mind. One is the importance of devolution--not, in this case, devolution from Europe. MORI opinion polls have shown that the public trusts Europe on environmental

15 Dec 1994 : Column 1385

matters more than it does this Government--probably not because it is particularly fond of Europe, but because it is even less fond of this Government. But there is a necessity for devolution upwards to Europe and devolution downwards to local government. The rule about devolution in ecological matters, as in civil rights matters--for the good reason that both can be matters of life and death--is that you have to make certain that the essentials are safeguarded as far up the chain as possible whereas methods of application and administration must be pushed as far down the chain as possible. As a result, central national government should have a fairly residual role, while the role of both local government and world and continental bloc government is expanded. Human nature being what it is, both Ministers and civil servants at the national level are likely to resist that.

For instance, in the national parks there is need for a strong national interest, if only because national money is concerned. But there is also a need for people who live in the parks to have as much control over their own lives as possible. In this part of the Bill, we almost certainly need the obligation to ensure that major development only takes place in the parks as a completely last resort and that there are powers to ensure--as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, pointed out--that noisy and intrusive recreations can be controlled, while making sure that local opinion is fully consulted within that framework. There is a case for the direct as opposed to the indirect election of local representatives on to the governing bodies of national parks. This is an issue we intend to explore.

We shall also be on the look-out for the unnecessary removal of environmental powers from the bodies which are being co-ordinated. The Bill may well be taking too many powers from the National Rivers Authority which has done a good job. It is not clear that the Bill is right in the balance it strikes between the new authority and local authorities in the field of waste disposal and recycling. I suspect that my noble friend Lady Hamwee, among others, will be speaking on that matter.

Another concern is that of too great a vagueness as to what is the ultimate object of some of the exercises. For instance, it is much to be welcomed that the Government are at last honouring their promises about the preservation of hedgerows. We welcome the explanation which the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater, gave about how that will be done. We shall explore the matter further in the course of the Bill.

More centrally, Clause 4(1) would benefit from clearer statutory goals for the advancement of environmental protection and sustainable development. That might be better than the present reliance on what is necessarily transitory ministerial guidance.

This is a very wide Bill, indeed. Of the matters already in it, I expect that my noble friend Lord Ezra, with his immense expertise, will be taking a detailed interest in the provisions relating to coal mines, as well as other matters. When I mentioned coal mines to my noble friend, he said that he would have to do some homework on them. I suspect that he has forgotten more about coal mines than most people--certainly, anyone in this House--ever knew, with the exception of those

15 Dec 1994 : Column 1386

who have spent their working lives at the bottom of one. He will take on that and various other subjects in which he has great interest and expertise.

There are other matters. For example, my noble friend Lord McNair will advocate the greater use of our inland waterway network. I am an enthusiastic supporter of his on that subject. In particular, there appears to be a lacuna in the Bill where there should be an obligation to promote navigation and recreation on our inland waterways.

While I am on the subject of water, there appears to be a small and maybe inadvertent hole in the Bill. It is that the main agency has control over water abstraction, but the Scottish agency does not. That hole could be damaging because control of abstraction can mean life or death to wildlife site protection. Perhaps the Minister in his reply will pay attention to that. There may be a very simple answer.

The fact that the long title of the Bill is so wide that the Government have been able to sweep in coal mines, hedges and national parks means that there is the possibility of other imports. Some of my colleagues and I will certainly be exploring the need for further largely agreed energy conservation measures. There is also need to extend the Trade Descriptions Act to cover environmental claims. My noble friend Lady Hamwee may well wish to see whether the Bill can provide a home for that.

The last principle I wish to air in our general approach to the Bill is the need to recognise the proper use of the carrot and the stick. The Government understand the approach perfectly well but they suffer from the fatal combination of not liking nasty sticks brandished at their friends while pleading their inability to afford juicy carrots for anyone.

If we are to improve our environment and move towards a sustainable economy--both are important and popular aims --we must get the balance right. And it is a question of balance. We do not want, on the one hand, to throw all the delinquents into gaol. But nor do we want--an accusation that is sometimes made--to throw money at the problem. It is the combination of the two in the right proportions that makes either extreme unnecessary. If you rely on sticks alone you practically have to beat someone to death to make things work. If you rely on carrots alone, it can bring the country to bankruptcy. In either case, it does not work.

The balance achieved by moderate means does work, particularly in a nation which, as we know from opinion polls and actual behaviour, is very aware at every social level of the need for environmental protection. It is that balance between carrots and sticks for which we on these Benches will strive. I hope that I have spelt out some of the ways in which we hope to co-operate in improving what we regard as basically a thoroughly welcome Bill.

4.40 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I notice many names on the list of speakers. I shall be as quick as possible and keep my eye on the clock. I welcome unreservedly the broad principles of the Bill, and I am delighted that the Government have given it priority.

15 Dec 1994 : Column 1387

The debates that we shall have on it will be time well spent given that the substance of the Bill is so important and the fact that this House has an excellent track record in improving environmental legislation. Many people regard this Chamber as the place where environmental proposals are likely to receive thorough, reflective and expert attention. Indeed this House is well blessed with veterans of environmental policy-making who not only have their hearts in the right place but their heads also.

Why should the Lords Spiritual be interested in such a Bill? Religion cannot be confined to special rituals in special places, nor to a narrow range of family and social issues. I reject such stereotypes. There has always been a strong strand of thought within the Judaeo-Christian tradition affirming the creation as an expression of the divine. Exclusive emphasis on individual salvation has never been typical of Christianity as a whole. In the parable of creation set out in Genesis we are told of each dimension of the creation being seen as very good. Biblically, people who were given special skills and power over the rest of creation were to use them with a sense of humility and reverence, and indeed with a sense of urgency. We have the statement from Harvard University that biological diversity in the world in which we live has been reduced to the equivalent of what it was 6,000 million years ago. We also hear that species which are shown to have taken geological eras to come to maturity can be destroyed within one generation. I am told that in the 1980s hedgerows were disappearing at a rate of 4,000 miles a year. Because we have chosen to invest in the motor car, an area the size of the county of Oxford disappears every year, so I am told, in the making of dual carriageways and motorways.

There is an urgency about the Bill. We have one habitat; it is shared with the other creatures of the world. I am told, for example, that a sow has more nerve-endings in its snout than are in the human hand. If we have a vice-regency under God, then, noblesse oblige, we must care for our habitat. It cannot be renewed. There is only one. We have to keep the two words "economy" and "ecology" together.

We may well ask in a society increasingly dominated by short-term consumer goals: where are the moral underpinnings of sustainability to come from? I would prefer it if, in the Bill, the phrase "environmentally sustainable" were used every time in relation to the goals set. Can that word be put in? Environmental responsibility involves a sense of responsibility and service to generations as yet unborn, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. Far be it from me to try to correct the son of a professor of divinity, but I thought that it was the prophet Micah who talked about "beating swords into ploughshares". I will check. I beg the noble Lord's pardon. We have to have self-restraint and reverence and respect for the rest of creation, for the balance of nature.

Such a stance involves moral choices based on a sense of purpose that is bigger than ourselves. So the apparently prosaic pages of this Bill, which the House will examine, as ever, painstakingly, take us into deep moral issues and belief systems which can enable human

15 Dec 1994 : Column 1388

beings to act ethically for the long-term common good. We do not have a freehold on the universe in which we live, only a repairing lease.

Moreover, it is now clear that environmental issues cannot be separated from physical and mental health, nor from issues of poverty or the crisis of refugees overseas. We cannot treat the environment as a separate subject. It is bound up with many subjects. It is relevant to our common future and those other issues which threaten that future. Therefore, I hope that it will not be thought pretentious if I welcome the Bill not just as one who values clean water and fine hedgerows (which I do) and who loves national parks (which I do) but as a bishop.

Parliament does not often get such an important opportunity as this to help improve the country's stewardship of its natural resources. I know that the House will make the most of it. In that respect the Bill will have to be tightened up. It is pointed out to me by English Nature and by no less a body than the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust, with which I work closely, that in Clause 7--which I have checked today--when it comes to matters of pollution, a very much weaker phrase is used. I should like the noble Viscount to tell me whether that has any significance. All through the Bill, the agencies are to have the "duty" of conserving nature. In Clause 7, in reference to the pollution of rivers, a weaker phrase is used; namely,

    "to have regard to the desirability"

of conserving nature. Can we have some explanation of that?

The new environmental agency will certainly cause upheaval and absorb much time, energy and indeed money, as has already been pointed out. We need to be satisfied that the new body really will be more than the sum of its parts, so that the net result is long term and comprehensive. It is good that each government department will have duties laid upon it. For it is possible, even with the best will in the world, for a government department to think that someone else is responsible rather than itself. We are all responsible.

The proposed clarification and strengthening of national park authorities is very good. The noble Lord, Lord Norrie, is to be congratulated, as indeed is the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, on what they have achieved.

I also support the proposals for statutory protection of important hedgerows. But it is worth noting that far more hedgerows have been lost in recent years through lack of management than have been lost through outright destruction. They just disappear. Hence it is very important to try to make increased resources available to farmers and landowners for the management and upkeep of hedgerows, and indeed other key features which give the countryside its character and charm.

I welcome Clause 80 of the Bill, so long as it facilitates more positive payments to land managers for good environmental practice. That is much more sensible than paying them to grow unwanted surplus food or to set land aside.

15 Dec 1994 : Column 1389

I conclude by hoping that your Lordships will strongly support the principles of the Bill and will also find plenty of ways, as has happened in the past, to tighten it up and strengthen it. Given our mature years, most of us are probably not thought of as "green". But let us see what we can do.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page