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House of Lords

Thursday, 19th October 2000.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol

UN Conference on Climate Change

Lord Hunt of Chesterton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In the light of the current debate about the price of oil and petrol, how they are explaining to the public what their main objective will be at the forthcoming United Nations conference on climate change at The Hague in November.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Government's main objectives for the climate change conference in The Hague will be to secure a deal which will lead to ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by enough developed countries to enable it to enter into force by 2002. Short-term fluctuations in oil prices will not alter the Government's continued commitment to ensuring an effective international response to climate change or to implementing our domestic climate change programme, which will be published shortly.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton: My Lords, communities and natural habitats all over the world are suffering from worsening storms and floods. Will the Government recognise that there is widespread public concern about climate change and great popular support for mitigating its effects? Will they impress that on those who demand fuel tax reduction, and also on other governments who are doing very little at the present time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Lord Whitty: Yes, my Lords, I accept that it is necessary to ensure that public opinion is well aware of what changes are necessary in order for us to meet our climate change objectives. The Government have their own "Are you doing your bit?" campaign, which they will intensify. It is important also to make the most of positive shifts in public opinion--for example, in the United States, where the people are perhaps much more progressive than Congress on this issue.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, to return to more immediate matters, are the Government in a position to tell the British public that there is no need to top up fuel tanks, and that the stoppage that occurred a few weeks ago cannot be allowed to happen again?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, all these are immediate issues. We need to take immediate measures in order to meet our targets on climate change. But there are also episodic problems resulting from the recent, rather

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wild fluctuations in the price of fuel. The Government have a task force that is bringing together all government departments, the police and the oil companies to ensure that, were there to be disruption again--which I very much hope there will not--we should have the contingency plans to deal with it. It is important that people understand that the Government and the oil companies are committed to a reliable supply of fuel and that, therefore, they do not engage in panic buying as happened previously.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, in the light of this important Question, should not the Government now launch a major campaign to reduce the dependence of the transport sector on petroleum products? Should not such a campaign include further determined efforts to improve the efficiency of the internal combustion engine, a targeted effort to provide alternative public transport facilities, and a major campaign to introduce alternative forms of motive power such as natural gas, electricity and biomass?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I agree with almost everything the noble Lord says. All those points feature heavily in our 10-year plan for transport, which was issued by my noble friend Lord Macdonald in July. The plan contains a proposal for major investment in public transport, in order to ensure that motorists have a choice in terms of stopping the rapid growth in motor transport. It also contains measures to support a more rapid move to alternative fuels and to improve the fuel efficiency of petrol driven vehicles. Major improvements have been made and the manufacturers and fuel companies have committed themselves to further improvement. But the approach needs to be intensified and part of the 10-year plan will deliver that.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, following the question by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, will the Minister give the House an assurance that the Government are continuing heavily to promote the use of renewable energy in place of fossil fuels?

Lord Whitty: Yes, my Lords, we have a 10 per cent target for renewables over the next decade. Colleagues in the DTI and in my department are strongly engaged in the development of all forms of renewable energy in order to meet that target.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, my question is a short one and requires only a short answer. The noble Lord said that he hoped the Government would have contingency plans in the event of an emergency arising again? Will he tell the House in one word--do they, or do they not have contingency plans?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Baroness may have misheard me. I said that the task force had developed contingency plans. Those plans are in place and we are continually working on them. It is to be hoped that such a contingency will not arise.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that as much freight as possible

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should go by rail rather than road? In those circumstances a possible reduction in the tax on diesel will not contribute to that objective.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I agree that there is scope for a significant shift of some freight from road to rail. Having said that, however, even a significant increase in rail freight will still leave three-quarters and more of our freight transport on the road. Therefore it is important that the fuel efficiency of road transport is addressed as well as encouraging rail freight transport.

Earl Russell: My Lords, is the Minister familiar with The Times report of the focus group in Enfield which was convened to comment on the Prime Minister's party conference speech? If so, did he notice that when its attention was attracted to the passage in the Prime Minister's speech where he said that part of the trouble with the price of fuel resulted from world oil prices, it refused to believe him? The Minister, I imagine, will have no difficulty in saying that that was an unfair criticism, but will he go further and say that it marks also the insufficient attention being paid by the Government to the teaching role of government and that were the Government to take the advice of my noble friend Lord Ezra, the Prime Minister might make himself politically a good deal safer than he is?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I believe that the Prime Minister is extremely safe politically and certainly does not face much of a challenge from the Liberal Democrat Benches. However, I accept what lies behind the noble Earl's question; namely, that the Government have a responsibility to put across the environmental arguments as well as the immediate cost arguments in relation to our taxation policy. Relatively high fuel duty has been of some benefit in slowing down the rate of growth of road transport. However, it is a blunt weapon and there are probably better ways of achieving that objective in the future. They are reflected in our 10-year plan and I suspect that they will be reflected in the Chancellor's Budget decisions.

Apple Orchards: Grant Schemes

3.14 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the United Kingdom's traditional apple orchards are being sufficiently encouraged and protected by the grant schemes currently available.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, our traditional apple orchards are protected in a variety of ways. Assistance under countryside stewardship currently supports over 700 old orchards. We have also recently launched, under the England rural development programmes, the rural enterprise and the

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processing and marketing grant schemes, both of which may help with the production and marketing of fruit and fruit products from traditional orchards.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Given the fact that we have lost some 40,000 hectares of apple orchards over the past 30 years and given the quality of British apples which must be the best in the world, the number of varieties and the length of their season, does she think that we in this country are doing enough in this area? Does she not think that the Government could do much more? Is she satisfied that the countryside stewardship scheme, which concentrates so much on landscape value, has the potential to expand in local economies, providing local fruit for local people as one of its objectives?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, obviously the basis of the countryside stewardship scheme is environmental but it does not exclude commercial orchards. The noble Baroness referred to the commercial aspects of the orchards we are discussing. I endorse her comments on the quality of British apples. There are real opportunities for apple growers. There has recently been a grant from the EU to the industry body, UK Apples and Pears, to allow it to promote cooking apples which, of course, would include the excellent Bramley. Under the agricultural development scheme there is a grant to create and validate a maturity index for English apples and pears to ensure that fruit is picked at the appropriate stage of ripeness to maintain quality during marketing and storage. That would result in English apples being available to consumers for a greater part of the year.

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