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11 Mar 2008 : Column 1455

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have kept my powder dry throughout the proceedings this evening so that I can concentrate on this amendment.

My noble friend referred to “giving a fair wind” to this non-departmental public body. That is what lies behind my amendments. I want to shift the emphasis of work from advice to Ministers to decision-taking. I regard the thrust of my amendments as being at the very heart of the Bill. I have a clear difference of opinion with the Government as to how that committee should operate and what its powers should be.

My noble friend will recall that I set out my preliminary views on 14 January—Hansard, cols. 1064-66—of how the committee would function, on the back of someone else’s amendment. I do not want to repeat my arguments from that occasion. However, Amendment No. 175, one of the amendments I shall concentrate on this evening, sets out the need for the Government to agree reports with the committee. Apart from Amendment No. 176, my amendments are consequential.

In Committee, I set out to show that there was a precedent for the concept of agreeing reports between departments and NGOs—in that case the National Audit Office’s Comptroller and Auditor-General and departmental officials on value-for-money reports from the NAO, and on appropriation account reports from the NAO. I quoted from a Joint Committee of the DES and the NAO, which the NAO had provided to the PAC on 23 April 1986, which dealt with the arrangements for agreeing reports. The minutes stated that, in agreeing reports, the Comptroller and Auditor-General’s intention was to establish, first, that all material and relevant facts have been included; secondly, that the facts were not in dispute; thirdly, that the presentation of the facts was fair; and, fourthly, where the report stated any NAO view or conclusions with which the departments were unable to agree, that would be made clear and the NAO and departments’ reasons properly represented with all necessary balance. The House will note tonight that my Amendment No. 175 is almost a straight lift from the minute of the Public Accounts Committee of 1986.

Amendment No. 176 deals with the circumstances in which the committee and Government could not agree, and where the difference of opinion had to be referred to Parliament. In those circumstances, the Government would put their proposal to Parliament under the affirmative procedure. If defeated, they would then be required to put the committee’s proposal under similar procedural arrangements. To sum up, we have a mechanism here for seeking agreement, taking decisions, making recommendations and, where irreconcilable differences exist, referring them to Parliament for resolution of the dispute. While the committee could exercise a right to take decisions, it could also make recommendations—these things being distinctly different. The whole process could be further improved by a reference in Parliament to a Joint Committee which could refer its views to Parliament to aid resolution of the dispute. In my view, there will be many, many disputes.

Governments of all persuasions will inevitably be tempted to duck big decisions; that is what concerns

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me. A whole generation of young people out there are interested in climate change and look to Parliament now, in this Bill, to introduce mechanisms which will avoid such conflicts. They are reliant on us, now, at the beginning of this millennium, to influence climate change over the rest of this century.

Many of the decisions will be very controversial. To give an example, only yesterday, we had the Kingsnorth announcement, which was immediately opposed by many environmental groups on the basis that we were not dealing with the issue of carbon and CO2 emissions. We will be ever confronted with those kinds of problems in government. Very often, because of the power of outside lobbying organisations, Governments will be forced to back down.

Another example is the decision taken by the Mayor of London on the Porsche congestion charge. Porsche is now going to judicial review. That is a further example of the kind of pressure that can be exerted on government—in this case, the Mayor—where very controversial decisions have to be taken. I want a mechanism that the Government can hold responsible for those decisions and, to use a phrase that I used before, on occasion, perhaps even hide behind that body, so that the public understand that we have given others a responsibility to take major decisions. I have previously cited the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. It is far easier for it to handle decisions of that magnitude than it was for the Chancellor when he or she knew that he or she would inevitably be confronted by electoral and other political considerations in the taking of decisions on interest rates.

We need a committee with a dynamic tension in its relationship with government, in which the committee recognises the utmost seriousness with which it has to take its decisions. What is most important is that a chasm is not allowed to develop between the committee, the Government and public opinion: a chasm in which the public and the committee blame the Government for failing to act; in which successive Governments blame their predecessors for failing to act; and in which successive Secretaries of State blame their predecessors for failing to meet targets recommended by the Climate Change Committee. That would be the blame game at its worst, and I am fearful that that is what will happen, inevitably with an exasperated public looking on. We all know about drifts in public policy and in government decision-taking. My amendment is intended to stop that.

Finally, I turn to an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, when we were originally discussing these issues in Committee. He referred to politicisation of the committee. I think that we have completely misunderstood what the internal dynamics of that committee will be in the circumstances to which I am referring. I think that you get politicisation where individuals have only influence. The moment that you give them real power to take decisions, you will not get politics. You will find that the committee combines in those conditions to avoid political argument and to come out with a consensus view with which it can carry government with it. The danger is that the less

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responsibility you give the committee, the more likely it is that you will bring in to its deliberations political considerations.

I listened very carefully to the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson—he referred to it again this evening in response to my noble friend Lord Rooker. I think that he should reconsider the issue of politicisation before the Bill goes to the House of Commons, because, as I have said, a major misjudgment is taking place on this issue. I beg to move.

6.45 pm

Earl Cathcart: My Lords, the amendments empower the committee to make decisions on budgets. They lift the committee above its advisory role and place a duty on it to make decisions on budget-setting. We certainly welcome the amendments. The budget periods are scientific demarcations. Budget periods should not be set based on what a Government think that they could achieve, but because that is what we must achieve to stop climate change.

I do not know whether this is the perfect place in the Bill to bring about this shift. In the process of amending the Bill, we have made progress towards the Conservative goal of putting the committee centre stage. In order to preserve the balance—or, as I have referred to it, the triangular relationship—between the committee, the Government and Parliament, it may be necessary to preserve some power in the hands of the Secretary of State.

However, to my mind, the amendments seem, by and large, to get it right. The Government's role in this process is to make policy and programmes to meet the budgets. Obliging the committee to decide on those budgets enshrines the assessment of the success or failure of a Government in an essential mantle of objectivity. If the committee decides on the amount that we must reduce in five years, that amount will be based on scientific necessity. That should be the end of the story. Politicising budget periods would be a dangerous way to miss our overall target.

Amendment No. 175, regarding the duty of the Secretary of State and the committee to agree the reports, is interesting. We certainly welcome its spirit, as it goes a long way to further the strength of the committee. However, it is difficult to know precisely how that would work in practice. We certainly welcome the idea that if the Secretary of State diverges from the opinion of the committee and does not take its advice, it will be necessary for him to publish a report outlining why and in what circumstances there has been disagreement. To have a duty to agree seems to go a bit far—or, perhaps, misses the point. The dialogue between the Secretary of State and the committee should be open, constant and publicly reported on. If there is disagreement, that should be just as open and public.

That is where Parliament steps in as the third point of the triangle to scrutinise the actions of the Secretary of State and to evaluate whether there are justifiable reasons for ignoring the experts. That is also a way in which the public and Parliament can scrutinise a Government's approach to climate change, and get rid

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of that Government if they have been ignoring the expert advice on the future of the environment too often.

Placing a duty to agree seems to cut out that aspect of the balance—although perhaps I misunderstand the intention behind that duty. None the less, I look forward to hearing the Minister's response about how he sees the precise relationship between the committee, the Government and Parliament.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, this is indeed an interesting set of amendments. Since the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, laid down the challenge to me, I have been trying to think through my rationale on this. This is a more intermediate issue. I was especially concerned that the climate change committee should not itself decide policy, because policy is inevitably political. You can meet individual targets by a number of routes by different policy mixes. In our mind, that was clearly the duty and responsibility of the Secretary of State and the Government, rather than of a committee that is largely unaccountable. When it comes to setting the budgets, I am not sure that the problem goes away. Just to decide what particular budget periods are, the committee has to look at the policy options required. I agree that there might be a number of those.

There is a difference between politicisation in the way I am describing it and the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, described it. He said that if a body can only give advice, corporate politics begin to try to get the ear of people in putting across particular arguments so that the other side accepts that solution. I understand that, and I think that it is almost inevitable in any organisation. However, the politicisation that I am talking about is that as soon as a body is able to make decisions, which, effectively, the Government have to work around, the lobbying that goes into it is immense. It is all concentrated on the body rather than on the democratic institutions of the state. I differ from noble Lords on a number of things.

We talk about the science being correct. I take the New Scientistevery week—that is not a brag, it is just to get out of the groove of politics. The scientific community will always say that there is no one answer to everything, that nearly everything is a hypothesis and that the science will move on. The rigour of science is peer review, different opinions and assessment. A single solution appears very infrequently. We need to ensure that we do not fall into that fallacy in the way that we look at the Bill.

On my way in this morning, I was reading an article about the different theories of dark matter. I will not go into any of those, except to say that science has at least a dozen different opinions on the missing matter in the universe that cause constant expansion rather than a big crunch. A perfect solution for the whole area is indeterminate.

In this area, there is still that risk of politicisation that the Minister quoted back at me earlier. It is still a step too far for an effectively unaccountable and appointed body. Once the body has executive powers, the way that people are appointed will suddenly become far more political. We want types of decisions and appointments similar to those on the present

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shadow committee, on which I have congratulated the Government. I agree that is not a big step, with these amendments, to have executive powers, but it is still a step too far. I believe that the Secretary of State and the Government need to be accountable for this level of decision and, in that way, to be responsible to Parliament.

Lord Desai: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours gave the analogy of the Monetary Policy Committee, but that is not applicable. Before the Monetary Policy Committee was set up there was a public debate, not just here but across the world, about central bank independence. A lot of us did not agree with it but there was a debate at least for 20 years. Inflation was a danger, and a central bank had an instrument to control inflation—a dubious one perhaps, but it had an instrument. The analogy does not apply because the committee has no instrument to control carbon emissions. It can set a budget but it cannot enforce anything. I would rather we leave it to the Government, although it is imperfect, because you cannot avoid politicisation and I would rather the Government be politicised than an expert committee.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am grateful to noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. He has taken time to consider this and to refer to his previous experience on the Public Accounts Committee, which we shared for a period in the other place, so I can see where he is coming from. I take the point of noble Lord, Lord Teverson, about the science moving and constantly evolving. I am one of the few people that I know who read the whole of A Brief History of Time. In what is a very small but significant book, I remember a paragraph in which there is a discussion on the theory of the universe, and Stephen Hawking concluded that there was nothing for the creator to do because it was there all the while. Others have challenged that view.

The Government have given serious thought to the amendments. We have looked at them in some depth, and our view is that while they may appear at first sight to strengthen the role of the Committee on Climate Change, its independence and accountability, in reality they are likely to have a different effect from that intended. They may reduce the transparency and independence of the process for taking decisions on carbon budgets. Perhaps I may take some time setting out the reasons for that view, because it is important that we are clear about the effect of the amendments, for my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours as much as for Third Reading and Members of the other place.

The amendments give the committee responsibility for deciding on the level of the carbon budgets, but also include a requirement for the committee to agree the contents of its reports with the Secretary of State. Where agreement cannot be reached, the committee must omit the relevant fact, decision or recommendation from its report and the Secretary of State must then report to Parliament explaining the omission and why agreement was not reached. Taken at face value, that appears to increase transparency by highlighting any differences in opinion, until one considers that all the discussions about whether to agree the committee’s report and decisions will take place behind closed doors.

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If the committee and the Secretary of State agree the committee’s report, neither Parliament nor the public will have any insight into the discussions that took place prior to publication. They will have no way of knowing whether one party modified its original view on an issue in order to reach agreement or the evidence that persuaded them to change their view.

Let us compare this with the system proposed by the Bill. The Committee on Climate Change will provide advice to Government on the level of the budgets, and include the reasons for its advice. The advice will be published and it will be out in the open for everyone to look at for up to six months before the Secretary of State sets the budgets. There will be a public debate and, no doubt, parliamentary debate as well: has the committee got it right; do we agree with the analysis; is there an alternative view? If, having considered the committee’s advice, the Secretary of State decides to set the budget at a different level, under the Bill he must publish a statement setting out the reasons for the decision. That ensures that any disagreement, and the reasons for it, will be transparent open and seen by the public.

The amendments of my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours also appear to increase the role of Parliament, but we do not believe that they do. Under the system in the Bill, an order setting the carbon budget will be subject to affirmative procedure. Therefore, Parliament will have the opportunity to debate the level of the budget fully, having had the opportunity to consider at length the committee’s advice, as well as any statement published by the Secretary of State explaining why he disagrees with the advice.

Of course, Parliament has the right to reject the order if it believes that the Secretary of State has made the wrong decision. That is why we have made the process subject to affirmative procedure. Therefore, I cannot see that the amendments add to Parliament’s role in scrutinising the setting of the carbon budgets.

7 pm

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, on that very matter, Parliament would have the right to the affirmative procedure, but it would not be in a position to consider and vote on the recommendation of the climate change committee if it wanted to support that as against the Government’s position.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, it depends. If the climate change committee gives advice and the Secretary of State agrees with it, it must still come to Parliament. Parliament could decide to throw both out. It is true that the orders are unamendable—almost like the nuclear option—so I understand the difficulty, but the group of amendments tabled by my noble friend do not add to Parliament’s role in scrutinising the setting of the carbon budgets. They may appear to increase the role of Parliament, but they do not.

Finally, there is another reason why the model of the National Audit Office’s relationship with departments is inappropriate for the committee. I understand my noble friend, and see that his amendments are seductive, as the system is tried and tested and works extremely well. However, the NAO’s reports tend in the main to

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be backward-looking—a study in some detail about what has happened to taxpayers’ pounds. This is why so much emphasis is placed on agreeing that the facts of the case are accurate and not in dispute, so that no permanent Secretary of State or accounting officer can ever say when the reports are published that the facts and figures are wrong. That gets that completely out of the way at the beginning. The Public Accounts Committee’s inquiries can then get straight to the nub of the issue, and the facts are agreed.

In contrast, the climate change committee’s advice on budgets is definitely forward-looking and based on projections of what might happen. There is therefore more uncertainty, and there could be a range of interpretations about what might happen. It is therefore not possible in the main to agree the facts in the same way as the National Audit Office agrees with departments. I will illustrate this with an example.

In December 2010—this is a futuristic example—the climate change committee will publish its advice on the budget for the years 2023 to 2027. In other words, it will look up to 17 years ahead, so it is simply not possible to say what the facts are so far in advance. However, requiring the committee to agree the facts of the matter with the Government so that they were not in dispute would in essence require the committee to agree all its analysis with the Government. This could undermine its independence. Given that we will be looking up to 17 years ahead, the committee might take a different approach from the Government to its projections for the future. That is a practical view of the difference between the committee and the NAO. I am not saying that the model that my noble friend has used is incorrect, but it does not fit the purposes of the climate change committee.

We agreed in Committee that the climate change committee, with Parliament, will help to hold the Government, and for that matter the country as a whole, accountable for the progress that we are making towards our 2050 target. That is why it is important that the committee can provide independent, expert, transparent and credible analysis, unfettered by any need for prior agreement with the Government or Ministers. It is vital that that is maintained, and that we get the balance of power between the different institutions exactly right, or certainly right from a practical, workable point of view.

My noble friend’s amendments do not do this. They risk concealing discussions between government and the committee, which could undermine the credibility of the committee’s advice. In contrast, the system proposed in the Bill will be stronger and more robust and with a stronger role for Parliament in holding the Government to account. I am grateful to my noble friend for raising the issue and for the detail and the care with which he did so, but I hope that he does not proceed with the amendments.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, I am indebted to my noble friend for his comprehensive response. I am sure that it will be pored over by those in the other place who will want to consider this issue further on the back of amendments moved there.

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