[Relevant documents: Fourteenth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of Session 2017-19, Prelegislative scrutiny of the Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill, HC 1893. Eighteenth Report of the Environmental Audit Committee of Session 2017-19, Scrutiny of the Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill, HC 1951.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is a pleasure to open this Second Reading debate on the Environment Bill. In recent decades, our natural world has faced multiple pressures. As a consequence, we face two great global challenges: climate change and biodiversity loss. A million species face extinction, and climate change is piling the pressure on nature, doubling the number of species under threat in the past 15 years. If global temperatures rise by even 1.5°, we will lose even more of our precious life on Earth. As an island nation, we are acutely aware of the devastating effects of plastic pollution on marine life. We need to act now to turn things around. This Government were elected on the strongest-ever manifesto for the environment, and this Bill is critical to implementing that commitment.
The Secretary of State is clearly right about the two big global challenges that we face, but does he also recognise that, as a country in our own right, we face a specific challenge with air pollution? Will he explain why he will not commit to the World Health Organisation-recommended legally binding limits on air pollution, to be set and met by 2030?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Bill provides for us to do precisely that by setting targets for PM 2.5. We will want to consult and engage people on exactly what that target should be. It is worth noting that the World Health Organisation has commended this Government’s air quality strategy, saying that it is an example for the rest of the world to follow.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place, and I welcome the Bill because it is a valuable step forward, but does he recognise that particulate pollution is a very real cause for concern, not just in inner cities but in suburban areas such as mine? Will he look at why we cannot use this Bill as an opportunity to advance rapidly towards WHO standards?
I simply say to my hon. Friend that the Bill gives us the powers to set precisely those long-term targets and to monitor our progress towards them. It also contains powers, later in the Bill, to improve our ability to manage air quality and support interventions that will enhance air quality.
I would like to make a little bit of progress. I am conscious of the number of Members who want to speak today.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessors, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who did a lot of groundwork on this Bill. I should also like to record my thanks to my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who has been involved with the Bill from the start.
The Bill is key to this Government’s ambitious environmental agenda. In 2020, as the UK hosts the next climate change conference, COP26 in Glasgow, we will be leading from the front as we write this new chapter for the UK outside the European Union: independent and committed to net zero and to nature recovery. The Government will work to tackle climate change and support nature recovery around the world and here at home, whether through recycling more and wasting less, planting trees, safeguarding our forests, protecting our oceans, savings species or pioneering new approaches to agriculture.
The first half of the Bill—parts 1 and 2—sets out the five guiding environmental principles for our terrestrial and marine environments to inform policy making across the country. These principles are that the polluter should pay; that harm should be prevented, and if it cannot be prevented, it should be rectified at source; that the environment should be taken into consideration across Government policy making; and that a precautionary approach should be taken.
What action are the Government taking to ensure that carbon offsetting is permanent and long lasting? Greenhouse gases can be in the atmosphere in some cases for hundreds of years, and there is a danger that carbon offsetting could be only temporary, so will the Government look at that point and come forward with proposals on it?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Bill contains a number of measures relating to a biodiversity net gain. It includes, for instance, a provision on conservation covenants, which will enable a landowner entering into an agreement to plant woodland, for instance, to have a covenant on that land as part of an agreement that would prevent it from subsequently being scrapped.
The breadth of this Bill and the level of scrutiny that its various versions have already faced are testament to its importance and the hard work of Ministers, colleagues across the House, officials and an enormous number of organisations, yet there are still opportunities to strengthen it. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is open-minded to amendments that strengthen the Bill, particularly on biodiversity net gain? Some of us agree with Greener UK that that ought to be secured and maintained in perpetuity.
My hon. Friend will know that the Government are always open-minded to good amendments. However, she makes a valid point, which is that the Bill’s contents have already been extensively scrutinised. The Bill as presented before Second Reading has taken account of many different views.
The Secretary of State will be aware that current EU air quality standards are enforced through the courts, with Client Earth and so on having taken the Government to court. Will he accept that this Bill should include an independent agency with teeth that enforces World Health Organisation standards and, ideally, gives the fines to the health service and local government to help treat the damage caused by poor air quality and to reduce pollution locally? The Bill simply does not do that at the moment.
The Bill will establish the Office for Environmental Protection, which will have the power to take public bodies to an upper tribunal if there are breaches of the law. Of course, there are remedies in such a process through the usual mechanism of court orders.
The Bill sets out a framework for setting and taking concrete steps towards achieving our ambitious, legally binding long-term targets, and chapter 2 will establish that new, powerful independent Office for Environmental Protection to provide expert, objective and impartial advice on environmental issues and to take a proportionate and transparent approach to issues of national importance concerning the enforcement of environmental law. The OEP will hold this and every future Government to account by reporting on the progress we have made to improve the natural environment, as set out in our published evidence-based environmental improvement plans and targets.
I am going to make some progress.
The annual progress report we published last May showed that 90% of the highest-priority actions from our first 25-year environment plan, which will become our first improvement plan, have either been delivered or are on track. We have heeded the advice of both the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and I look forward to continuing to work closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne). The OEP will enforce compliance with environmental law where needed, complementing and reinforcing the work of the world-leading Committee on Climate Change.
Given that clause 40 gives the OEP quite broad prohibitions on the disclosure of information, how will we know what it is up to? Will the Secretary of State explain—he can do so in writing—why we need those prohibitions? Will he confirm now that the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, which are so important to public access, will not be interfered with? Will he state in the Bill that there will be no restriction on the public’s access to information through the EIR?
The framework set out in this Bill contains multiple mechanisms through which information is made available. We will be setting targets that will be reviewed every five years. There will then be a published environmental improvement plan that will also be reviewed every five years, and a progress report will be published annually. There are many mechanisms through which our public approach to delivering on our targets is made clear.
I welcome the Bill and its attempt, alongside enhancing the environment, to improve our farmers’ ability to produce food. To that end, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the new legally binding environmental targets will take account of the best techniques available to our farming community, so that the targets are eminently achievable?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Our Agriculture Bill is currently in Committee, and it includes not only tackling and mitigating climate change, but a wide range of other environmental objectives. The measures and policies in that Bill will indeed contribute to supporting the objectives and targets set out in this Bill. The OEP will provide a free-to-use complaints system for citizens, and it will also have the power, as I said earlier, to take the Government to court.
One of the issues for so many of our communities is appreciating just how severe the crisis is, particularly for air quality, as we have heard in many interventions. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to put the power with the people and increase investment in monitoring stations? Monitors could be fitted to the refuse lorries that go down every street across the land, which would provide us all with real-time data.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The waste management section of the Bill will provide us with the ability not only to strengthen our requirements on producer responsibility, but to improve our ability to track waste, so that we can ensure that it is disposed of properly.
I spoke about the traceability of waste to the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and heard that the Bill is perfect. However, I urge the Secretary of State to consider my amendment in Committee on the traceability of waste, particularly the end destination of municipal waste, so that residents who recycle know that their recycling will not end up in the oceans.
While I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, will look carefully at any amendments, the Bill will also give us the legal powers to prevent the exporting of plastic waste to other countries, confirming a manifesto commitment.
Residents in Stafford are concerned about the impact of plastic pollution, and I commend the local organisations, such as Stafford Litter Heroes, that are doing so much to tackle this blight on our beautiful countryside. What steps the Government are taking to implement incentives such as the drinks container deposit return scheme, which would allow everyone to do their bit to protect our planet every day?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Bill contains new powers for enhanced producer responsibility when it comes to managing single-use plastics or waste more generally, and the Bill will give us the power to extend that to new categories. The Bill will also provide the power to enable us to establish deposit return schemes.
I want to make some progress, because I am conscious that many Members have put into speak today.
The second half of the Bill sets out measures to improve our environment right now. The Bill will enable British business to be part of the solution by incentivising and supporting approaches in the UK that will deliver for our environment. Part 3 will help us to accomplish greater resource efficiency and a better approach to waste through more circular ways of using the planet’s finite resources. It will encourage manufacturers to develop innovative packaging and strong sustainability standards by making them responsible for the entire net cost of disposing of used packaging. It will stimulate the creation of alternatives to the single-use plastics that wreak havoc on the marine environment, while establishing consistent rules to help people recycle more easily across our country and giving us powers to set up deposit return schemes.
I am going to make some progress.
The Bill will improve how we hold to account those who litter, so we can tackle the waste crime that costs our economy over £600 million every year. It will put pressure on businesses to waste less food and get more of the surplus out to those who really need it.
Part 4 deals with air pollution—the greatest environmental risk to human health. Fine particulate matter is the most damaging pollutant, so the Bill makes a clear commitment to set an ambitious, legally binding target that will drive down particulate levels and improve public health. The Bill will give the Government the power to ensure that polluting vehicles are removed from our roads, and it will give local authorities greater capability to improve their local environment, from green spaces to healthier air for everyone to breathe, so that we all lead longer, healthier lives wherever we live and work.
I greatly welcome the ambitious proposals in this Bill, and of particular interest to my constituents in Rushcliffe are the measures on recycling. The proposals to standardise which recyclable materials are collected door to door and to include glass and food waste in that list are particularly welcome. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to enact these measures as quickly as possible? Can he give me an idea of the timeframe for these proposals becoming a reality on people’s doorsteps?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we will be consulting on when to deploy the powers in the Bill. It is important that we have greater consistency on recycling and on what local authorities are required to do, so that people play their part and know exactly what is required of them.
Part 5 will facilitate more responsible management of water, so that we have secure, safe, abundant water for the future, supporting a more resilient environment. We know that nature needs our help to recover.
As my right hon. Friend will know, England has 80% of the world’s chalk streams, and successive Governments have failed those chalk streams miserably. The abstraction reforms in this Bill are welcome, but they do not go far enough; nor is there any explicit commitment to building reservoirs, particularly the Abingdon reservoir. Will the Minister reflect on that?
Obviously, I am happy to discuss these matters with my hon. Friend. The Bill has powers to strengthen the abstraction licensing regime and to limit licences that have been established for some time. It will also give us powers to modify some of the legislation on water pollutants, so that we can add additional chemicals to the list, should we need to do so.
Although there is a lot to welcome in the Bill, the Government could achieve a lot more, particularly on water consumption. This is an opportunity to introduce targets for water consumption through labelling mechanisms that allow consumers to decide which products to buy and consume by comparing the amount of water those products use.
We have consulted on a range of measures on water consumption. We do not think we need additional primary powers in this Bill to take steps to address those issues. We will obviously be responding to the consultation soon.
We know that nature needs our help to recover, so the focus of parts 6 and 7 is to give communities a say if their local authority plans to take down a beloved neighbourhood tree, and public authorities will be required to ensure they conserve and enhance nature across the board.
I will make some progress.
Landowners will be able to agree conservation covenants with charities and other bodies, so they can be assured that subsequent landowners will be required to continue the sustainable stewardship they have started. The Bill will require developers to provide a 10% increase for nature, giving them the clarity they need to do their bit for the environment, while building the homes we need across our country.
Nature recovery networks will join up space for species across our country, with local nature recovery strategies capturing local knowledge and mapping habitat hotspots, so that we can target investment where it will have the greatest impact.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is being generous in giving way. I apologise for not being able to speak in this debate as I have a Westminster Hall debate at 2.30 pm.
Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that there will be coherence between the environmental land management scheme presented in the Agriculture Bill and empowering people to be supported through the nature recovery schemes?
Yes, that is what we will be doing. Indeed, the design of our future environmental land management scheme will have a local component, and we want to make sure that what we do to promote nature through ELM is consistent with the local nature recovery strategies.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way.
This is one of the most important parts of the Bill. We need to restore habitats in this country, with a particular focus on those species—birds, hedgehogs and others—that have declined so dramatically in numbers. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the mandate that goes with these measures, both for the new agency and for local authorities, will focus on helping those species to recover, particularly by recreating the habitats that will enable it to happen?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, and the Bill will require local authorities to have their own strategies for biodiversity and for nature recovery. As he identifies, these are exactly the types of issues that we want them to address.
Before I close, I will highlight three new additions to the Bill since it was introduced in the previous Parliament. Clause 19 will mean that, when introducing a Bill, every Secretary of State in every future UK Government will have to include on the face of that Bill a statement on whether the new primary legislation will have the effect of reducing existing levels of environmental protection.
The second addition is that the Bill will create a new power to implement the Government’s manifesto commitment to end the exporting of polluting plastic waste to non-OECD countries. We will consult industry, non-governmental organisations and local authorities on specific restrictions or prohibitions.
Thirdly, clause 20 will require the Government to take stock biennially of significant developments in international legislation on the environment and then publish a review.
In conclusion, this Government are committed to leaving the environment in a better state than we found it, whether through planting 30,000 hectares of trees a year by the end of this Parliament, transforming our approach to agriculture, tackling air pollution or improving our waste management. This Bill will create the framework to set a long-term course for our country to drive environmental improvement, and I commend it to the House.
The climate crisis is the most pressing issue facing our planet. The actions we take in the next few years will determine whether we can address the climate emergency or whether we pass on to our children the rotten inheritance of living on a dying planet. It is therefore with great responsibility that we debate this Bill.
The Government are calling this a “landmark Bill” and “world-leading legislation,” but I fear that is not quite right. The Secretary of State should be more honest, because this still seems like a draft Bill—a Bill that is not quite there. This is an okay Bill, but by no means the groundbreaking legislation we have been promised.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Does he share my concern and disappointment that the Secretary of State did not mention part 8? Part 8 refers to the potential for divergence from the incredibly important regulations on the chemical industry that affect our entire manufacturing sector, not just the chemical industry itself. Does he share my concern that part 8 has the ability to diverge, with serious consequences for most of our economy?
The details on regression and non-regression are an important part of this Bill. We need to make sure we maintain our high standards, because those high standards, especially in the chemical industry, drive jobs and employment right across the country. Any risk of divergence affects the ability of those products to be sold overseas, which affects the ability of jobs to be held back in our country. I am glad my hon. Friend has raised that issue.
Some hon. Members will remember when Parliament adopted Labour’s motion to declare a climate emergency. For me, it presents us with a very simple challenge: now that Parliament has declared a climate emergency, what are we doing differently? It is a challenge to us as individuals and to businesses, but it is especially a challenge to lawmakers, Ministers and regulators.
Because the climate crisis is real, we need bolder, swifter action to decarbonise our economy and to protect vulnerable habitats. We need to recognise that the crisis is not just about carbon, although it is. It is about other greenhouse gases, too, and it is an ecological emergency, with our planet’s animals, birds and insect species in decline and their habitats under threat.
The water we drink, the food we consume and the fish in our seas are all affected by pollutants, from plastics to chemicals. As we have seen from the floods caused by Storms Ciara and Dennis, the climate crisis is also leading to more extreme weather more often and with more severe consequences.
The National Flood Forum has noted that extreme and flash flooding will be one of the greatest effects of the climate crisis. In my constituency, we have experienced unprecedented flooding, and the River Taff’s levels rose by more than a metre above all previous records. If that is not a wake-up call, I do not know what is. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to act urgently to secure better climate protections, to ensure that all other towns, villages and cities across the world are not impacted in the way my community has been this week?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention and for all the work that she and her Welsh colleagues have been doing in supporting communities that are under water. We need much firmer action. We need a proper plan for flooding that reverses the austerity cuts made to our flood defences, and that removes the requirement for match funding which favours affluent communities over poorer ones. We also need urgent action from the Government to address the worrying aspects of the legacy of the coal industry in Wales, which could result in a real disaster if action is not taken. I encourage her to carry on campaigning on that.
As my hon. Friend has mentioned, Britain is not unique in the challenges facing us in terms of the climate catastrophe. In many cases, what will happen in the global south will be even more disastrous than what is happening in the UK. That is why action cannot wait.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of concerns that the Bill does not focus enough on the UK’s global footprint, so does he agree that the Government should introduce a mandatory due diligence mechanism, which would help to reduce the UK’s global footprint?
I am grateful for that intervention. It is a good reminder that one way in which we have decarbonised in the past few years has simply been by exporting our carbon; we export not only waste, but the production of the most carbon-intensive products that we use. The hon. Gentleman raises a good point.
I will make some progress before taking further interventions, mindful of the people who are to follow.
As a nation, we need a gold-standard Environment Bill. I agree with the Minister that we need world-leading legislation, but this is not it. This still looks like a draft Bill; there has not been complete pre-legislative scrutiny for the entire Bill, which I think it needs; it lacks coherence as between its different sections; and it lacks the ambition to tackle the climate crisis as a whole with a comprehensive and renewed strategy. Labour will be a critical friend to Ministers during this process. We will be not be opposing the Bill today, but in that spirit we hope that Ministers will look seriously at adopting the measures we will put forward to improve and strengthen it, especially in Committee.
I have a concern about the positioning of the Bill: it has been spun so hard by successive Governments, and Secretaries of State in particular, that it cannot possibly deliver the grand soundbites that it has been set up as doing. That means that the heavy lifting required now to address our decarbonisation efforts and protect our communities may be hampered, because the Bill will not be able to deliver on those lofty promises. I worry that unless we match those grand soundbites with determined action, we will be failing our children and the communities we are here to serve.
In the time left, I want to cover three key areas of concern about the Bill. The first relates to Labour’s belief that non-regression in environmental standards must be a legal requirement. The second relates to how the new Office for Environmental Protection needs to be strengthened, and the third relates to how the ambition of Government press releases needs to be translated into genuine delivery in the Bill. First, on standards and targets, we were promised during the election that the Government would not lower our food standards, despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary, in post-Brexit trade deals. As we have already seen with the debates on the Agriculture Bill, Ministers have chosen to leave the door open for the undercutting of British farm and food standards in post-Brexit trade deals. The new Environment Secretary cannot even guarantee that chlorinated chicken or lactic acid-washed chicken will not be allowed into Britain as a result of the US trade deal. The rough ride he got with the National Farmers Union this morning will just be the start if he does not come to the realisation that many of us on both sides of this House have, that the commitment that he and others have given must be put into law. We cannot allow our standards to be undercut, and that principle of not allowing our standards to be undercut applies to this Bill too. We need to ensure that non-regression on environmental standards with the EU is a floor that we must not go below.
I am going to make a bit of progress, but I will come back to my hon. Friend in a moment if I can.
We simply cannot allow our environmental standards to be undercut in the same way as our food and animal welfare standards risk being undercut with trade deals. We need to ensure that we have measures approaching dynamic alignment with the European Union so that Britain is not seen as a country with lower standards than our European friends. Lower regulatory standards and lower animal welfare standards, especially on imported food, would see damage to ecosystems and habitats and a downward pressure on regulation in future, which would harm our efforts to decarbonise our economy. I want to see the lofty words said by all the Ministers on the Front Bench and the Prime Minister about non-regression put in the Bill. Where is the legal commitment to non-regression on environmental protections that the British people have asked for? Why is it not clearly in the Bill? If we are to have any hope of tackling the climate emergency in a meaningful way, we need to be aiming towards net zero by 2030, not by 2050.
On net zero by 2030, does the hon. Gentleman not recognise what the Committee on Climate Change and Baroness Brown recognise, which is that reaching net zero by 2050 will be a huge challenge for this country? Blithely throwing around “2030” as though this is easy is doing a disservice not just this House, but to the people watching.
I am a big fan of the hon. Gentleman’s Instagram feed and follow it with great passion, and sometimes I feel a bit disappointed by interventions such as that. We cannot afford not to hit net zero by 2030, but the Government are currently on track for 2099. A far-off date many, moons away will not deal with the climate emergency and will not protect our habitats that need protecting. That drive needs to be there, though we know that for some sectors achieving net zero target by 2030 will be very challenging, and for some achieving it by 2050 will be very challenging, with agriculture being one of those sectors. The NFU’s plan to hit net zero by 2040 is very challenging. If sectors are to deliver net zero by any date, we will need some sectors to go faster and further than others to create carbon headroom, with the requirement that that progress is not double-counted in carbon calculations. Sadly, this supposedly world-leading Environment Bill does not have a single target in it. It contains no duty on Ministers to ensure that Britain decarbonises and stops the climate crisis getting any worse.
Secondly, I turn to the Office for Environmental Protection—the proposed new regulator. I know from previous debates that some Conservative Members are not too keen on the idea of a new Government outfit created in this space, but I agree with Ministers that we need a robust regulator. Sadly, the one being proposed in the Bill is not strong enough in our view. We need it to have teeth, and a remit that is unaffected by Government patronage. It needs to carefully consider the science and to have a bite that would make Ministers think twice about missing their targets. That is what the Office for Environmental Protection should be, but, sadly, that is not what the Bill envisages.
The new regulator does not have true independence from Government. It has no legal powers to hold the Government to account in the way it needs to. Approving its chair via a Government-led Select Committee, on which the Government have a majority, is not sufficient. Given that Ministers have been dragged time and time again through the courts for missing air quality targets, how can we ensure that this regulator would make that a thing of the past and not a repeat prescription?
We need Ministers to do as Members on both sides have suggested today and adopt World Health Organisation targets for air quality and particulates. We need regulators to have teeth to make sure that those targets are enforced, and we need to make sure that the new regulator sits and works in a complementary way in and with what is an already quite congested regulatory space on the environment.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Since 2010 we have seen that quangos and regulators can still exist but their ability to deliver that regulation and the quality of that regulation depends on the resources. If a political lever is being applied by Ministers—as I have said before, I have a lot of time for the current Environment Secretary, but that does not necessarily mean that anyone who follows him would have the same approach—if budgets were to be changed and if political patronage were to be applied in terms of the OEP’s leadership and board, that could affect the outcomes. Resourcing does matter.
I will not take any further interventions, so that I can finish my remarks. [Interruption.] I say that, but that would have been a good time for one. I come to the section of my speech about water, unless someone would like to intervene briefly. [Laughter.]
I do so in the spirit of kindness, but there is a serious point here. Luton airport is in the constituency next to mine, and one concern that many of my constituents have as a result is about air quality. All of our constituencies will have separate issues. What is the hon. Gentleman’s view as to how we can use this Bill to apply to specific instances at specific times—for example, to deal with poor air quality around Luton airport?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman and will like more of his Instagram posts as a reward for that kind intervention. We do need to address air quality around airports and transport modes in particular, but the ability to do that is predicated on the data, which is why my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) made the point that he did earlier. It is important to make sure that we take action based on reliable evidence, which means that we need the right testing stations. At the moment there are far too few air-quality monitoring stations. We need to go forward by embracing having monitoring stations on more schools, more GP surgeries and in more areas with a greater level of public dwelling. That is how we should address the issue. For airports in particular, it is about surface access and making sure that people can get to airports more easily.
I have been coughing and spluttering for a while, so I will rush through the rest of my speech so that I do not take up anyone else’s time. As Conservative Members have said, the part of the Bill that deals with water does not go far enough to deal with some of the issues relating to water poverty, or do anything to address per capita consumption or meaningful water labelling or to solve the challenge of where we are going to get the water that we need for the homes we need to build in future. For the Bill to be genuinely world leading, I would have hoped that the Government would adopt some of the current groundbreaking ideas in water policy, such as water neutrality, which is the idea that for every new home that we build we will not provide any more water resources—they will be offset by water efficiency in our existing housing stock. There are some really grand opportunities and fantastic water innovations, which is why we need the Bill to go further on water efficiency in our homes, actions on leaks and investment in water-efficient technologies. We also need a war on leaky loos, as that is important.
I would like the Government to look at a commitment whereby the water industry moves to using 100% renewable energy within the next five years. Ministers already have the power to do that, given the regulatory powers of Ofwat and DEFRA.
Finally, the Secretary of State has already mentioned that the Bill includes a section on trees that will allow trees to be chopped down in a different way. The Bill does not include any new powers to plant trees. That seems to be an omission: I imagine Members from all parties will look at the Bill and say, “Surely that’s not right.” Given that the Government are missing their tree-planting target by 71% already, further powers to chop down trees do not seem to be the priority. We need to look into not only how to plant more trees but at different types of biodiversity and habitats, and make sure that carbon is sequestered in the right way. That is really important, because if we are to address the loss of species, both in the UK and globally, we need to take action.
COP26 provides us with a global platform to showcase the very best of our global thinking, our action and our legislation. Currently, the Bill does not deliver the groundbreaking global platform that we need to take into COP26. I hope that Ministers will take seriously the concerns that I have raised and that my Opposition colleagues will address when they speak later, because there is a real desire on both sides of the House to improve the legislation and make it as genuinely world leading as the Secretary of State aspires for it to be. To that end, I invite the Secretary of State to work with us to improve the legislation; simply voting down every amendment so that we keep a clean sheet will not deliver that. I hope that he will take that challenge in the spirit in which it is meant so that we can work together to improve the legislation. The climate crisis needs to be addressed and it will not be sufficiently addressed if we allow the Bill to pass unaltered.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate on the Second Reading of the Environment Bill. I am pleased that the Government have reintroduced the Bill and I am also pleased that there is a degree of co-operation with the Opposition. It is important that we get the Bill absolutely right.
In the previous Parliament, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee conducted pre-legislative scrutiny of the previous Bill, and I am pleased that the legislation has moved towards some of our recommendations. For example, I welcome the fact that the Government will set a multi-annual budget for the Office for Environmental Protection and have included climate change within its remit. We just need to make sure that there is enough money for the OEP to run properly.
I wish to make three points about how the Bill can be improved. First, concerns have been expressed that in some areas, such as target setting, the Bill might allow a weakening of standards—for example, on air quality. I welcome the plan to set a target for particulate matter, but it is planned only for 2022, and we do not know how ambitious the target might be. At this early stage, I urge the Government to set an example and match the World Health Organisation guidelines for dangerous emissions such as particulate matter. The British Heart Foundation estimates that the number of heart attacks and stroke deaths linked to air pollution could exceed 160,000 by 2030, unless action is taken. DEFRA has already carried out a study that shows that it can achieve World Health Organisation standards of 10 micrograms per cubic metre by 2030, so I urge the Government to set that target. Let us put that target into law now and use the Bill to improve human health as well as our natural environment.
Secondly, it is vital that we set up the Office for Environmental Protection now that we are outside the EU; however, it needs to be independent of Government and have the teeth to bite. The OEP will not be independent if it is constantly worrying about having its budgets cut, so will the Government commit to a multi-annual budget settlement, the enshrinement in law of which I would welcome?
I think we all agree that we certainly do not want an OEP that is a toothless tiger; we want one that can react to and govern the climate and nature emergency in which we find ourselves. We need clarity as to whether the OEP will be set up, particularly in England and Northern Ireland, as of 1 January 2021.
Naturally, there is the matter of how the OEP works with the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, but I agree that it needs to have those powers. I am sure that the Secretary of State will have listened to the hon. Lady’s intervention.
The appointments process in the setting up of the OEP should follow the Office for Budget Responsibility model, in which the Treasury Committee can veto the Chancellor’s choice. I am sure that my great friend the Secretary of State would not mind giving away some of his new fiefdom to the EFRA Committee, but we will wait and see. I offer that to him—or perhaps he might offer it to me.
My final point on the OEP is that my Committee concluded that judicial review is not the most appropriate enforcement mechanism for environmental cases because it focuses on process rather than outcomes and leaves the decision making to the lawyers. That is a really important point. I welcome the tribunal model in the Bill, because I hope that it will allow environmental specialists to have a role. We need practical solutions for when the Government are in breach—such as we have with air-pollution plans—rather than lawyers and going through process all the time. We really want to make sure that we get the experts in place.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We do not want to waste years in the courts; these things have to be done quickly. We need practical solutions for when the Government are in breach, just as we have with air pollution plans. I am still concerned that the environmental review outlined in the Bill is just a judicial review by another name. We have a great opportunity to build on our strong commitment to the environment. We all want to leave the environment in a better place than we found it. Will the Secretary of State look again at some of our Select Committee proposals, because the Bill can still be strengthened in many areas? One final point on the OEP is that the judicial review is not the most appropriate enforcement mechanism for environmental cases. We therefore need a more practical solution.
Finally, I ask the Government, as we have made a commitment to improve the environment, to look not only at the Environment Bill, but at the Agriculture Bill and the Fishing Bill, because they all fit together. As yet another round of flooding seems likely in the future, the Environment Bill will be important, as will be the Agriculture Bill. Fitting the two together with new land management projects will be a very good way of making sure that we can deliver a catchment-area basis for flooding. We can also improve our environment and work with the water companies on holding more water and on making sure that the reservoirs do not overflow. We can also look at the rewetting of peatland. All of those things can be done, but they must be linked with the Environment Bill.
Finally—I am sure that this is in the minds of Ministers and the Secretary of State—we must ensure that we join up the Environment Bill with the Agriculture and Fishing Bills, and also make sure that, as we drive towards a better environment, we do so across the whole of Government. This cannot just be done by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because things such as delivering on air quality can only be achieved across Government.
I look forward to the Bill being read a Second time. It is taking us in the right direction, but let us also look at the independence of the OEP. We also need to make sure that tribunals deal not just with legal matters, but with environmental matters. With that, I very much welcome the Second Reading of this Bill.
I refer hon. Members to my speech on 28 October when we had the dress rehearsal for this Bill—at least we all know our lines now. None the less, the concerns remain the same, because they have not been addressed: the Bill still lacks in ambition; the Office of Environmental Protection still lacks teeth; the Ministry of Defence is still exempt; the armed forces can still cause environmental havoc; national security is still off limits for environmental consideration; renewable energy still does not get the big licks it should be getting; and this Bill is still, in my view, insipid and weak.
Worse than that, clause 18 should force Ministers to consider the environment when making policy, but, as I have already said, it exempts the military and national security. It also exempts tax, spending and the allocation of resources. In other words, it exempts the main thrusts of Government policy—the biggest tools in the Government cupboard. If resource considerations do not take environmental concerns into account, we will hardly be driving Government policy towards good environmental goals.
If taxation policy does not have a weather eye on environmental policy, it misses the opportunity to ensure that the polluter pays. It misses the chance to engage Government’s biggest lever of public policy. Equally, if spending decisions are not environmentally aware, then the Government are not environmentally aware. If the Government were serious about delivering environmental benefits, that would have been the key point of the Bill —it would have been proclaiming a commitment to change, to improvement, to making a future unlike the past.
If there really were an environmental heart to this Government, it would be at the heart of this Bill. It would tie all governmental resourcing decisions into improving the environment, and into considering the environmental impact of policies. It would put the environment at the middle of decision making. It did not happen; it has not happened. This Bill is just ticking a box to say that the gap left by Brexit is being filled, but that filler is not reaching the edges of that gap.
Even the hiatus of an election and the inordinately long time it has taken to bring this Bill back have not offered the Government enough time to make improvements to the Bill. Still, there is nothing that will force England’s water companies to address the leakage from their pipes to conserve that resource. The clue to decent performance there, of course, is to remove the profit motive and have water publicly owned, as it is in Scotland.
The Bill still does not lend strength to enforcement. There are still no strong compliance powers for the new watchdog, the OEP, in the Bill and those that it will have will be restricted to wagging a finger at backsliding public bodies. This was an opportunity to make a clear case for environmental improvement and protection. This was an opportunity to lay down markers on protecting the marine environment, putting protections in place for the oceans, improving river health and securing decent bathing waters.
Let me just say something about protecting the marine environment. By the way, the hubris of this House is just stunning when it comes to the environment. We talk about saving the world, but instead, in England, we have trashed our chalk streams. In Scotland, the salmon farming industry has entirely destroyed the sea lochs of the west coast of Scotland, made them barren of sea life, and destroyed the salmon runs coming in and out of the rivers. If we could perhaps act locally, we might be able to talk in a more informed way globally.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. Certainly, there is much hubris in this Chamber about such issues. Something that I will come on to is the Scottish Government’s environmental strategy, which was released in the past couple of days, in which issues such as those are certainly being looked at.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker), for whom I have a lot of respect and with whom I have a lot of similarities in terms of our love of angling, I say that the salmon fishing industry has been hugely important to large parts of the west coast of Scotland, not least the Western Isles. Sometimes when we talk about hubris, we need to think about the local economy as well, which is so important for our country.
An excellent point and I thank my hon. Friend for making it.
Brexit was supposed to give the UK Government the power to do things differently—to imagine a better way to do things. Whether Brexit was ever capable of doing that is a moot point, but it does not really matter, because the Government do not have the ambition to try. They do not have the imagination to see a better way to do things, or the determination to improve lives. There could be ambitious, legally binding limits on plastic pollution, and limits on how much could be produced, used and discarded. There could be incentives, perhaps even tax incentives, for retailers to cut the plastic. If they cannot even rate measures to improve the health of the oceans as being worthy of putting in this Bill, where really then is the commitment to addressing climate change?
Does the hon. Lady agree that this needs to sit alongside a fiscal strategy that taxes virgin plastic, that has a go at diesel particulates and, indeed, at dangerous chemicals? Unless the Department works closely with the Treasury to deliver that, we will simply not be able to deliver on our ambition.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Member. This really needs to be taken in the round, and I see little evidence of that in the Bill. Further to that, where are the measures to combat climate change in the Bill? The climate emergency gets lots of warm words from Whitehall, but it gets so little in the way of action. If an Environment Bill is not the place for addressing the biggest environmental issue of the day, where is?
On the issue of waste, may I ask the hon. Lady for cross-party support for the amendment that I am tabling on the obligation of local councils to provide traceability on the end destination of our household waste? In that way, the public can be confident that the recycling that we collect does not end up in the ocean or indeed in incinerators, but actually gets recycled. That is the amendment that I will put forward, and I am looking for cross-party support. Will she provide it?
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. That is certainly something that I am prepared to look at, but, of course, local councils and local authorities are an issue for England and Wales only. Those issues are devolved to Scotland, so it is not necessarily something that we would be able to support in actuality, but I certainly agree with the principle of what she said.
I was talking previously about targets and real action—or lack of targets and real action—so where are the provisions to encourage tree planting? During the election, so many pledges were bandied back and forth about how many trees would be planted under a Tory or Labour Government. Hundreds of millions were promised, but here is the first opportunity to do something about that, and there is nothing—not a squirt. I find it amazing that Scotland has only around a third of the landmass of the UK, but four fifths of the tree planting in the UK is in Scotland. Let us at least see some indication that the UK Government will at least pretend to follow suit.
While we are on the subject, how about implementing policies to discourage the importation of products that have caused deforestation elsewhere, or which have contributed to the pressure to clear forest? How about a commitment to write that into trade deals? How about placing an obligation on businesses to consider such things in the course of their operations? In fact, the real thing that is missing from the Bill is a clear governmental intention to force businesses to get on board with improving the environment. It is as if the Government think that businesses will not be robust enough to handle that compliance. If the Government will not lead, they cannot expect people, businesses and organisations to do it instead. Ministers have an obligation to find ways to really drive this agenda forward, and so far they have failed in that.
The old 25-year environment plan is outdated and needs to be refreshed. The Bill—the reprise—starts its life outdated and in need of improvement. Fortunately, there is a shining example of excellence not too far away—I am not talking about Wales, to be clear—which is a ready-made vision of a future where compliance with environmental objectives is seen to be the norm, rather than the exception, and where Ministers are not afraid to take on leadership roles and are prepared to ensure that businesses and organisations take action too. Scotland’s environmental strategy, released this week as I mentioned earlier, is a plan worth copying. It is a plan worth following: it has vision, leadership, education and action all rolled up into one. I urge Members to take the time to read it. It is so good that Charles Dundas, the chair of Scottish Environment LINK, a former Lib Dem councillor and colleague of mine, said:
“It is fantastic to see such a bold vision for the protection of Scotland’s environment, which, as the Scottish Government says, is fundamental to our future.”
I tell Ministers that it is not too late to have some real ambition in the Bill. It is not a done deal and they still have time to make wholesale changes and massive improvements to make this a Bill that they can be proud of. The political will is all that is needed. They would find agreement, as we have already heard, on both sides of the Chamber, and they would have the pleasure and privilege of knowing that they actually contributed during their careers. Do something fabulous, Ministers! Do something you will be proud of in your old age, amend the Bill and make it fit for purpose.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is an honour to have the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this debate on the Environment Bill, which will have far-reaching implications for our economy and our society, heralding a cleaner, greener nation.
There is only one place to begin my remarks today, and that is in paying tribute to my predecessor, Sir David Lidington. David was the Member of Parliament for Aylesbury for fully 27 years. He held senior ministerial roles, culminating as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister of State for the Cabinet Office during some particularly testing times for the last Government. Whenever I mention David, the response is the same—that he is a man who is decent, dedicated and thoughtful, a gentleman and the epitome of the public servant. When a new colleague was talking to me about David recently, he had just one question, “Do you have an equally big brain?” My answer was simple—“No.” After all, David led his Cambridge college to victory on “University Challenge”, not once but twice, whereas the only TV quiz show I competed on twice was “Blankety Blank”.
It is true.
David did, of course, have the advantage of serving the magnificent constituency of Aylesbury, which I now have the great privilege to represent. Aylesbury has been a part of my life for longer than I can remember. I was born in the Royal Bucks Hospital in the town, and my first home was in Bedgrove. My roots in the constituency go back even further. My great-grandfather was the village blacksmith in Bledlow Ridge. Aylesbury can trace its history to the iron age, has held a market since Anglo-Saxon times and has been the proud county town of Buckinghamshire for close to 500 years.
The historic quarter of the town centre retains its charm and appeal to locals and visitors alike. It includes statues of Benjamin Disraeli, the father of one nation Conservatism, and of John Hampden, commemorating his role asserting the rights of Parliament against Charles I. There is also now a statue of David Bowie, who in the 1970s staged the world debut performances of two albums at the legendary Friars music club in the town. Visitors should be aware that the statue bursts into song on the hour: more than one unsuspecting tourist has had rather a shock when out of nowhere comes a rendition of “Ziggy Stardust”.
One historic building that is rarely remarked upon is the prison, a Victorian edifice dating from 1847. It is a place that holds particular interest for me, however, as until recently I served as a non-executive director of HM Prison and Probation Service and as the magistrate member of the Sentencing Council. I hope to continue that work in Parliament, focusing particularly on two themes—making our prison estate fit for purpose and putting victims right at the heart of the criminal justice system. Perhaps I may say at this point that I regard our prison and probation officers as the unsung heroes of our public services.
Among the more notorious inmates of Aylesbury prison were the Great Train Robbers, which brings me neatly to HS2. As the home of the Aylesbury duck, it has been said by many of my constituents that HS2 is simply quackers. Seriously though, as the Member of Parliament for Aylesbury and speaking in the debate on the Environment Bill, I would not be forgiven by my constituents if I did not mention HS2. Opposition to the project has long been the single biggest issue in my constituency. Thousands of residents are both disappointed and frustrated by the decision to proceed, not least because of the harm HS2 will do to the environment, including the destruction of more than 100 ancient woodlands. The actions of HS2 Ltd and its contractors have already provoked many complaints to me, and I take this opportunity to state that I will be unwavering in holding them to account.
Aylesbury is setting itself up to thrive throughout the 21st century. Faced with the same challenges as many medium-sized market towns, not least the decline of the traditional high street, there is a passionate ambition to become a real community and commercial hub where people want to live, work, visit and invest. Already the Waterside theatre and the Exchange have brought life back to the canal side. There has been significant house building, including across Aylesbury Vale, where the population has grown by 10% in the last five years. There is far more to come, with projections of a further 16,000 homes in and around the town by 2033. So I welcome the commitment in the Bill to require all development to be accompanied by a 10% net gain in biodiversity. The Aylesbury garden town project goes even further in its vision to be not just green but—I am delighted to say—blue, with plans to create a garden-way encircling the town and to uncover hidden waterways.
The people of Aylesbury are rightly proud that it was the birthplace of the Paralympic movement, and they now have pioneering plans to make the town fully accessible to all.
There is much more than just the town of Aylesbury in the constituency. About a third of its population live in villages and hamlets, wonderful places such as Wendover, Stokenchurch, Aston Clinton, Weston Turville and Hughenden. Two thirds of the area is agricultural, and I have already very much enjoyed meeting farmers in the constituency, and not just because they agreed to put up gigantic posters of me during the election campaign. Many of those farmers are enthusiastic about the Bill. They recognise their unique role in the stewardship of the land and preservation of the countryside, and I am confident that the Bill will enable our farmers to ensure our food security and run sustainable businesses, while playing their part in ensuring the highest environmental standards.
The farms, villages and hamlets in my constituency lie in beautiful countryside, but they face the same challenges as many other rural areas, including access to health services, buses and broadband. Although Buckinghamshire is often regarded as affluent, my constituency also has pockets of deprivation, and I will strive to ensure a fairer deal for everyone I represent because, like each and every one of us in this Chamber, I am only here because of my constituents. As a former journalist, I am acutely aware of the need for accountability to them and to the public in general. Politics has not had a good press in recent years and it is beholden on us to improve that, not for the sake of a good headline or hundreds of likes on a tweet, but in order to rebuild faith and confidence that our institutions and representatives truly uphold democracy and deliver in the best interests of all the people.
I am honoured to be in this place at this pivotal time in our country’s history, when we forge new relationships and trade links around the world, and set out robust and far-reaching new laws to preserve and protect our part of the world through this Environment Bill. I conclude by expressing my sincere gratitude to the people of the Aylesbury constituency for putting their trust and faith in me to represent them here.
What a great pleasure it is to follow the maiden speech of the new hon. Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler). I look forward to him bringing in his “Blankety Blank” chequebook and pen so that we can all admire it in the Tea Room. May I also pay a very warm tribute to his predecessor, David Lidington, who I shadowed for a while? I have to say that I did not actually enjoy shadowing him—not because of his intellect, which was clearly there, but because he was a thoroughly decent person, and I did not like to argue or battle with him because that just was not his way or mine. I congratulate the new hon. Member for Aylesbury and welcome him to this place.
I also welcome the Environment Bill as a step in the right direction, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) has said, in tackling the existential threat that we face. After years of delay, we cannot afford to wait any longer to pass robust climate legislation matching the scale of the emergency. A year and a half ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made it clear that we had to act urgently over the next 12 years or forever miss the opportunity to prevent climate catastrophe, but nothing has changed since that announcement, except that we have lost one and a half of those 12 years. While the Government have been preoccupied with the chaos of Brexit, natural wildlife continues to disappear at an alarming rate, flooding is at a record high and fossil fuel production continues to damage our climate. We keep getting told that weather extremes are unprecedented and one-in-100-year occurrences—and then they happen again the next year.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this Bill, but the Government must address its significant limitations. I share the widespread concern expressed by the climate groups that there are significant gaps in the Bill, weakening our capacity to take urgent action. I also generally worry that, despite all the assurances to the contrary, the Conservatives are using the opportunity of Brexit to reduce standards and environmental protections and enforcements, as the Labour party warned they would seek to do.
One of the great pleasures of representing my hometown of Chester is representing Chester Zoo, which is more than simply a tourist attraction; it is leading the way in conservation and wildlife protection, and is a centre of global expertise and leadership in conservation and environmentalism. The zoo’s work spans a wide and diverse range of conservation challenges, with a specific concern about protection of biodiversity. The zoo’s representatives tell me that they welcome the Bill, but share the concern that biodiversity protections could be diluted or ignored as local authorities struggle to implement targets, and they emphasised that the climate emergency is also a biodiversity emergency.
The introduction of a mandatory 10% biodiversity net gain requirement for all new developments is a step in the right direction, but it puts the responsibility for implementing and enforcing biodiversity targets on the shoulder of local authorities, which are already on their knees due to the central Government-imposed cuts that have crippled local government since 2010. Local authorities have neither the funding, nor any longer the capacity, to enforce these crucial biodiversity targets. My local authority of Cheshire West and Chester has lost £300 million since 2010, forcing it to make difficult financial choices. For example, at least half of its expenditure goes on adult social care and care for the vulnerable. It is unrealistic for the Government to further burden councils with the responsibility for enforcing the 10% biodiversity net gain without providing additional funding or expert staff.
Habitat and species loss is a devastating result of climate change that cannot be overlooked. Will the Minister tell me what the Government are doing to address this shortfall and provide a realistic solution to the continued devastation of natural biodiversity across the country? Would the Government be willing to consider making the 10% increase in biodiversity a minimum requirement to encourage developers to exceed the target? And I have to ask: is the planning system really the correct vehicle for restoring UK nature and wildlife? It has consistently failed to address other areas of societal challenges, such as the provision of affordable housing, so why do the Government think it is fit for purpose as a means of reversing the destruction of UK wildlife and habitats?
I have concerns about the Office for Environmental Protection. As we have already heard, perhaps the most disappointing part of the Bill is its failure to create a truly independent environmental watchdog with any enforcement capabilities. The OEP’s budget is decided by the Government, meaning that the office will be under the control of the same Government that it is designed to be holding to account. The lack of accountability is astonishing and removes any sort of independence, allowing the Government to overlook environmental regulations whenever it is politically beneficial.
As we reach the crucial tipping point for climate change, the Government will be preoccupied with new trade deals, cosying up to the climate change denying President Trump in a desperate attempt to secure any trade deal—however bad—to justify their exit from the European Union. The OEP is a toothless environmental watchdog with no capacity to issue fines or stand independently from the Government to ensure that environmental protections are upheld. A further weakness identified by both Chester Zoo and the World Wildlife Fund is that the OEP has no jurisdiction over the private sector, particularly fossil fuel companies. The UK has the biggest fossil fuel subsidies in the EU, with £10.5 billion a year in support for fossil fuels, and the Tory party accepted generous donations from fossil fuel investors during the election, at the same time as cutting support for solar and onshore wind.
The absence of proposals to promote ethical procurement and sustainable, deforestation-free supply chains is a missed opportunity, and will prevent the Bill from achieving its stated goal of being an “historic step change”. We should be following the lead of Chester, led by Chester Zoo, which has developed the sustainable palm oil city model, making Chester the first city in the world to adopt sustainable palm oil city status. Some producers and retailers such as Iceland—the shop, not the country—have chosen to step away from using palm oil at all. I welcome their commitment to preventing deforestation, especially in south-east Asia, but I also note the view that the adoption of sustainable palm oil production, as promoted by Chester Zoo and others, would be a more long-term solution.
The UK has a chance to lead the way globally in tackling the climate emergency. We cannot afford to be less ambitious. I hope that the Government will recognise the constructive points that my hon. Friends and I are making. The Bill has a long way to go before it can successfully uphold the promise to leave nature in a better state for the next generation, because at the moment it seems that we have a Government who are reneging on their promise to maintain standards in environmental protection and enforcement after Brexit, just as we warned they would do. And if they do that on environmental commitments, they will do it on food, consumer standards and employment protections. As the Bill progresses and we seek to amend it, I hope that the Government prove me wrong and act on these concerns.
It is a true honour to be standing here today as the newly elected representative for Truro and Falmouth—a whirlwind for me and my little family, as I was a candidate only for five weeks before polling day. Cornwall, my adopted home—but to which my husband, my daughter and even my dog are native—has welcomed me warmly, and I would like to show my gratitude to my constituents by being a force for good in this role and a genuine help to all residents, regardless of how or whether they voted in December.
I am happy to say that it is a pleasure to pay tribute to my predecessor. Sarah Newton entered this place in 2010 and has always been a staunch advocate for securing fairer funding for Cornwall. It is largely thanks to Sarah’s efforts, along with her Cornish colleagues at the time, that we are now expecting a women and children’s facility at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro, along with a further £450 million for the NHS in Cornwall. Sarah also ensured a stable future for Falmouth docks for the first time in years.
Sarah served as a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, and spoke passionately in this place several times in defence of the most vulnerable people in our society. Colleagues across the House have spoken very fondly of Sarah, paying tribute particularly to her compassion and kindness. On this I can concur. Having been a candidate for such a short time before my election, I have found her help invaluable. She even put me up for my first week in Parliament, and that is going above and beyond. I am sure that Members across the House will join me in wishing Sarah all the very best for her future endeavours.
I am very lucky to represent Truro and Falmouth. It is a fantastic constituency, from the beautiful rugged and windswept north coast to the equally beautiful rolling and gentle south coast—there are no favourites here! It makes the bulk of its fortunes from fishing, farming and tourism. However, we also have exciting emerging industries such as geothermal energy, lithium extraction, and the potential for floating offshore wind farms—not forgetting theatre, breweries, surfing, sailing, a thriving arts and food culture, campuses for two universities, and more besides.
Falmouth was my first home when I came to Cornwall, and I can testify first hand as to why it regularly makes The Times “happiest places to live” lists. Last year, The Times described Falmouth as
“as close as Britain gets to the California/Barcelona city-by-the-sea lifestyle.”
I would agree, except more so once it stops raining. It has not actually stopped raining since August.
Falmouth boasts the third deepest natural harbour in the world after Sydney and Rio, which is why fishing and sailing exist alongside a healthy working docks—and that is so important to the economy. Cornwall has always been outward-looking and seafaring. Evidence of overseas trade exists as far back as the bronze age. In 1805, news of Britain’s victory and Nelson’s death at Trafalgar was landed at Falmouth and taken by stagecoach to London.
Truro is Cornwall’s only city. It is the base of Cornish local government, fantastic shopping, and, with the completion of the Hall for Cornwall later this year, also its centre for culture. The reopening of this hugely important establishment means that we can welcome over 200,000 people a year through its doors. It will also house space for creative start-ups. It is set to transform the centre of Truro, as well as being a game-changer for Cornwall as a whole.
My family is my inspiration—and by the way, I am lucky enough to have the best one of those as well. My mum and dad—Gordon and Olwyn Williams—and my big sisters have guided me through all my experiences and continue with their unending encouragement. It is the compassion that I have inherited from them that will drive me in my work in this place. My wonderful husband, Nick, is endlessly patient, and his determination for work defies belief for most people; and we have our precious daughter Chloe, whose future I want to help make the happiest it can be. I love them all, and I could not be doing this without their unwavering support. This is a definite team effort.
I am the wife of a hook-and-line fisherman with an under-10 metre vessel. When he rings to say that he is still an hour away from safety and the weather has taken a turn for the worse that was not forecast, I can tell you now that the dread is palpable. We need to champion our small boats in any fishing deal that is coming our way. Their job is precarious enough. We need to support our coastal communities to brave the elements and thrive in the 21st century. There are opportunities on the horizon, and we need to grab them with both hands and bring them home.
I am very proud to be part of this one nation Conservative party committed to being a world leader for conservation. I am also proud to represent the constituency where Surfers Against Sewage is located. It is one of the UK’s leading environmental organisations and has pioneered work to protect our seas and waterways from plastic pollution as well as to improve water quality. I have been passionate about looking after the natural environment for longer than I can remember. It has always been instinctive to me that this is just something we should do; we did not need to be told to do it.
This Environment Bill is bold. It will help to deliver the Government’s manifesto promise of the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on this earth, and I fully support its progress. I recommend much of its content, particularly with regard to waste management and nature recovery. I would like to see the south-west exceed the targets in it. I am very, very ambitious for this. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—my neighbour as the Member for Camborne and Redruth—on his new appointment and on his work to date.
I would like to see a bigger reduction in the consumption of single-use plastic. I think we can do this as a society. We do not need to spend resources clearing it up. It is going to take a culture change. We are all consumers and it has to come from us. We will need help from industry to make it convenient for consumers and also good value for money. That is the way we will make it happen. I would like to see greater checks and balances on our interim targets to ensure that we can stay on track in the short term as well as the long term. That is a recipe for success. I would like to see a greater commitment to managing our oceans. If we do not look after the marine environment, we will have no fishing industry in Cornwall. The saying is, “Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day, but teach him how to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime.”
The Cornish are innovative, bold, and incredibly capable. It is my job to make sure that Cornwall gets the investment, the levelling up of funding and a fair chance so that my constituents and our children have the opportunity to swim, not sink. There is so much for Cornwall and the great south-west to be ambitious about. My constituents are determined, driven, and by far the most adaptable people I have met, and it will be my job to help make sure that we are ambitious for the future.
It is a huge pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), who has just given an outstanding maiden speech in which she very clearly conveyed her passion and commitment to her constituents and her constituency. She made an incredibly poignant point about the precarious nature of seafaring. I wish her well in this House, and I know that she will be a very powerful advocate for her constituents for many, many years to come.
This Bill comes before Parliament at a time when our country—indeed, our planet—faces two major environmental crises: climate change and biodiversity collapse. The debate on the climate emergency here in the UK has shifted very rapidly from the fringes to the mainstream in just a matter of a few years. For those of us who represent communities such as the ones I am proud to represent in South Yorkshire that have recently been devasted by flooding, it is not difficult to understand why, because we are no longer talking about the existential threat to future generations but about the immediate threat to family homes and small businesses.
There is now close to universal agreement that the Government must take urgent action to address the climate emergency, and this Environment Bill represents their first real test. It is important to note, however, that regional and local government also has a crucial role to play—it cannot simply be left to Westminster and to Whitehall to tackle this crisis alone. To date, 287 councils and eight combined authorities, including my own, have declared a climate emergency. We understand the extent of the crisis, but we need the resources to make meaningful change.
This is an extensive Bill covering a wide range of issues, but I would like to focus my short contribution on tree planting. One point on which I hope we can all agree is the important role of trees in tackling this emergency. Trees capture carbon, reduce soil erosion, improve air quality, alleviate flooding, and support biodiversity. Expansion of our woodlands will be key if we are to be successful in preventing irreversible damage to the environment. Indeed, the Government’s Committee on Climate Change set a target of 17% to 19% woodland cover as a key part of the UK’s actions to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The requirement in the Bill for local highway authorities to consult members of the public before felling street trees will be welcomed by communities up and down the country. It is important, though, that this duty is properly resourced if it is to provide meaningful consultations.
However, it is disappointing to see that this Bill does not include a statutory requirement for the Government to produce a national tree strategy for England, as is the case in Scotland. Given that work is already well under way to develop an English tree strategy for consultation in the coming months, I hope the Government will consider amending the Bill so that it refers to the forthcoming strategy. This would send out a positive signal about the importance of trees and woodlands, and their important role in tackling the crises of climate and biodiversity. Furthermore, it would reinforce the commitments made in the Government’s own manifesto, in which they pledged to plant 30 million trees a year by 2025.
One way that the Government could demonstrate their resolution would be to act on the Woodland Trust’s emergency tree plan proposals, in which three key recommendations were put forward: first, to look after what we have by protecting and restoring existing trees and woodland; secondly, to create new policies, capacity and funding for woods and trees; and thirdly, to devolve more powers to local government.
A further measure that the Government could explore is to expand on the ambition and innovation shown by the northern forest initiative—a project spearheaded by the Woodland Trust and its community forest partners in the region. The forest will see 50 million trees planted over the next 25 years in the north of England, with more than 600,000 already in the ground. It is the perfect example of the kind of project we must deliver on if we are serious about reversing the damage done to the natural environment.
I have three asks of the Government in respect of the Bill and tree planting. First, will they ensure that they link this Bill, the Agriculture Bill and the national tree strategy, so that a coherent and unambiguous plan for increasing tree cover is achieved, as well as other environmental targets? Secondly, once the national tree strategy is published, will the Government amend the Bill, so that it refers to that strategy? Finally, will they commit to grow the northern forest?
This is a vital piece of legislation and an opportunity for the Government to show leadership on the global stage in the fight against the climate emergency. We cannot afford any more missed opportunities, and it is quite clear that the Bill still requires improvement. One way the Government could show that leadership is to firm up their commitments on tree planting.
Seven years ago, working as a doctor on call at St Thomas’s Hospital, I looked across the river at this place and wondered what it would be like to be here—and now I know. It is remarkably similar to being on call, but permanently. Being a Member of Parliament is a great privilege and duty, and I would like to thank the people of Runnymede and Weybridge for putting their trust and faith in me. I will do my all to repay that trust. I would like to thank the people who work on and around the parliamentary estate, who have been so welcoming and discharge their duties with dedication, diligence and resolute professionalism.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, the right hon. Philip Hammond. Philip was a phenomenal Member of Parliament. He served his country and the people of Runnymede and Weybridge for over 22 years. He held many of the highest offices of state. It is rumoured that he, like me, was a teenage goth. It is true—I was—but I didn’t dye my hair though. While there are some key areas on which Philip and I do not agree, most of all he is a man of principle. When push came to shove, he stood by his principles, and that is the measure of a man.
I have heard many excellent maiden speeches from Members on both sides of the House. Mr Deputy Speaker, it probably will not surprise you that I have noticed a pattern: it would appear that everywhere, all over the country, is the most beautiful and pleasant place to live. I want to put it on record that Runnymede and Weybridge truly, truly, truly is the most beautiful and pleasant place to live. It is also central to the history of our nation. Magna Carta, signed over 800 years ago, was the birth of the rule of law in our country and, indeed, the world. This Parliament may be the mother of all Parliaments, but Runnymede is the mother of the rule of law.
When I walk through the Churchill arch and see the bomb damage from the second world war, I am reminded of Brooklands in Weybridge. It was in Brooklands, where the first racing track was built and which went on to become the site of an advanced aviation factory, that over 2,500 Wellington bombers and 3,000 Hurricane fighters were built during the second world war. For both those reasons, quite literally, we would not be here today without the legacy of Runnymede and Weybridge. Our heritage is second to none.
There are many parts of the constituency that I would celebrate today if I had more time, but what makes Runnymede and Weybridge great are the people and our warm and vibrant communities—from the famous, such as the Wentworth estate, where the PGA tour takes place, to the not-so-famous, such as the Englefield Green Social Hall, where the Christmas performance of the “Beauty and the Beast” pantomime was the highlight of my election campaign. The consequence of having such vibrant communities and flourishing Christmas fairs is that I have now developed a tombola addiction, but I do have several sets of bath salts and some odd fruit cordials and drinks at the back of my cupboard that I have won, which Members are welcome to take home to their families.
We are all here on borrowed time, by the grace of our constituents, so let me tell you a little of my mission here. It is equality of opportunity. It is that everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from, has great opportunities in life—the opportunity to learn, to have a meaningful and worthwhile job, to set up a business and to grow old in peace and security. I would not be here today without the great opportunities that I had in my life, such as going to a state grammar school in the west midlands. But words like “equality” and “opportunity” are often bandied around without context or meaning.
As a mental health doctor, I have worked in many different hospitals and seen people from all walks of life. I know what a lack of opportunity looks like. Sadly, I have seen people without hope—people who cannot aspire and achieve, hamstrung in life by bad schools, no jobs, shabby housing, poor mental health or addiction. When, working as a doctor, I have supported people get back into work or get a decent place to live, it has often been better than any medicine I could prescribe. It must be that the successes of those who dare to dream are only bounded by their industry and talents.
Turning to today’s debate, we have always taken the lead on the most pressing issues of our time. Today it is our environment and climate change. Sadly, air pollution levels are high in Runnymede and Weybridge, driven by the motorways that criss-cross the constituency and the flightpaths that we live under. This Bill will make strides to improve our health and wellbeing and secure our children’s future.
From my office in Parliament, I can now look back at St Thomas’s Hospital, and when I do I am reminded that things do not always go as we expect. For many people, things do not go to plan in life. We need a strong safety net of welfare and public services, such as our NHS, which I am proud to have worked in for over 10 years, and which my wife continues to work in. Our public services need effective management, leadership and funding, paid for by a flourishing economy and led by a strong Conservative Government. All this is why I am a Conservative and why I am here today.