It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), who certainly has big shoes to fill. The way he talked about how his experiences in his previous professional life led him to want to make change in this place was particularly poignant. We may find that we could have a conversation about music at some point, although I maintain that I was never a goth. There is a local satirical magazine in Bristol that has nicknames for all the local politicians, and I am invariably referred to as “pint-sized goth MP Kerry and ‘the Banshees’ McCarthy”.
This Bill concerns the technical and mechanical arrangements for putting these measures into law. However, a real lack of vision surrounds not only this hefty piece of legislation but the Government’s general approach. I am increasingly concerned that we are not showing leadership in the run-up to COP26. We have not had a statement from the Government since the election or since the COP president was replaced by the Business Secretary, and there is so much more that could be done in showing global leadership on the climate and ecological emergencies.
On the Bill specifically, the four principal concerns raised on Second Reading last October, as well as by the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee during pre-legislative scrutiny, have not changed. There is still no substantive commitment to non-regression in environment law, and until that is included the Government’s verbal commitments on maintaining standards are, frankly, difficult to believe. The Secretary of State spoke at the National Farmers Union conference today, and he knows that the farming community is very much of that mind when it comes to the Agriculture Bill, but the concern spreads much wider among environmental groups as well.
The clause on environmental principles—clause 16 —needs to be strengthened. It is not good enough that Ministers must simply have only due regard to them. It is also a significant step backwards compared with the arrangement we had within the EU.
The lack of urgency on targets is deeply worrying. The interim targets are not legally binding. The long-term targets do not need to be set until 2022, and potentially cannot be enforced for almost two decades. We do have to have short-term milestones; otherwise, we will just see action delayed again and again, and there will be no mechanism for holding the Government to account. As has been mentioned, it is also quite worrying that the Secretary of State has the power to revoke or lower a target with very little scrutiny.
I would like to see much stronger action on land use in this country, particularly urgent action on natural climate solutions. There tends to be an awful lot of talk about planting trees, but that in itself is not enough to compensate for the damage that is being done to our environment. I was at a very interesting event with the all-party group on net zero yesterday, when I think it was said that natural climate solutions could account for 0.25 °C of trying to limit the rise in global warming to 1.5 °C or 2 °C.
We need to look at protecting and restoring our peatlands, salt marshes and other carbon sinks. This was mentioned in the Agriculture Public Bill Committee yesterday. Apparently, there are various strategies around, and it all seems quite piecemeal. My concern is how we hold the Government to account if there is a certain amount of provision in legislation, but also lots of other documents that are not legally binding and cannot necessarily be challenged in Parliament. In some ways, that could muddy the water in relation to what we are trying to achieve.
I will not go into detail about the Office for Environmental Protection, other than to say that I hope it is still coming to Bristol. It does need more independence and more power. It needs to be properly resourced, because there is no point in its having the power to conduct its own investigations unless it is actually given the resources to carry out those investigations properly. It must also be given the power then to impose fines. I hope the Government will consider this in Committee.
Alarmingly—this was mentioned in passing in an intervention—in the year we are set to host COP26 and there is also the international biodiversity conference in China, the Bill is completely silent on the UK’s global environment footprint. We cannot just try to put our own house in order when we are a global nation—we are trading, we are importing and exporting—and having a considerable impact often on countries that are contributing very little to climate change themselves.
We need a target to reduce our overseas impact, including specific action on deforestation. It is a sad reality that economic activity by the UK, whether via finance or imports, has played a significant role in the destruction of the world’s forests to produce food. Last year, Global Witness identified that UK-based financial institutions have been the single biggest source of international finance for six of the most harmful agribusiness companies involved in deforestation in Brazil, the Congo basin and Papua New Guinea, providing a staggering £5 billion in finance over the last six years. Meanwhile, UK imports of commodities such as beef, leather, soy, palm oil and timber have been shown by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to take up an area of land—land associated with deforestation—more than half the size of the UK.
That is why I completely support the calls by the WWF and Global Witness to amend the Bill to include a mandatory due diligence obligation, which would require a business to identify and assess the nature of the actual and potential adverse impact of its activities on the environment and human rights, both domestically and internationally, as well as throughout its supply chains and investment chains. It would also require a business to take appropriate action to avoid, mitigate and remediate the negative impacts identified and assessed; to cease operations and investments where impacts cannot be adequately mitigated; and to report on implementation of the due diligence plan, including the actions taken and the effectiveness of those actions. I hope to serve on the Public Bill Committee, and if so, I will be seeking to put forward amendments that tackle this.
To conclude, it is not enough just to be planting trees in our own backyard if we are contributing to the deforestation of vast swathes of the Amazon abroad.
I am going to start by congratulating all my hon. Friends and colleagues who have given their maiden speeches today and in recent weeks. They truly have been of the highest order. I give my maiden proudly representing the constituency of Meriden. We are all a product of our journeys, so I am grateful and privileged that I can stand here thanking those who have been part of mine: my friends, my other half, my family—thank you.
My predecessor, Dame Caroline Spelman, was a mightily impressive colleague and friend to many in the House. During her 22-year career, she held a number of important positions, such as party chairperson, several shadow Cabinet positions, Second Church Estates Commissioner and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She did all of these with distinction, while demonstrating an unrelenting dedication to her constituents—a dedication that I hope to emulate. I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating her son David, who last month rowed across the Atlantic with a friend as part of the Talisker challenge and broke the world record.
Meriden is the largest constituency by geographical size in the west midlands. We have beautiful countryside, booming local businesses and a vibrant community spirit. My constituency takes its name from the village of Meriden, known as Alspath in the Domesday Book. It originally made up part of Lady Godiva’s estate and, as many Members of this House will know, Lady Godiva rode through the streets of Coventry naked in protest against her husband’s tax rises. Mr Deputy Speaker, I have a lot in common with Lady Godiva—[Laughter.] I do not know why they are all laughing: I love horses and, like Lady Godiva, I am a big advocate of low taxation. However, I am going to wait for the Budget this time, before I decide to what degree and how I protest any new taxes.
In the Domesday Book, Meriden was known as the true centre of England. That was until the early 2000s, when an over-zealous team at the Ordnance Survey decided that the centre of England was in fact in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), but since I am not a bitter man and I do not hold a grudge, Mr Deputy Speaker, let me tell you why Meriden is still the beating heart of this country.
I wanted to speak in the Environment Bill debate because my constituency has an excellent track record on the green agenda, and Solihull Borough Council—my council—has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030. The environment will pervade every area of policy making for my generation and many future generations to come. Infrastructure projects such as the ones in my constituency bring with them air pollution, noise pollution and continuous threats to the green belt. I will work hard to represent my constituents, so that progress and developments never mean compromising on our quality of life. This is a tricky topic, but one from which I will never shy away.
Meriden is unique and picturesque. It has more than 300 listed buildings and is steeped in history. It contains idyllic villages such as Hampton in Arden, Knowle, Dorridge, Catherine-de-Barnes, and Balsall Common, to name just a few. They capture the true character of the great British countryside like nowhere else, despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) earlier tried to tell the House. Meriden is home to Birmingham airport and the National Exhibition Centre. It has rail links to every part of the country, and will soon be home to a certain high-speed rail link and interchange station. It has a Jaguar Land Rover plant, the prestigious Blythe Valley business park, and Birmingham business park, which houses names such as Oracle, Arup, and Rolls-Royce, as well as new market disrupters such as Gymshark.
If one travels north in my constituency, however, there are communities in greater need of opportunity, such as Chelmsley Wood, Castle Bromwich, Smith’s Wood, Kingshurst, and Fordbridge, where I see hard-working and socially conscious people who have not experienced the benefits of economic progress. Recent decades have seen more investment in those areas, and new facilities bring new opportunities, but as far as I am concerned, until all members of our society feel the effects of economic success, our job as parliamentarians is not finished.
As a former businessman and president of one of the largest chambers of commerce in the country, I have always advocated for social progress through economic progress, and for the role that business plays as a force for good in society. I believe we must do all we can to support business to thrive, and we must allow entrepreneurs to take risks, create jobs, and drive society forward, as that is the only way we will address the injustice of inequality. The difference between life expectancy in Knowle in the south of my constituency, and Chelmsley Wood in the north, is 10 years. With higher crime levels and lower levels of employment, there is something inherently unfair about the disparity in the life prospects of two children born in the same constituency, a mere eight miles apart.
The primary reason why any of us enters politics is because we want to make the lives of the people we serve better. I am thinking of that young boy or girl who, right now, is working hard to get the grades to be the first in their family to get an apprenticeship or go to university. Perhaps they are on an athletics track, running an extra lap so that one day they can represent their country on the international stage and return triumphantly. I am thinking of that recruit to the emergency services or armed forces, who is willing to risk life and limb for this beautiful nation of ours, or of the immigrant who came to this country, leaving everything behind, in order to build a better life for themselves and their family.
People may ask what unites us in our love for our country, but that is simple: we dare to believe. We dare to believe in a country where our children will have the best opportunities in life, and where our pensioners can grow old and live with dignity. We dare to believe in a country that is open, inclusive and optimistic. There are those—a small few—who may try to create disunity among us, and we must remember that hope and opportunity will always defeat the ideologies of division and hate.
There is no “leave” or “remain”, Mr Deputy Speaker; there is only our great global Britain—the Britain that says it does not matter where somebody was born, where they come from, what they believe, who they love, or what anyone else says they are capable of achieving. Instead, as long as they share our values of respect, hard work, and they stand up for what is right, they can achieve anything. We live and serve in the best country in the world. Unwavering in our commitment to our values, we have remained faithful to our vision for a better world, and we have always stood tall and firm in the face of adversity.
We must now hold that vision more closely and dearly than ever before. As we embark on the final leg of our journey to new-found independence, it is now that we must remember our old friends and seek out new ones. It is now that we must speak up and act for those facing persecution and oppression across the world, and we must take seriously the threats to our environment and society. We must remember everything that we have in common, and everything that unites us. We must dare to believe.
The speech by the hon. Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) does him great credit, and I am sure he will have a long and illustrious career in this House. I will give him one piece of advice: however much taxes may rise, unlike Lady Godiva, could he please keep his clothes on in the Chamber?
This Bill has been introduced because of Brexit. There are a million reasons why people voted for Brexit. For some, it was because of a lack of affordable housing, because the UK was unable to make its own laws, or because Brexit would solve their concerns about low wages. Nobody, however, voted for Brexit because they wanted fewer environmental protections, yet I am sad to say that that is exactly what the Bill, as it stands, represents. That raises the question of how Britain wants to present itself on the world stage, in the year that we host COP to tackle the climate and ecological emergency.
Until the end of this year, 70% of the UK’s environmental protections will come from the union with Europe, which has provided increasingly high environmental standards for 45 years. The Bill represents the majority of the Government’s efforts to import those protections from Europe into UK law, and it replaces wide-ranging protections with four simple domestic targets. Indeed, there are four target areas—water, air, biodiversity and waste—with a minimum of one target required to be set in each. The media are reporting that the Treasury is pushing for a maximum of one target in each area outlined in the Bill, so it seems that we are moving from a whole network of protections to just four. That is a poor trade for our natural environment. I am sorry to say that it is an indication of how the Government interpret their greater environmental obligations after we leave the EU and make our way in the world. The direction we seem to be heading in is backwards.
To prevent that backsliding, the Government must include in the Bill a commitment to the non-regression of environmental standards. I expect that everyone across the House agrees that regression from environmental protections is poor and that standards should not be reneged upon, watered down or discarded. If we were to let that happen it would have real implications not just for UK wildlife, but our own constituents—the water they drink and the air they breathe. There is nothing more fundamental than keeping our constituents from harm. I therefore ask the Government to do what they have said they will do and ensure we have non-regression in the Bill.
Of the four areas set out in the Bill, only one has any details and that is air quality, which is incredibly important. I have one of the worst areas for air quality in the UK. If the Bill is to have any meaningful impact on the quality of our air, it should include a legally binding commitment to meet WHO levels on fine particulate matter pollution by 2030 at the very latest. Even that will come at the expense of many of my constituents’ lives. The Bills lacks coherence and fails to establish a link between the currently lacking target it sets out and the improvement plans the Government should be carrying out. Let us not forget that this is the Government who had to be taken to court three times over their lack of action on air quality. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) talked about trees and I would like to reinforce what he said about that.
Another area not covered in the Bill is beaches. Let us not forget that the UK was one of the slowest countries in the EU to clean up its beaches. We were still pumping raw sewage into the sea 20 years ago. Improvements to the quality of our natural water have come about as a result of the EU water framework and bathing water directives. How can we now, in the Bill’s 233 pages, not include any targets for beaches? If it is likely that we are just going to get one target, will it be for rivers, water-borne pollution, chemicals or ecological status? We do not know. How can we just have a single water target? We need to ensure that we transpose the protections we have in EU law into UK law.
I want to finish by talking about ministerial powers. In the previous Parliament, we talked a lot about Henry VIII powers. We seem to be returning to Tudor times once more. The Bill confers sweeping powers to enact huge sections of the Bill on the say-so of the Secretary of State. He is not in his place, but I know he is a keen environmentalist. He will spend the majority of the Committee stage—I hope to serve on the Public Bill Committee—looking at this area, but the Bill does not provide any targets or any information until 2022. How are we meant legally to enforce targets in that time period? It is not enough to say, “Trust me, I’m the Secretary of State”. He will say that appointments to the board of the new Office for Environmental Protection will be made by him, but they will be made without parliamentary oversight. It will be sending reports to him, rather than to us here in Parliament. We will have to rely on him.
What happens—we know political shifts happen very rapidly these days—if a future authoritarian Government finds themselves in power and they want to make sweeping changes to the level of environmental protection? The Bill affords them power over what the targets should be and who enforces them. I am sure that such a prospect makes us all nervous, including the Secretary of State. If multiple targets are set in each area, with amendments tabled and improvements made, and if links between targets and improvement plans are strengthened, the Bill could mark the beginning of a framework that provides real environmental protection. However, I must highlight this point to Members on both sides of the House. With its current powers and levels of discretion, the Bill could be used for a catastrophic reduction in protections, leading to poor air quality, polluted waterways, declining biodiversity, exposure to chemical pollution, and a dereliction of our green and pleasant land. It is entirely down to whoever happens to be Secretary of State on any given day to protect them. The Bill gives too much power to an already over-powerful Executive, and must be amended so that Parliament can have democratic oversight, and so that stringent environmental standards are set.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and to make my maiden speech in this pertinent debate, given the recent extreme weather that we have endured across the country. I will speak about the Bill and its importance a little later on, but I will first talk about the constituency that I love and have the privilege of representing in this place.
I have listened with great interest to many of the maiden speeches in recent weeks, and to the reasons each new Member has given as to why their area is so important to them and, indeed, our country. However, there is no doubt that it is my constituency and home town of Burton that has for generations provided the real driving force behind this nation’s success—beer. Although my constituency’s history and culture is as rich as the water that infuses the beer we produce, it cannot be denied that it is brewing that has truly put Burton on the map. It is the sulphate-rich hard water of the Trent, combined with the industrious spirit of Burton’s people, that has led to the town’s setting the standard for high-quality pale ale. That has led brewers worldwide to “Burtonise” their water, in an attempt to mimic our great local tradition.
This proud heritage reverberates through all areas of my constituency, including the sporting one. It has given the mighty Burton Albion football club their nickname “the Brewers”. Here I must declare an interest. Before entering this place, I was fortunate enough to work for the club, although I cannot take all the credit for their hard-earned football league status, which came in 2009 following a victorious season in the Conference.
I have always felt that the name of my constituency is incomplete, and I sincerely hope that in any forthcoming boundary reviews, consideration is given to renaming it Burton and Uttoxeter. Uttoxeter is a beautiful market town, and it is the proud home of the world-leading construction equipment manufacturer, JCB. The company’s yellow diggers are instantly recognisable the world over, and it was at JCB that the Prime Minister famously bulldozed through the Brexit wall last December, emphatically signifying his commitment to break the parliamentary deadlock and foreshadowing his success in dismantling the so-called red wall on election day.
I pay tribute to one of my most admirable predecessors, Sir Ivan Lawrence, whose notable parliamentary achievements include a private Member’s Bill that led to the creation of the national lottery. He also gave the longest parliamentary speech of the 20th century, at 4 hours 23 minutes, on the matter of water fluoridation. I will watch the Government’s legislative agenda with interest, and I am prepared to swoop in with a speech of 4 hours 24 minutes, should an increase in fluoridation be proposed.
Aside from the preservation of water quality, I know that this Government are committed to dealing with some of the most pressing issues that my constituents face today. I am pleased with the renewed focus on infrastructure. In my constituency, we desperately need the safety issues on the A38 to be addressed. My predecessor, Sir Ivan Lawrence, raised that matter in the House some 55 years ago, and it is still a critical issue for my constituents today. As we meet the Government’s agenda for increased house building, we must ensure that that is matched with investment in critical routes, such as the A50 in Uttoxeter. I pledge that in this House I will do all I can to bring about that investment and those much-needed improvements.
We must also deliver for our town centres, which have faced increasing difficulty due to new technology and changing shopping habits. I have very fond memories of the bustling Burton High Street of my childhood. While the face of town centres will undoubtedly be different in this age of the internet, we must do all we can to ensure that they have a thriving future at the heart of our communities.
My constituents are hard-working, resilient people. Throughout our history, we have suffered and overcome adversity. In 1255—I am so sorry, I am going to have to have a quick drink.
I thank my right hon. Friend, but no. I do apologise.
In 1255 and 1322, Burton was all but destroyed by fire, and we suffered catastrophic flooding in 1514, 1771, 1795 and 1852. That collective spirit of resilience, however, forged through overcoming tragedy, has not made the events of recent weeks due to the impact of Storms Ciara and Dennis any easier to bear. That is why this Bill is so important and why I chose to make my maiden speech in this debate. Our changing climate brings with it the ever more present threat of flooding, and although the Government have already provided billions of pounds of funding to defend against it, with this Bill we will do more.
Not only does the Bill set out the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth; it is another example of the Government’s steadfast commitment to delivering for people in my constituency and across the country. During the election, I had hundreds of conversations with people across Burton and Uttoxeter, but there is one conversation, in particular, that has always stayed with me. One resident told me that politics for her was about trust and faith. She told me that I had her vote because she trusted me, my party and the Prime Minister to deliver what she voted for back in 2016 and to invest in our NHS, our schools and our infrastructure, and that she had faith in our country to thrive outside the European Union.
My constituent’s trust was not misplaced. The Prime Minister has already delivered on that central solemn promise to get Brexit done. She is right, too, to have faith in our country, as I know that under this Government’s stewardship it will thrive in the years ahead. It is my job and the job of everyone on the Government Benches to continue rewarding the trust and faith that has been placed in us by delivering. I will spend every minute of my time in this House working tirelessly to do so for all the people I have the honour to represent.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak on such an important issue. It is right that we legislate to protect the environment, our water and the air we breathe. It is also vital that we preserve the biodiversity of our countryside and woodlands and conserve our areas of outstanding natural beauty, such as the Peak district in my constituency, for the enjoyment of everyone.
I am pleased that, after pressure on the Government, the Bill now includes a reference to climate change enforcement. If the rising sea levels, fires and floods do not constitute a threat to our environment, I am not sure what does. The fires in Australia have affected 1.25 billion animals and, according to WWF estimates, have harmed 30% of the koala population. There is abundant scientific research to demonstrate that global heating will result in the extinction of thousands of plants and animal species, and the UK is not immune. It is nonsense to say that we are in favour of biodiversity but not lift a finger to stop the carbon emissions that have led to the destruction of ecosystems and fragile ecologies, making the 10% increase in biodiversity almost impossible to deliver. It is not meaningful to talk about protecting the environment without also talking about how we end the climate catastrophe that is currently wreaking havoc across the globe.
The only way to secure our environment and defend the diversity of our wildlife in the long term is to halt rising temperatures and reach zero emissions by the 2030s. That means fundamentally reshaping our economy and infrastructure by handing power to the people with the greatest interest in stopping climate catastrophe—not the bankers, as we heard earlier, or big businesses, but working people.
Despite the changes to the Bill, the truth is that it falls well short of the protections we need to secure our natural environment for the years to come. The EFRA Committee charged with scrutinising the proposals was right to call them a missed opportunity. This was an opportunity to enshrine environmental protections in all aspects of our public institutions. Instead, the proposals only oblige Ministers to act and only with mealy-mouthed “'due regard to” the principles in the Bill. It was an opportunity to make Britain a beacon of environmental standards for the whole world to follow. Instead, there is no provision in the Bill to prevent our own standards from slipping and falling below those of the European Union; in fact, the environmental principles outlined in it represent a significant downgrading of the principles behind our existing environmental protections. It was an opportunity to create a world-leading, independent institution for environmental auditing. Instead, the Government are proposing to establish an organisation with nowhere near the level of independence that is required to hold Ministers and public bodies to account.
At a time when No. 10 can sack a Chancellor for refusing to fire his staff, are we really to have any confidence that the Government will not seek to interfere in the decisions made by the proposed Office for Environmental Protection? I wonder whether the intention is to create a Cassandra-esque body so that those in power can wrongly ignore the truth that it speaks. To tackle climate change and protect our environment, we need democratic and independent institutions that have the power to enforce action on climate chaos in a meaningful way.
We can either face up to the reality of the climate crisis and transform our institutions, our economy and our infrastructure, or consign our planet and our wildlife to environmental catastrophe. That is the decision we face. It is a historic opportunity and a historic responsibility. I am sorry to say that it is an opportunity that the Bill squanders and a responsibility that it shirks.
Let me start by thanking you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to present my maiden speech today, and to thank your staff—and, indeed, all staff on the estate—for keeping us safe and looking after us so well and with such professionalism. I should like you to convey my more profound thanks, if that is possible, to Mr Speaker for the way in which he has signalled that he will carry out his office as Speaker of the House, in complete contrast to his predecessor. The conventions and integrity that he is restoring in such an unassuming way are having a much greater impact in restoring faith in our democracy than any commentators may be giving him credit for, which is why I want to do so today.
It is the convention to comment on one’s predecessor in a maiden speech. I shall do so, but not for that reason: I will because I want to. I am certain than many in this place will want to recognise Ian Austin for his integrity, and for the brave way in which he decided to stand up against antisemitism. There is not a person in my constituency to whom I have spoken who does not speak well of Ian, even when they disagreed with his politics. So I want to thank him for his efforts as a local MP, and for the example that he has set for many of us, on both sides of the House, in standing up to prejudice and hatred. I suspect that some of my colleagues on this side of the House—myself included—may wish to thank him for other reasons too.
I say with a degree of both pride and humility that I am the first ever Conservative Member of Parliament for Dudley North, the first ever Member called Marco, and the Member holding a larger majority than any of my predecessors in this seat. For that, I thank the people of Dudley, who, like the people in the rest of the country, decided to tell the House—yet again, at the umpteenth time of asking—what they wanted us to do.
The Dudley North constituency is made up of the town of Sedgley, the suburban areas of Upper Gornal, Lower Gornal and Gornal Wood, Woodsetton, and other conurbations around Dudley town itself. It has several attractions of national significance, including the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley Castle and Dudley Zoo.
Dudley has been a market town since the 13th century, and its fortunes over the centuries have ebbed and flowed with the economic cycles of the heavy industry that its coal-rich mines supported. This also means that it has suffered much since the decline of the traditional industries, which is why a focus on skills and future jobs is crucial if the economic prosperity of the area and the wellbeing of Dudley people are to be secured for the coming decades.
Dudley is also credited with being the birthplace of the industrial revolution, with the advent of smelting iron ore using coal instead of charcoal, which is manufactured by burning trees and therefore much rarer and more costly to obtain. Abraham Darby introduced this revolutionary method, which meant that iron and steel could be made in much larger quantities and more efficiently and cheaply. He effectively kick-started the industrial revolution, so Dudley’s heritage and legacy are second to none—notwithstanding what other people in this House might say! However, I will say that competing with Magna Carta and perhaps alienating a doctor might not be my smartest move. Abraham Darby was born in Woodsetton in 1678 and is reported to have lived at Wren’s Nest, which is now a site of special scientific interest—I had to practise that—and, since 1956, one of only two national nature reserves assigned on geology alone because of the variety and abundance of fossils found on the site.
However, although the new industrial revolution brought wealth, it also resulted in the area being named the most unhealthy place in the country in the mid-19th century, because of the dreadful working and living conditions. That led to the installation of clean water supplies and sewerage systems. Dudley had the highest mortality rate in the country. In the 21st century we are faced with the fourth industrial revolution, characterised by a range of new advancements in the digital and biological worlds, but with a different impact on human wellbeing.
Improving health and wellbeing and seeking to tackle mental ill health are some of the areas on which I wish to focus during my time in this House, for the benefit of everyone at home and in their workplaces. If we tackle the issue of poor mental health at its core and in its infancy, we can prevent crisis moments and the devastating consequences that they can have. That it is also why having an environment that we can all enjoy, which supports us in our own wellbeing and that we can leave as a positive legacy to our children and grandchildren, is so important. Mother Nature has been talking to us for some time, and it is time we did more than simply listen. It is time to take action as well, which is why the Bill is so welcome.
Mr Deputy Speaker, if you ever come to Dudley, the capital of the Black Country, you will be warmly welcomed, because that is the nature of Dudley people. You will also feel a sense of expectation—a feeling that change is about to happen, a feeling of optimism—and this is another reason why I am so privileged to represent the town and its people. In the near future, we will be seeing the demolition of the infamous Cavendish House in the town centre to make way for many new homes, the metro extension and I hope—subject to consent—a very light rail system.
Like many high streets around the country, Dudley’s has suffered much. Nobody has a silver bullet to fix that, but increasing footfall by attracting more people feels like part of the solution. If attracting more people into the town centre is part of the solution, and if the focus on skills for future jobs is key, I would like to see our plans for a university campus on the edge of Dudley town centre finally being delivered. I am pleased that the Prime Minister agrees with me on that. These game-changing plans were drawn up before my arrival, and some have been spoken about for many years. Now is the time to turn words into action and to deliver for Dudley. My pledge to all Dudley people is that I will fight every step of the way to make things happen and bring about the change that they want. It is Dudley’s turn now.
It is a pleasure to follow the maiden speech from the hon. Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi). Having so recently given my own maiden speech, it feels a bit cheeky to be congratulating another Member on their maiden speech, but I enjoyed listening to him talk about the warmth of the people he represents, the history of his area and the challenges it faces. With so many maiden speeches today, he faced quite a challenge to compete with the birthplace of the Magna Carta and, indeed, the passionate description of her constituency given by the hon. Member for Burton (Kate Griffiths). When I gave my maiden speech, I spoke about an important brewery in my constituency, so I feel some affinity towards what I value in my constituency and the breweries of Burton. I congratulate everyone on their maiden speeches today.
Since becoming an MP, the Environment Bill is the piece of legislation that I have been contacted about by more of my constituents than any other. The constituents who have been in touch recognise the urgency to act and the opportunity that this Bill offers to make a real difference. The Government could take decisive action through the Bill to protect the environment. However, as currently drafted, the Bill misses this vital chance to act at a crucial moment.
The Bill proposes to replace the EU’s comprehensive framework of environmental protections with long-term targets over which the Secretary of State has nearly complete discretion to change at any time. Alongside that, the new Office for Environmental Protection that the Bill establishes is not, as we have heard many times today, fully independent from Government, and lacks the strong enforcement powers it would need for us to be certain of its effectiveness. It is hard to disagree with Greenpeace UK’s assessment that Ministers have just given themselves a licence to fail.
We have the opportunity to widen the Bill’s ambition and strengthen its approach, and it is vital that we do so to ensure that this chance to set us on the right course for many years to come is not squandered. I urge the Government to listen to calls from my constituents and many others to strengthen the Bill—to ensure that it strengthens and certainly does not lower existing levels of environmental protection in future laws and policies; that future Governments are legally compelled to take action to meet long-term targets for the recovery of nature and the environment; and that the new Office for Environmental Protection is truly independent and can hold the Government and public bodies to account over environmental commitments.
Alongside those general principles, my constituents have also contacted me about specific areas of the Bill that need strengthening, such as provisions on deforestation, oceans and air quality. I urge Ministers to listen to their voices and to those of environmental groups on such crucial issues.
First, my constituents want specific targets to end deforestation in the production of commodities, including food, that the UK imports. Mass deforestation is accelerating climate change and is a leading cause of wildlife extinction. We must take responsibility for the impact of our actions around the world, yet the Bill does not currently address the UK’s role in harming nature overseas.
Secondly, my constituents want the Bill to do more to protect the oceans, including through legally binding targets on plastic pollution and through measures to reduce how much plastic is produced and consumed. We are still waiting for the Government to take the promised action on that front, and the Bill makes no firm commitment to prevent the exporting of waste which can lead to plastic littering our seas around the world.
Thirdly, my constituents want a firm approach on tackling poor air quality. It affects everyone, but it has been felt acutely in recent years by many people living in Ealing North and across London. Poor air quality stunts the development of children’s lungs, which everyone will agree is a truly awful legacy to leave the next generation. Of the 650 constituencies, in 2018 Ealing North had the 41st-worst concentration level of the harmful pollutant PM2.5. Particulate matter affects everyone and means that people living with heart or circulatory conditions are at a higher risk of a heart attack or stroke. It is time for the Government to step up and help my constituents and people across the country.
Decisive action can make a difference, as the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is showing here in London. The Mayor has been taking a lead on cleaning up the capital’s air, including by introducing the ultra low emission zone. In 2016, air at the Hanger Lane gyratory monitoring station, which is just outside my constituency in Ealing Central and Acton, exceeded the hourly legal limit for nitrogen dioxide for a total of 45 hours. Last year, that had fallen to just two hours—a drop of 95%. I give that example because it shows that change is possible. The Government have an opportunity to make it clear that clean air is a priority. They can give the Mayor and councils, including mine in Ealing, the resources they need to go further in tackling poor air quality, and they can use this Bill to commit to introducing higher standards nationwide. As we have already heard, the current legal air quality limits for England are less stringent than the World Health Organisation’s guidelines. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to adopt World Health Organisation limits and to make a real difference to the quality of our air.
We know urgent action is needed to respond to our climate and environmental emergency. The Environment Bill provides an opportunity to do so, yet the Government appear to be doing all they can to resist solid protections and to avoid introducing standards that are equivalent to, or better than, those in EU regulations. That should set alarm bells ringing on the Government’s approach to post-Brexit regulation generally, and it is an immediate and urgent concern that means we risk missing the moment to set high environmental standards as we face the coming decade.
On behalf of my constituents who have contacted me, of all those around the world who are affected by our actions and of the future generations who will be impacted by the decisions we take, I urge the Government to seize this chance to show true global leadership on protecting our environment.
I congratulate all my colleagues who have made such excellent maiden speeches this afternoon. As a proud Wulfrunian, I am deeply honoured to come to this place to represent my home city of Wolverhampton—the city in the Black Country.
I must begin by paying tribute to another local woman, my predecessor in Wolverhampton North East, Emma Reynolds. Emma was elected in 2010 and held several shadow ministerial roles. Widely respected as a moderate and principled member of her party, she spoke with balance and reason. I know her qualities will be greatly missed on the Labour Benches.
Wolverhampton North East stretches across the north of the city between two 20th-century housing developments, each built on the site of a medieval farm. At Ashmore Park, in the east, you can still see the site of a medieval moat; and in Pendeford, in the west, a slightly later landmark is a beautiful 17th-century dovecote that gives part of Pendeford its name.
I am sorry that I do not have longer to speak of our rich and long history, but I want to mention one of the most important battles in British history. In 910 AD, the forces of Mercia and Wessex united to roundly defeat a large Danish army. So thorough was the defeat that it was the last time the Danes sent a great invading force to our island.
There are two places in Wolverhampton that lay claim to the location and, therefore, the name of that great battle. My election to this place puts me in a rather awkward position: one of the places, Tettenhall, is in the ward in Wolverhampton South West that I serve as a city councillor. The other, Wednesfield, is a village in my constituency of Wolverhampton North East. I have learned quite quickly that politics is a game of numbers, so with sincere apologies to the fine people of Tettenhall—and one of them is my own mother—I shall now refer to it as the battle of Wednesfield. [Laughter.] Ah, you have met her. I am in so much trouble when I go home.
The city of Wolverhampton grew over the centuries, first on the wool trade, and then on small industry. Metalwork, Japanning and key and lock-making fuelled our prosperity on the edge of the Black Country. My ancestors, the Mattox family, had a small key-making factory in Wednesfield in the 19th century that started in a garden shed.
That spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation is alive today, and I am proud to be in a party that wants to support more people to start and run their own businesses. Unemployment in my constituency is too high, and I want to see support for start-ups, as well as better training, apprenticeships and education opportunities.
With our central location, excellent transport links, reasonable property prices and wonderful people, we are an excellent place to come to start or conduct your business. Our i54 business park is already home to large firms like Jaguar Land Rover, Moog and Collins Aerospace. We are a welcoming and friendly place, Mr Deputy Speaker, and you would be very welcome to visit us any time. Queen Victoria was still a princess when she first visited Wolverhampton. She did describe us as a “large and dirty town,” but she was delighted to be welcomed with great friendliness and pleasure.
We are proud of both our industrial heritage and our warm welcome. As with much of the Black Country, this industrial heritage has left us with very little green space, and that space now needs protecting. The northern boundary of my constituency borders leafy South Staffordshire, but that green belt land is now under threat, in order to fulfil housing numbers in Greater Birmingham and Black Country housing area plan. As a region, we need to urgently rethink this strategy. Our West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, has shown that brownfield sites can be successfully made viable for housing. A “brownfield first” policy would protect the green spaces to the north of my constituency, near Linthouse Lane in Wednesfield, and in Bushbury by the wonderfully named Cat and Kittens Lane.
I and many Wulfrunians care deeply about our environment, and I support the measures in this Bill to ensure that we have cleaner air, to put the environment at the centre of policy decisions, and not only to deliver the clean Brexit most of my constituency voted for but to ensure it is also a green Brexit. This will help my constituents live longer, healthier lives and protect our city for future generations.
Today I want to pay tribute to all those people in Wolverhampton North East who volunteer, to make their environment and their communities better. I have met so many wonderful Wulfrunians who give up their time to help others, whether litter picking around Bushbury, going out street watching in Low Hill or Fallings Park, volunteering at our much loved New Cross Hospital or getting involved in their church, gurdwara or community group. Volunteers make our city better, and I want to thank them for their service to Wolverhampton.
In an environment debate, it seems appropriate to mention Wednesfield in Bloom, a community gardening project that brings together the whole community—the St Thomas’ church, the Guru Nanak gurdwara, schools and local businesses; everyone comes together to plant the most beautiful displays across Wednesfield and Ashmore Park. They have already won several awards and will be competing in the national finals of Britain in Bloom this year, and I wish them every success. In an age when we have an epidemic of loneliness among people of all ages, I can only hope that the example of Wolverhampton’s volunteers inspires more people to come out and get involved.
I could not let this speech end without mentioning my great love, not only for the city of Wolverhampton but for the greatest football team on earth—Wolverhampton Wanderers. Football runs deep in our veins, and although our city’s official motto is “Out of darkness cometh light”, our unofficial motto is “Wim Wolves, ay we”. I would love to give credit for this quote to our fantastic manager, Nuno Espirito Santo, but it was actually Rudyard Kipling who said that
“the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”
When we work together, we achieve the most. I look forward to working with people from all communities, from all over Wolverhampton North East, during my time as a Member of Parliament. I proudly take my place on these Benches to serve my city, and I assure my constituents that Wolverhampton will always be my first priority.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) on her excellent maiden speech. I was pleased to hear that she is, or was, a local councillor and so, like me, will appreciate the importance of local democracy and local government. In this place, we must ensure that the voices of local communities are being heard and that our local government is resourced properly.
I also welcome the fact that one of the first pieces of major legislation that we are discussing in this new Parliament is on the environment, as it is one of the most urgent issues of our times and has to be a central focus of all our future decision making. But it is worth reminding the House that this Bill is necessary only as a result of our leaving the European Union, which was, until now, the best protector of our environmental standards. Although the Government have claimed that Brexit will mean enhanced—
On her point about the European Union being the best protector of our environmental standards, does the hon. Lady not accept that this country’s environmental standards and, indeed, our food standards are some of the highest in the world, not just in the European Union?
I absolutely agree. The European Union has been a team effort to which Britain has made a large contribution. It is a shame that we can no longer be leaders in the European Union and direct its future.
Although the Government have claimed that Brexit will mean enhanced environmental standards for the UK, the Bill does not really deliver much on those promises. We are facing a climate emergency, a fact that the Government acknowledge but are less willing to act on. We need to tackle the climate emergency immediately, with legally binding targets included in the Bill.
I am pleased to see that the Office for Environmental Protection has had climate changed added to its remit, but the OEP needs independence and teeth to hold the Government to account. Unless and until it can independently impose hefty fines, the OEP cannot match the EU as an enforcer of environmental regulation.
I wish to focus my remarks on part 3 of the Bill, which concerns waste and resources, and on the amendment that I will table in Committee. I will also mention the Government’s commitments on the deposit return scheme. Unfortunately, I will probably not get a place on the Bill Committee, so I will depend on cross-party support for my amendment. I believe it will strengthen the Bill and make it better, and I very much hope that the Bill Committee will consider it.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to establishing a deposit return scheme—a policy that the Lib Dems have been pushing for many years. However, there are several questions about how the scheme will work in practice. It is important that the scheme is both independent from Government and not for profit. The Department should work to ensure that the scheme is as wide as possible, incorporating cans and all types of plastic and glass bottles. I am concerned that as Scotland is introducing its own deposit return scheme two years earlier, DEFRA’s scheme for England and Wales might not be compatible. It should be. I am looking forward to hearing more from the Government on the detailed proposals. People who come from different backgrounds—I was born in Germany, where deposit return schemes have always operated and never been stopped—know that it is a particular challenge to rebuild the infrastructure needed for a proper scheme. Nevertheless, it is the right direction of travel and I very much look forward to the debate and hope that I can make a contribution.
I shall be tabling an amendment on waste traceability that will require waste collection and management authorities to publish the end destination of all municipal waste products. I am deeply concerned about the transparency of waste management in this country. I was a local councillor for three years and the cabinet member for the environment, and my responsibilities included bin collections and waste disposal, so I know quite a lot about the subject, and I know the difficulties that councils have in making recycling really work and making sure that people engage in recycling schemes. For that reason, it is important that local councils disclose not just where they send their waste after they have collected it but the end destination, so that nobody can say, “Well, you have sold it on to a management company somewhere in the midlands and we do not know where it goes then.” We would instead know what that company did with the waste and that it did not sell it on to some country abroad, so that it might eventually end up in the oceans.
We would also know whether we were sending our waste to waste incineration facilities. Although people talk about energy from waste, I remind the House that it is not a net zero solution. Incinerating plastic is no better than burning fossil fuels. If we are looking for a net zero solution for this country, incineration from waste is not it. We need to look at that urgently. My amendment would make sure that those who diligently recycled could be confident that their waste was recycled and not shipped abroad or burned in incinerators. Incinerators need a certain calorific value in order to burn. For example, burning wet food waste is best done by adding plastics. It is perfectly possible that waste companies are burning recycled plastic waste from local authorities.
It is crucial to understand that energy from waste plants is not a net zero solution. Burning plastics, as I have just said, is no better than burning fossil fuels. Plastic should be recycled where possible, and energy from waste facilities create a counter-incentive to recycling. A small change in the law to require waste to be traced to its end destination will make the system more transparent and waste authorities more accountable. In this way, everyone will know where their waste is going when they put it in the recycling bin. We owe it to our residents to give them that transparency.
Although this Bill brings forward some important changes to waste and recycling, there is still not enough focus on waste prevention and how the waste industry will contribute to a net zero Britain.
Our natural environment is of growing importance and concern, both in the United Kingdom and around the world, so, it is of great importance that we get this Environment Bill right.
Conservative Governments have had huge successes in introducing measures such as the charge for single-use plastic bags, resulting in a 90% decrease in plastic bag usage in the United Kingdom, but there is still much work to be done. I encourage the Minister to consider banning plastic milk cartons as part of our Conservative mission to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we inherited it.
By introducing a framework for our independent environmental standards after leaving the European Union, specifically on areas such as air quality, water, biodiversity, resource efficiency and waste reduction, the United Kingdom is exercising its sovereignty and world-leading ambition. Setting our own laws is a significant opportunity not only to maintain high standards, but to exceed them.
I strongly welcome the fact that the Government have set long-term environmental objectives and principles. Long-term outlooks are a crucial element in tackling the effects of climate change. However, more immediate measures are required in the Bill. For example, we need positive measures to reduce further single-use plastics through deposit return schemes and other community engagement projects, and I warmly welcome those aspects.
My constituency of West Dorset is a prime example of excellent environmental stewardship, with its vast stretches of countryside and Jurassic coast—that is clear to see. Our land has been nurtured and maintained by generations of farmers, and those farmers have played a vital role throughout history in taking care of the countryside. They nurture wildlife and habitats, a duty that should not go unnoticed. Unfortunately, however, that vital work often goes unnoticed, and I pay tribute to the thousands of farmers for their environmental stewardship across the country and for dedicating their lives to doing so. I am especially keen to seek assurance and clarification from the Minister that the crucial role of farmers is recognised and that they are granted the freedom to thrive and continue their vital work.
Surprisingly for some, a key concern of my constituents in West Dorset is air quality. Chideock, a small village in my constituency between Bridport and Lyme Regis, is especially subject to air pollution, as the A35 runs through it. Traffic congestion means that the air is polluted with the harmful exhaust gases of vehicles. The World Health Organisation recommends a maximum pollution limit of 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air, but in 2017 West Dorset District Council measured a reading of 61.8 micrograms per cubic metre of air. My constituents in the rural village of Chideock are subject to such high levels of air pollution. The British Lung Foundation has confirmed the damaging effect of high levels of exhaust pollutant, which must be a much higher priority, in my opinion. I hope that the targets set by the Government will recognise the impact of exhaust pollutants in villages such as Chideock, and ensure the safety of all residents from harmful gases that cause a direct and immediate health risk.
I welcome the environmental direction in which the Government are heading, but I am keen to encourage the Minister to be more robust with target setting so that our important environmental standards will not just continue at our normal high standards, but that our standards going forward will lead the world.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder). He focused on air quality and that is very much what I want to focus on today. I agree with everything he said about that. I also agree with him that we should leave the environment in a better condition than we found it, but I fear that, in its current form, the Environment Bill will not deliver that mandate, which I share. It certainly will not deliver the bigger mandate of delivering zero carbon for 2050. As the Minister will know, the latest projections show that we will reach the 1.5° increase by 2030, not 2040, so we really do need to up our game. The Bill is possibly capable of delivering environmental protection, as opposed to climate change mitigation, regarding air, chemicals, plastics and our oceans.
The problem with the Bill, at least as it is drafted at the moment, is that it does not have the teeth to deliver enforceable, known targets to ensure that we deliver those higher standards. As we leave the EU, the real risk is that because we do not have dynamic alignment, we will fall behind the escalating standards in the EU and possibly even behind the current standards. On air quality, the Minister will know that we consistently fail to meet the EU air quality standards and that is why the Government have been taken to court on several occasions by ClientEarth and rightly fined. We need a system that can duplicate that, but that system does not exist.
It baffles me that Opposition Members think that this country is incapable of setting high standards itself without having an international body to do it for us. If we all, collectively, across the House, believe in high environmental standards, why cannot we look after our own interests, rather than have somebody else do it for us?
That was very much an own goal by the former Transport Minister, who cancelled the electrification of the line to Swansea and knows that the UK has consistently failed to meet standards. The empirical evidence shows that we have not and cannot do it with this Government, because we have been dragged into court, kicking and screaming, for failing those standards. That is why we have the Bill, which waters down the standards, does not provide an independent agency and does not provide an opportunity for fines to be paid for failure to deliver World Health Organisation standards. In my view, such fines should be paid to the health service to treat people for the harm and to local authorities to actually reduce air pollution.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech, but does he agree that what is really worrying is the lack of ambition from the Government? We can only save the planet by international co-operation if we stop their friends who invest in companies that are exploiting the rainforest. We need to do that in a co-ordinated way across the planet, but the Bill lacks imagination and energy.
Precisely. COP26 is an opportunity for the United Kingdom to show that we will act collectively, take leadership and bring the world together, but the example we are setting is one where we have 62,000 people dying prematurely from air pollution at a cost of £20 billion. Air pollution causes heart failure and lung disease, and possibly lower IQ in children. Unborn babies have PM2.5 microparticles in their blood stream. That is why we want the World Health Organisation standards mentioned by the hon. Member for West Dorset for 10 micrograms per cubic metre by 2030, with a staging post of 12 by 2025, in the Bill and enforced through fines. Otherwise, it simply will not happen.
We know what the manufacturers will do, with their weasel words; we know about the Volkswagen scandal. The latest scandal is the fact that diesel filters themselves store up particulates, crush them into more harmful microparticulates and spew them out every 300 miles, causing much worse pollution and public health problems. That is not actually measured in the emissions testing regime, because the manufacturers have been behind the door, lobbying away. We cannot trust them, and we want to bring forward the year when new diesel and fossil fuel cars become illegal to 2030. As has been mentioned, we need a fiscal strategy to deliver that.
The other change I really want to push for is the inclusion of indoor air pollution in the Bill. No one in their right mind would believe that we could have an Environment Bill that is just about the outdoor environment, when 90% of our time and 95% of our children’s time is spent indoors. What is happening to those children indoors? I recommend that Members read report on indoor air quality published on 28 January by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which shows that there is an abundance of harmful chemicals indoors, including in products used for cleaning, construction materials and volatile organic compounds. These chemicals come in the form of formaldehydes, cosmetics, candles, cooking products and all sorts of stuff, and they have a cocktail impact, causing inflammatory respiratory problems. We are all locked in small flats with double glazing, which makes the effect worse, and that is also the case in schools and hospitals. The Bill should cover indoor environments—minimally schools and hospitals—to protect our children, but it simply does not.
Fire retardants are a specific problem. I understand that the average house in Britain now contains 45 kg of fire retardants, including in sofa and mattress foams. We have much more of these materials than the EU or the US. Why? Because we require a flame test, rather than just a smoulder test. When fires happen, people die from the toxicity of fumes given off by the fire retardants. This toxicity is worse than in concentration camps in the second world war because of the combination of hydrogen cyanide—the chemical that was used in concentration camps, in Zyklon B—and carbon monoxide, which makes it 35 times worse. When there is a fire, those so-called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons burn off, firefighters cannot see through the smoke, and people basically choke and die within a few breaths. It is outrageous that that should be allowed. New Zealand has removed those chemicals, and has shown that doing so does not result in more deaths from fires.
Through this Bill, we need to continue with the regulation concerning the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals, or REACH. In a nutshell, REACH means that manufacturers that produce a chemical are required to show that that chemical is safe. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has to prove that a manufacturer’s chemical is hazardous, which is why asbestos is used in brake pads in the United States. Once we go into a trade deal, the big problem with this Bill is that it leaves the door open for Donald Trump and his mates to water down our environmental standards—we have all heard about chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef, but this also applies to chemicals—so that they can sell all sorts of stuff that will be a risk to our public health. We need to tighten up this legislation, have a precautionary principle and ensure that we deliver on REACH.
Members will know that plastics cause the deaths of 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals a year, and that there will be as much plastic as fish in the sea by 2050. We need a fiscal strategy to address that; we need to tax plastics. The last Chancellor but one said that there was going to be a plastics tax. Where is it? Are the Government calling for it? Let’s have it.
On trade, we need to watch out for investor-state dispute settlements. Companies will come along and agree a trade system, and if we start passing new environmental laws, they will sue us under the investor-state dispute settlement system. It is important that we have our legislation in place at this point—before we agree those trade deals—rather than doing so after the trade deals, otherwise we will face all sorts of sanctions. I agree with the Chair of the DEFRA Committee on the integrated approach that needs to be taken with the three Bills to combat flooding through land use management and so on. Particularly as I am from Swansea, I am concerned about tourism in the economy, and want to ensure that the blue flag beach registration is kept up so that people have confidence that when they go bathing everything is clean.
Our environment is not just a namby-pamby thing about saying, “Let’s look after the environment.” It is obviously for our children and our children’s children, but it is also for our economy. We want to be able to boast, “We set the standards and the markets follow. People want to come here because we have a glorious enhanced environment.” In the current state of play, this Bill will not deliver the goods. I very much hope that Ministers will be open to the amendments that my right hon. Friends and I will want to put in to make it better and fit for purpose.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies). I might have a slightly more optimistic view of this place’s ability to press for the highest standards, but he makes a very important point about indoor air quality. I am sure that the Minister will have listened to that particularly carefully. I have a particular interest in the issue of carbon monoxide that the hon. Gentleman talked about.
This is an important debate to participate in in its own right, but it is all the more pleasurable because we have had so many maiden speeches as well. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti), for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) and for Burton (Kate Griffiths). I hope I can apologise to my hon. Friend for trying to intervene on her, but I thought it might have been a timely intervention. I have to give special congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) because I stood for election in Wolverhampton North East in 2001, and she had a lot more success than I did. As a fellow Black Country girl and the granddaughter of a metal room worker, it was really heartening to hear her passion for the Black Country and its future. I wish her every success in this place. I should say that I also remember her mother, who was a councillor at the time when I stood for election.
This Bill takes this country’s approach to the environment and the protection of our environment to a whole new level. It makes legal principles that some of us have supported for many, many years, including the “polluter pays” principle. Its legally binding targets to improve the environment, and annual reports through environmental improvement plans, mean that we are set on a positive track for the future. The Office for Environmental Protection is a new industry watchdog.
The specific issues that are dealt with in the Bill have been raised with me by my constituents for many years. I am sure that my local Chineham Girl Guides and Brownies will be very pleased to see that the deposit return scheme is back on the table. Many of my other residents who have lobbied me on plastic bag charging, and extending it, will be pleased to see measures on that. The many hundreds of people who have, over the years, written to me about the importance of sustainable forms of packaging will be delighted to see the measures in this Bill. So I give a massive thanks to the Minister for all the work that she, in particular, has done on these measures.
I would like to focus on just two issues within the Bill, one of which has not been raised so far. It follows on from the points made by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) with regard to trees. Schedule 15 is about combating illegal deforestation. It is all well and good to go around planting trees, as many of us do, and encouraging people in our constituencies to do that, but if others come along and fell those trees unlawfully and nothing is done about it, or things are done but the actions that are undertaken are ineffective, then this has to be taken seriously. I really commend the Government for picking up on this issue, because in my constituency we experienced one of the largest unlawful tree fellings that the Forestry Commission had seen in many, many years when more than 500 trees were felled in Dixon Road just outside Sherfield Park. Despite the Forestry Commission taking great measures to insist on a restocking order and that being enforced through the courts, the practical fact is that few of those 500 trees have been reinstated.
I therefore welcome the measures in the Bill that will allow courts to make restocking orders after an individual has been convicted for failing to comply with an enforcement order. I even more heartily welcome the fact that the fine for felling without a licence is increased significantly to an unlimited level 5 fine. Restocking orders are really important, and they should not be flouted in the way that they have been. I hope that these measures are as effective as the Government have set out.
An application for planning consent on a piece of land that has been subject to unlawful tree felling cannot take into account the fact that there has been a failure to comply with a restocking order. I hope the Minister will look at local authorities being able to take unlawful tree felling and a lack of compliance into account when considering applications.
The second issue that I want to raise, as other Members have, is the legally binding target for fine particulate matter, which I welcome wholeheartedly. Fine particulate matter has the most significant impact on human health, and the Government’s approach has been commended by the WHO as an example for the rest of the world to follow. The importance of action by national Government is clear, but local government needs to act as well if we are to achieve the improvements in air quality that are so important. One in five of us will be diagnosed with a respiratory illness or condition at some point in our life, and the Government are acting on that.
Will the Government look closely at the proposals put forward by various organisations on further strengthening those air pollution targets? Could the Minister confirm that health experts will play a significant role in setting new air quality targets?
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate. These air pollution measures are such an important part of the Bill and are to be commended, along with the other measures. I wish the Bill well at every stage in this House and the other place.
It was just last year that Parliament declared a climate emergency—a significant move that recognises the importance of this issue for our future and the future of our planet. We are in a climate and ecological emergency but, sadly, the Bill does not do nearly enough to help. It replaces a flawed but comprehensive European Union environmental framework with non-binding long-term targets that can be changed by the Secretary of State at any time, at his or her discretion. We need concrete, legally binding targets if the Bill is to have the impact that it must have for our future.
I want to talk about biodiversity gain. The idea is welcome, but the level of gain set out in the Bill must be much more ambitious. We do not need a levelling down of biodiversity gain. Some authorities are already going beyond this, or seeking to do so, within the current frame- work. We need a much higher limit. Some organisations have suggested that a 20% net gain would be more in line with need and that this should be open to review, in case future evidence demonstrates the need for an increased level. It should be a minimum, not a cap.
One issue that has been drawn to my attention by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and others, and on which I had the chance to ask a question last week, is implementation of the biodiversity gain proposals. Concerns about the proposals include new burdens on councils, further pressures on the capacity of local authority planning departments and a lack of specialist ecological expertise to deliver the plans. If we are to have biodiversity gain, as we should, all new burdens on local authorities must be properly assessed and fully funded. Without that funding or resource, this is just a piece of paper that cannot be enforced. It is vital in this area that we ensure that local authorities have the resources they need—in staff and in finance—to make sure that this is properly implemented, as well as looking at the capacity and skills needed.
My hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Ealing North (James Murray), neither of whom is in their place at the moment, have spoken very fully and eloquently about the impact of deforestation on our environment. It is not my intention to repeat that, but this is an issue that many of my constituents have contacted me about. We should not underestimate the need for the issue to be addressed and I hope the Government will do that. Accelerating climate change is the leading driver of wildlife extinction due to habitat loss.
In my constituency of Blaydon, trees play a hugely important part in our local natural environment. Many of my constituents are very concerned about making sure that we are not only looking after our existing tree cover, but increasing our tree cover to deliver environmental benefits. I am pleased to say that, at the turn of the year, I took part in a community tree planting event in my constituency. It was good to see so many people—so many families—out and joining the plantation. I know that Gateshead Council has plans to increase the tree cover in our constituency and in the Gateshead Council area.
The new Bill does include a legal duty to consult before felling street trees and stronger powers for the Forestry Commission, which is welcome. Again, however, the issue of resources raises its head: there must be resources to carry out that responsibility. We do not want loopholes that will leave valued trees vulnerable as a result of proposed tree felling. As has been said, it is important that we increase tree cover to ensure that we can take advantage of the environmental gain, but it is also important that we consider a tree strategy. This Bill does not move forward on the call for a national tree strategy for England to be required by law. I hope the Government will consider that again.
I want to touch briefly on plastic pollution. All hon. Members will know how, when they visit a school or see the Brownies locally, the children are very keen on ensuring that we clean up our oceans and do not have plastic pollution. People will be disappointed to see that the Bill does not go further in this area. One of the key things we need to look at is getting an all-in deposit return scheme that deals with recycling at least some of the plastic in our environment.
The last thing I want to talk about is the Office for Environmental Protection. I echo calls from both sides of the House about ensuring that this role has true independence from Government and has real powers to be able to tackle the issues. It is an absolutely vital role in ensuring that we deal effectively with protecting and improving our environment. Again, I hope the Government will think very hard about ensuring that its powers are strengthened.
I ask Ministers to look at all these issues and at the amendments that will undoubtedly be put forward, to look to strengthen some of these measures and to ensure that local authorities and other organisations have the resources to implement effectively the powers we are giving them.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). I do not agree with what she said about the need for the European Union to set our regulations, but I do agree with a lot of what she said about deforestation and biodiversity, which indicates commonality across the House on the need to tackle these issues effectively.
I am not a glass-half-empty person, and I think that we in this country have made good progress in recent years. Our rivers are massively cleaner than they were, although discharges still damage our wildlife. We are planting trees around the country—I have a fantastic project in my constituency, the Centenary Woodland, which is being planted by the Woodland Trust—but not enough is done to ensure that new housing developments are built in a sustainable way alongside protected habitats, and that housing does not destroy wildlife in our country.
We are doing much more than we previously did to tackle unnecessary waste, but the hon. Lady is right to say that we still have too much plastic pollution, and we do not sufficiently reuse potentially valuable materials. As a nation we have made good progress in cutting carbon emissions, but we still have an impact around the world. There is deforestation, and one thing I would like, which consumers can deliver, is a significant reduction in the amount of palm oil that this country uses. We know the environmental implications of too many palm oil plantations around the world, and this country should seek to set an example on that issue.
My remarks will focus on two things. First I will speak about biodiversity, but I will also stress the need for a smart approach towards these matters. Our constituents still have priorities. They may think that this issue is a priority, but it is not the only one, and we must approach these matters in a way that delivers a cleaner, better environment, and enables us to meet people’s other priorities.
It cannot be right that our generation has seen such a loss of biodiversity here and around the world, and we must seek to address that. Many of us will remember the dawn chorus from when we were children. There were birds all over the place, but today there are far fewer. I hold the role of parliamentary species champion for the hedgehog, and to my mind, the dramatic decline in hedgehog numbers shames this country. Not just in this country but around the world too many species are in danger because of man’s behaviour. One thing that I hope will result from the dreadful outbreak of coronavirus in China is a proper crackdown in Asia on the illegal wildlife trade, which does so much damage to so many species, including endangered species.
I welcome measures in the Bill that require biodiversity gain in new developments. That is an important step forward, and when meeting our undoubted housing needs, we must not simply build over wildlife habitats without seeking to make provision for the species that are affected. It is right to have a proper nature recovery network, and to give local authorities and other organisations the duty and power to restore and create better natural habitats. That is the only way to reverse the decline in species such as the hedgehog, or those birds that have disappeared from so many parts of the country. It is not the only solution, but it will be important.
We must also introduce measures on water quality in our rivers. We have made progress, but not enough, and the Bill includes some provisions on that, particularly regarding extraction. Over-extraction to meet human and agricultural needs has a serious impact on biodiversity in our river valleys, which the Bill rightly seeks to address. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) was right to speak about the importance of measures in the Bill to tackle illegal deforestation, which are welcome and overdue. These issues are not just for the Government or regulatory bodies, because our whole society needs to act. I welcome the gradual steps now being taken by some developers to open up the access routes through new developments that species such as hedgehogs need. Without such provision, those species will continue to decline.
We need a smarter approach to managing our impact on the environment, but we live in a democratic society, and people also have other expectations. If we demand that people give up major aspects of their lives in the name of the environment, or because of environmental pressures, they simply will not do it. People expect us to improve their roads, and ensure that they can buy or rent a home and take a holiday, and we must work out the best way to deliver our environmental objectives, alongside meeting the rest of those goals. The new Office for Environmental Protection must use its powers wisely and effectively. We must do everything we can. If there is a solution we must grasp it, but if no solution avoids damaging other parts of our society, we must think carefully about how we approach those issues.
One example of where we need a smarter approach is in preparing for net zero. I hear, week by week and day by day, people and companies saying that they will be net zero by a particular date. That is absolutely to be desired, but we know that some of the mechanisms to get them there, particularly offsetting schemes, are not always what they are made out to be. We will therefore need a much more carefully thought through, higher quality approach to nature recovery here and around the world. It is not just about planting trees, although hon. Members of all parties have talked about the importance of tree planting. I support the planting of trees. We can play a big part internationally, through our development aid budget, to encourage and support other countries to reforest areas that have been allowed to become arid and deserted. We can do more in this country, too. We have projects already, but there is more we can do here. It is not just about tree planting, of course. Wetland areas can absorb carbon and create more habitats for birds. We need a mixed approach to biodiversity.
Offsetting projects have to be genuine and beneficial. It is important that in this country the Office for Environmental Protection ensures that projects within the UK are genuine in their impact. Internationally, I want us to refocus part of our aid budget to support genuine projects around the world that restore biodiversity and habitats to create the opportunity to bring back wildlife populations and capture carbon at the same time. As one of the great donors to the developing world, we can play a real leadership role in doing that.
Restoring our habitats and our natural environment is, to me, an urgent priority. Legislation can only take us so far. The whole of our society needs to work on delivering it, but the Bill can help us to take a major step in the right direction.
Air pollution across the west midlands affects some 2.8 million people and our young people are most at risk of dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the hard work of the Labour council in Birmingham, who are introducing a clean air zone to try to tackle air pollution, and in commending my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), the Labour candidate for Mayor of Birmingham, who wants Birmingham to become the first carbon-neutral region in the country?
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local council and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill on the fantastic work they are doing. I am really proud that my own local authority, Cardiff Council, is doing groundbreaking work through a clean air plan to tackle air pollution levels. Cardiff Council has just been awarded £21 million from the Labour Welsh Government to invest in practical measures, such as retrofitting, taxi migration and transport initiatives. This is really groundbreaking stuff, which is absolutely needed.
Climate change is no longer a theory. It is a reality beating at our door. The recent floods across our country have shown it is not just something that happens to other people in far-flung places. It is happening right here. We have a moral, social and ethical obligation to the generations who will follow us to meet the environmental challenges of today and leave behind a healthier, more sustainable environment for tomorrow. This long awaited Environment Bill is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strengthen our environmental standards at home, modernise waste and recycling strategies, and show global leadership at a time when it is so sorely needed. At COP26, we can show the world what we are doing.
There are some welcome measures in the Bill, but I am afraid it fails to show the promised gold standard stipulated by the Environment Secretary’s predecessor. I am not suggesting that any of this is easy. It is not easy to change the way that we do things to meet the climate challenge, but I am suggesting that it is absolutely imperative that we take urgent, radical action to build a sustainable environment and economy for the long term, to safeguard our planet for future generations—offering also opportunities for people, our communities and our businesses. That need not be an either/or scenario. I do not know for how many years I have been making speeches about either the environment or the economy. It need not be either/or; it can be both.
Today I want to focus on one of the Bill’s key elements: waste and resource efficiency and phasing out unsustainable packaging. The UK has been using and wasting resources at unsustainable levels; we are far behind the recycling rates of many of our European neighbours. There is a rising imperative for Government, business and consumers to think and act radically when it comes to plastics and packaging, waste and recycling.
In the previous Parliament, I presented my Packaging (Extended Producer Responsibility) Bill. UK Government figures had been shown to underestimate drastically how much plastic packaging waste Britain generates. A study by Eunomia, the waste experts, estimates that just 31% of waste is currently recycled. Where does that waste go? Much is exported and shipped overseas, and dumped into our precious oceans, washed up on the pristine shores of the Arctic and Antarctic. While the Bill sets targets on waste reduction and resource efficiency, there is more of a focus on end-of-life solutions, rather than tackling types of packaging, and the use and reuse of plastic packaging. That continues to place a disproportionate burden of waste collection and costs on local authorities.
The coalition of waste industry experts and local authorities that I set up around my Bill all believe that the Bill before us does not adequately deal with the reform of waste as it should. We desperately need radical reform of the system across the country. Producers need to take responsibility, from the packaging they produce to the clean-up at the end of the life cycle. This is the Government’s opportunity to be ambitious—to show the UK to be a world leader. It would be a great shame if they did not take this opportunity. Such reform is not in the Bill as it stands.
The current system has failed to get to grips with export waste. I am not confident that the Bill in any way toughens our stance on the restrictions on exporting waste. Even the most well intentioned of producers who ship plastic waste overseas to be recycled and treated correctly, lose control and ultimately lose sight of whether that waste was appropriately disposed of. The Secretary of State, in his opening remarks, said that he had toughened up that area, but I cannot see that in the Bill: we have gone from “prohibit” and “restrict” to providing for regulation. I ask the Secretary of State and the Minister: what does that mean? What does that regulation look like? How does it adequately meet the needs? It does not, as I see it.
I am absolutely opposed to a lot of things in the Bill, because it does not speak to what our industry—our producers—need. So I will be thinking very carefully and taking that decision at the end of the debate.
We must build on our recycling industry here in the UK. The answer to that problem cannot simply be that the Government will tackle the problem by causing more materials to be sent to landfill or the incinerator. Although end-of-life solutions are important, the ultimate objective must be to decrease the volume of single-use plastics, improve design and recyclability and see large-scale investment and infrastructure capacity here in the UK, and not ship things off overseas. We must address the core reason why so much plastic is shipped overseas: 356 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2018 alone.
In England, councils, restricted financially, have been less able to invest in recycling facilities, so much of the growth in the waste disposal sector has been achieved by exporting waste. In many cases, a failed austerity agenda has created that growing dependence on export markets. I am fortunate that in Wales the Welsh Government have been ambitious and introduced those hard recycling targets and invested in recycling, but for this to work we will need fundamental reform across the whole UK. I want this UK Government to take innovative steps to make radical change.
Finally, I want to touch briefly on the Office for Environmental Protection. Where is its independence in holding Governments to account and what consequences will there be when the Government fail to meet targets? It will be a toothless regulator with fewer powers than the European Commission. How can we hope to meet the challenge of the climate emergency with such a weak regulator? The Bill lacks ambition. It lacks legally binding targets and fails at every level. If we want people to take Government and Parliament seriously, we need to wake up and to toughen up the Bill.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin). I endorse much of what she said about the horror that plastic presents to the world and the nonsense of exporting it. She might be interested to know that one of my sad failures as Secretary of State was failing to persuade our coalition partners to introduce a price incentive for a genuinely biodegradable plastic bag. Our charge, which came in shortly after I left but which I legislated for, has reduced the number of bags from 8 billion to 1.1 billion, according to the House of Commons Library, but the ideal is to develop a biodegradable plastic that does not cause this horror in the seas and all the terrible issues she raised.
We have heard many very good maiden speeches and I think there are more to come, so I will speak briefly. I see all this enthusiasm in the Chamber, all this youth, all these excited people wanting to take action as Members of Parliament and benefit their constituents, yet a pillar of the Bill, which I strongly support, is the creation of a quango. When I was Secretary of State, my four key priorities were: to grow the rural economy; improve the environment, not just protect it—which is built into the Bill; and save the country from animal disease and plant disease. The Bill is the basis on which to deliver that. It is not all in there—it is partly an enabling Bill—but I strongly support its clearly stated aims.
The only aspect I would really query is that we do not need another quango. We already have Natural England and the Environment Agency. My right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), when he took the Bill through in its early incarnation, said that the staff of the OEP would only number 60 to 120. That dwarfs what we already have in Natural England and the Environment Agency. What we want are strong Ministers. I am delighted by the appointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) as a Minister and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who was my junior Minister, as Secretary of State. They are knowledgeable, competent Ministers bringing forward policies that will benefit our farming and marine industries and the environment, both terrestrial and marine.
What we want is a strong mechanism by which Members can question Ministers, ensure that whatever they decide is put into practice and pull them up if it is not. What we do not need is another quango. A quango is not the answer. I have direct experience of that. We had the most terrible floods in Somerset when I was at DEFRA. Why was that? It was because of a very misguided policy. Why was it misguided? It was because the Environment Agency was led by a model quangocrat. Baroness Young of Old Scone had spent seven years as chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, she had been vice-chairman of the BBC for two years, and she was chief executive of the Environment Agency for eight years. I am sure she would score many points among all those speakers on the Opposition Benches—of course, she was also a Labour Whip.
The policy of Baroness Young in the Somerset levels was to put a limpet mine on every pumping station, and when it came to categories, she wanted policy option 6 for the levels, which was to increase flooding. The result was an environmental catastrophe, costing, according to some estimates, more than £100 million. The water died—the water went stagnant—and all aquatic life disappeared. I went down and talked to some experts on the levels who really understood the local environment, and they said that they had never seen so many wild birds disappear until that year.
What we want is local management. North Shropshire looks as it does thanks to generations of private farmers and private landlords taking huge pride in what they do. What we are doing now on public goods in the Agriculture Bill—and there are more measures in this Bill—is giving people the chance to improve their local environment. I should like the Minister to look at the benefits of nature improvement areas, built around catchments, where we could pool the resources from the landowners’ payments for public goods, from public grants and from other moneys, possibly local, for the purpose of long-term targets. We could concentrate on local species which need building up again. That would deliver real environmental outcomes.
Creating at national level a quango with 60 to 120 busy- bodies who are, for some reason, independent of this House is not the way. We have had enough: we have had 40 years of the European Union telling us what to do, and doing it badly. Following directives designed for polluted European rivers, not our own—that is not the way. The answer is to write laws in this House, and regulations in this House, and set targets in this House, and then control them in this House. That is what we were elected to do. Creating a parody of the European Commission—which is what the OEP is—is emphatically not the answer.
I am looking at the clock, but I will very briefly mention a couple of other issues. I mentioned catchment areas earlier. I should like the Minister to look at the issue of abstraction, because we have to balance the need to grow food and provide adequate water with the need to keep food production going. Food production is vital, and it is still the primary function of the countryside. I should also like the Minister to look at the balance between the precautionary principle and the innovation principle. In the European Union there is an insane hostility towards modern technologies, which has caused real environmental damage. What we should be doing is growing more food on less land, and freeing up land for recreation and planting. We have heard a lot of talk about trees, all of which I entirely endorse, especially in view of the floods. We should be growing more trees in the upper parts of the catchment areas. That is the balance: we will only do that with modern technologies.
Lastly, I want to touch on the subject of endangered species, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). I am very proud to be wearing the tie of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust. We now have a wonderful opportunity to legislate for the species in this country which really are endangered. We do not have a problem with crested newts—although they have caused terrible problems for our building industry—but we do have a problem with red squirrels and certain crayfish, and those are what we should be targeting.
The Bill presents us with a great opportunity, and I support it, but will the Minister please make sure that it is Members of Parliament in the driving seat?
It is a pleasure to follow such a passionate speech from the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson).
It will probably not surprise Members to learn that I shall be focusing my comments on part 5 of the Bill, largely because extreme weather is starting to pose an almost existential crisis to us in parts of Calderdale. The water levels that we saw in 2015, and again earlier this month, presented an immediate threat to life, and a more long-term challenge to the viability of communities alongside the river and the canal.
An ongoing challenge for us in flood-affected communities throughout the north, in particular, is that the legislation and regulation that underpin the role of water companies are heavily weighted towards mitigating drought risk. The climate change adaptation work reflected in both the 25-year environment plan and the Bill, while recognising flood risk, does not provide the same level of seriousness in legislation relating to the risks of both flooding and drought, and I should like to see a rebalancing of those challenges.
In July last year I presented a ten-minute rule Bill, the Reservoirs (Flood Risk) Bill, which—in a nutshell—sought to give the Environment Agency additional powers to require water companies to manage reservoirs to mitigate flood risk. The Bill followed years of conversations between the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water and Calderdale Council about the role of the six Yorkshire Water reservoirs in the upper catchment in the Calder Valley. In the winter of 2017-18, Yorkshire Water and the Environment Agency started a trial to manage the Hebden Water reservoirs down to 90% of their usual top storage level, with the aim of assessing the potential of utilising the reservoirs as a more long-term flood risk management option. Maintaining the reservoirs at 90% instead of the usual percentage created an extra 10% capacity to hold more water in the upper catchment during periods of heavy rainfall. Although the reservoirs were placed under nothing like the pressure during the trial period that they experienced during Boxing day 2015’s Storm Eva or more recently Storms Ciara and Dennis, the report was able to conclude:
“The lower reservoir levels did provide a significant impact on peak flows in Hebden Water for largest events observed during this period”.
The report was clear that the scheme had a positive impact on flood mitigation, and that a managed and collaborative approach would be complementary to ongoing flood protection work in the area. This approach is not just happening in Calderdale; similar conversations are happening right across the country, including at Thirlmere reservoir in Cumbria, at reservoirs in the upper Don Valley and at Watergrove reservoir in Rochdale.
The Environment Bill recognises that climate change and extreme weather will place additional pressures on water availability, and although it legislates for a requirement on water companies to work regionally to publish joint proposals to mitigate drought risk, it does not seem to place the same expectations on water companies to mitigate flood risk. Drought risk and flood risk seem to be perpetually at odds with each other throughout legislation, although both are expected to occur with increased frequency. So while I very much welcome a more regional approach, I would like to see a rebalancing of both those risks, alongside the investment in infrastructure that would give whole regions the flexibility to move water with ease and to manage the risk, making us more resilient to too much water as well as not enough.
In relation to the role of reservoirs, I will be looking to table amendments to part 5 of the Bill that would set out the transfer of powers to the Environment Agency and the framework in which such arrangements between the EA and water companies, in consultation with local authorities and communities, would work together to put localised plans in place for managing down pre-designated reservoir levels during periods of heightened risk.
As we know, this is just one piece of the enormous jigsaw that needs to come together if we are to bring the ongoing risks that we face in Calderdale under control. Given the vast scale of the moorland in the upper catchment, natural flood management schemes will be instrumental if we are to hold and slow water before it reaches homes and businesses down the valley. Last summer, I visited Dove Stone nature reserve in High Peak with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, where a comprehensive peatland restoration project is under way. We were planting sphagnum moss, which not only helps to manage flood risk by locking in water but promotes biodiversity, prevents wildfires and stores carbon.
Slow the Flow in Calderdale promotes natural flood management, and with a group of volunteers with an impressive collective skillset, it has been working with the National Trust, the Environment Agency and Calderdale Council since 2016 to use the natural environment to build leaky dams, stuff gullies and promote sustainable drainage and natural attenuation schemes. This work disrupts the flow of water as it makes its way down the valley, forcing it to spread out and slow down, and holds as much water up in the crags for as long as possible.
The really impressive thing about Slow the Flow is its determination to measure its outcomes, its desire to take an evidence-based approach to what it does and to crunch the numbers to demonstrate the real value of its work. Its work on attenuation ponds, which are designed to hold water in the event of heavy rainfall, suggests that if the 43 attenuation ponds identified as possible sites by Calderdale Council were delivered at a cost of £600,000 for 29,000 metres cubed of water storage—bear with me—this would equate to £21 per cubic metre of storage, compared with the £1,270 per cubic metre cost of the storage delivered by the hard flood defences in Mytholmroyd. The truth is that we need both, but we can see how cost-effective natural flood management is. It is 61 times more cost-effective per cubic metre of water storage.
I therefore very much welcome the local nature recovery strategy in the Bill, building on the notion of natural capital and acknowledging the very real, tangible benefits for people and communities if we can store and slow water in the upper catchment. However, I would like to see the Bill include hard and ambitious targets for recovering moorland and peatlands in particular, and not only for flood alleviation purposes; nature-based solutions will play a critical role in mitigating climate change. Peatland currently covers 12% of the UK’s total land and contains more carbon than the forests of the UK, France and Germany combined. However, it is currently in poor condition. If we look after and manage our peatlands, we can continue to lock in that carbon and absorb more, but if degradation continues we risk not only missing that opportunity but releasing the carbon already stored.
I will briefly turn to the issue of Cobra meetings, because I have been at the deep end of flood crises in Calderdale twice during my time in office. While we cannot legislate for Cobra meetings as part of this process, I have just seen the Secretary of State’s comments to the “Ministers Reflect” series last year. When asked whether Cobra meetings make a difference, he replied:
“Yes, they do, because Cobra is designed to try give everybody a kind of proverbial kick up the backside and get things moving.”
Can I ask for that approach once again in relation to the damage that we have sustained in Calderdale?
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who told us about the situation that her constituents are facing. It has also been a pleasure to listen to the maiden speeches, and I observe that today must be “west midlands day”, because I have heard many excellent speeches from new colleagues from the region. I welcome the Bill and its protections, which will improve air and water quality, restore habitats, create the Office for Environmental Protection, and introduce measures to deal with the impact of plastic waste, on which I will focus.
As somebody who spent 30 years in the packaging industry and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the packaging manufacturing industry, I recognise public concerns about litter and where plastic waste ends up. I heard about that on the doorstep during the general election, because litter in our communities has an impact on local environments and the plastic waste finding its way into the oceans has an impact on the global environment. Both are harmful, but both represent the waste of a valuable resource. I have heard many Members today talk about the harm and damage caused by packaging ending up in the wrong place, but I want to take a moment to consider the role of packaging, because we sometimes forget what it is for.
Packaging enables the safe transfer of goods, particularly of food items, ensuring that they are received by the customer in peak condition. The second important role of packaging is not only to provide customers with convenience when picking up their daily food needs, but to give them information about what the product contains. That is of particular importance for food, given concerns about food allergies, nutritional content and sell-by dates, but instructions for use are important in respect of other items. However, that information is absent when people fill their own containers, for which there is a trend in retail.
The final role of packaging is to prevent food waste. Recent innovations, such as resealable packs for cheese and meat, are important in enabling households to get the most out of their food budgets and ensuring that purchased food is consumed. We must not forget that the disposal of food waste is a problem because it creates gases. There is a case for suggesting that the harmful gases given off by food waste cause more environmental harm than an inert plastic product bobbing about in the ocean. I am not suggesting that that is desirable, but we need to consider the relative harms.
If we accept that there is a role for packaging, we need to consider the steps to minimise its impact. The Bill encourages a reduction in the amount of packaging and refers to recycling. There has always been an incentive for manufacturers to use the least amount of material to do the job that the packaging is being asked to do, and the industry has undergone a process called lightweighting over many years. For example, starting in 2007, Coca-Cola worked with WRAP to reduce the weight of the 500 ml bottle from 26 grams to 24 grams, saving 8% of raw material and reducing the need for 1,400 tonnes of PET a year.
A large part of the Bill is about improving recycling in several ways. First, it extends producer responsibilities by increasing obligations on packaging manufacturers. The industry accepts that it needs to do more and has transformed its approach since the days when I worked in the sector, when there was little regard for what happened once the product had been used.
Consistency in local authority domestic waste collection is also important. People are confused by what goes where, and variation leads to confusion. That needs to be addressed, and I support the intention to simplify labelling on packaging so that what can and cannot be recycled, and which bin to put things in, becomes clearer to consumers. There also needs to be consistency in the use of terms. Why say that something is recyclable if the facilities do not exist to recycle it?
Part 3 addresses deposit return schemes. There are details to consider, but almost all producers in the industry accept DRS. Coca-Cola has an ambition to ensure that all its packaging is recovered so that more is recycled and none ends up as waste or litter, and in early 2017 it confirmed its support for a well-designed DRS.
A DRS must consider a number of items. It must have clear objectives, and it must increase the quality and quantity of the material collected. Quality is about making sure that there is less contamination, and I disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson)—biodegradable plastic is not helpful, because it is a contaminant in the waste stream.
Secondly, on increasing quantity, there is no point incurring the costs of a DRS—reverse vending machines cost up to £15,000 each—if it does not increase the amount of material recycled. There is real concern about displacement and the fact that people who currently put bottles in their domestic household waste stream will take them to the supermarket to get their deposit back, which will not increase the amount that is recycled.
We need to consider the number of return points and whether there will be one at all sales points. Will cafés and restaurants be included? Will the scheme provide an exemption for small retailers that lack the space to install a reverse vending machine? There are serious questions for the Minister about who will pay for it. Given the lower volumes from smaller retailers, how will we make certain that it is cost-neutral for them? The Minister needs to sort out what happens to unredeemed deposits. Not every bottle deposited will be redeemed, so where will those bottles go? Who will manage it?
Finally, we need to ensure consistency with Scotland. I did not hear the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) say that it would make much more sense and be better for consumers, retailers and beverage producers if we had a UK-wide system. Britvic, which produces soft drinks in my constituency, says that it will otherwise need two separate stock units, one for Scotland and one for England and Wales, which does not make sense.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and to hear him speaking so passionately about plastics and so comprehensively about recycling.
I will speak again about air pollution. According to the Environmental Defence Fund, air pollution is a significant burden on the health of UK residents. Long-term exposure to air pollution causes between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year, not to mention the cost to the public purse, the NHS and social care.
Tanya Steele of the World Wide Fund for Nature said:
“We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it.”
The Government need to take those words seriously for all parts of our country. I am a London MP, and London has the highest concentration of air pollution. The Mayor of London is committed to a green new deal and will spend to make that happen. He has shown that, with sufficient powers and resources, London can meet the World Health Organisation guidelines for air pollution by 2030. The Government must change their mind and commit to the WHO guidelines in the Bill. They must spend on that, and they will be judged on it in their post-Brexit Budget next month.
The Government fall short in other critical areas. The responsibility for planning is vague, with limited parliamentary oversight. There is inadequate recognition of the role that all public bodies must play in reducing air pollution. Lewisham Council declared a climate emergency in 2019 and proposed a target to be carbon neutral by 2030. The cost of delivering that is £1.6 billion. Taking action will create many opportunities in the area to improve health, create jobs, and provide other environmental benefits and significant social benefits, but if that is to be done the Government need to provide local authorities with the resources they need to take action. Otherwise, this is only a fantasy, not a reality. A failure to do that will cost lives and expose our society to a range of unknown costs. We need to value people’s lives—we need to value everybody’s life—and deal seriously with our climate crisis. There is a clear link between action on climate crises and air quality, waste, recycling, biodiversity and protecting our oceans.
I have recently received letters from pupils at the brilliant Brindishe Manor School in my constituency. This time, there were more than 40 letters about the toxic levels of air pollution and other significant climate crisis issues that have come to my attention. I have young children, as do many other MPs and staff here. We do not want our children to be affected by toxic chemicals or to suffer. There is a long journey of recovery for us as a nation that involves composting; planting more trees; walking and cycling more; reducing plastic; disposing of mattresses correctly; preventing the stripping of our oceans; preventing habitats from being under threat; removing all diesel cars; preventing car idling; having fewer cars on the roads; replacing cars with electric cars, at an affordable cost; providing firefighters with the knowledge and means to put out electrical fires; recycling; reducing flights; and reducing flight paths over concentrated areas. The list goes on and on. We need clean air for everyone; it is our responsibility to protect our citizens, society, country and planet.
The children wrote to me about the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, whose death has been linked to air pollution. They rightly demand more from me, and, on their behalf, I demand more from the Government. Given that they have again chosen not to commit to World Health Organisation recommended guidelines on air pollution in this Bill, what do they have to say to my constituents, to worried parents and to children fearing for their future? Let me end with this: the planet takes care of us and it is our responsibility to take care of it.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow some excellent maiden speeches. The themes of this debate are clear, with a general acceptance that this is a good Bill. Some like it a bit more than others, but in general it is seen as a good Bill. Some Opposition Members seem to want the EU or certain other non-Westminster bodies to have more of a say, whereas some Conservative Members want them to have less of a say, but I think the balance has been struck reasonably well by the Government and I commend Ministers for that. This is a landmark piece of legislation, and not just for this country, as we see if we compare it with what is in place in other countries. It is important for us in this House to look sometimes to see what other countries are doing. What we are doing here is admired, not just in this country, but outside it. We should commend the Government for being so forthright. That does not mean we cannot improve the Bill and improve what we do, but let us call a spade a spade and say where we have done a good job—this Bill is a good Bill.
The OEP has rightly attracted a lot of attention because it is one of the most significant things established by the Bill. We will find out in the coming weeks, months and years how the OEP develops and interacts with this House, DEFRA Ministers and devolved Administrations, and how that all works. However, it strikes me that we have almost set up a sort of environmental National Audit Office. That is how the OEP could end up developing—[Interruption.] I see the Minister nodding on the Bench, so I hope I am right about that and that she will address it in her remarks. As a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, I know that, if there is anything like the professionalism that we see in the National Audit Office, we will be very well served.
We all need to be a bit more realistic. We need to wake up because the Bill is actually more significant than we realise. The enabling powers in the Bill give us the foundation to start to deal with the huge changes that are coming across our economy, society, Government and Parliament as a result of the action taken to combat climate change. Earlier in the debate, I intervened on the shadow Secretary of State to talk about the target of net zero by 2050. Yes, some people want it to be net zero by 2040 or 2030, and I understand that, but until we can get a handle on what we need to do to get there by 2050—which may seem like a long way away, but it is only 30 years, and in policy terms that is not a huge amount of time—we need to get our arms around this subject. We need to realise the number of levers we have to pull to get there by 2050. The Bill will allow us to do that.
Let me give a couple of examples. We all know that we cannot solve climate change in this country alone. It is an international effort. To accompany this Bill, the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill—a whole framework of how to look at the environment—the Government need, in the run-up to COP26, to set out an ambitious international strategy that includes not only spending from our aid budget, as the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), mentioned, but diplomacy and high-level Government commitment around the world. Frankly, if we cannot convince other countries to take the sort of action that we are taking, none of these problems will get anywhere near to being solved.
Another word I wish to mention is incentives. Let us not forget the power of incentives and, indeed, subsidies. The Bill gives us the framework within which we can remember the positive impact that incentives can have. Look at what we have done on wind and solar power over the past 10 or 15 years; there will be other areas in which we can use incentives. Let us use the Bill as a springboard, in the run-up to COP26, so that we can use more incentives and subsidies in the right areas to make the technological changes that we need and help our economy. The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) talked about the economy of the environment; the economy needs to flourish in order for the environment to flourish—they are intertwined—and using incentives in the right way can help us to do that.
Another word I wish to mention is honesty: a lot of this is going to cost this country a lot of money. Let us be straight about that. It will cost public sector money and private sector money, and not all of that money will be in this country. We are going to need international inward investment in the technology, in the ways we do things and in research and development, so that we can develop the technology, whether it be carbon capture and storage, battery technology or whatever, so that we have a chance of achieving the target. We all need to be a lot more honest with ourselves and, indeed, our constituents that this is going to cost a lot of money. Let us now start to have the bigger conversation about how we pay for it. I suspect that those on the Government Benches may want to do things differently from those on the Opposition Benches, but we have to agree that we have to do it. Let us have that bigger conversation; the Bill gives us a framework and basis on which to do that.
I wish to conclude with two local issues that illustrate a wider point that has already come out in the debate. The first is Luton airport, which is next to my constituency. Many of my constituents are concerned about the air pollution impacts of an airport that is so near to a rural area; the Bill gives us the ability to look at air quality and hopefully to impose binding targets in a localised way. The second issue is chalk streams. We have many unique historic chalk streams in my constituency; the Bill allows us to deal with abstraction in a smarter way. It is a good Bill, but let us make sure that this is the beginning, not the end, of the process.
When we consider the context in which this debate is taking place, it is important to remember that, in the 1980s, Britain was known as the dirty man of Europe for its air pollution and for its contaminated land and water. It is largely because of 45 years of European Union membership, which concluded at the end of last month, that, more often than not, Ministers had their minds focused on the issue—whether that was to make sure that they did not end up in European courts, or to make sure that Britain was not subject to fines. I guess that we come to the debate today thinking about why it is we have this issue of divergence with the Environment Bill. To be frank, this is not a Government whom I trust very well. It is a Government who said that Parliament would not be prorogued—it was prorogued. It is a Government who said that there would not be an election—there was an election. So, forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, when I struggle with this notion that we put all these powers into the hands of the UK and that, as a result of divergence, Britain will have higher rather than lower standards when it comes to the environment.
We know that that is the case because, when he was on “The Andrew Marr Show”, the Foreign Secretary spoke about the need for divergence. We know from leaked documents in the Financial Times and on the BBC that there is a desire on the part of the Government to see divergence in order to get free trade agreements over the line. That is something that is very much in the public domain.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is very generous of him. On the point about whether he trusts the Government on divergence and how we will adapt to these environmental challenges, is that not his party’s policy in relation to independence—that, by becoming independent, it will give the Scottish people the ability to do things differently and therefore, he hopes, better? Surely he can recognise the fact that, by having these powers on the environment, it gives us the ability as a country to do things in a better way.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. The only part that he missed out in his argument is that the Scottish National party’s proposition for independence is to be back in the European Union, where there are higher levels of environmental standards. That is the precise reason why I did not want to leave the European Union and why I want Scotland to be an independent state within it.
I want to speak about the need to improve the Bill. The Government, of course, have a whopping majority. I respect and understand that, and I accept the result of the election in December. None the less, although they have a large majority in this place, they do not have a monopoly on wisdom, so there is a requirement for us to work across the House and seek consensus.
The hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) talked about the need for us to consider the issue of the Office of Environmental Protection. Having sat through the debate, it is clear to me that that has been quite a contentious issue. The right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) was protesting about the idea of having extra quangos. He made great play in talking about Natural England, but it is my understanding that Natural England’s budget has been cut by 50% and its staff numbers have gone from 2,500 to 1,500. It is all well and good to talk about these quangos, but it is important to put on the record that that quango has been subjected to huge cuts by the British Government.
When improving the Bill, there is a need to look at the proposed timescales for the Bill, such as the 2037 target for enforcement. That is simply not good enough. UNICEF, the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research are all calling for legally binding commitments to meet WHO guideline limits for fine particulate matter by 2030 at the latest.
One issue that I wish to raise in terms of improving the Bill relates to the Nappies (Environmental Standards) Bill that I introduced in the previous Parliament. That Bill came about partly as a result of a fine factory in my constituency owned by Magnus Smyth in Queenslie, which manufactures environmentally friendly, reusable nappies. When Magnus first came to me about this issue, it was because there is not a level playing field. There are disposable nappy companies out there that talk about eco-friendly nappies that still end up in landfill. We know that, when they end up in landfill, they can take 300 years to break down. We know that 33 billion nappies per year go to landfill and that they generate 7 million tonnes of waste. We also know that, on average, one child, until potty training at the age of two and a half, will generate 550 kg of CO2 equivalents. In many respects, the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden is right: we do need to have honest conversations about changes in consumer behaviour. The measures in my Bill were not about telling people that they had to use reusable nappies—that would be hypocrisy on my own part; we use a combination of both. But we need to look at some of the measures in that Bill, which included promoting reusable nappies schemes such as the one in Hackney in north London and making sure that we tackle the misinformation peddled by some of the companies. I would be grateful if I could pick up with the Minister that idea of trying to incorporate some of that Bill in an amendment to this Bill to make sure that we are taking action on nappies. I am taking the Government at their word that they want to have higher standards as a result of leaving the European Union, so I am sure they will have no difficulty considering those amendments, which I would certainly be happy to table on Report, if I do not manage to meet up with a Minister, or in Committee.
On having honest conversations and what the Government can do, the first point is that, when schemes are proposed, whether a workplace parking levy or three-weekly bin collections, we as politicians need to take those arguments seriously. It is all well and good for us to play party politics from time to time, but if we are to address the future of the environment, we need to have grown-up decisions. Some parties in the House would do well to reflect on that, particularly in relation to a workplace parking levy, which has caused huge amounts of consternation in the Scottish Parliament, much of which is faux outrage.
I make my final point on electric cars because I had a dinner last night with the automotive sector. It strikes me that the Government are taking a purist view on hybrid models and pure electric, and that is something that they must revisit. There is clearly a lack of support for R and D in that industry, and we know when we speak to constituents that a degree of consumer confidence is required and that is not helped by decisions such as those on charging grants.
I have spoken about the need to improve the Bill. It will not be opposed tonight and will go into Public Bill Committee, but I reflect on the point that if the UK Government are seriously saying that they want the Bill to make our environment-related regulations even better, one way of doing that is to work across the House, whether on environmental standards for nappies or many other things. If they do that, we will take them seriously. If they do not, it will reaffirm my view that the Bill is about watering down standards for a free trade agreement, and I am sure that is not a position that the Minister wants to take.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and his comments on nappies—an issue I know plenty about—as well as numerous other speeches from excellent contributors today.
I welcome the Bill and the significant focus that the Government are placing on our environment. Recent flooding, including in St Asaph in my constituency, highlights the fact that the provisions of the Climate Change Act 2008 are more important than ever. The Bill will help to underpin some of the changes we need to fulfil its net zero target as well as to achieve much more.
As we move away from oversight by the EU, we need a new domestic framework for environmental governance and, as has been heard, the Bill will set up a new Office for Environmental Protection not only to provide advice, but to monitor, scrutinise and enforce environmental law across the UK. We have an opportunity to lead the world on environmental matters, and I welcome the fact that the Bill makes provision in a number of specific areas. I would like to focus today on two of those areas: air quality and waste reduction.
First, up to 36,000 deaths in the UK are linked to air pollution each year, which is known, above all, to contribute to cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Much attention is focused on fine particulate matter—solid and liquid particles from various sources of 2.5 microns or less, which can penetrate deep into lung passageways and enter the bloodstream. It is important to recognise that, although the very worst levels of air pollution are found in our major cities, air pollution affects all parts of the country. Recently, I carried a British Heart Foundation particulate monitor around my constituency as part of a wider study being conducted by the University of Edinburgh. Daily exposure to fine particulate matter was relatively low at 11 to 43 micrograms of matter per cubic metre, but for brief periods in the vicinity of main roads, I recorded levels greater than 10 times the current EU limits we subscribe to, and more than 20 times the World Health Organisation recommended levels. These figures are concerning, and I am pleased that the Bill contains a commitment to a new legally binding target for levels of fine particulate matter. I encourage Ministers to go further and consider whether a specific figure should be included in legislation at this point, based on WHO recommendations of an annual mean level of 10 micrograms per cubic metre.
I support my hon. Friend’s point. The legal enforceability of these limits is a vital consideration for the House. I was deputy leader of a local authority that took the last Labour Government to judicial review to try to force them to comply with EU air quality limits from which they sought and achieved a derogation, meaning that my constituents continue to be subject to the emissions from Heathrow, which already far exceed those limits. That demonstrated to me the weakness of the enforcement. As the new Office for Environmental Protection comes forward, I urge Minister to take very seriously the concerns outlined by my hon. Friend and which I support. Our residents want us rigorously to ensure that the limits are enforced at a local level.
That is quite right, and—in addition to average annual exposure—daily maximum exposure limits are also important.
Let me turn to waste reduction. The mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” remains as relevant as ever. Many local authorities have effective recycling initiatives in place. Denbighshire County Council in my constituency offers popular co-mingled and food waste collections. In Denbighshire, the capture rate of dry co-mingled recyclables is estimated at a very impressive 85% to 90%. Those recyclables go on to be separated at a modern and efficient site in Deeside. When looking to make new provisions, we should not lose sight of such successes, but equally we need to consider whether we can reduce the amount of waste we are producing, and, while our drive to reduce single-use plastics is ongoing, what our approach is to energy recovery through incineration. In particular, we should not generally be shipping plastic waste abroad, and certainly not without a clear idea as to how it will be managed appropriately. I am pleased that the Bill makes reference to the regulation of such shipments.
Producer responsibility is a key element of the Bill. I welcome the UK-wide provisions that encourage businesses to pay the full net cost of managing their products at end of life. This can help to drive up the use of sustainable and more easily reusable and recyclable packaging, and improve labelling on recyclable content. In doing so, however, we should consider the approach to small businesses and the need to avoid a disproportionate impact on them. It is also important to be clear about the timescale for the introduction of such a charge, as larger companies are likely to have the resources to develop more environmentally friendly products, whereas small and medium-sized enterprises might not have the same flexibility.
I endorse the proposal to facilitate a charge in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for single-use plastic items issued in connection with goods and services—for example, takeaways—following the clear success of the carrier bag charge, but we need to ensure that reasonable alternatives are widely available.
Many are pleased to see the proposals relating to a deposit return scheme in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and I am glad that the programme has the support of the Food and Drink Federation. A deposit return scheme can help to increase reuse and recycling, and tackle litter, but great thought needs to go into its set-up. For the sake of both consumers and producers, such a scheme needs to operate—or at least be compatible —on a UK-wide basis. We need to be certain that it makes environmental and practical sense to collect certain materials via a deposit return scheme as opposed to kerbside recycling schemes, and to bear in mind the ongoing economic viability of these local authority recycling schemes, which are partly funded by the collection of valuable materials such as aluminium.
The Government may want to consider the impact of such a scheme on small business owners and in particular shopkeepers. Many convenience stores will not have the space to store bottles or install reverse vending machines, and it is a real concern of the industry that customers will change their shopping habits towards larger stores as the deposit return scheme is introduced, as they have done in Germany.
I congratulate the Government on bringing forward this Bill, welcome the provisions within it and look forward to seeing it progress.
Since before the EU referendum in 2016, my constituents have been raising concerns that Brexit would mean a watering down of the most important protections we have derived as a consequence of our membership of the EU. Again and again those fears were dismissed. We were told there was nothing to fear, accused of scare- mongering, and told to be quiet. Yet at the first test before them, the Government have failed. They have failed to reassure my constituents at all—failed to make a commitment to keep pace with EU standards and to avoid slipping back. The Government could easily have put a commitment to non-regression into this Bill. There is no reason not to do so. This is not about whether, in any hypothetical scenario, the Government cannot go further and faster than the EU; it is about being certain that we will not slip backwards. This is a fundamental breach of trust and of the commitments that were made both during the referendum campaign and at every stage subsequently by those who argued to leave.
Air pollution is one of the issues of greatest concern to my constituents. We have in Dulwich and West Norwood areas of extremely poor air quality. My constituents have watched with dismay as the Tories have been taken to court three times over illegal levels of air pollution and, instead of reacting with the concern and urgency that such a legal defeat would demand, have chosen to spend public funds unsuccessfully appealing against the court decisions—funds that could have been spent on developing the comprehensive air quality strategy that this country so badly needs. That strategy is still missing from this Bill. Air pollution is a public health emergency. Toxic air affects every organ of the body and contributes to as many as 40,000 premature deaths a year. In this context, it is inexcusable that the Government will not commit in this Bill to meet legally binding WHO targets for particulate matter by 2030.
On plastic pollution, again this Bill contains a woeful lack of ambition and detail.
My hon. Friend speaks eloquently about the very serious challenge that this country faces on air quality. Does she agree that this is a matter not just for London boroughs but for almost every urban area and some rural communities, and that it is one of the most significant threats to public health that is emerging in the 21st century?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is a fundamental flaw of the approach that this Government have taken over the past five years that they have again and again pushed responsibility for air quality down to local authorities, forgetting that the circumstances are different in many areas of the country and that it is not within the gift of local authorities to address many sources of air pollution.
The role of plastic pollution in the ecological crisis is profound and devastating. So much single-use plastic is completely unnecessary. The Government could take action to begin the elimination of it now, yet this Bill introduces no bans. I want to draw attention particularly to the role of single-use sachets common across the catering and cosmetics industries. Globally, 855 billion sachets are thrown away every year—enough to wrap the entire surface of the globe in plastic. Replacement materials are available for most sachet packaging that render the use of plastics in sachets completely unnecessary. So I ask the Government to amend the Bill to include provisions under the banner, “Sack the Sachet”, to eliminate this harmful and unnecessary form of plastic pollution.
Finally, I want to address the related issues of biodiversity gain and nature recovery. In relation to biodiversity gain, there are key weaknesses and omissions in this Bill. Biodiversity gains should be protected in perpetuity. National infrastructure should not be exempt from it, and the provisions should cover the private as well as the public sector. I ask the Minister to look again at the proposals for biodiversity gain to ensure that they are comprehensive and genuinely deliver the net improvement that we need to see.
As parliamentary species champion for the common pipistrelle bat, I have similar concerns about the proposals in the Bill for nature recovery strategies. Nature recovery strategies have the capacity to play an important role in restoring habitats and enabling species recovery, but they will do that only if they are deliverable as well as descriptive. That means the Government resourcing local councils to prepare and implement nature recovery strategies. Will the Minister confirm that new burdens funding will be allocated to local authorities, to enable nature recovery strategies to be meaningful for the long term?
The Bill provides an opportunity to demonstrate that the Government are serious about the climate emergency and ecological crisis. As currently drafted, it does not do so, and there are critical weaknesses that, if left unaddressed, will prove to be fundamental flaws. I ask the Government to commit today to ensuring that the Bill cannot result in our regressing from EU standards; to strengthening many of the provisions; and to giving teeth to enforcement. The emergency we face demands nothing less.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate all my hon. Friends on their excellent maiden speeches. I made my maiden speech on Monday, partly so that I could make a contribution on such an important issue. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson), I quoted Rudyard Kipling in my maiden speech, and I think his words bear repeating, because he says it so much better than I ever could. He wrote:
“Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing: ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade”.
Of course, that does not just apply to England—but the point is that we cannot just sit back. We have to work to preserve the things that we cherish, and I can think of few more important things to cherish than our environment.
The acceleration of human impact on the environment and subsequent growth in public demand to act make the ambitions of the Environment Bill essential. Habitat erosion, species loss and the disappearance of wildlife are problems for today, not tomorrow. The Government have rightly been ambitious in the Bill, and it should become a key driving force in our 25-year environment plan. Some 41% of species in the UK have declined in the past 50 years. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), I remember the dawn chorus. House sparrow numbers have declined by 60% since the 1970s.
I would like to make special mention of chalk streams. Some of our most beautiful rivers are chalk streams. They have been described as England’s rainforests because of their importance to our landscape and ecosystems. With their pure clear water, they are ideal for wildlife, allowing many species to thrive and breed in their water, on their banks and in their environment. Most of the world’s chalk streams are in England, and some of the best are in my constituency of Hertford and Stortford.
The Rivers Lea, Ash, Mimram, Beane and Stort are threatened by excessive abstraction, particularly since they face the effects of new developments with tens of thousands of houses. I welcome the abstraction licensing reforms, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) that we must take stringent measures to protect the rivers that serve us. Mandating a requirement for biodiversity net gain in the planning system is another extremely important step in the challenge to reverse environmental decline for future generations, while building homes and infra- structure for them.
We need to bring communities with us on this journey—communities such as the great farming community in Hertford and Stortford. I ask the Government to ensure that we have a system under which welcome covenants are introduced with flexibility and clarity, so that farmers and others do not sign away land without truly understanding the often irreversible implications for them and future generations.
Finally, I would like to highlight the impact that engaged communities can have at a local level. The River Lea Catchment Partnership and the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust are delivering great results, highlighting the importance of our local chalk streams and bringing back water voles to the rivers for the first time this millennium. Some 140 volunteers were out in Hertford last weekend planting a hornbeam hedge, which will draw in more wildlife to a recreation ground and contribute to our carbon reduction process. Yet another group were installing mink-proof nesting boxes for kingfishers along the River Stort. I would like to commend all those groups and others like them. They demonstrate the power of engaged communities and, along with the ambition and scope of the Bill, they are at the forefront of ensuring that we hand over a healthy, biodiverse world to our children and grandchildren.
I am pleased to speak in this very important debate, and I congratulate everyone who has made their maiden speech.
After years of Government inaction on the environment and of facing an increasing climate emergency, the eyes of the nation—not only young people, but especially young people—are on this debate and on us today, asking: is this going to go far enough, is this going to go fast enough, and is this what Brexit was really all about? I do not think the Bill does any of those things, and I will outline a few of the areas I think my constituents in Putney are very concerned about, but which are also of real impact for people not only across the country but the world.
The first area is air pollution. New figures from Public Health England have revealed that the risk of dying from long-term exposure to London’s toxic air has risen for the third year running. King’s College research shows that, by the age of 10, children in London have a missing lung capacity the size of an egg for each lung. That will not grow back: it is permanent damage. It especially affects the poorer people of London, who often live on the most affected roads.
Putney High Street in my constituency is one of the most polluted streets in London, and I think we would find that many more were polluted if there were more air monitors. Green buses have made a huge difference to Putney High Street and to reducing air pollution, thanks to support from the Mayor of London and the Assembly, but more must be done. I am delighted that the Mayor is committed to meeting World Health Organisation targets for London by 2030.
There are many ways in which this Bill fails to be ambitious enough on air pollution. It should include a legally binding commitment to meet World Health Organisation guideline levels for fine particulate matter pollution by 2030 at the very latest. Why have the Government chosen not to commit to WHO recommended guidelines in this Bill? They should strengthen the Office for Environmental Protection, making it independent and robust, and granting it the ability to levy fines and to make binding recommendations. It needs to have teeth, otherwise it will not be the effective body we need it to be, and we will not go far enough fast enough.
The Bill should include more of a modal shift towards cycling and walking, which is absolutely essential to cleaning up our air.
Does my hon. Friend agree with Cycling UK, which is calling for an amendment to the Bill that would bring back the Road Traffic Reduction (National Targets) Act 1998 and amend it to require the setting of targets for road traffic reduction? That could make a big contribution to a modal shift, and to improving air quality and indeed carbon emissions.
I absolutely agree with cycling campaigners across the country who are asking for this. I know this Bill has an annual reporting mechanism on air quality, but I would like it to include this so that our roads become safer and to make it easier to store our bikes as well—two things that are absolutely essential to increasing cycling in the country.
The second area is Heathrow airport. Tomorrow the Court of Appeal is due to rule on a legal challenge to plans to build a third runway at Heathrow airport. The expansion of Heathrow is fundamentally at odds with the aims of this Bill. The two are completely incompatible, and expansion cannot go ahead. An expanded Heathrow will increase the UK’s carbon emissions by between 8 megatonnes and 9 megatonnes of CO2 per year, with much of it being dumped on green spaces such as Putney Heath in my constituency. It will dwarf a huge number of other carbon reduction areas that we might consider and that might be introduced by councils across this country.
Heathrow expansion will worsen air pollution levels in Putney. The Government have accepted that it would have a “significant negative” effect on air quality, and they have provided no evidence to show how Heathrow can both expand and comply with legal limits at the same time. It will also result in jobs being drawn away from other regions by 2031. According to analysis by the New Economics Foundation of the Department for Transport’s own data, jobs would be drawn away from regions—for example, 2,360 jobs would be drawn away from Bristol, 1,600 from Solihull, and 1,300 from Manchester. This is not just a London issue and problem. Heathrow expansion will result in an additional 260,000 flights per year, which is not compatible with the climate crisis we face. I therefore implore the Minister to intervene and reverse the Government’s decision to allow the expansion to proceed, and to use the Bill to legislate against all airport expansions that cannot clearly demonstrate that environmental targets will be met.
My third point is that the Bill must strengthen, rather than dilute, the European Union environmental framework that it replaces. The EU possesses one of the most comprehensive and effective environmental legal frame- works in existence. Currently, 80% of our environmental laws come from the European Union, and those laws have brought many benefits, such as a 94% drop in sulphur dioxide emissions by 2011. We were losing 15% of our protected sites a year, but thanks to EU regulation that is now down to 1%. More than 90% of UK beaches are now considered clean enough to bathe off. My constituents in Putney are concerned that the Bill will water down the protections that the EU has given us, and I have been inundated with emails about that. The Bill must include a straightforward and substantive commitment to the non-regression of environmental law.
My fourth point is that the Bill does not go far enough to protect our oceans. Right now, 93% of fish populations are overfished, and only 1% are properly protected. Next month is a huge opportunity to take action at the Global Ocean Treaty negotiations, and I implore a senior Minister to attend those negotiations and set ambitious targets—I would like to know whether that is being planned.
Communities in Putney experience some of the most acute environmental problems facing the UK. They suffer from some of the highest levels of air pollution in the country, and they will be some of the biggest losers following an expanded Heathrow. They cannot afford to have environmental standards go any lower. For that reason, I believe that the Bill fails them, and I implore the Secretary of State to do better. This long-awaited Bill is just not good enough—it is not good enough to say that it is okay. It will not tackle the climate emergency. It must include targets and more resourcing for local councils, and it must go further and faster on air pollution and carbon reduction. Only then will it be worthy of the label “world leading” on environmental action.
I am delighted that the Government have introduced this Bill which, together with the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill, shows that we are serious in our resolve to improve the environment and tackle climate change. I congratulate the Secretary of State and his Ministers on creating a structure for long-term environmental improvement, on the application of the principle that the polluter should be financially responsible for the life-cycle of its products, on ensuring an improvement in the air that we breathe, and on seeking to improve biodiversity through the planning system. I am sure that all those proposals have widespread support.
Our aim must be to achieve the Bill’s goals while minimising the bureaucratic burden and retaining a sense of fairness in the application of its policies. With that in mind, I respectfully suggest that further improvements can be made to the Bill in the following three areas. First, the requirement to demonstrate a 10% increase in biodiversity currently applies to every planning application, irrespective of the size or nature of the development. Requiring a professional assessment of the biodiversity impact pre and post the development of a garden room extension, for example, first by the applicant and then by the planning authority to ensure conformity, is likely to increase bureaucratic costs, while not making any significant improvement to biodiversity. To address that, I invite the Secretary of State to consider exempting small planning applications, perhaps relating to single dwellings.
Secondly, the proposed powers to revoke or amend water abstraction licences without compensation, if the Secretary of State is satisfied that the revocation is necessary, have caused considerable concern among the farming community in my constituency, reliant as many of them are on abstraction licences to grow the food that we all need. I declare an interest, as a director and shareholder of such a farming company.
The subjective and undefined nature of the term “satisfied”, taken together with the chilling application of the all-encompassing “precautionary principle”, would impose a daily threat to every such dependent farming business of being effectively closed down without compensation on 28 days’ notice, all within the discretion of the local Environment Agency official. This is the Environment Agency that has no democratic oversight and currently no remit to consider the economic or social impact of its actions. What farm reliant on abstraction licences could afford to invest under such ongoing threat? What bank would lend on such a risk?
I encourage the Secretary of State to look again at offering periods of certainty associated with the grant of abstraction licences and requiring any decision to revoke or amend them to have proper regard to all relevant factors, including socioeconomic impacts, during the decision-making process. To have regard to all relevant circumstances when taking a decision is surely a basic principle for sound decision making.
Thirdly, I welcome the introduction of the concept of conservation covenants, but, to my reading, the current drafting of clause 102 leaves open the risk that a landowner could enter into a legally binding agreement that will apply to land in perpetuity without meaning to do so. There is no requirement for a qualifying agreement expressly to state that a legally binding conservation covenant is being created that may be binding in perpetuity—only that the document “appears” to show such an intent. If the agreement is silent on its term, it will be held to apply forever. I encourage the Secretary of State to consider making the identification of a conservation covenant and its term express requirements, to avoid unintended consequences and resulting litigation.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill, but its very ambition brings with it the potential for discord, as big changes will inevitably alienate at least a portion of society. On this wider note, and contrary to the apparent view of many of the Opposition speakers, I have faith in democracy. It is to me a self-evident truth that the best way to ensure acceptance of difficult policies is to have democratic oversight of the implementation process. People must continue to have a say in how they are governed if we are to retain their consent. Planning decisions, while often unpopular, are generally accepted as being part of the democratic process. Compare that with the feelings engendered by the sometimes arbitrary approach of, for example, the Environment Agency when seeking to impose its assessment of environmental protection. The frustrated, impotent despair of constituents. the subjects of such decisions, will be familiar to many hon. Members.
I look forward to the day when we collectively address the democratic deficit of the raft of policy-making non-governmental institutions. The Environment Agency and Natural England would be a good place to start.
It is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate, especially after so many passionate and thoughtful contributions. Protecting the future of our natural environment must be a top priority for this Parliament. We have seen all too clearly in recent weeks the impacts of extreme weather, in the UK and across the globe. Without urgent and concerted efforts to tackle the climate emergency, such weather events will only become more frequent and more severe.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said in his opening speech from our Benches, we need ambitious targets and consistent action across the whole of Government to achieve them. The Bill provides a critical opportunity to strengthen environmental protection, safeguarding and enhancing the countryside and green spaces that we value, but it can also ensure that more people can access them, enjoy them and engage with the natural world. I want to restrict my remarks to this aspect of the Bill.
We know why access to green space matters. As a country, we face rising obesity levels, increasing evidence of poor mental health and widening health inequalities. A recent paper published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that visiting nature at least once a week was positively associated with general health and that connection with nature was positive for both physical and mental wellbeing. For example, people who live within 500 metres of accessible green space are more likely to meet recommended levels of physical exercise. Engaging with nature also encourages people to adopt pro-environmental behaviours.
I think the Government understand this. DEFRA’s 25-year environment plan recognises the benefits of countryside access and notes that the number of people who spend little or no time in natural spaces is too high. It specifically refers to data from the monitor of engagement with the natural environment survey, which shows that 12% of children do not visit the natural environment each year. The plan also recognises that the lack of access to nature is not equal. Residents in the most deprived communities tend to suffer the poorest health and have access to significantly less green space than people living in more affluent areas.
I am acutely conscious, as an MP representing an urban area with significant levels of poverty, that my constituents should not be disadvantaged in terms of access to wildlife-rich green space, and I know that this concern is shared by Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, Greener UK and other national bodies, including the Ramblers—I declare an interest as a member—and Cycling UK. I and they welcome the Bill, including the introduction of a framework of legally binding targets, but I hope that it can be strengthened by requiring the Government to introduce targets around access to the natural environment and by giving the introduction of such targets in this area greater priority and certainty.
That could complement measures in the Agriculture Bill, which sets the framework for future financial assistance to landowners, including to support public access to and enjoyment of the countryside, farmland and woodland, and better understanding of the environment. For example, clearer targets in the Bill could help to direct finance to improve the accessibility of public rights of way networks. Failing to give greater priority to targets to connect people to nature would be a missed opportunity.
I also call for two key elements of the Bill—biodiversity gain and local nature recovery strategies—to be supported by clear legal duties on local authorities, but, very importantly, backed by adequate resources and framed in such a way that they promote collaboration between planning authorities. As Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust notes, without these measures there is a real risk of deepening social inequity, with biodiversity gains potentially being exported to more distant parts of the county. Without appropriate resources, authorities may find it difficult to protect, let alone expand, green space, while also facing pressures to find space to meet targets for housing and transport infrastructure.
Let us not miss this once-in-a-generation opportunity for joined-up government, promoting health and well- being, boosting pro-environmental behaviour and ensuring that future generations understand and value the natural world.
I welcome the Bill. Indeed, I spoke the first time it was debated on 28 October, and the concerns I expressed then are very similar to those I have heard today across the House. Clearly, the Office for Environmental Protection does not have the teeth it needs. There are ongoing issues about water pollution—certainly the current regime from the Marine Management Organisation and its testing body, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, a European body, is not fit for purpose. I also spoke about air quality and the challenges there, particularly with regard to the assistance needed from central Government to local government. It is on local government that I wish to focus my remarks this evening.
The Bill rightly places many obligations on local government and the whole public sector, but there are no counterbalancing obligations on Government to provide support. I am lucky. Both Teignbridge, my district council, and Devon County Council have declared a climate emergency and are putting plans in place and setting up a forum to secure local input. They need that forum. They need a way of interacting with the Government—this needs to be a joint project.
Devon aims to be carbon-neutral by 2030. That is a hugely ambitious aim, which certainly could not be achieved without central Government support. The county council has already reduced the carbon footprint by 40% since 2012-13, and has reduced carbon emissions from street lighting by 75%. It has established a net zero taskforce across the public-private voluntary sector, and has involved Exeter University. It is calling for evidence, and it has a new citizens panel. With the local enterprise partnership, we aim to make the region the UK’s provider of renewable energy, delivering—best case—£45 billion to our regional economy, but there are huge challenges involving, for instance, transport and travel.
In rural areas such mine, the car is key. We do not have many buses and we do not have many trains, so what might the Government do to support us? Many people in extremely rural areas have very old cars, and will not be able to afford a spanking new electric car. There will have to be a subsidy. Moreover, we do not have the necessary charging points. Teignbridge, my local district council, has two—or at least is applying for two—but that will not get us very far, especially as the car is the main form of transport.
If the Government would like to encourage buses, that would be fantastic. Give us some more, and make them electric! In that case, would the Secretary of State have a word with his opposite number in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government? At present, we are not allowed to apply for the new electric town bus scheme because we are not deprived enough. Well, Europe used to think that we were deprived enough: we used to get quite a lot of money. I sincerely hope that Ministers will look at that again.
As for trains, we are hoping that some of the new Beeching lines will be opened, but let us have some new trains—new electric trains. As for ships, yes, there is a lot water in the south-west, and there is a port in my constituency. Scouring is not the answer to environmental problems. The shipping industry knows that, and so do the Government, so will the Secretary of State do something about it?
We also need support from central Government for housing and planning. The planning regime is supposed to deal with environmental issues, but not in the way that is envisaged in the Bill. Significant change is needed. We know that building regulations are not fit for purpose: we need only look at our cladding problems to see that. Those regulations need to be rewritten with environmental issues in mind. We must give our district councils power to say no when developers come forward with plans that do not meet environmental criteria, never mind any others.
Building design and structure need a great deal of review, and I am afraid that we cannot rely entirely on the private sector for that. The Government have focused on domestic dwellings, but what is wrong with individual industrial buildings? What is wrong with the local hospital, school and fire station? Should they not be required to have solar panels fitted? The last attempt that was made locally in my area was refused by the Government because they wanted to do it themselves, and I cannot see that happening. There has been a great focus on solar panels for one of my local schools, Newton Abbot College, but the Government have said no, which is not right.
I welcome the standardisation of waste collection, but would the Government ask some of our retailers to consider possible alternatives to plastic? All that has happened is that we have moved from single-use bags to multiple-use bags which are being treated as single-use, or else retailers are giving us paper bags that simply break. We have rain in this country, and when it rains on a paper bag it dissolves in your hands. Will the Government do something technically to support a bit of research to sort this out, and get the retailers to sort out their packaging, which is really hard to recycle? They should keep it simple.
This is not all about objects and buildings; it is about people and processes. The Government should be asking the public sector to think about how it can do things differently. In primary and secondary healthcare, technology could be used far more efficiently to reduce our carbon footprint.
In summary, let me say this. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to some proper research? Will he commit himself to some sort of subsidy, particularly for those of us in rural areas? Will he engage with the private sector? Competition is a good thing, but reinventing the wheel is a complete waste of everyone’s money. Will he provide a local government forum so that we can raise issues and share solutions, and give young people a forum with which to engage? I sincerely hope that I will receive some responses from the Minister—if not tonight, in a written reply.
I welcome both the Bill and the Government’s vision to ensure that we have a vigorous and ambitious environmental strategy as we leave the European Union. Generally, I believe that the Bill provides the necessary framework to protect and restore our natural environment, as promised in the Conservative general election manifesto. I acknowledge the work that the Government have done, and I will highlight briefly four areas of particular importance to the people I represent in Waveney and north-east Suffolk.
The Bill will enable the development of a nature recovery network, providing over 1.25 million acres of additional wildlife habitat to protect and restore wildlife. Such schemes should be widely encouraged, and I pay tribute to those involved in projects locally, including Bonds meadow in Oulton Broad, an historic landscape in a now urban area run by local community group, and Carlton marshes, an exciting and ambitious project promoted by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust to create a unique Suffolk broads landscape right on the edge of Lowestoft.
The Government’s clean air strategy should help to cut air pollution and save lives, and while the commitments to tackle air pollution in the Bill are welcome, I believe that we need to go further to tackle this threat head-on. A report by the British Lung Foundation, published in October 2018, found that 2,220 GP practices and 248 hospitals across the country were in areas with average levels of fine particulate matter above the limit recommended by the World Health Organisation. From my perspective, given that that is one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution, it is a matter of serious concern that Lowestoft was included in the top 10 most polluted GP surgery locations in the country. The Government must make significant improvements in this area and introduce a legally binding commitment in the Bill to meet the WHO guideline level for fine particulate matter pollution by 2030. We must also improve the monitoring of air pollution at both national and local level, to include accessible and robust health information and alerts.
Managing water is vital, and I will briefly highlight the impact of recent storms on coastal communities, such as those in Lowestoft, Pakefield and Kessingland on the Suffolk coast. In adapting to the impact of climate change, it is important that coastal communities are not forgotten and that the risk of harm to people, the environment and the economy from coastal erosion is prioritised. It is also necessary to have in mind the importance of water to agriculture in East Anglia, for irrigating vegetable crops. I declare an interest as a partner in a family firm. It is important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) has highlighted, that the Government promote a collaborative approach to managing this vital resource.
Finally, it is good news that the Bill provides for the creation of the Office for Environmental Protection. It will play an important role in holding the Government to account, and it will be able to provide written advice on any proposed changes to environmental law. To maximise its impact, it will be crucial that the OEP has independence from Government and a strong enforcement capability. As the Countryside Alliance charity highlights, the upper tribunal of the OEP must be empowered to grant meaningful, dissuasive and effective remedies. Crucially, just as policies to ensure the transition to a low-carbon economy must be embedded across all Departments and layers of national and local government, so must our environmental protections pursue the same course and be subject to the same test.
In conclusion, the Government have frequently stated that as we leave the European Union our current high environmental standards will be not only upheld but enhanced. This Bill can play an important role in ensuring not only that we have a green Brexit but that we continue to forge ahead as international environmental leaders.
We have had an excellent, thoughtful and informed debate, with contributions from many hon. Members from across the House. The several maiden speeches we heard this afternoon were universally first rate, and the Members who made them will have an important role to play in future debates on the environment. The hon. Members for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti), for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) and for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) acquitted themselves brilliantly.
I am informed that the hon. Member for Aylesbury appeared on “Blankety Blank”, and I can only add to that my youthful appearance on “Crackerjack”. I do not know whether that equates to “Blankety Blank”, but it perhaps goes some of the way. I am happy to visit the constituency of the hon. Member for Burton (Kate Griffiths) provided that I get a tour of the brewery and a ticket for the match on 5 May when Burton Albion are going to thrash Portsmouth—my local rival football team.
All this afternoon’s speeches, thoughtful and important though they were, concentrated on the imperatives of the Environment Bill. One imperative is that we ensure the maintenance of high environmental standards on leaving the EU and that there is no regression. We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) worries that standards would be lowered and that the OEP will perhaps not be as independent as it should be in terms of enforcing standards. We heard from the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) about delivering on the promises of higher environmental standards, from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) about the independence of the OEP, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) on non-regression.
Another imperative is that we must be sure about how we are to treat the natural environment and biodiversity in the wake of the climate emergency. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) about the imperative of countryside access and natural spaces, from my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester about biodiversity targets, from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on tree planting, from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon on net gain in biodiversity, from my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on biodiversity gain and species decline, and from the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson) on biodiversity gain.
As for the imperative to enshrine standards on water, air quality and waste, we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Putney about air pollution and WHO guidelines, from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) on chemicals and air quality, from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, about water retention and standards, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West about air quality targets and his particular concern about beaches. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (James Murray) drew attention to air quality standards, and the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) spoke about going further on air pollution than we currently are. The hon. Member for Bath spoke about return schemes, removing plastic from municipal waste and knowing where waste ends up.
The hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) spoke about air quality, and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) spoke about targets and fine particle air pollution. The imperative in setting targets in these areas and more is to make them stick, and we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) about milestones and the lag in implementation.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West about the need for targets to be connected. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) about the targets having no teeth and about his concerns on the indoor air pollution targets.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon about concerns that targets can easily be set aside by the Secretary of State at his discretion. Indeed, we heard from the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) about the obligations on the Government to support local authorities and other agencies in making these things work—that was a vital contribution.
On both sides of the House, there is a view that this is not a bad Bill but that it could be much better. In short, the Opposition want a Bill that is
“a truly landmark piece of legislation, enshrining environmental principles in law, requiring this Government and their successors to set demanding and legally binding targets and creating a world-leading…watchdog to hold them to account.”—[Official Report, 28 October 2019; Vol. 667, c. 90.]
That is what we want, but they are not my words. They are the words of the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) in moving Second Reading when the Environment Bill last appeared on the Floor of the House.
Is this Bill, as it stands, that landmark piece of legislation? Will it stand the test of time and bind this and future Governments to the targets and practices it sets out? Is it a Bill for the future or just for the next period, to get the Government over an environmental hump, and then maybe the issue will go away? Well, it will not go away, which is why we need a Bill that delivers in the long term. Looking at the Bill as it stands, we know it probably will not.
The Bill is full of loopholes that allow the Government of the day to act, or not, as they think fit. It opens an enormous door that a future Government who are not committed to action on the environment and the climate emergency can walk through. The key issue of the independence of the Office for Environmental Protection is inadequately addressed. The target-making sections of the Bill do not cohere with the delivery sections. There is obscurity about how targets in the Bill are to be set and met. Altogether, it is not good enough.
The Bill has to bind Governments of whatever colour to doing the right things relative to the natural environment, water, waste, conservation and land use for the future, because we will secure a liveable environment and a secure home for species facing the consequences of climate change only if we do the right thing by the environment and keep on doing it.
We need a climate change Act for the environment, and what we have at the moment is a charter for now and not for tomorrow. That is why we will table a robust series of amendments in Committee. In the spirit of our jointly stated aim of making this Bill a landmark Act that will stand the test of time on the environment, we expect those amendments to be carefully considered and acted on by the Government in Committee. That is why we will not oppose Second Reading, but we expect that when the Bill returns to the Floor of the House we will be able, as a result of those amendments, to endorse it wholeheartedly as the Bill we all need for our environmental and climate futures.
I am pleased to see you back in the Chair for the winding up of this most important of debates, Mr Speaker.
Having worked on the environmental agenda in one form or another for pretty much my whole life, it is a huge honour to be the Environment Minister in a Government who are putting the environment at the top of our agenda. Not only are we doing that, but we are demonstrating that we mean action on the environment with this Environment Bill, which will be a game changer.
As I am sure the shadow Minister will agree, the environment should not be about one party or one Government. Party politics should be put aside, which is why I welcome the Opposition’s support in not opposing the Bill tonight, albeit couched in much criticism that I believe is largely unfounded. I very much look forward to thrashing that out in Committee. This is a huge moment for us all as a nation; this landmark Bill will transform our approach to protecting and enhancing our precious environment, and set us on a much-needed sustainable trajectory for the future.
At the outset, I want to applaud all my hon. Friends who have chosen to make their maiden speeches during this crucial debate. They have chosen well, for they realise that this is such an important moment in our history. I applaud them for waiting this long and choosing to make their maiden speeches tonight. And haven’t they been wonderful? They have all been rivalling one another for the best constituency, but we have heard some great things about those constituencies. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) mentioned the singing statue and the statue of Disraeli; I welcome our former journalist, with whom I have a great deal in common, as he is going to add a lot to this place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) mentioned her dog, geothermal energy and her wonderful fisherman husband, of whom she is so proud. I was almost moved to tears, because I now feel proud of him too. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), the doctor in the House, will bring so much experience through his knowledge of mental health, and I hope he will link that to the wellbeing of the environment and countryside, and the things we can gain from it. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) follows in the footsteps of Dame Caroline Spelman, who did so much to champion biodiversity in this House. I loved his “dare to believe” statement and I am so proud. I am hoping that he is daring to believe in this Bill, and I thank him for choosing to speak today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Kate Griffiths) mentioned beer, JCB, fluorinating and, let us not forget, Uttoxeter. She is going to be a great voice here. Similarly, let me welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi), the first ever Conservative Member for that constituency and the first ever Marco here. I loved his infectious optimism for his area, which I know extends to this Bill—this is excellent. How brilliant it was to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) about her key making ancestors and to hear her standing up for green space, volunteers and Wolverhampton Wanderers. What a wonderful wealth of talent has come into our Chamber!
Let me get back to the Bill, as that is what I am supposed to be talking about. I have to pay tribute to a few others who are no longer in this House but who did so much work on this Bill: Richard Benyon; Mary Creagh, a great woman who served on the Environmental Audit Committee with me; Sarah Newton; Sir Oliver Letwin; Sue Hayman; and Sandy Martin. They have all been key in the progress of this Bill so far, as have many others on these Benches.
Obviously, I hardly need to reiterate the urgent case for action on the environment, as it is clearer than ever. We are witnessing a shocking decline in nature and biodiversity. Our countryside is increasingly denuded of its wildlife; we have lost almost half of our breeding curlews and so many wonderful species. We are facing climate change, with flooding here and bush fires in Australia. Those things all demonstrate that we need to take action and get on with it now, and that is what we intend with this Bill. I am sure the whole House agrees with me that we need more bees, butterflies and beautiful dawn choruses, and I believe this Bill will bring that about.
I should thank some of my colleagues here, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who was so optimistic about the Bill and praiseworthy in agreeing with it. This is why this Environment Bill is critical: it will drive environmental action across the whole of Government. This is not just about DEFRA; the environmental principles must be taken into account across Government policy making, through the policy principles statements. Policy will have to be pragmatic, balanced and take account of our net zero commitments. The duty on the Government to meet our new legally binding targets will ensure that all Departments and Ministers share responsibility and accountability for driving long-term environmental improvements. The Office for Environmental Protection will be able to enforce all environmental law and it will oversee all public bodies; unlike any EU framework, that will ensure accountability at the right level. The legislation takes a much-needed holistic approach to our environment—that is one of the benefits of leaving the EU. It is so much more holistic than what was happening before.
I have a few minutes to address some of the key points, of which there were many. There were some great and insightful contributions. Many Members raised the issue of non-regression. We have absolutely no plans to reduce our existing level of environmental protection. The existing regulations were implemented during the UK’s membership of the EU and are still in force in UK law now. They are enforceable in UK courts and will remain enforceable in UK courts. That has not changed. Any targets introduced through the Bill will not diminish our environmental protections but add to them.
Indeed, the UK is already at the forefront of environmental protection and a leader in setting ambitious targets to prevent damage to our natural world. We were so influential in this policy area in the EU. [Interruption.] I have a couple of examples for the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), because he is mithering away at me. Last year, the UK became the first major economy anywhere in the world to set a legally binding target to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The UK’s landfill tax is one of the highest in Europe and is effectively reducing the disposal of waste and increasing recycling. Those are just a couple of examples but there are many more.
Non-regression was mentioned by many Members, including the hon. Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport and for Glasgow East (David Linden). I hope that some of the things I have just said will have reassured them.
All that leads me to the not unrelated subject of targets. I am grateful to Members from a whole range of constituencies, some of which I have already mentioned, but particularly the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), for raising issues and concerns in relation to targets. Far from there being no teeth, through the Bill we will put in place a comprehensive system that will set long-term, 15-year targets. There will be interim targets every five years—that is in clause 10—to support the achievement of the long-term targets. On top of that, we will have a triple lock in law to drive the short- term progress. Let me run through those three things—
I am not going to take any interventions because I want to get through some of the details.
The Government must have a plan on what they intend to do to improve the environment—that is under clause 7. The Government must report on the targets every year—that is in clause 8. The Office for Environmental Protection will hold us to account on progress towards achieving the targets, and every year can recommend how we can make better progress—that is in clause 25. It will all become clear in Committee. It is a step-by-step way of holding us to account and not reducing any of our standards.
The really important thing to mention is the Office for Environmental Protection, which was much mentioned by many in the debate, including the shadow Secretary of State. It was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who made an excellent speech, and the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray). My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) vociferously described the OEP and summed it up well, because he absolutely gets it. The very existence of the OEP is a clear sign of our willingness to be held to account for our actions. The OEP will have jurisdiction over all parts of Government and will hold regulators to account. Ministers will be under a legal duty to respect its independence—that is in schedule 1.
I am not going to give way.
That independence is vital for the OEP to be able to hold the Government to account effectively. It will have multi-annual financial settlements, which were welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, and they will run over five years to provide financial stability. That is welcome; even if the Government changes, that will stay in place. Crucially, the OEP’s environmental remit will include climate change to ensure that we play our part in reducing global emissions. In that respect, I truly believe that we will be a world leader.
I will move on now to air quality, because, again, this was much mentioned. Clause 2 includes a requirement to set a new air quality target to reduce concentrations of fine particulate matter—the most damaging pollutant to human health. As a mother of a son who had asthma for many years while he was growing up, this issue is close to my heart. I have heard loud and clear all the comments that have been made today. [Interruption.] I am being disrupted by notes. I thought that the note said that someone was in the bar. [Interruption.] I am being told that Bim is here, but I am not allowed to mention him. [Interruption.] Okay, so he is not in the bar; he is behind the Bar.
Let me turn now to the very serious matter of air quality, which was mentioned by so many Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who is very strong on the subject, and also my hon. Friends the Members for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) and for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies). This Government are committed to setting an ambitious target, which has the support of all sectors and citizens to drive real change and realise significant health benefits for people everywhere. To do this, we need to ensure that we follow a robust evidence-based process where everyone’s voice is heard and where everyone can play a role. That is why we need time to work together to get this target right, which is why it is not in the Bill. Many Members have called for experts to advise on these targets, and they will. That is exactly how it will work and how the target will be set up.
I will move to nature now, Mr Speaker, which I know is something that greatly interests you. Following consultation, we believe that the 10% net gain strikes the right balance between ambition, certainty and deliverability. If developers and local authorities are able to pursue higher gains—I am confident that many will—Government do not intend to restrict them. Biodiversity net gain will work with the local nature recovery strategies in the Bill to drive environmental improvements, and those strategies will be very much influenced from the ground up by all of those people with knowledge that we so want to get involved. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) mentioned knowledge and involving people who have that knowledge and expertise working on the ground, and that is one way that we will do it.
I want to touch on trees, because that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the shadow Minister himself. The Government remain absolutely committed to reaching 12% woodland cover in England by 2060 and have reaffirmed that in the 25-year environment plan. The House should remember that the environmental improvement plan of this Bill is the first plan of the 25 year-environment plan. That is what it is; it enacts it. The manifesto committed to planting 11 million rural trees and an additional 1 million urban trees by 2022. We will shortly consult on that.
I am really not going to give way, because I have not given way to anybody else. I know that my hon. Friend is a huge tree fan.
We will shortly consult on a new English tree strategy, in which we will set out further plans to accelerate woodland creation to reach our long-term goals, including our net-zero emissions by 2050, and to complement our Environment Bill. I was pleased that Members welcomed the urban measures in the Bill, too.
Members will not be surprised that I simply cannot get through all the comments that have been made. Climate change, by the way, has definitely been included in the Bill. I just want to say that there have been so many tremendous and insightful contributions tonight from right across the House. I am really sorry that I have not been able to answer all of the queries and questions raised today, but we do have answers to all of them. My door is constantly open to anyone who wants to raise these things again or share their views with me and with the rest of our team. Obviously, the Secretary of State is the key here. I really think that, together, we can make this a better world not just for us and for our children, but for our children’s children and all the creatures on this earth. I commend this Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Environment Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Environment Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 5 May 2020.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading.
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Maria Caulfield.)
Question agreed to.
Environment Bill (Money)
Queen’s recommendation signified.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Environment Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of:
(1) any expenditure incurred under or by virtue of the Act by the Secretary of State; and
(2) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.—(Maria Caulfield.)
Question agreed to.
Environment Bill (Ways and Means)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Environment Bill, it is expedient to authorise:
(1) the imposition of requirements to pay sums in respect of the costs of disposing of products and materials; and
(2) the imposition under or by virtue of the Act of fees and charges in connection with—
(a) the exercise of functions, and
(b) biodiversity credits.—(Maria Caulfield.)
Question agreed to.
That, at this day’s sitting, Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply to the Motion in the name of Secretary Priti Patel relating to the Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism.—(Maria Caulfield.)
Question agreed to.