House of Commons
Wednesday 26 May 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Business before Questions
Highgate Cemetery Bill
Bill read a Second time.
Oral Answers to Questions
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Covid-19: Equal Economic Recovery
We have targeted economic support at those who need it most, including with unprecedented levels of support in sectors that are big employers of women, such as retail, hospitality and leisure, with the public sector also being a large employer of women. For private firms, the suspension of business rates until June will save employers almost £10 billion, helping to protect these jobs.
I thank the Minister for her answer. Analysis by the Women’s Budget Group has highlighted that young women aged 18 to 25 are the largest group to be furloughed, by age and gender. Will the Minister set out what discussions she is having with the Chancellor to ensure that those women are supported, so that we do not have a lost generation of young women even further adversely affected by the pandemic?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his observation. The economic impact of the pandemic by gender is not clearcut. Furlough take-up and redundancy impacts are affecting men and women differently. We know that women are slightly more likely to have taken up the furlough scheme, but the latest employment figures continue to show a higher redundancy rate for men. So our economic package of support is to address everyone, and if he looks at the support for jobs package, the summer economic update that the Chancellor announced, as well as announcements in the Budget on the kickstart scheme and so on, he will see that all these things are addressing the issues on employment for young people and especially for those young women.
Evidence shows that mothers have been harder hit by the pandemic than fathers in terms of redundancies and their employment opportunities. Does my hon. Friend support the words of the Secretary of State for International Trade yesterday when she was advocating flexible working in order to overcome some of these problems? Would the Minister, like me, support seeing job sharing as part of a forthcoming employment Bill?
I always support the Secretary of State for International Trade. It is a pleasure to work with her, and we definitely want to see more flexible working and more job sharing. I cannot say for certain what will be part of the employment Bill, but we will speak to colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and across government.
The December 2019 Queen’s Speech promised an employment Bill that would extend
“redundancy protections to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination”.
Despite ministerial assurances of action during my Westminster Hall debate on this issue last month, the employment Bill and that promise are nowhere to be seen. If the UK Government are not going to deliver on their promise to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination, will they devolve employment law to Scotland so that the Scottish Parliament can deliver this much-needed reform?
This is a very serious issue. We are having a roundtable with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to look at pregnancy discrimination. I reiterate that covid-19 and the new employment Bill do not change the fact that there is a law on pregnancy and maternity discrimination—there is no place for it in any circumstances. Employers should be regularly reviewing their risk assessments for all pregnant workers and implementing any controls needed.
The economic impact of covid has hit women disproportionately hard. According to the Women’s Budget Group, 52% of people who have been furloughed are women, despite their making up only 47% of the workforce. The Government have promised to strengthen pregnancy and maternity protections “when parliamentary time allows”. Does the Minister not agree that this is an urgent priority given that the end of furlough is approaching and there is grave concern about unequal job losses in the autumn?
I refer the hon. Lady to my answer to the earlier question; this is not what the evidence tells us. I have seen the Women’s Budget Group report. What we are seeing is that men are more likely to be made redundant and women are more likely to be furloughed. The furlough is part of the economic package of support we have put in place. It is not right to say that women are more economically impacted when they are still having their jobs, but we do recognise that when the furlough scheme ends, we may see some changes. We are working to protect everybody in this crisis, both men and women. We have made a statement on the employment Bill, which is that the Government are committed to bringing it forward to protect and enhance workers’ rights. But given the profound impact that the pandemic is having on the economy and on the labour market, now is not the right time to introduce the employment Bill. In the interim, the Government have taken the unprecedented but necessary steps I mentioned to support business and protect jobs.
Voter ID: Equalities Impact Assessments
The Government take their public sector equality duty extremely seriously. In 2021, the Cabinet Office commissioned a nationally representative survey on the ownership of photo identification. The findings from that research and our ongoing engagement with the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders, including a wide range of charities and civil society organisations, will continue to inform our plans to ensure that voter identification is rolled out in a way that is inclusive for all voters.
I could probably write an essay on identity documents, having been responsible for the matter when I was in government a decade ago. I am particularly concerned about constituents of mine who are Commonwealth citizens, who are often seeking to achieve status in the UK but whose identity documents are with the Home Office—they do not have those identity documents to prove that they can vote. What is the Minister’s solution for those individuals?
Research by the Royal National Institute of Blind People shows that one in 10 blind voters and less than half of partially sighted voters could vote independently and in secret at the most recent general election. That is unacceptable. Given the barriers, is the Minister not concerned that the introduction of voter ID will only make it even more difficult for people living with sight loss to vote independently and in secret?
We looked into the impact of voter ID on disabled voters, and our research, which draws on the most comprehensive information available, indicates that 97% of disabled electors report having at least one form of photographic identification, so we do not believe that it will affect them. As I mentioned in response to the previous question, we will have legislation that will make it clear that local authorities must provide a voter card free of charge so that people will still be able to vote. We must remember why we are doing this: no one should lose their right to vote because someone else has assumed their identity. Personation is very difficult to prove and prosecute, but it is not a victimless crime and it is absolutely right that we resolve the matter.
Prices in the UK are set by competition, not the Government, but it is unlawful to offer goods or services to women and men at a range of different prices. The Equality Act 2010 provides that a retailer must not discriminate against the customer either by failing to provide goods or services, or by providing them on different terms, on the basis of someone’s sex.
It is more than two years since I first raised this issue in this place and very little has changed: women still pay, on average, 20% more for basic goods and services. We have heard already today that women have been hardest hit in this pandemic and we know there is a gender pay gap. If someone comes, like me, from a single-parent family with three daughters, that family faces a much bigger challenge in the current circumstances. The Minister has said that it is unlawful; will the Government please take steps to ensure that the 2010 Act is enforced when it comes to gender-targeted pricing?
It is probably worth my letting the hon. Lady know that I understand what she says but disagree with the premise and the argument she makes. It is important to recognise that in a legal sense there is no discrimination involved in gender pricing, as there is nothing to stop a woman buying a product marketed towards men, or vice versa. The Government want a society in which women and men are free to make the choices that suit them, regardless of rigid stereotypes. I am afraid I think that the Bill the hon. Lady wanted to enact would actually have had the unintended consequence of reinforcing stereotypes.
STEAM Subjects: Gender-balanced Representation
The Government are committed to ensuring that more women can take up the opportunities in science and technology. Currently, only one in five of the technology workforce are women, but projects such as the skills bootcamps aim to turn that around. Of the 2,799 attendees at our first bootcamps, 47% were women. In the west midlands, the courses on women in data and women in software were oversubscribed by around four times. We are investing another £43 million to provide another 16,000 places.
Science, technology and biomedicine have been at the forefront of our response to the covid-19 crisis and they will help us on our road to recovery. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that we get more people into those careers, including stem cell research for women?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: bioscience is a really important area and never more so than during this pandemic. It is our chemists, our biochemists and our biologists who are leading our way out of covid. The work that we do through our science learning partnerships aims to increase the take-up of triple science at GCSE—chemistry, physics and biology—and that will make sure that more of our young people can become the scientists of the future.
Prison Places for Women
Investing in the women’s custodial estate will improve conditions for female prisoners through modern, gender-specific and trauma-informed design. It will further ensure capacity is in place to give effect to sentences imposed by the independent courts.
When mothers are imprisoned for minor offences, the separation and loss for the child are detrimental to their wellbeing. The charity Women in Prison tells us that the most effective way to tackle the causes of crime and to prevent women from reoffending is to invest in women’s centres. Given that the Government’s own female offender strategy pledges to reduce the number of women in prison, why are they proposing to invest £150 million on new female prison places, and what representation has the Minister made to recommit to reducing the number of women in prison?
It is important that we continue to invest in women’s centres in the community, and that is exactly what we are doing. For the very reason that the hon. Lady makes about keeping relationships with the family, part of the money that she refers to will go to providing accommodation so that individuals can make family visits to those women sentenced to custody, to keep those relationships going. Prisons need to be a place of security, but they must also be a place of humanity, rehabilitation and hope, and that is what we are investing in.
Equality of Opportunity for UK Children
This Government believe in levelling up for people of all ages and we are investing more in the education of students from lower-income families so that they can unlock opportunities. Our weighted national funding formula and the pupil premium fund academic interventions as well as important pastoral initiatives and are further supplemented during this difficult time by the national tutoring programme and the holiday activities and food programme, which will also help those students.
Young people in my constituency deserve the very best opportunities outside of education. That is why I have been campaigning for an OnSide youth centre in West Bromwich, which has proved so successful in Wolverhampton. Will my hon. Friend support my campaign for a state-of-the-art youth centre, backed by local business, so that we can truly level up opportunities for young people in West Bromwich East?
I massively congratulate my hon. Friend on her true passion and interest in the young people of West Bromwich. The Government recognise the impact of youth services, which are improving the life chances and wellbeing of young people. The Government have already funded OnSide with £6 million last year to support young people during the pandemic. Another £30 million of the Youth Investment Fund has been committed as capital investment for 2021-22. That will provide investment in new resources as well as in refurbished safe spaces. Further details of the timetable and allocations will be announced very soon, and I recommend that my hon. Friend keeps a sharp look out for that announcement.
Covid-19: Disabled People in the Workplace
Over the past year, there have been 2,500 more Disability Confident employers, a much more flexible system and greater extended support through Access to Work going forward.
According to the Business Disability Forum, 11% of employers furloughed a disabled employee at the beginning of the pandemic after failing to provide reasonable adjustments. Disabled people have already been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, but it is clear that disabled workers are continuing to be forced out of employment through a lack of access to reasonable adjustments. Will the Government introduce mandatory timescales for employer-implementation of reasonable adjustments and end the Access to Work payment cap to prevent the disability employment gap from widening further?
As I outlined earlier, there are greater numbers of Disability Confident employers and Access to Work has been adapted during covid to help the disabled, with greater online assistance, extended timeframes, flexibility, mental health support and much, much more, about which I will get the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), to write in specific detail to the hon. Lady.
We set out in the Queen’s Speech our intention to ban conversion therapy, which is an abhorrent practice. We will consult in September and legislate as soon as possible. We are also putting in place support for victims.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; I hope you can hear me today.
I was really delighted to see the ban on conversion therapy appear in the Queen’s Speech, but, as we know, conversion therapy is an issue not just in the UK, but right around the globe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these practices should not just be outlawed in the UK, but that we should work with our global partners to support LGBT safety worldwide?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we are proud that we are instituting the UK’s first ever international LGBT conference under the theme of “Safe To Be Me”, which is about protecting people from persecution worldwide. The conference will be led by Lord Herbert and will take place in June next year. I look forward to welcoming my hon. Friend to appear at it.
The consultation will address the issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. The Cass review is taking place separately; that is a matter for the Department of Health, but of course we want to ensure that the under-18s are protected from making irreversible decisions about their own future.
UK’s Presidency of the G7: Gender Equality
We have a huge opportunity, as we recover from covid-19, for women across the world to build back better. That is why I have convened a group of leaders in the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council, under the leadership of Sarah Sands, to push for better education for women and girls, economic empowerment and ending violence against women across the world.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her response; that is great news. Can she tell me whether the Gender Equality Advisory Council will be working to improve women’s and girls’ participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and industries?
I am pleased to say that the GEAC is packed with inspirational STEM leaders, such as Professor Sarah Gilbert, who spearheaded the Oxford vaccine, and the CERN director general Dr Fabiola Gianotti; they are leading figures. A key aim of the GEAC is to ensure that more girls and women are involved in the industries of the future such as technology and science, so that they can get those well-paid jobs and help to drive forward progress across the world.
At the G7 summit in August 2019, the Government made three commitments for domestic progress on gender equality: delivery of the Domestic Abuse Bill; reform of parental leave; and action on workplace sexual harassment. But last year just 3.5% of fathers took shared parental leave, and the TUC found that one in two women experience sexual harassment at work. We are still waiting for the Government to respond to consultations on both those issues. What does the Minister think it says about her record that only one of those commitments has so far been completed? When will she bring forward reforms to these schemes?
As the hon. Member points out, we have brought forward and enacted the leading Domestic Abuse Act 2021. The Minister for Safeguarding is on the Front Bench; she has done a fantastic job on that. We will shortly be bringing forward the response on sexual harassment. Moreover, I want to ensure that at this year’s G7 leaders across the world are held to account for their record in protecting women and girls.
The UK is using our presidency of the G7 this year to champion women’s and girls’ rights at home and around the world with an independent Gender Equality Advisory Council to bring fresh ideas and new voices to the heart of G7 discussions. The council met for the second time last week, and I look forward to hearing its recommendations to G7 leaders in June. It is important that women and girls are at the heart of our plans to build back better.
In the recent Queen’s Speech there were many opportunities to level up across the country, including in my great constituency of Wolverhampton South West. What is my right hon. Friend doing to see that we can unleash the potential of some of our more deprived areas to build back better after covid?
We are determined to tackle the scourge of geographical inequality. That is why we have taken on responsibility for the Social Mobility Commission, which is going to focus on the three Es—employment, education and enterprise—and we are currently recruiting a chair to spearhead that agenda.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities has already met survivors of conversion therapy, and we are determined that they should be closely involved in the consultation we are holding on the forthcoming legislation. I completely agree with the hon. Lady: it is an abhorrent practice that we need to stop in the United Kingdom.
There has been an 800% increase in Disability Confident employers in the Durham-Tees Valley area. The newly re-elected Conservative Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, and our new Hartlepool MP are utterly committed to ensuring that more disabled people get access to work and into work.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. We have looked at seeking to change the rules about neonatal leave. Any grieving situation is incredibly difficult, but as we work towards the employment Bill, we will make sure that we can come up with a rounded view for anybody that is grieving.
The former LGBT advisory panel’s tenure ended on 31 March 2021. I am grateful to its members for the important insights that they have provided on important policy areas such as ending conversion therapy and the impact of covid on LGBT people. The Prime Minister has appointed Lord Herbert as special envoy for LGBT rights. That role will have an international and domestic focus, and I am confident that we will be able to work with our international partners on this issue. We believe that the current provisions in the Gender Recognition Act 2004 Act allow for those who wish legally to change their genders to do so, so that it is safe to be them and they have the right to be themselves. We have therefore decided, as we have said before to my hon. Friend, that the Act will not be changed.
I thank the hon. Member for raising this very important topic. This is totally unacceptable behaviour and I hope he will welcome the Government’s forthcoming violence against women and girls strategy, which we will be publishing later this year, drawing in the views of more than 180,000 members of the public to help shape our policies for the coming decade. This is unacceptable and we will deal with it.
The Prime Minister was asked—
The thoughts of the House, following the decision by the court this morning, will be with the family and friends of the Hillsborough 96 and the hundreds more who were injured. I know that the Crown Prosecution Service has said it will meet with the families again to answer any questions they may have.
I know colleagues from across the House will want to join me in paying tribute to our former colleague, Mike Weatherley, who sadly died last week. He was a dedicated parliamentarian and a fantastic servant to the people of Hove.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a practising NHS doctor who has been working on the frontline of the NHS during the pandemic. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Health and Social Care Act 2012 resulted in local authority commissioning of addiction services. Ten years later, almost all addiction services are now run by non-NHS providers. The result is that the numbers in alcohol treatment have fallen, many alcohol detoxes take place in an unplanned manner, and opiate and alcohol deaths are at record levels. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, for the sake of patients, we must bring the commissioning and provision of addiction services back to the NHS, and will he meet me and experts in this field to discuss how we can get this right?
I want to thank my hon. Friend for everything that he has done throughout this pandemic in the NHS, but also for raising this vital issue. I am proud that under this Government we are seeing the biggest increase for 15 years in treatment for substance abuse, but the specific points he raises we will make sure we address with Dame Carol Black, who is undertaking a review of drugs and treatment. We will make sure that his point is fed in.
May I join the Prime Minister in his comments about Hillsborough and Mike Weatherley?
This morning, the Prime Minister’s former closest adviser said:
“When the public needed us most the Government failed.”
Does the Prime Minister agree with that?
The handling of this pandemic has been one of the most difficult things this country has had to do for a very long time. None of the decisions has been easy. To go into a lockdown is a traumatic thing for a country. To deal with a pandemic on this scale has been appallingly difficult. We have at every stage tried to minimise loss of life—to save lives and to protect the NHS—and we have followed the best scientific advice that we can.
Can I remind the Prime Minister that one year ago, almost to the day, he said of his former adviser
“in every respect he has acted responsibly, legally and with integrity”?
This morning that same adviser has said that senior Ministers—these are his words—
“fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its government”
and that lives were lost as a result. Does the Prime Minister accept that central allegation and that his inaction led to needless deaths?
No. Of course, all those matters will be reviewed in the course of the public inquiry that I have announced. I notice that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is fixated, as ever, on the rear-view mirror, while we on this side of the House are getting on with our job of rolling out the vaccines, making sure that we protect the people of this country. That has been the decisive development on which I think people are rightly focusing. I can tell the House that, in spite of the continuing concern that we have about the Indian variant, we are increasing our vaccination programme at such a rate that we can now ask everybody over 30 to come forward and get vaccinated.
It is no good the Prime Minister attacking me. It is his former chief adviser who is looking back and telling the world how useless the Prime Minister was in taking key decisions—his former adviser.
One of the most serious points made this morning is that the Prime Minister failed to recognise the severity of this virus until it was too late, dismissing it as another “scare story” like the swine flu. Does the Prime Minister recognise that account of his own behaviour? If so, will he apologise for being so complacent about the threat that this virus posed?
I do not think anybody could credibly accuse this Government of being complacent about the threat that this virus posed at any point. We have worked flat out to minimise loss of life and to protect the NHS, while the Opposition have flip-flopped from one position to another, backing curfew one day and opposing it the next, backing lockdowns one day and opposing them the next, calling for tougher border controls one day and then saying that quarantine is a blunt instrument the next. We have got on with the job of protecting the people of this country from one of the worst pandemics in living memory, if not the worst in living memory. We have turned the corner, and it is no thanks to the loyal Opposition.
I can see that the evidence of his former adviser is really getting to the Prime Minister this morning in that response.
Another incredibly serious statement from the Prime Minister’s former adviser this morning concerns the conduct of the Health Secretary, including an allegation that the Health Secretary misled other Ministers and officials on a number of occasions. I do not expect the Prime Minister to respond to that, but can he confirm: did the Cabinet Secretary advise the Prime Minister that he—the Cabinet Secretary—had
“lost confidence in the Secretary of State’s honesty”?
The answer to that is no. I am afraid I have not had the benefit of seeing the evidence that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is bringing to the House, but I must say that I think what the people of this country want us all to do is to get on with the delicate business of trying to reopen our economy, restore people’s freedoms and get back to our way of life by rolling out the vaccine. I would have thought that that was a much more profitable line of inquiry for the right hon. and learned Gentleman today. That is what I think the people of this country want us to focus on.
The Prime Minister cannot have it both ways. Either his former adviser is telling the truth, in which case the Prime Minister should answer the allegations, or the Prime Minister has to suggest that his former adviser is not telling the truth, which raises serious questions about the Prime Minister’s judgment in appointing him in the first place. There is a pattern of behaviour here. There was clearly a lack of planning, poor decision making, a lack of transparency and a Prime Minister who was absent from the key decisions, including five early Cobra meetings, and who was, to quote his former adviser,
“1,000 times far too obsessed with the media”.
Another central allegation briefed overnight is that the Prime Minister delayed the circuit break over the autumn half-term because covid was “only killing 80-year-olds”. I remind the Prime Minister that over 83,000 people over 80 have lost their lives to this virus and that his decision to delay for 40 days, from the SAGE guidance on 21 September until 31 October, will be seen as one of the single biggest failings of the last year. Having been told of the evidence, does the Prime Minister accept that he used the words “Covid is only killing 80-year-olds” or words to that effect?
We saw what happened during the pandemic. Particularly, the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the September lockdown and my approach to it, and the very, very difficult decision that the country faced. Of course, this will be a matter for the inquiry to go into, but we have an objective test, in the sense that there was a circuit breaker, of the kind he describes, in Wales. It did not work, and I am absolutely confident that we took the decisions in the best interests of the British people. When it comes to hindsight, I just remind him that he actually—he denied this at the time and then had to correct it—voted to stay in the European Medicines Agency, which would have made it impossible for us to do the vaccine roll-out at the pace that we have.
It is not me giving evidence this morning; it is his former adviser, and I note the Prime Minister is careful not to refute these allegations. What we are seeing today is the latest chapter of a story of confusion, chaos and deadly misjudgments from this Government—from a Prime Minister governing by press release, not a plan. In the last 24 hours, we have seen the same mistakes made again, with the ridiculous way 1.7 million people in Bolton, Burnley, Bedford, Blackburn, Kirklees, Hounslow, Leicester and North Tyneside have been treated. In the light of the drip of these very serious allegations, the failure of the Prime Minister to provide even basic answers and continuing mistakes affecting millions of people, does the Prime Minister now recognise he must bring forward the timing of the public inquiry into covid, and that it should start this summer and as soon as possible?
No. As I have said before, I am not going to concentrate valuable official time on that now while we are still battling a pandemic. I thought actually that was what the House had agreed on. The right hon. and learned Gentleman continues to play these pointless political games, while we get on with delivering on the people’s priorities: 40 new hospitals; 8,771 more police on our streets; we are getting on with sorting out the railways; we are giving people—young people—the opportunity of home ownership in a way they have never had before, with 95% mortgages; and we have vaccinated. We have delivered 60 million vaccinations across this country, more than—he loves these European comparisons—any other European country, including 22 million second doses. That, with great respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, is I believe the priority of the British people. That is really what they are focused on, while he voted to stay in the European Medicines Agency. The Opposition vacillate; we vaccinate. They deliberate; we deliver.
I thank my hon. Friend, and of course I remember Tony very well. I remember his incredible campaign and the amount of money he raised, and I thank him for it. All I can say is it is very important that cases like that—injustices such as that suffered by Tony—receive the full force of the law. People who commit serious offences against children can receive exactly the same penalties as those who commit serious offences against adults, but we will keep this under review, and if there is a gap in the law—I will study his amendment very closely—we will make sure that we remedy it.
May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks on those seeking justice for Hillsborough? To quote the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
One hundred and twenty-eight thousand people have died of coronavirus in the United Kingdom. This morning the Prime Minister’s most senior former adviser, Dominic Cummings, apologised on behalf of the UK Government. He said:
“When the public needed us most”
we “failed.” We know the Prime Minister made a series of catastrophic errors throughout the crisis: he went on holiday when he should have been leading efforts to tackle the pandemic; he was too slow to go into lockdown; he failed to secure our borders; he sent millions of people back to their offices prematurely. There is no doubt that these mistakes cost many thousands of lives. When even a disgraced figure like Dominic Cummings is willing to own up and apologise, is it not time that the Prime Minister does the same?
I take full responsibility for everything that has happened, and as I have said before, as the right hon. Gentleman will recall, both in this House and elsewhere, I am truly sorry for the suffering that the people of this country have experienced. But I maintain my point that the Government acted throughout with the intention to save life and protect the NHS, and in accordance with the best scientific advice; that is exactly what we did.
The evidence we have heard this morning is extraordinary but, sadly, not surprising. It paints a familiar pattern of behaviour: a negligent Prime Minister more concerned with his own self-interest than the interests of the United Kingdom. When people were dying, the United Kingdom Government were considering chicken pox parties and joking about injecting the Prime Minister with covid live on TV.
We had a circus act when we needed serious Government: is it not the case that when the country needed leadership most the Prime Minister was missing in action? Thousands have paid the ultimate price for his failure; when will the Prime Minister finally accept responsibility for the failures of his Government?
As I have said repeatedly in this House, I take full responsibility for everything that the Government did and will continue to do so, and one of the reasons why we have set up an independent public inquiry is that I believe the people of this country deserve to have daylight shone on all the issues the right hon. Gentleman raised. I must say that I do not recognise the events that he describes, but I do think that we acted throughout with the intention of saving life, of protecting the NHS and of taking the country through the worst pandemic for 100 years, and I think it is also true that we are in a much more fortunate position now thanks to the efforts of the British people and the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe, and I am grateful for that as well.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and would love to come and meet the alpaca called Boris, but, more importantly, we want to support tourism in his constituency, which is why we have so far provided over £25 billion of support, including £1.5 million to support projects such as the Carnegie Theatre Trust—and since this week is English Tourism Week I encourage everyone to make the most of the tourism on their doorstep.
The EU settlement scheme closes on 30 June. While the Home Office has finally published guidance on late applications the Government are failing to provide clarity. What will happen to those who miss the deadline and then fall under the remit of illegal working legislation? Can the Prime Minister assure the House that EU citizens or non-EU family members who miss the deadline will not face potential criminal liability if they continue to go into work?
I am sure the law will be extremely merciful to anybody who finds themselves in a difficult position, but I would just remind the hon. Gentleman that so far 5.4 million EU nationals have applied successfully for the EU settlement scheme, which as far as I remember is about 2 million more EU nationals than we thought we were in the country in the first place.
May I tell my hon. Friend what a joy it is to hear him campaigning for Chirk, Corwen and Llangollen after I tramped around those beautiful places entirely fruitlessly many, many years ago in search of the Conservative vote? Thank you for what you have done. Thank you for continuing to champion those wonderful and beautiful spots.
I take that point very seriously. I will study the implications of what the hon. Gentleman says. If the he is referring to a Conservative Member who has recently had the Whip taken away, he can take it that that Member has already had condign punishment.
It is vital that we tackle child poverty, and that is why we are levelling up across the country with the biggest programme of investment for a generation, if not more. We are also seeing fewer households now with children in poverty than 10 years ago, but I perfectly accept that there is more to be done.
My hon. Friend is a great campaigner for Cambridgeshire and the rights of the people of Cambridgeshire. However, my strong feeling is that it would be a mistake now to go slow on investment in infrastructure purely on the basis that we think people will start working from home. My long experience of this is that people need to travel and they will travel. The commuter bustle will come back, and it needs to come back.
We introduced a policy to provide rent relief for station businesses in March last year. All train operators, including Southeastern in my hon. Friend’s constituency, are able to offer business support to their stations. I understand the point he makes about the discrepancy of views. Can I undertake to arrange a meeting with him and the relevant Minister to take it forward?
I think charities perform an amazing and invaluable role in our society and in our lives, and we need them. That is why we have supported charity shops throughout the lockdown with restart grants—the road map means that those shops are now able to open again—but, in addition, we had a £750 million targeted package of support for charities, helping more than 14,000 organisations across the country, including funding for hospices, homelessness charities, shelters for victims of domestic abuse and many others.
The fishing industry in East Anglia has had a hard time of it in recent years. However, with Brexit done, albeit in a way that left many disappointed, there is now an opportunity to turn the corner. The REAF—renaissance of East Anglian fisheries—strategy sets out an exciting and ambitious programme for the future. Is the Prime Minister able to say how the Government will work with fishing communities, such as that in Lowestoft, to revive the industry in East Anglia?
I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing to champion the fisheries industry in East Anglia. I like his REAF plan. I think it has lots of interesting ideas, which we will take forward as part of our £100 million package to support the fishing industry and get ready to take advantage of those opportunities that are coming very swiftly down the track towards us.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. Of course, I want to repeat my gratitude to the nurses of this country and the NHS and social care staff who have done incredible work throughout this pandemic. He makes a particular point about the tapering in universal credit, and I will make sure that he has a meeting with the relevant Minister, who will set out the detail on the issue he has raised.
On behalf of my constituent Seema Misra and other wrongly convicted sub-postmasters, I am grateful that the vital inquiry of Sir Wyn Williams into that scandal has now been given more teeth. However, there is widespread concern, shared by Post Office CEO Nick Read, that the compensation received by the sub-postmasters who were party to the civil litigation at the High Court was simply not fair. I urge the Prime Minister to ensure that those civil litigant sub-postmasters will be included in the anticipated Government compensation scheme.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue—a tragic case of injustice. I have met some of the postmasters and sub-postmasters who have been affected by that miscarriage of justice. As he knows, the Government were not party to the initial litigation, nor the settlement that was agreed, but we are determined to ensure that postmasters and sub-postmasters are fairly compensated for what happened.
We respected the referendum result of 2014, which was a very substantial majority in favour of remaining in the UK, keeping our wonderful country together, not breaking it up. That was what the people of Scotland rightly voted for, and they did so in the belief that it was a once-in-a-generation event.
For almost 500 years the Royal Navy has protected our country from foes and protected the freedom of our friends around the world. The pride of our navy, HMS Queen Elizabeth, sailed this week with her strike group. Within her she carries the British values of freedom, justice and democracy, so can my right hon. Friend tell me, as she makes her way from the Mediterranean to the South China Sea, what his plans are for the future of her white ensign?
It was fantastic to be on board the HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is a vessel longer than the Palace of Westminster, and forms a more eloquent statement, in many ways, than many of the speeches and interventions that we have heard this afternoon, about Britain’s role in the world and our determination to expand shipbuilding and expand our naval presence, which is good not only for the UK and for the world, but good for jobs and growth around the country.
One of the many awful things about the past year has been the inability to visit family and friends in hospital. It has caused immense anguish for many of my constituents. We are seeing some progress locally and I hope that, with the brilliant roll-out of the vaccine, we will see more, but can the Prime Minister inform the House when normal visiting hours will resume for all hospitals nationwide?
I know that my hon. Friend speaks for many millions of people who have wanted to visit loved ones and I know the anguish that they have felt. We need to balance those wholly legitimate feelings with the need to manage the risk of infection, as I know my hon. Friend understands very well. We will update the guidance as soon as it is possible to do so.
I think that the whole House understands that nobody wants to see any more of the appalling conflict in Israel and Gaza, and that we are all glad that there is now a ceasefire and a de-escalation. As for the position of the British Government, it is probably common ground among most Members that we want a two-state solution. The UK Government have campaigned for that for many years and it continues to be our position.
[2nd Allocated Day]
Further consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 21
Habitats Regulations: power to amend general duties
‘(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations amend the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (S.I. 2017/ 1012) (the “Habitats Regulations”), as they apply in relation to England, for the purposes in subsection (2).
(2) The purposes are——
(a) to require persons within regulation 9(1) of the Habitats Regulations to exercise functions to which that regulation applies—
(i) to comply with requirements imposed by regulations under this section, or
(ii) to further objectives specified in regulations under this section, instead of exercising them to secure compliance with the requirements of the Directives;
(b) to require persons within regulation 9(3) of the Habitats Regulations, when exercising functions to which that regulation applies, to have regard to matters specified by regulations under this section instead of the requirements of the Directives.
(3) The regulations may impose requirements, or specify objectives or matters, relating to—
(a) targets in respect of biodiversity set by regulations under section1;
(b) improvements to the natural environment which relate to biodiversity and are set out in an environmental improvement plan.
(4) The regulations may impose any other requirements, or specify any other objectives or matters, relating to the conservation or enhancement of biodiversity that the Secretary of State considers appropriate.
(5) Regulations under this section may also, in connection with provision made for the purposes in subsection (2), amend other provisions of the Habitats Regulations, as they apply in relation to England, which refer to requirements, objectives or provisions of the Directives.
(6) In making regulations under this section the Secretary of State must have regard to the particular importance of furthering the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity.
(7) The Secretary of State may make regulations under this section only if satisfied that the regulations do not reduce the level of environmental protection provided by the Habitats Regulations.
(8) Before making regulations under this section the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament, and publish, a statement explaining why the Secretary of State is satisfied as mentioned in subsection (7).
(9) Before making regulations under this section the Secretary of State must consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.
(10) Regulations under this section may not come into force before 1 February 2023.
(11) In this section—
“the Directives” has the same meaning as in the Habitats Regulations (see regulation 3(1));
“England” includes the territorial sea adjacent to England, which for this purpose does not include—
(a) any part of the territorial sea adjacent to Wales for the general or residual purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006 (see section 158 of that Act), or
(b) any part of the territorial sea adjacent to Scotland for the general or residual purposes of the Scotland Act 1998 (see section 126 of that Act);
“environmental improvement plan” has the same meaning as in Part 1.
(12) Regulations under this section are subject to the affirmative procedure.”
This new clause confers powers to amend the Habitats Regulations to require public authorities to comply with requirements or objectives, or have regard to matters, specified in regulations (for example requirements, objectives or matters relating to biodiversity targets under clause 1 or biodiversity aspects of the environmental improvement plan).—(Rebecca Pow.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment (a), in subsection 2(a)(ii), leave out “instead of” and insert “in addition to”.
Amendment (b), in subsection 2(a)(b), leave out “instead of” and insert “in addition to”.
Government new clause 22—Habitats Regulations: power to amend Part 6.
New clause 2—Assessment of Plans—
‘(1) The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017/1012 are amended as follows.
(2) In Regulation 63 (Assessment of implications for European sites and European offshore marine sites) the following are amended—
(a) in paragraph (1) for “must” substitute “may”;
(b) in paragraph (3) for “must” substitute “may”;
(c) in paragraph (4) for “must” substitute “may”;
(d) omit paragraph (5) and insert “In the light of the conclusions of the assessment, and subject to regulation 64, the competent authority may take the assessment into account in deciding whether it will agree to the plan or project”; and
(e) in paragraph (6) for “must” substitute “may”.”
New clause 4—Protected species: Hedgehog—
‘(1) The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is amended in accordance with subsection (2).
(2) At the end of Schedule 5 (Animals which are protected) insert—
“hedgehog Erinaceus europaeus””
This new clause would add the hedgehog to the list of protected animals under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. This would introduce a legal imperative to search for hedgehogs in developments, and a legal imperative to mitigate for them.
New clause 16—Protection of bio-diversity as condition of planning permission—
‘(1) The Town and Country Planning Act 1990 is amended as set out in section (2).
(2) After section 70(2), insert—
“(2A) Any grants of planning permission for residential development in England must be subject to a condition that such a development does not have a detrimental effect on the local levels of nature conservation and bio-diversity.””
New clause 25—Duty to prepare a Tree Strategy for England—
‘(1) The Government must prepare a Tree Strategy for England as set out in subsections (2), (3) and (4).
(2) The strategy must set out the Government’s vision, objectives, priorities and policies for trees in England including individual trees, woodland and forestry, and set out other matters with respect to the promotion of sustainable management of trees in these contexts.
(3) The Tree Strategy for England must include the Government’s targets and interim targets with respect to—
(a) the percentage of England under tree cover;
(b) hectares of new native woodland creation achieved by tree planting;
(c) hectares of new native woodland creation achieved by natural regeneration;
(d) the percentage of native woodland in favourable ecological condition;
(e) hectares of Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS) undergoing restoration;
(f) the condition of the England’s Long Established Woodlands; and
(g) hectares of Long Established Woodlands undergoing restoration.
(4) The Tree Strategy for England must set out—
(a) locations of additional planting of 30,000 hectares of woodland in the UK each year, as set out in the England Trees Action Plan 2021-2024;
(b) a plan for the maintenance of the trees and woodlands planted under the England Trees Action Plan 2021- 2024; and
(c) which authorities or individuals are responsible for the maintenance of the trees and woodlands planted under the England Trees Action Plan 2021-2024.
(5) The Government must publish—
(a) an annual statement on progress against the Tree Strategy for England; and
(b) any revisions of the Tree Strategy which may be necessary.
(6) The Government must publish a revised Tree Strategy for England within the period of 10 years beginning with the day on which the strategy or its most recent revision was published.”
The aim of this new clause is to ensure that the Government prepares a tree strategy for England. It will ensure that the Government has to produce targets for the protection, restoration and expansion of trees and woodland in England.
New clause 26—Enforcement action against breaches of planning control in statutorily protected landscapes and areas of ancient woodland—
‘(none) In the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, after Section 171B(2), insert—
“(2B) There is no restriction on when enforcement action may be taken in relation to a breach of planning control in respect—
(a) a Site of Special Scientific Interest;
(b) an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty;
(c) any other landscape that is statutorily protected for environmental reasons; or
(d) ancient woodland.”
New clause 27—Tree preservation orders on statutorily protected landscapes—
‘(none) In the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, after Section 201, insert—
“(201A) All trees shall automatically be subject to tree preservation orders if they are in any of the following areas—
(a) a Site of Special Scientific Interest;
(b) an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty;
(c) a National Park; or
(d) any other landscape that is statutorily protected for environmental reasons.”
Amendment 45, in clause 95, page 96, line 18, after “biodiversity objective” insert—
“and contribute to the achievement of relevant targets and objectives under the Convention on Biological Diversity”.
Amendment 29, page 97, line 1, leave out subsection (5) and insert—
‘(5) After subsection (2) insert—
(2A) The authority must act in accordance with any relevant local nature recovery strategy in the exercise of relevant functions, including—
(a) land use planning and planning decisions;
(b) spending decisions, including land management payments;
(c) delivery of biodiversity gain; and
(d) any other activities undertaken in complying with subsections (1) and (1A).””
This amendment would require public authorities to exercise relevant functions in accordance with Local Nature Recovery Strategies. This would ensure that decisions that affect the natural environment such as planning decisions, net gain habitat enhancements and targeted investment in environmental land management are informed by the Strategies.
Amendment 46, in clause 102, page 101, line 36, at end insert—
‘(2A) The objectives of a species conservation strategy must be—
(a) to identify the factors that adversely affect the conservation status of relevant species of fauna or flora;
(b) to identify measures to improve the conservation status of relevant species of fauna or flora;
(c) to inform the definition of favourable conservation status of relevant species of fauna or flora; and
(d) taking the information set out pursuant to paragraphs (a) to (c) into account, to contribute to relevant planning, land management and conservation policies for those species of fauna or flora.
(2B) All provisions in a species conservation strategy must be in accordance with the mitigation hierarchy.
(2C) The Secretary of State must publish guidance relating to the content, interpretation and implementation of species conservation strategies.
Amendment 47, page 102, line 27, at end insert—
‘(8A) The Secretary of State must give financial assistance under the Environmental Land Management scheme to applicants who have contributed to the achievement of species conservation strategies, provided that the following conditions are met—
(a) the applicant meets the eligibility criteria under the Agriculture (Financial Assistance) Regulations 2021; and
(b) evidence is provided by the applicant in support of that payment request under The Agriculture (Financial Assistance) Regulations 2021.
This amendment would ensure that those receiving money from the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) would be able to claim financial assistance for their contributions towards achieving species conservation strategies.
Amendment 48, in clause 103, page 104, line 27, at end insert—
‘(8A) The Secretary of State must give financial assistance under the Environmental Land Management scheme to applicants who have contributed to the achievement of species conservation strategies, provided that the following conditions are met—
(a) the applicant meets the eligibility criteria under the Agriculture (Financial Assistance) Regulations 2021; and
(b) evidence is provided by the applicant in support of that payment request under The Agriculture (Financial Assistance) Regulations 2021.
This amendment would ensure that those receiving money from the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) would be able to claim financial assistance for their contributions towards achieving species conservation strategies.
Amendment 22, in schedule 14, page 216, line 37, leave out “maintained for at least 30 years” and insert—
“secured in its target condition and maintained in perpetuity”.
This amendment requires habitat created under net gain to be secured in perpetuity.
Amendment 41, in schedule 15, page 224, line 41, at end insert—
“Planning decisions, felling without a licence and failure to comply with restocking orders
6A (1) The Town and Country Planning Act 1990 is amended as follows:
(2) In section 70(2) (Determination of applications: general considerations), after “material considerations” insert—
‘(none) “including previous convictions held by the landowner for unlawful tree felling, and failure to comply with restocking and enforcement orders.”
This amendment seeks to include a provision for local planning authorities to be able to take unlawful tree felling and a lack of compliance with Restocking and Enforcement Orders by landowners into account when considering planning applications.
Amendment 26, in schedule 16, page 225, line 35, at end insert—
“, and free, prior and informed consent has been obtained from affected indigenous peoples and local communities”.
This amendment would require that the prohibition on using a forest risk commodity must also be in accordance with having obtained the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and local communities, in addition to complying with relevant local laws.
Amendment 27, page 229, line 30, at end insert—
“Regulated financial person
7A (1) A regulated financial person must not provide financial services for commercial enterprises engaging in the production, trade, transport or use of a forest risk commodity unless relevant local laws are complied with in relation to that commodity.
(2) A regulated financial person who provides financial services for commercial enterprises engaging in the production, trade, transport or use of a forest risk commodity must establish and implement a due diligence system in relation to the provision of those financial services.
(3) A “due diligence system”, in relation to a regulated financial person, means a system for—
(a) identifying, and obtaining information about, the operations of a commercial enterprise engaging in the production, trade, transport or use of a forest risk commodity to which it provides financial services,
(b) assessing the risk that such a commercial enterprise is not complying with relevant local laws in relation to that commodity,
(c) assessing the risk that a commercial enterprise is not complying with paragraphs 2 and 3 of this Schedule, and
(d) mitigating that risk.
(4) A regulated financial person must, for each reporting period, provide the relevant authority with a report on the actions taken by the regulated financial person to establish and implement a due diligence system as required by paragraph 3.
(5) A “regulated financial person” means a person (other than an individual) who carries on financial services in the United Kingdom and—
(a) meets such conditions as may be specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State; or
(b) is an undertaking which is a subsidiary of another undertaking which meets those conditions.
(6) In this paragraph—
“group” has the meaning given by section 474 of the Companies Act 2006;
“undertaking” has the meaning given by section 1161 of that Act,
“financial services” means—
(a) the provision of banking services including the acceptance of deposits in the course of business;
(b) the provision of loans in the course of a banking, credit or lending business, including by way of term loan, revolving credit facility, debentures and bonds; and
(c) regulated activities as defined under section 22 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 and the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (Regulated Activities) Order 2001 (SI 2001/544), in each case as amended, or
(d) such other financial services as may be specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State.
“commercial enterprise” means a person (other than an individual) who carries on commercial activities in any jurisdiction relating to the production, trade, transport or use of forest risk commodities.”
This amendment requires that persons who carry out financial services in the United Kingdom do not provide financial services to commercial enterprises engaged in the production, trade, transport or use of forest risk commodities unless they are complying with local relevant laws.
Amendment 36, page 229, line 34, leave out “may” and insert “must”.
This amendment would make it a requirement, rather than just an option, that the Secretary of State make regulations under Part 2 of schedule 16.
Amendment 37, page 229, line 38, leave out “may” and insert “must”.
This amendment would make it a requirement, rather than just an option, that the Secretary of State makes regulations to appoint the relevant enforcement authorities.
Amendment 38, page 229, line 39, after “persons” insert—
“, independent of the Secretary of State,”.
This amendment is intended to require the Secretary of State to transfer the powers of enforcement (such as issuing fines) to an independent enforcement authority, as they relate to the use of products derived from a forest risk commodity (a major source of forest deforestation).
What a pleasure it is to be back to continue our consideration of this vital legislation, which will set us on a sustainable trajectory for the future. I know that so many colleagues have been looking forward to today with great anticipation, as indeed have I.
Although the journey of this Bill may have seemed a little lengthy, I assure the House that we have not been resting on our laurels. During this time, there has been a huge amount of constructive, dedicated work, and I will outline some of it: a draft environmental principles policy statement, which will guide the Government in applying environmental principles, was published for consultation on 10 March; and on 24 March we launched consultations on the deposit return scheme and the extended producer responsibility scheme for packaging, and these are two key initiatives in the resource and waste measures of the Bill.
We are working at pace to ensure that the Office for Environmental Protection will be operationally ready to stand up as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent. We have also announced that new measures to reduce the harm from storm overflows on our precious aquatic environment will be added in the other place.
At this point, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) for his dedicated work on this issue. It has been a tremendous joint effort.
I am pleased the hon. Lady made that intervention, because of course I would like to pay tribute to Surfers Against Sewage, which has played a key role in all this for such a long time. Coming from the south-west, as I do, I very much know about the good work done by Surfers Against Sewage.
Today we are debating the nature parts of the Bill, which provide a framework of measures to support nature’s recovery in line with the ambition set out in our 25-year environment plan.
The Minister will know that England lags significantly behind the other countries of the UK on tree planting to help tackle climate change. She will also be aware that there is no ring-fenced component to the nature for climate fund for innovative, green-minded local authorities, such as my own in Harrow, to put in bids so that we, too, can play our part in increasing tree coverage.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, or I hope he knows, we launched our tree action plan just last week. It sets out the raft of measures we will use to enable us to plant our commitments and target on tree planting, which is 30,000 hectares by the end of this Parliament. There are measures in the action plan, and we have allocated £500 million from the nature for climate fund, so I would say there is a huge commitment to tree planting in this country.
I am going to continue.
The Bill also contains a coherent package of new duties, tools and support to drive improvement for nature: a 10% biodiversity net gain requirement on new development; a strengthened duty on all public authorities to conserve and enhance biodiversity—they will be able to do a lot of the tree planting mentioned by the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas); local nature recovery strategies, which will form the building blocks for a much wider national nature recovery network; species conservation strategies and protected sites strategies to improve conservation outcomes for habitats and species; targeted measures to protect existing trees and plant new ones—back to trees again; and due diligence requirements to prohibit larger UK companies from including forest risk commodities in their supply chains.
The Minister is always very kind, which I appreciate very much. Amendment 41 would give enforcement powers to councils and local bodies with responsibility for planning to ensure that no illegal tree felling is allowed. Do the Government intend to support that amendment? I believe that the Minister and I both love trees and want to see plenty of them. Will that happen?
Of course he doesn’t, Mr Speaker, and he won’t be able to now. I hope he will be pleased by what he hears about what we are doing to protect trees.
Finally in this toolbox of measures to improve nature, we have conservation covenants to protect natural features of the land for future generations. Just last week, we announced a raft of significant measures to further deliver for the environment, and I am absolutely delighted to say that we have committed to an historic new, legally binding target on species abundance for 2030, which aims to halt the decline of nature in England. We will table an amendment on that in the other place and we will set a final target in statute following the agreement of global targets at the UN conference on biodiversity in Kunming, in China, in autumn 2021.
It is essential that we seize this opportunity to set our ambitions high and take action to deliver them. I think it is clear in the Bill that we are doing that. That is why, in addition, I am pleased to propose two Government new clauses today—new clauses 21 and 22, which will not only help us halt the decline in species but drive recovery. New clause 21 provides for a power to refocus the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 to ensure that our legislation adequately supports our ambitions for nature, including our new, world-leading 2030 target to halt the decline of species. New clause 22 will allow us to amend part 6 of the 2017 regulations to improve the habitats regulatory assessment process. Where the evidence suggests that amending the regulations can improve the natural environment, make processes clearer and provide more legal certainty, to help improve the condition of our sites, we will have the means to do so swiftly.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to mention our peat action plan, which was launched just last week. Restoring our peatlands is a crucial part of improving nature. It is essential that we get the 30,000 hectares that we have pledged to restore restored. We have the funding and measures behind it to enable us to do that.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who I do not see in her place in the Chamber—
Okay—I will look up at the video screens. The hon. Lady will say that we need to lock in the protections of the habitats and wild birds directive as they are now, but if we are to deliver on our ambitious new target and reverse the downward trend of recent decades, we need to change our approach, and we need to change it now.
Now that we have the leading framework and targets set out in the Bill, we need to take responsibility for delivering the change needed to achieve our world-leading environmental ambitions. We need to create space for the creative public policy thinking that can help us to deliver those results. To that end, we have designed the new Government amendment with the specific aim of conserving and enhancing biodiversity. Under new clause 21(10), the power to amend regulation 9 can come into force only from 1 February 2023, once we have set the biodiversity targets and conducted the first review of the environmental improvement plan, as provided for in part 1 of the Bill. We have also been explicit that powers can be used only if they do not reduce the existing level of environmental protection. We will closely consult conservation groups, the OEP and others.
The clause will also require us to explain to this House how the use of the power would maintain the level of environmental protections provided by the Habitats and Species Regulations before any regulatory changes are made, and of course the House will have the opportunity to vote on any reforms. In addition, my colleague Lord Benyon will also chair a small working group, comprising myself, Tony Juniper, the chair of Natural England, and Christopher Katkowski, QC, which will gather information on how we might utilise the powers enabled through our Government amendments. We will have our first meeting before the summer recess. The group will consider the technical detail and will gather evidence from experts and stakeholders. The Green Paper will then offer a further opportunity for stakeholders to feed back on the initial proposals for reform. We will consult the new OEP on any proposals we develop before any regulatory changes are made.
On habitats protection, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), whom I am so pleased to see in his place, is right to raise the important issue of the protection of species such as the hedgehog. We all love a hedgehog, don’t we? I have released lots of rescued hedgehogs into my garden. The existing legislation focuses on deliberate harm against species, which, on its own, does not properly address the real challenges faced by species whose numbers are declining, such as the hedgehog. It is a priority for us to provide the legislative protections and policy interventions needed for our wildlife, including for declining species such as the hedgehog, and to deliver our 2030 target on biodiversity. He will therefore be pleased to learn that I have instructed my Department, as part of our Green Paper, to begin a review of this legislation, with a view to enhancing and modernising it. We intend to publish and seek views on our conclusions in the Green Paper later this year, and I give him an absolute commitment that this work will encompass the issues that he has raised and that I know he will be speaking about today, and that the final outcomes will ensure that we provide the kind of support that is desperately needed to reverse the decline in hedgehog numbers. I thank him in advance for championing this cause, because the hedgehog needs a champion.
Along with climate change, biodiversity loss is the defining challenge of our generation. Ensuring our protected sites can be restored to good condition, functioning properly as reservoirs for wildlife, and protecting our most vulnerable habitats and species is crucial to delivering on our environmental ambitions.
I congratulate the Minister on seeking to improve that Bill, as that is excellent. Four amendments have been tabled—two by me, one from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and one from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller)—that address specifically tree preservation orders, more protections and closing loopholes for sites of special scientific interest. Will the Government listen closely to those amendments? If they think they are worthy of support, as I think they are, will they please incorporate them or ensure that they are incorporated in the other place?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. I know that there are a lot of strong advocates for trees. We have some very strong measures in the Bill, as I hope he will already know—we have worked very hard on our tree protections. We believe that they, in conjunction with our tree action plan, mean that we have very strong measures for trees, but, obviously, we are always open to hear what colleagues have to say, because we have to look after and indeed increase our tree planting.
As I was saying, our ambition goes much wider than just existing protected sites; we want to see a much more abundant nature-rich Britain, with further action to bend the curve on species loss in this country. These powers to redesign our conservation regulations with these ambitions in mind form part of our plan to restore and enhance nature in this country. It is a must do, and we will do it. I commend these amendments to the House.
Two years ago this month, it was Parliament that declared a climate and an ecological emergency. We were the first Parliament in the world to do so in what was a truly landmark moment in the fight against the climate and ecological crisis. I was proud to work on that declaration and proud that it was a Labour motion. We need more landmark moments such as that if we are to tackle the climate and ecological emergency in a meaningful way. We were promised that the Environment Bill would be a landmark Bill.
“Landmark” is what the Government kept saying, seemingly until England’s rolling hills were littered with press releases as far as the eye could see, but, sadly, it is not a landmark Bill.
Let us be clear about what the climate crisis means. If we do not take the bold action now that is required, the freak weather, the destruction of homes, job losses, food shortages, habitat loss and species extinction will only get worse. Since Parliament declared that climate emergency, the Department for Food and Rural Affairs has issued 508 press releases about the environment. The group plural for a set of press releases evades me. It could be a discombobulation, a tedium, or a wafer. None the less, the Government seem to have been more focused on the spin than the substance of the matter. The press releases, ambitions, targets and soundbites are no substitute for the bold action that we need on the climate.
What does my hon. Friend make of the World Wildlife Fund’s statement that the Bill does not go far enough to protect the world’s forests and oceans? Specifically, I know that there is interest across the House in what is happening in neighbourhoods and suburbs. In my own constituency of Muswell Hill, Highgate and Stroud Green, there is a lot of concern about trees coming down unnecessarily. How can we make that vision a reality?
Both my hon. Friend and the WWF are right that we need to see bolder action on forests and the oceans. It is a shocking indictment of this Bill that there is barely a mention of the oceans, which is a really important part of our environment.
Ministers must act in a quicker and more decisive way on the environment than we have seen to date. I hoped that the delay in the Bill would have given Ministers that time to be bolder, but I am afraid that they have not used their time as wisely as I would have liked. I welcome the steps forward that the Minister has announced, but they are not enough. The pace and urgency seem to be absent. Our rivers are polluted. There is not a single river in England safe to swim in. More species face extinction at home and abroad; more bees are dying from bee-killing pesticides, the use of which is legitimised by this Government; more plastics are entering our oceans; and dangerous particulates are entering the lungs of some of our most vulnerable. Where is the vision? Where is the landmark boldness that we were promised? Where is the rock-the-boat carbon cutting innovation? Where is the determination to push harder and harder to clean our air, protect our species, plant more trees and get us back on a course for nature recovery? Where is the World Health Organisation’s air quality targets in the Bill? Where is the boldness on ocean protection? We need that bold action not only to cut carbon, but to step up and protect our natural environment as well. If we have this approach that we can either solve a carbon crisis or an ecological crisis, we will solve neither. We need to solve both of them together, or neither of them at all.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I support the amendments, which are also in my name. Many constituents have written to me about these issues. Does he agree that there is a stark contrast here with the approach shown by the Welsh Labour Government? Let us take their tree-planting programme as an example. Since 2008, the Plant! scheme has planted a tree for every child born or adopted in Wales and also in Uganda, supporting forestation globally. The Welsh Government have also introduced a new moratorium on incineration, which affects my constituency and that of the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), when it comes to that crucial issue of air quality
I thank my hon. Friend for that. What the Welsh Labour Government have shown is that we can be bold and decisive and that we can take people with us on that journey. The “people first” approach in Wales is something that could be replicated in an English approach, but sadly, England has fallen further and further behind other nations in the United Kingdom. That is why I want the Minister to do more to preserve our precious habitats and biodiversity. If a car is speeding off a cliff, it is not enough simply to slow it down; we have to bring it to a stop and turn things around, and that is why Labour has tabled several amendments to try to inject some of the boldness that we need into the Bill. Let me turn to those amendments now.
The public want to see us plant more trees, but the thing about planting more trees is that more trees are not enough. We need to be bolder and bolder in the numbers we plant and the species we plant to ensure that we have a good mix of fruit trees, deciduous trees and other varieties of trees creating a rich biodiversity of habitats for our wonderful wildlife. The Committee on Climate Change, the independent body set up to advise the Government, has been clear that we need to raise our current 13% forest cover to 17% by 2050 if we are to have any chance of meeting our climate goals. That may need to increase further if the Government continue to miss other targets along the way. But the Government are missing their tree planting targets by 40 years. If we continue at the current paltry rate of tree planting, the Government’s own 2050 targets will not be met until 2091. I will be 111 years old in 2091. I would like to live that long, but I simply do not think the planet can wait for us to hit that low level of ambition that the Government have on this. More tree planting plans, more targets, more press releases and more paper printed out with those press releases will not plant the trees we need. I want the Minister to be bolder on this, and that is why we have tabled new clause 25, which would see the Government at least hit the Committee on Climate Change’s target, but I want them to go further.
Our Amendment 22 is another attempt to give the Bill some ambition on net gain. The Government have laid out some plans to regain and restore some habitats, and that is welcome, but they have stopped short of safeguarding this for the long term. Amendment 22 would require habitats secured under biodiversity gain to be maintained in perpetuity, rather than just for the 30 years envisaged by the Bill. That figure of 30 years matters. Can the Minister explain what will happen after the 30th year? What will happen in the 31st year? Will those protections fall away? Why was 30 years chosen and not a greater number? Habitats for wildlife can take decades or even longer to be become established, but they take minutes to be destroyed by a bulldozer. Protections matter.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Government’s proposals on planning reform will actually make the proposals in the Environment Bill on net gain and protecting habitats far more difficult, in that they are a developers’ charter and the wishes of local people are likely to be overridden?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. That is why Labour is arguing for a comprehensive, joined-up approach from Ministers, in which DEFRA’s policies align with those of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and with Treasury funding. They do not do so at the moment; we have a developers’ charter that does not match the protections that the Minister is talking about. I believe the Minister when she says she is passionate about this, but I just do not see that read-across in Government policy. The peripheralisation of DEFRA in the Government debate is not helping to protect our habitats when other Ministers are able to get away with habitat-destroying policies and seemingly all we have is a Minister patting himself on the back for this Bill. That is not enough, and I am glad my hon. Friend raised that example.
I am worried that the Government’s approach to species conservation is seemingly ad hoc and represents an unambitious approach that seems to have overtaken DEFRA. Labour’s amendment 46 demands a strategic approach to species conservation through protecting, restoring and creating habitats over a wider area to meet the needs of the individual species that are being protected. It acknowledges the vital role that species conservation can play in restoring biodiversity and enabling nature’s recovery. Indeed, it builds on Labour’s amendment to the Bill tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) at the last stage that would see a nature recovery by 2030. I welcome the steps forward on that but I would like to see more detail, because at the moment it seems like a good press release, but without enough action to ensure that the delivery is ensured.
Mr Speaker, you will know that I am a big fan of bees. I should declare an interest because my family keep bees on their farm in Cornwall. Since 1900, the UK has lost 13 of its 35 native species of bee. Bees are essential to our future on the planet, to pollinating crops and to the rich tapestry of biodiversity that depends on them. Bee health is non-negotiable; we must do all we can to protect our precious pollinators. On the first day on Report, the Conservatives voted down Labour’s amendment that would have restored the ban on bee-killing pesticides; on day 2 on Report—today—will the Government back or defeat Labour’s amendment 46 on species conservation? This really matters because bees really matter, and I think the concern is shared across party lines. The steps that the Minister has taken to support sugar beet farmers, especially in the east of England, is welcome. I want to support sugar beet farmers as well—I want to support British agriculture, which is especially needed given the risk of an Australian trade deal—but lifting the ban on bee-killing pesticides is not the answer. It will not help us in the long term.
Like many campaigners and stakeholders, we on the Opposition Benches are concerned that the overt focus on development in the explanatory narrative on clause 108 supplied by the Government suggests that it could fall into a worrying category. Labour’s amendment 46 seeks to correct that by putting nature-recovery objectives, underpinned by evidence, into the heart of the strategies and ensuring that each one abides by the mitigation hierarchy, starting with trying to conserve existing habitat and then moving to habitat compensation only when all other avenues have been exhausted. That will ensure that each strategy serves to recover a species, rather than greenlighting the destruction of existing habitats that are important to that species, in return for inadequate compensation elsewhere. Our amendment is common sense, it would strengthen the provisions in the name of the Secretary of State and, if passed, will show that this House cares about getting the most out of the Bill. I hope the Minister will give additional attention to those provisions when the Bill enters the other place.
On the other amendments that have been tabled on the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations and Government new clauses 21 and 22, I look forward to hearing from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas)—she and I share an awful lot in common on this matter—because on the face of it we are minded to agree that we cannot rely on the Government not to dilute the environmental protections currently in the nature directives. I heard what the Minister had to say and think her heart is in the right place, but I want to see things put in law. She may not be a Minister forever and we need to make sure that whoever follows her will have the same zeal and encouragement. I am afraid that unless it is on the face of the Bill, there is a risk that that might not happen.
We support amendments 26 and 27, tabled by the Select Committee Chair, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), on deforestation, the extension of due diligence requirements to the finance sector and the strengthening of protection for local communities and indigenous peoples. That is a good example of a Select Committee Chair proposing something meaningful and important that might not always get the headlines. He is playing an important role and we encourage power to his elbow.
In conclusion, the Bill has been stuck for too long. I had hoped that the delay in bringing the Bill forward caused by the Government would have altered the Government’s pedestrian approach and resulted in bolder action, with more amendments to the Bill to take on the concerns of non-governmental organisations, stakeholders and, indeed, the constituents we all represent. But on air quality, it fails to put WHO targets into law. It fails to require enough trees or seagrass to be planted. It fails to look at our marine environment in a meaningful way. On targets, it is weak, and the difficult decisions required to hit net zero seem to be parked for future dates. It is absent on ocean protection, which is surely a key part of our environment as an island nation.
Labour’s amendments would strengthen the Bill. In all sincerity, I encourage the Minister to look closely at them, because they are good amendments. But that is precisely why I fear that the Government will Whip their MPs to vote against them. I do not think that Ministers want a strong, landmark Bill; I think they want a weak Bill that allows them the freedom to park difficult decisions, delay urgent action and act in their own best interests rather than the planet’s. This Bill is enough to look busy—to do something—but not enough to make meaningful change. It is in that grey area that a real danger lies: enough to convince the public that something is being done without fundamentally changing the outcomes at the end of it—to lull people into a false sense of security that change is happening and does not require the difficult decisions that we all in our hearts know are coming.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, as always. I do not think it is fair to say that it is a weak Bill. May I probe the Opposition, as we are on Report, on the whole issue of biodiversity as a condition of planning permission? There are amendments on the amendment paper in that respect today; where do the Opposition stand on planning permission and biodiversity as a precondition thereof?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention; I know he always listens carefully to my speeches on this subject, and his question is a good one. We are facing a bit of a planning crisis. I am concerned that the developers’ charter that has been set out by the Government regarding planning on one side of Government practice does not fit neatly with what is being proposed in this Bill, on this side of Government practice.
If we are to have the expansion in a free-for-all for development that is being proposed by one Government Department, it is hard to see how that fits with the biodiversity protections on another side of Government. I would like them to gel together, because I want developers to provide the more affordable homes, the zero-carbon homes and the low-carbon homes that we need in all our constituencies. To do that, we need to send a clear message to them about how biodiversity is to be built into the planning system. Where, for instance, is the requirement for swift bricks to be built into new developments—building nature into them? Where is the requirements to have hedgehog holes in some of the fences, as we have seen from some developers?
There are an awful lot of good interventions on biodiversity and planning that create not unnecessary red tape or cost, but an environment where we can build nature into our new planning system. At the moment, I am concerned that those two things do not match together, which is why we want to see biodiversity much more integrated into the planning system. If I am honest, I think Government Members also want that to happen, which is why the planning reforms proposed in the Queen’s Speech do not fit with this Bill and why there is such concern.
These are good individual ideas, but the problem is actually a much wider one. If we do not have a recycling culture in housing and planning, we are just going to use lots of greenfield sites. Doing so would damage not only our environment, but our communities; we would be doing social damage by leaving brownfield sites undeveloped. We need to start taxing greenfield sites and doing radical stuff, so that we get joined-up Government and use that money massively to clear the way for developing brownfield sites. That is what we need to be doing—not just putting in nice little bee bricks, as important as they are.
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. I am a big fan of bee bricks as well as swift bricks. I fear that his intervention was aimed more at the Government than at me. I hope that the Minister will be listening carefully to her own Back Benchers, because, whether she agrees with the words of the Opposition or not, we need a bolder Environment Bill. We need it to be better joined up across Government because we are not there yet.
DEFRA was at the heart of Government when the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) was in charge, but it has lost its way. It has lost its va va voom. It is now dominated by a bland and dreary managerialism. Where is the energy and drive needed to tackle the climate crisis? The Department has a lot of decent junior Ministers—one of them is opposite me now—but I think it has lost its way. This Bill is okay. It is passable. It is a bit “meh”. But it is not landmark. Indeed, it is deliberately not a landmark Bill.
I say to the Minister: look carefully at Labour’s amendments and please let us work together to get this Bill back on track. I agree with her on the need for bold action; I just do not think that this Bill delivers it. If we are properly to address the climate and ecological crisis, we need more, bolder and decisive action than I am afraid this Bill includes.
I remind Members that the speaking limit in effect for Back Benchers is four minutes. The countdown clock will be visible on the screen of hon. Members participating virtually and on the screens in the Chamber. For hon. Members participating physically in the Chamber, the usual clock in the Chamber will now operate. I call the Chair of the Select Committee, Neil Parish.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate.
I welcome the return of the Environment Bill and commend Ministers on bringing it back so quickly after the Queen’s Speech. Let me start by welcoming the recent publication of England trees action plan, which sets out ambitious targets for tree planting. I was pleased to see that it also includes plans to deliver what I have previously described as smart tree planting. What I mean by smart tree planting is not simply planting large numbers of trees, but planting the right trees in the right areas so that they can help to mitigate soil erosion and form natural flood defences. I welcome the fact that new woodlands are to be planted that will enhance biodiversity and have recreational benefits, but I emphasise that trees are also a living crop; we want to see them grow and mature, and we will use them for building our houses and will capture the carbon. I therefore want to see the right varieties planted to form the timber of our future buildings.
While we are rightly going to great lengths to deliver sustainable forestry policy in England, we must not miss the opportunity to send equally ambitious targets to protect forests overseas, many of which are very sadly facing an unprecedented threat. In 2020 alone, some 11,000 sq km of the Amazon were lost to deforestation—the most in 12 years. That is an area nearly twice the size of Devon lost in one year. Large-scale commercial agriculture accounts for a large proportion of that. We cannot allow this to go on.
I am very happy to put my name to amendments 26 and 27, in particular amendment 27, on financial services. Many of our constituents will invest with and use UK financial institutions, banks and pension funds, and they will have very little sight of the investments that they make around the world that could assist deforestation of the Amazon. Is not the key point that we cannot just rely on transparency—that it is a duty of the House to act, and this legislation is a golden opportunity to do that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, especially in terms of pension funds. People do not always know which companies their pension funds are investing in and what those companies are investing in—are they investing in Malaysia or in large cattle ranches in Brazil, where deforestation may be taking place? We need to tighten up on this, and I very much welcome his intervention.
Not only are rainforests a carbon sink, but they hold 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. They help to maintain our delicate global ecosystem, so I am pleased that, as part of the Bill, companies that cause illegal deforestation will be held accountable. The requirement for large companies to undertake due diligence on their supply chains is an important step, but the Bill should go further in tackling the practice.
As Members will know, I have tabled two amendments to the Bill to ensure that the measures have the teeth to tackle the problem. First, amendment 26 proposes that we put into law protections for the rights of indigenous people, requiring that
“free, prior and informed consent has been obtained from affected indigenous peoples and local communities”
before big companies go in and develop land. That is important because, while the Government’s new provisions reference the need for companies to ensure that local laws are respected, they do not consider that the rights of indigenous communities are not always respected in law.
I have visited Brazil; I have seen the trucks going through the forest and the people in the back of them with sub-machine-guns. I can assure the Government that it is not easy for indigenous people to have rights in places where there is no real rule of law in parts. Indeed, 80% of indigenous lands do not yet have secure legal rights. In those places, local people are rightly defending their own land from aggressive development, but at great risk. In February 2019, I had the honour of meeting the chief of the indigenous population in the Amazon. He told me of the daily struggles that he and his people experience in protecting their homes from illegal land clearance. Research shows that more people than ever were killed in 2019 for defending their land. Over 200 were killed—an average of around four people a week. Not only are indigenous people being killed, but many are seeing the land on which their livelihoods depend being destroyed. Amendment 26 would not only save lives but would save livelihoods—something that I know the Government care greatly about. I ask them to look carefully at this issue.
The second measure that I would like the Government to implement to tighten up the Bill is amendment 27. I firmly believe that we must ensure that the legislation includes the financial sector, which is in many cases bank-rolling deforestation in places such as Brazil and Malaysia. If we do not include the financial sector in these measures, we are missing out one of the most integral parts of the supply chain and leaving a large loophole in the law.
Mr Speaker, you might recall that there used to be a TV game show called “Bullseye”, in which the legendary Jim Bowen consoled failed contestants with that cruellest of catchphrases, “Let’s have a look at what you could have won.” As we come to the end of the long process of this Environment Bill, a lot of folk might be thinking that it was Jim Bowen presenting it.
I will be as generous as I can and say that there were good intentions behind the Bill, or at least the stated intentions were good back when it appeared many, many moons ago. There was admirable ambition to enshrine environmental protections in law, to set proper targets and to establish the Office for Environmental Protection—high aims, except those rules would not apply to one of the most polluting and environmentally damaging parts of the state, the military. They also would not apply to anything that might be classed as national security or taxation or spending. Those are pretty big areas of government: if taxation and the allocation of resources are exempted, a massive part of governance will walk happily by without casting a glance in the direction of the environmental protection regulations.
Then of course in the Bill’s Committee stage the Government introduced amendments and new clauses that limited the power of the Office for Environmental Protection to take enforcement action, creating thresholds for reviews, moving the review from tribunal to court, limiting the OEP’s power to intervene in judicial reviews brought by others, and imposing even greater limitations on its own power to initiate judicial reviews. To top that off, Ministers took the power to be able to direct the OEP on what it should be enforcing. It has gone from a powerful and independent body to a mere arm of the Government before it is even born—a bit sad, really.
There are still things to be welcomed, however, the setting of a species recovery target being one. It should be a declaration of intent—a commitment to reversing some of the harm that has been done—but it needs clarifying and it needs political will behind it to get to any kind of a delivery phase. It also needs cash—plenty up front to get it started, as well as an ongoing commitment to keep funding the work.
We have seen what has happened to Natural England: how the funding cuts stripped that body of its ability to do its job; how its feet got cut away from under it; how a decade of austerity has rendered it unable to function properly. Budget cuts have led to pay cuts, cuts in grants, cuts in staff numbers and cuts in assessed programmes. That is a terrible way to treat staff—a horrendous betrayal of their loyalty and hard work—and I hope Ministers, and those hoping one day to replace them, think on that. Natural England’s Government funding was cut by two thirds between 2010 and last year. Staff numbers have gone down by a quarter since 2010 and those who remain have seen real-terms pay cuts. The ability of the agency to do its work is compromised, if not fatally damaged. Its recovery, if it can recover, would depend on substantial investment in cash and in political capital, but, given how the Office for Environmental Protection has been gutted even before it has been created, I cannot see much hope for Natural England. Perhaps the Minister can tell us in her closing remarks how that will pan out.
This is almost entirely England’s problem of course, because it is England’s Government failing on the environment and this Bill is largely an English Bill, but what is done in England affects Scotland in many ways, including funding, because we are stuck in this constricting Union, for the moment at least. I would be happy to see England sort it out for Scotland’s sake, but even more so for the sake of the environment.
We will, however, of course all be in agreement with amendment 26; who in Parliament would ever think it appropriate to go taking the resources of other peoples and lands without the consent of those peoples? Such pillaging of communities should be beyond the pale.
The UK Government could just for once look to Scotland and the initiatives a Government who are ambitious for their citizens and mindful of their duty to protect and improve our environment can legislate for, such as our commitments to active travel and the restoration of our peatlands, our deposit return scheme soon to be implemented, further planting of new woodlands, implementation of the WHO recommendations on PM2.5 on air pollution, creation of the largest green space project in Europe, the central Scotland green network, and much, much more, with green recovery placed at the heart of successive policy publications: actions rather than just words.
Even in this year when COP26 is to be hosted in Glasgow, the commitment of the UK Government to sorting out some of the mess is minimal if it exists at all. France managed to create the Paris agreement when it headed the conference of the parties; the UK is busy greenwashing what it can and dismantling the rest. Biden is doing the work the UK Government should be doing: dragging commitments out of other Governments. The UK Government like to pretend that the UK is a world leader, but it cannot even lead a conference.
There are elements missing from the Bill that will have to be addressed in the near future, including the lack of clear and binding plans to reduce waste. The World Health Organisation guidelines on particulate levels reduction are missing, and there is nothing on plastic pollution—many public bodies are exempt from the law. I have already mentioned the military and anything that can be covered by the nebulous national security definition, but there are plenty of other examples. To spare the blood pressure of the ardent Brexiteers, I promise I will not mention the rolling back on existing EU protections, but it is there. As the EU continues to press ahead, keeping to environmental protections that the UK’s Environment Secretary described as “spirit-crushing”, the UK will fall behind.
Protecting the environment and making some progress on addressing the climate emergency takes effort, fortitude and a bit of guts to tackle the unpopular things that need to be done. I do not see any evidence of that kind of grit in Whitehall and that is a great shame. Jim Bowen never had the environment behind that screen, but I cannot help reflecting on the fact that this should have been a big win, but is instead a sorry look at what we have not won.
I tabled new clause 2 to address the proposed general licensing requirements for the release of game birds and the environmental benefits of shooting. A campaign group named Wild Justice is repeatedly challenging DEFRA. As a result, Natural England must make assessments of the potential damage to EU-protected sites before granting licences for the release of game species. The proposed assessments are intended to take years to achieve, thus halting the granting of licences. The new clause would shift the requirement for Natural England from mandatory assessments to doing them on a common-sense, case-by-case basis.
Campaign groups such as Wild Justice would like to end all country sports. Often fuelled by emotive and ill-informed rhetoric, such campaigns do not recognise the importance to the environment of country sports and their contribution to not only the rural economy but the conservation of land. The gross value added of shooting stands at £1.7 billion in England and £2 billion in the United Kingdom—£240 million in the west midlands alone. Shooting adds 350,000 direct paid jobs to the market and accounts for 10% of the total amount spent on outdoor recreation each year.
Every year, 3.9 million work days are spent on conservation —the equivalent of 16,000 full-time conservation jobs. Up to 700,000 hectares of farm land are planted with wild bird seed mixes and pollinator strips as a result of game bird management. That is five times greater than the land owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Game shooting estates often have 65% more hedgerows than normal farm land. Most statistics show that the sport is not the preserve of the elite: figures from 31 March show that 159,483 firearms certificates and 567,358 shotgun certificates were on issue in England and Wales. That means that at least 1.6 million people are shooting in the UK.
Pheasants have been in the UK continually for the last 2,000 years. Their release, management and subsequent hunting predates all site protections. Indeed, game bird release and management have largely been responsible for the existence of sites of high nature value that are worth protecting. Some 28% of woodlands in England are managed to some extent for game birds—more than are managed for nature conservation. We therefore need to do considerably more to ensure that, if the new clause does not suit the Minister exactly, such provisions are taken on board.
Natural England has two tools to monitor sites: the improvement programme for England’s Natura 2000 sites—IPENS—and a designated sites view, or DSV. The latter identified game bird release as causing an impact across seven sites of special scientific interest—the equivalent of 134 hectares. For context, England’s SSSI network covers 4,100 sites and that is more than 1 million hectares. The worst impacts on nature, unfortunately, are caused by dogs and walkers, and nobody wants to see them campaigned against, so I hope that DEFRA will adopt the gist of this amendment to protect itself—
I would like to begin by praising the work of Wild Justice, whose members are far from ill- informed, absolutely passionate about nature conservation and do some excellent work. I was waiting for the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) to mention Labour’s amendment on peat burning. I know that is in the next group, but it was quite surprising that he—
Yes, well, perhaps the hon. Gentleman can come back for the next debate and make an intervention to show that he supports that amendment. [Interruption.] He can intervene on me, of course.
I would like to speak primarily in favour of amendments 26 and 27, tabled by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish); I believe that birthday congratulations are in order today. Deforestation, which destroys vital carbon stores and natural habitats, is both one of the central drivers of the climate emergency and a driver of the devastating decline in biodiversity. As we have heard, it also plays a role in displacing people from their land and leads to modern slavery and exploitative working practices. It is clear that we need a no-tolerance approach to any deforestation in our supply chains, legal or illegal.
The Bill comes before us in a slightly better state than its many previous incarnations due to the Government’s new proposals on due diligence in deforestation, but unfortunately they fall far short of what is needed. The primary issue is that they act only to eliminate illegal deforestation. That ignores the fact that some nations, most notably Bolsonaro’s Brazil, are chipping away at legal protections on deforestation and enforcement mechanisms to identify and prevent it. For instance, the Brazilian Parliament is set to approve new legislation dubbed “the destruction package” that will accelerate deforestation in the Amazon by providing an amnesty to land grabbers and allowing deforestation on indigenous lands for major construction projects. Preliminary WWF research shows that 2 million hectares of forest and natural ecosystems could be legally deforested in the Brazilian territories that supply soya to the UK.
This Bill is a unique opportunity to send a message to those states that fail to act to protect our planet. That is why I urge the Government to think again and to strengthen their proposals to include legal deforestation to show true climate leadership ahead of COP26. I am sure that, if we do not accept these amendments today, the noble peers in the other place will have strong words to say about that, and I hope they will send the Bill back to us suitably amended.
Amendment 27 would prevent financial services from working with firms linked to illegal forest-risk commodities. We cannot claim to be tough on deforestation if we allow British financial institutions to support firms linked to it. These damaging investments are deeply embedded in our economy and sometimes even in our own personal finances. Shocking analysis from Feedback published today shows that even the parliamentary pension fund has investments in companies such as JBS Investments that have been repeatedly linked to deforestation. It is not good that we are being drawn into complicity in this situation through our parliamentary pension fund. I therefore hope the Government will accept these amendments and begin to show global leadership.
I very much support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends on the Labour Front Bench, including new clause 25 calling on the Government to prepare a tree strategy for England. We are trying to do this in Bristol in terms of doubling the tree canopy and with our One City ecological emergency strategy, which I encourage other cities and towns to emulate. I also support amendment 22, which would embed the net gain of habitats in perpetuity. I urge colleagues across the House to accept these amendments. If we fail to do that today, as I said, I am sure that the noble Lords in the other place will take up these causes with their customary vigour.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this landmark Bill, which aims to ensure that the environment is at the heart of Government policy. I am pleased that it intends to better conserve our environment, tackle biodiversity loss and regenerate parts of our great countryside.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for his tireless efforts on environmental issues, including his work on food labelling and environmental sustainability. I was very proud, in the previous Parliament, to co-sponsor his Bill on that matter, much of the contents of which are set to come back to this House later today. This, along with new clause 4, demonstrates that so much more can be done to strengthen our commitments to the environment by protecting vulnerable species. I welcome the Minister’s statements today and her commitment to review ways that we can reverse the decline in hedgehog numbers.
I think we can also help the population to make informed choices. Recently, I visited Rodbaston College in my Stafford constituency. I was delighted to tour the animal zone, where a number of my young constituents are learning to work with a variety of animals, learning how to protect our native species such as the otter and learning to train for careers in conservation. New clause 4, which aims to insert hedgehogs into the Bill as a protected species, is an important reminder of how interconnected nature is, and the important need to retain and to protect species such as the hedgehog.
It may surprise some people to know that a key factor in the reduction of the number of hedgehogs is in fact keeping gardens too tidy and the lack of wildlife corridors in fenced-in gardens. Last week, I was pleased to re-form the all-party parliamentary group for fruit, vegetables and horticulture, which I co-chair, and I led a conversation with Alan Titchmarsh, in which we discussed how gardeners can work with nature to improve habitats for other wildlife, including hedgehogs. New clause 21 aims to protect habitats better. I think we can all do our bit by providing wildlife corridors and creating hedgehog homes, as I have in my own garden. No Mow May is an initiative that is very popular with my constituents: people do absolutely nothing to their lawn in May, which can significantly improve the ecosystem of their garden. The wonderful thing about nature is that it wants to recover. We just need to give it the opportunity to do so.
I believe that the measures in this Bill lay the groundwork to significantly improve our environment. The Bill, particularly new clause 21, clearly demonstrates our Government’s commitment to protecting the unique and diverse habitats that we have in Britain. I was pleased recently to visit the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust’s Wolseley Centre to see at first hand its project to replicate a wide variety of habitats in Staffordshire, including woodlands, ponds, and wet and hay meadows. These habitats are providing homes for a range of flora and fauna. The measures in the Bill ensure that we can protect these for generations to come.
One of the reasons these steps are so effective and increase biodiversity is that we are helping other species in the ecosystem to thrive, which in turn leads to a richer and more resilient environment. That is why I believe it is so vital that we reverse the biodiversity loss we have already suffered in the UK, and that is why I welcome the focus in the Bill. I welcome the Bill along with the new clause I have discussed due to their aim to conserve our environment and increase biodiversity. We need to protect and improve our precious environment for generations to come.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak in this important debate today. I would like to cut to the chase, because time is short. I think it is worth reiterating the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard): we do face a climate emergency and an ecological emergency. Put simply, these are existential threats to humanity on this planet. We must, as he rightly said, not only slow down the car that is speeding towards the cliff, but stop it, turn it around and drive the other way.
The question we need to discuss today is whether this Bill is enough to stop that car. In my opinion, it simply is not. It does make some small steps forward—I grant the Government that, and I am very keen to work with colleagues across the House on this matter—but I think we have to be honest with ourselves: it does not take the significant series of steps that we all support, I would hope, and that we as a country and the wider world urgently need.
I will highlight three key issues before mentioning a few local points. On tree planting, I am not sure the Government fully understand the difficulty of rolling out a major programme of tree planting, given the wide range of landowners they need to work with, the importance of supporting local authorities and the practical difficulties, such as the number of man and woman hours that it takes to plant a large number of trees. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), rightly spoke about the importance of biodiversity and supporting trees—which are not only good in themselves in capturing carbon, but have a beneficial effect on the landscape, for example, stopping erosion—and about promoting native trees rather than those that do not support such a wide range of animals and plants. The interesting comparison here is a sycamore versus an oak tree. An oak tree might support 1,000 plants and animals, but a sycamore, which is not native, does not support anything like that—it supports only a few species.
There are also important weaknesses in terms of air quality. This is a major issue in my Reading East constituency, where a huge amount of traffic flows through the town, a legacy problem with the way roads are laid out in our area, and many families have severe concerns about the health of children, older people and the population as a whole.
On the oceans—my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport also mentioned this issue—we face a huge challenge around the world, with the growth of plastics in the oceans. There are many other problems as well.
I would like to work on a cross-party basis with colleagues, but we need to understand the urgency of the matters that should be addressed by the Bill. Our residents in our local communities are telling us that. I am sure I am not the only person here present today who has a groaning postbag, with many different concerns raised by local people. There are far too many to mention in full, but I want to just cover a couple of them.
A good example is the scale of concern about sewage flowing into rivers. Reading sits on the River Thames and the River Kennet. We have a large population, with people who want to wild swim in the Thames and other water users. Many people enjoy boating and fishing. We need to deal with this problem urgently and it relates to the other issues we have talked about today.
In my area, we are also very concerned about the planning liberalisation proposed by the Government, which is completely mistaken. As many Conservative Members who represent similar seats in southern England will know, it could dramatically change the local landscape, lead to a huge amount of infilling between existing towns and cities, degrade the quality of life in existing suburbs by putting large blocks of flats between rows of existing houses, and lead to building on the green lungs of towns and cities. So I urge the Government— I realise this does not relate directly to this Bill—to address this matter, completely scrap and reconsider their approach to planning, and revert to the traditional tried and tested approach which has stood us in good stead since world war two.
Very briefly—I realise I am in danger of running over time, Madam Deputy Speaker—I will indicate my support for new clause 25, on trees; amendment 46, on the rainforest, from the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, which I whole- heartedly support; amendment 22, on habitat protection; new clause 12, on banning fracking—a very important measure and there are local concerns about that in our area—and new clause 24, on banning heather burning.
I will speak to amendment 45. Clause 95 is an important step forward because it changes the duty on public authorities: the duty is not just to conserve biodiversity, but to enhance it. That is a big change and one of the big measures in the Bill. Amendment 45 would add to that by requiring public authorities to consider what action they can take to contribute to the achievement of targets under the UN convention on biological diversity. This is a big year with COP26 coming up, but we also have, at Kunming in October—about the time the Bill may well become law—the renewal of the convention and the plan for the next 10 years. I invite the Minister to consider how we can leverage the nature target, for example, which has just been announced, to make such commitments international so that we are changing not just Britain, but the world.
The last CBD that set out a 10-year plan was in 2010; the Aichi targets. It is true that in our country we have done a lot of the things that were proposed, but internationally only one target out of 20 has been achieved: number 11, on protecting 17% of land and water. There is an opportunity, later this year, to go much further. The Government have already made commitments on the sort of measures we should be trying to negotiate, such as protecting 30%, not 17%, of land and seas, and protecting species. I think there is an opportunity to put this in the Bill, although I am just probing the Minister on that. Really, I want to know what the Government’s plans are to take the initiatives in this landmark Bill and make them international. I know the Minister probably has a lot to say when she winds up the debate, but it would be welcome if she touched on the global aspects.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will restrict my remarks to amendments 47 and 49, which stand in my name, and amendment 29, which stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney). The amendments have in common the aim of protecting the landscape and the environment both in very rural areas like mine and in urban and suburban parts of the UK that are threatened by the Government’s planning reforms.
Amendments 47 and 49 would ensure that environmental land management schemes contain a mechanism to deliver adequate financial support to our farmers for delivering landscape benefits, in particular species conservation and protected site strategies, and so rewarding our farmers for maintaining the beauty of our landscape. We have done that inadvertently through various funding schemes over the past few decades, but it is about to drop by the wayside. It is hard to put a price on landscape beauty, but it is vital that we do so.
In the lake district and the Yorkshire dales, in a normal year our Cumbria tourism economy is worth more than £3 billion and employs 60,000 people in our county—tourism is comfortably the biggest employer in Cumbria. Underpinning that economy is the beauty of the landscape.
I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman. Farming, landscape and tourism are closely integrated. As we deal with the Environment Bill, we have to remember that agriculture and tourism are interlinked, especially in the rural parts of this great country of ours.
The Select Committee Chair is absolutely right, and I completely agree. We have to find a mechanism to make sure that we reward those who maintain the beauty of our landscape.
I have often been in places such as Barbondale, Dentdale, Langdale, Kentmere, Longsleddale and other glorious bits of my part of the world. I almost feel compelled to express envy of the hill farmer I am with in his or her glorious environment, but often the response is a slightly sad look that says, “I can’t eat the view.” It is all very well having a beautiful place, but if those who work there make a pittance, what good is it to them? That is what is happening in the uplands, where people are steadily moving away as farms fail and close. The Government’s plan to offer early retirement to farmers offers no mechanism to get young people in to replace them, and just in the last few days, the only agricultural college in Cumbria has closed.
I am desperate to ensure that the ELMS rewards farmers for landscape value, but there is currently no effective mechanism to do that. That should be added, which is why the amendment matters. I am also concerned about what the Bill means for the status of some of the beautiful parts of the United Kingdom. UNESCO awarded world heritage site status to the lake district just a few years ago. The report that resulted in the award of that status gave as much credit to the farmers as it did to the glaciers. These are managed, crafted landscapes, and we should reward the farmers who provide them.
There are many bad things about our not being in the EU, but one good thing is that we do not need to borrow EU measures. We do not need to borrow the plan for funding ELMS through the mechanism of income forgone. We should be rewarding farmers for the value of what they do, not paying the pittance they were paid in the first place.
In the time left, I will speak to amendment 29. Local nature resource strategies are a good idea. They are welcome, but they are weak, and they will not be worth the paper they are written on if they are not material to the considerations and decisions made by local planning committees. If we are to protect our green belt, whether it be in such places as the constituency of the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), other parts of the ring around London, or indeed a very rural area like mine, we must not put planners in a situation where they have no power to prevent developers from damaging the countryside or, as is the case in a place like mine, to prevent developers from delivering up to 50 houses without having to deliver a single affordable property.
Nine out of 10 planning permission applications get passed. More than a million planning applications for homes have not been delivered. Planning is not the problem; planning is the protection for our communities and our environment. That is why this amendment is important to try to undo and mitigate some of the Government’s attack on our rural communities.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), and it is a real pleasure to speak in this debate. It was over a year ago that I made my maiden speech specifically so that I had the opportunity to contribute to the Second Reading of this Bill, so it is a pleasure to be back here again.
It is worth reflecting on the context of where we are now, because in the intervening time, the pieces of our country and the world have been almost thrown into the air, and we still do not quite know where they will land. The pandemic makes the Bill even more important than it was over a year ago. It is fair to say that all of us have had time to reassess priorities. We have considered our priorities in life—our quality of life, our family, our health and our friends—and this Bill has become even more important, because many of us, with the roads quiet and having limited time to get out, have reflected on the importance of our natural environment and what is around us. Our appreciation of nature and the need to focus on species loss and the things that make our environment unique to our localities are even more important than they were.
With respect, I must disagree with the shadow Secretary of State’s characterisation of this as not being a landmark Bill, because it is a landmark Bill. It is a bold Bill. I particularly reject the characterisation that it is a mark of a Government or, indeed, any Member on the Government Benches not caring about the environment, because it absolutely is not that.
In our area, there are a lot of chalk streams. Does my hon. Friend agree that for our population and our area, points that the Government have agreed on, such as not having sewage overflows into the streams and treating low flows as damage that has to be restored, are incredibly valuable things?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend and neighbour, because I will come on to mention chalk streams, which are such a vital part of our environment as a country, particularly in Hertford and Hertfordshire. In Hertford and Stortford—I may be biased—we have one of the most beautiful places in the world to live and work, and this Bill is important to me and my constituents.
We are going to rely on many of the Bill’s provisions. Development is a major driver of species loss and environmental degradation, so the biodiversity net gain requirements will be critical for us in protecting our environment. We have swathes of green belt that will be developed, and there is lots of infill development. This Bill will be really important to help us to retain our environment in those circumstances. I thank the Minister for her engagement with the all-party parliamentary group on chalk streams, because that has produced some strong commitments and practical solutions.
In my constituency in Hertfordshire, we have five amazing chalk streams: the Stort, the Mimram, the Beane, the Ash and the River Lea. We all know that they have been called the rainforests of the environment, because they are so key to diversity in the ecosystem. I absolutely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that the provisions in the Bill about chalk streams are extremely welcome and important.
I am pleased to speak also as the RSPB champion for the kestrel, because these things are inextricably linked. In Rye Meads nature reserve in my constituency, the kestrel has declined drastically, but focus on chalk streams and the wildlife they produce will help the kestrel as well. The environment is so complex, and I welcome the progress we have made and thank the Minister for her engagement on that.
When I spoke last time, I quoted Rudyard Kipling, and although I will not overuse his beautiful words, what he said is that we cannot just sit back and expect everything—our beautiful land—to happen without us playing our part. I believe that this Bill is very much us playing our part.
The environment is the bedrock of our economy and our wellbeing. It is not something separate from ourselves; it is in the food we eat and the places where we live. I know this, as do my constituents in Feltham and Heston. Whether they are emailing me about biodiversity, badger culling, air pollution, habitats, parks, clean and green streets or everything in between, it is clear that they care about the environment and about the other creatures that we share nature with. Indeed, I was a member of Friends of the Earth before I joined the Labour party as a teenager.
As we prepare to host COP26 in November and as we leave the EU’s regulatory frameworks, now is the time to create positive, impactful, long-lasting environmental protections. Unfortunately, the Government do not seem prepared to strengthen our legislation fully on environmental protections, instead seeming to give the Secretary of State too much discretion and refusing to implement too many of the changes that we need. Lockdown highlighted more than ever the importance of nature for our nation’s health and our wellbeing, but under the Tories, wildlife has been on a downward spiral, with 44% of species in decline over the last 10 years and tree planting targets being missed by over 50%. I want to see nature protected, which is why I am also supporting new clause 25—along with others I have signed that are in the name of the Opposition Front Benchers—to ensure that we are focused not just on planting new trees, but on protecting and maintaining existing woodlands. Hounslow Council’s work on this has been inspiring, and I am proud to also be an environmental champion.
I want to speak briefly about plastics, because the pandemic has also vividly illustrated the scale of waste created by single-use and throwaway packaging. Public, political and corporate concerns over plastic pollution are strong. We have a real opportunity to reduce the volume of single-use plastics that are harming our environment, our oceans and our health.
In March 2018, the Government first confirmed that they would introduce a deposit return scheme in England for single-use drinks containers, including plastic, glass and metal. This went out for consultation in February 2019. Respondents to the consultation overwhelmingly backed a deposit return scheme, which is also very much supported by Heston Action Group, Cranford Action Group and many others across west London and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury).
The Government were going to introduce a deposit return scheme from 2023, but two months ago, a consultation document confirmed that it would not now happen until late 2024 at the earliest. There is a clear case to proceed, so can the Minister explain why they need to explore whether there is a continued appetite for a deposit return scheme in a post-covid context? This is an excuse, not a reason. We should be introducing a deposit return scheme well before late 2024. Although proposals to establish a DRS are contained in the Bill, it does not say what materials will be included within a scheme, nor the deposit price.
World Environment Day is on 5 June, just next week. We need to be engaging young people on the importance of our natural world. I recently held an environment photography competition inviting young people aged 18 and under to send in a drawing or photo that represented nature to them, so we can see the environment through the eyes of young people. The entries have shown how much young people in Feltham and Heston care about the environment and about the importance of reducing, reusing and recycling. We cannot let these young people down. It is their futures that this Bill will affect, and it is this Parliament’s responsibility to protect our environment for the generations to come. This needs a serious long-term plan and the political will to deliver it.
Many of us will be glad to see the back of endless Zoom calls that merge into one another. One that will always remain with me was the first time that I met Des, the brown long-eared bat. It was the first time that I had seen one of these remarkable creatures close up, and he did indeed have the most spectacular ears, almost as long as his body. I was meeting Des because I am the Bat Conservation Trust’s species champion for brown long-eared bats—a species that are quite common in Rushcliffe and across Nottinghamshire, but whose numbers are in decline owing to habitat loss. Sadly, Des and his fellow bats are not alone. In the UK, there has been on average a 13% decline in species abundance since 1970, with a steeper decline seen in the past 10 years. Species extinction is a very real danger for one in 10 species here in the UK. That is why the provisions in the Bill are so important. I strongly welcome the requirement for all new developments to have a biodiversity net gain of over 10%.
New homes are important, but we must do more to protect our beautiful countryside from overdevelopment. We must exhaust our options on local brownfield sites before allowing more development on nearby countryside. Thanks to the Bill, the homes that we build must deliver, rather than detract from, biodiversity. That will be so important for species, like bats, that use existing structures for their roosts and are loyal to them. The type of homes we develop can make a huge difference to how welcome they feel.
I also welcome the requirements for local authorities to produce nature recovery strategies as part of a 500,000-hectare nature recovery network, the largest restoration project in England’s history. I am delighted to hear that the Bill will be further strengthened with a legally binding target for species abundance. This will halt the decline in nature in England by 2030. It is a world-leading measure, which will help to redress the biodiversity loss that we have seen in the past 50 years.
I am also relieved that the Bill will help to tackle biodiversity loss overseas, in particular illegal deforestation, which is the cause of half of all tropical forest deforestation. We will be the first country in the world to put due diligence requirements on large businesses that use forest-risk commodities in their products. Any such commodities must be produced in accordance with local laws. Businesses must establish a system of due diligence for each regulated commodity and report annually on it. That process rests on the principle of productive partnership with Governments around the world, building on successful programmes like the Partnership for Forests programme, but we must remain alive to the reality that local laws may be distorted and changed to suit commercial agendas. I am thinking in particular of the shameful actions we are seeing from the Brazilian Government. We must be prepared for even stronger action to protect tropical forests if this does not change.
This Environment Bill is a fantastic step forward. It provides a strong platform for our negotiations at the UN biodiversity conference and our presidency of COP26 this autumn, and I look forward to telling Des at our next meeting the good news that we have passed the Bill.
I am pleased to speak in this vital debate. Given the short time that we have, I shall focus on new clauses 21 and 22, two wide-ranging new clauses tabled by the Government, and my amendments (a) and (b), which I plan to press to a Division.
These new clauses would give the Secretary of State the power to amend the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. These are critical pieces of legislation, the mainstay of conservation law. Although there is undoubtedly a strong case for aligning laws that protect habitats and species with the goal of halting the decline of nature by 2030, I am concerned that the Government proposal is for new regulations that in fact could replace the habitats regulations and risk losing vital protection for wildlife, rather than adding to them. Yet the Bill is not a replacement for the nature directives. They serve two distinct purposes. The first—the Bill—sets an overarching nature’s recovery. The second provides protection for particular species and habitats, including particular local populations and individual specimens.
In order to fully restore nature, we need both species and site-specific protection, as well as a bold overall goal. As these new clauses are currently drafted, though, they risk removing the much needed protection of species and nature-critical areas, such as great crested newts or special areas of conservation, with significant damage to particular wildlife being masked by hoped-for overall trends of improvement. We know that the scale and health of individual populations are crucial to restoring biodiversity. I am also concerned that there has been no prior consultation or engagement with stakeholders on these amendments and that neither an impact assessment nor the supplementary delegated powers memorandum has been published.
In the light of those concerns, I have tabled two small amendments to new clause 21, simply replacing “instead of” with “in addition to”, which would ensure that the existing objectives in the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations are not replaced, but added to. They would enable the habitats regulations to be aligned with the objectives outlined in the Environment Bill without risking the protection of specific sites, species or populations.
These amendments are not about being frozen in time. I recognise that change is necessary—I was online earlier listening to the Minister’s introductory remarks, so I heard what she said—but the new framework must be about improving environmental protection rather than creating the potential at least to weaken it. Even if this Government have no plans to weaken regulations, as I hope they do not, this is a once-in-a-generation Bill and it must be future-proofed. There is no guarantee that a future Minister in a future Government will not choose to use this opportunity to water down protections, and we need safeguards against that. These are therefore entirely reasonable amendments, which I hope very much the Government will support.
In the last bit of time that I have left, I simply want to say a few words about new clause 16, tabled by the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), which would make the protection of biodiversity a condition of planning permission. I am sure the Minister is aware of the threat currently faced by Knepp estate, one of the UK’s best known and most successful rewilding projects, by a development being proposed by Thakeham Homes, which would destroy local habitat and obstruct vital wildlife corridors and connections between Knepp and neighbouring areas. As this project will deliver on the objectives laid out in the Environment Bill, I would welcome confirmation that the Minister is in contact with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that he is championing its cause and will intervene in this case.
It has been 25 years since the last UK-wide Environment Act was passed. In that time, the speed and scale of destruction have increased dramatically. We need a bold new Bill and we need to do more to make this Bill what we need.
It is with great pleasure that I rise today to speak on this important Bill and on a vital issue that is central to the people of Derbyshire Dales and, indeed, of the world. This is a landmark Bill and I have been waiting for it for many years.
Environmentalism is at the heart of building back better, not just on these islands but as part of the Prime Minister’s vision for a global Britain. Tackling climate change and biodiversity loss was listed as the United Kingdom’s No.1 international priority in the recent review of defence and foreign policy. There can be no doubt that the environment is safest when it is in the hands of a sensible Conservative Government. Rather than delivering hot air, this Government are delivering conservation.
Of special interest to Derbyshire Dales is what the Government are doing in relation to tree planting and peatland restoration. These are huge issues locally and should be so internationally. It is through the nature for climate fund and also with the creation of the Nature Recovery Network that we will see better policies and better things going forward. We will also get a more connected and richer wildlife habitat.
I welcome the fact that, in a 25-year environment plan, the Government will be introducing three new schemes, which are very well thought out and planned, to reward farmers and land managers for producing public goods. Such planning is non-existent on the Opposition Benches. These schemes are most welcome and will be adapted, I am sure, to suit all of our farmers, including my upland farmers in Derbyshire Dales.
In the months since my election, I have been delighted to meet and work with organisations locally that care deeply about this—they are committed to the environment in Derbyshire Dales—such as Moors for the Future partnership, which is leading the country in this area, and the Minister knows full well about its work. This work is vital and it is the Conservative Government who are supporting it. Free of the shackles of Europe, we can focus on what we can do on our part of this precious planet.
I have visited many farmers in my constituency. They are a quiet and rugged people. They do not need to be attacked; they need to be supported. They live and work in a day-to-day partnership with nature, and this Government are doing that. I know just how much all the people of Derbyshire Dales care about the environment. I recently met with the Wirksworth Anglican church and other churches in the Wellspring group, which care passionately about the environment. Whatever people’s politics, if they care about the environment, I will work with them and get this Government to continue their good work on the environment.
With new technology and industry, under this Conservative Government we will be leading the way for not just a greener UK but a greener world. Derbyshire County Council, ably led by Councillor Barry Lewis and his newly elected Conservative colleagues, is at the forefront of plans to try to introduce a fleet of zero-emission hydrogen buses, supported by smart mobility hubs. These are huge advances being made by Conservatives working together across the whole nation. There is also the county council’s new £2 million green entrepreneurs fund, which will support small and medium-sized businesses. In terms of the emphasis on local authorities, Derbyshire Dales District Council, led by Councillor Garry Purdy and his hard-working councillor Sue Hobson as deputy, works tirelessly on environmental issues, promoting things as small as wild flowers and trees, which are hugely significant.
In conclusion, the people of Derbyshire Dales, the farmers who till this land and care for their livestock and the people who live on our moors and our uplands are in touch with the environment; they need support and help, and this Government are giving it. While they need no prompting to look after that landscape, the provisions in the Bill will make their job a lot easier. This is a Government who are actually delivering.
I will speak briefly in favour of four amendments. First, I pay tribute to the Minister for her hard work in seeing the Bill through and the fact that, even now, she is determined to try to improve it by adding new clauses, showing diligence on her and her team’s part, which we all welcome. I especially welcome the action on sewage. We had problems in Ryde and Sandown recently with sewage coming from Southern Water, so such action is welcome on the Isle of Wight, and I congratulate Surfers Against Sewage and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) on his great work, as well as the Minister on supporting it.
Of the four amendments I will refer to, one is tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), one by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and two by me. They are probing amendments, seeking reassurance. If the Minister thinks that the work is in the Bill, that is good enough for me, but I would like to put these ideas forward to ensure that they are.
On amendment 41, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke amendment, I find it absolutely bizarre that character is not a prerequisite for major planning applications—I am not talking about a bungalow extension or a patio but significant development. Criminal records, poor behaviour, threats to intimidate others and mass tree felling do not seem to be things that we can take into account.
We have a Mr John Cooper in the Isle of Wight who owns a caravan park in an area of outstanding natural beauty. He has recently cut down 50 oak trees to build a caravan park extension. If that planning permission comes forward, we cannot turn him down on his appalling behaviour. He has gone to ground since then, and it would be nice if he made a public statement to folk on the Isle of Wight on what he is up to. I thank Councillor Peter Spink for pointing this out. Character needs to be part of the planning process, because we know that there are some rogue developers. I know that this is about planning, but importantly, as I am sure the Minister would agree, it is also about environmental protection. The more layers and safeguards that we can put in to protect landscape, the better.
I will not go into new clause 16, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet, because I know that she will speak to it soon very eloquently. In the remaining minute and a half, I would like to speak to my two amendments. New clause 27 would require tree preservation orders for all mature trees and protected landscapes. It is a no-brainer, unless the Minister says, “Actually, Bob, I think we’ve got this covered. We accept the argument, but our proposals go further,” and I will take that on trust.
New clause 26 is on SSSIs, which are very important. I have an SSSI on the Isle of Wight that is about to be concreted over because of a loophole in planning and environmental law. I have written to Ministers about this, and I am afraid to say that the responses have been a little perfunctory, to put it mildly. There is clearly a problem here, because there is a time limit under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 which means that if someone has a caravan or temporary home on a SSSI and it is not taken away within a certain timeframe, they can effectively develop that SSSI. They may not be able to stick permanent homes on it, but they can stick 200 caravans on it and concrete over the entire SSSI. How on earth can that be right? I know the Minister is concerned about the environment, so if she thinks that is covered in the Bill, I take it on trust, but if not will she please take forward this new clause and incorporate it either here or in the other place? This is absolutely a useful provision that closes an important loophole where SSSIs are damaged recklessly by people who deliberately game the system. I thank her for listening.
I am grateful for this opportunity to speak on clauses relating to nature, biodiversity and conservation in this important Bill. Although some of them relate to devolved matters, as with most of the big challenges of this century the environment and nature do not respect borders and it is important that strong legislation is in place across these islands to reverse the decline of nature and protect native species and biodiversity.
The Social Democratic and Labour party has just undertaken a big consultation ahead of private Members’ legislation on biodiversity loss in Northern Ireland. We found significant support for stronger legislation to protect nature, including the need for short-term and long-term targets, cross-departmental responsibility and a co-ordinated response and approach across Britain and Northern Ireland.
The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, in particular Northern Ireland, with more than 11% of indigenous species at risk of extinction. This is the price being paid for a fairly obsessive approach to economic growth and expansion at all costs. To date, the UK and others have continuously and consistently missed targets in relation to biodiversity recovery, including any of the 20 Aichi targets agreed in 2010. Although this is by no means a failure of the UK Government alone, as one of the largest economies and a major contributor, directly and indirectly, through activities across the world, the UK must take seriously its leadership role, particularly in this year when it hosts the G7 and COP26. I welcome the commitment to conservation strategies in the Bill and believe that they can be strengthened by amendment 45, which seeks to avoid a repeat of the IT failures and to ensure that those targets are meaningful and met.
We are experiencing the impact of the decline and destruction of nature in the wellbeing of people around the world, from the destruction of the habitats of indigenous people and the emergence of climate refugees to, of course, the spread of disease. We are well beyond crisis point, and if that was not clear before the pandemic surely that has educated us all about the stark links between the destruction of nature and our lives. An intergovernmental report has warned that we are in the era of pandemics unless the destruction of the natural world is halted. Again, that has happened not by chance but through an obsessive pursuit of growth.
Among the most important provisions in this Bill are those that can force UK companies to look at their supply chains and ensure they are not supporting illegal deforestation in other countries. I particularly welcome amendments 26, 27, 36 and 37, which I have signed, which would strengthen and enforce provision against illegal deforestation. The UK is one of the biggest sources of finance linked to companies involved in deforestation and we cannot hide any longer behind the lack of transnational governance or the lack of enforcement or binding regulations in countries of operation; we cannot look the other way from activities done overseas to the economic benefit of companies here or to underpin consumption habits here. It is positive that global brands have urged the strengthening of that law, but it is important that the Government ensure that supply chains are transformed.
This is a very important Bill offering a big opportunity to strengthen legislation, but it needs to be improved by many of the amendments that have been tabled, including those I have mentioned.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate. This place is admired for its rigorous scrutiny—the new clauses and amendments proposed by Members from across the House are no exception—and I believe the Government are genuinely listening to concerns. Further amendments have been made to the Bill since I served in the Public Bill Committee last year.
The changes being debated today are important to the residents of Truro and Falmouth, because Cornwall is on the frontline of the UK’s battle against climate change. With respect, I disagree with the shadow Minister, because in my opinion this is a landmark Bill. It is not the end of the story or even the beginning of it, but it is a landmark moment. It puts in place a world-leading framework for environmental improvement and governance, including legally binding targets and environmental improvement plans; an independent green watchdog which will help Parliament and more importantly, my constituents to hold the Government to account on their commitments; and measures to reverse the decline in nature at home and overseas and to tackle waste. Ministers know that this is part of an ongoing process and that we Back Benchers will continue to press further, harder and at pace.
On water quality, the extensive work and lobbying by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, have resulted in the Government’s commitment to publishing a plan by 2022 to reduce sewage discharges and to report to Parliament on progress, and to place a legal duty on water companies to publish data on storm overflow operations on an annual basis. The Bill also requires the Government to set a legally binding target for water quality. That will be particularly welcomed by Surfers Against Sewage, which is based in St Agnes in my constituency and campaigns tirelessly on this issue. I continue to press Government on its behalf and on behalf of everyone who, like me, regularly swims outdoors.
I praise the Government on new clause 21, which Ministers set out previously. It amends the Bill to set additional legally binding targets for species abundance for 2030 to halt the decline of nature. That could be the “net zero” for nature, finally addressing the biodiversity decline, and I am pleased that that target will go alongside other legally binding targets for waste, water quality and air quality.
I have concerns about how compatible this is with the forthcoming planning White Paper, and I wish to give an example of what can be achieved if the will is there. On the A30 between Chiverton and Carland Cross, in the midst of my constituency, Costain is delivering an 8.7-mile dual carriageway for Highways England. Journeys on this part of the road are regularly delayed and congestion often brings the traffic to a standstill, especially in peak holiday time, and as a result the Cornish economy is being held back. Following a recent visit to the project and a meeting with the team, it is evident to me that they are committed to protecting nature’s net gain. Biodiversity and conservation improvements are at the heart of the scheme. The project has a 10% biodiversity net gain target and is predicted to smash it. Developers take note: this is possible. Costain and its environment manager, Ali Thomas, are deeply committed to and passionate about protecting the environment. The landscape and ecological design proposals they have developed include planting nectar-rich wild flowers indigenous to Cornwall; tree and hedge planting, which will replace loss; crossings for otters, bats, badgers and other animals that will be built along the road; and a variety of foraging, nesting and roosting opportunities for other species. Other innovative measures are happening, but I do not have time to go into that this afternoon.
To conclude, with the G7 in Cornwall next month and COP26 in Glasgow later this year, we hope that this Environment Bill, which is a truly groundbreaking piece of legislation, will signal to the rest of the world that this Government and this country are serious about protecting our environment for the long term.
The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. The World Wide Fund for Nature’s “Living Planet Report 2020” showed an average 68% decline in mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish since 1970. That is heart- breaking. We are in a climate and ecological emergency, but, as we all know, with this Bill we have a real opportunity to change course. We could still restore biodiversity, increase wildlife numbers and protect nature. Sadly, the Labour amendments proposed in Committee were rejected and defeated by the Government. Those amendments concerned protecting and enhancing the powers of the OEP, World Health Organisation air pollution limits and comprehensive action on waste and recycling. The draft Bill was a missed opportunity. It has since been improved in some ways, but as colleagues and many environmental non-governmental organisations have highlighted, we have much further to go. The Government need to stop resisting concrete protections set down and start putting their money where their mouth is and protecting our environment.
Like other Members, I want to talk about deforestation. We need to remove deforestation and conversion from UK supply chains, and increase due diligence obligations. There are elements of due diligence in the Bill, but, according to the World Wildlife Fund, they do not go far enough to protect the world’s forests and other natural ecosystems, nor do they meet the UK’s goals on climate and nature. That is why I support amendments 26, 27, 36, 37 and 38, which would ensure that these due diligence measures covered deforestation and financial institutions, as well as being subject to a more progressive review requirement.
The Bill as it stands does not address the financing behind deforestation. Global Witness’s research points to evidence that suggests that financial institutions are failing to act on deforestation risks and will not be required to do so until bound by law; it is time that we did that. It is crucial that free, prior and informed consent is obtained from indigenous peoples and local communities, and that relevant local laws are complied with. It is also crucial that decisions affecting the natural environment, such as planning decisions, are informed by local nature recovery strategies.
On biodiversity, Labour is drawing a clear line through amendment 22, which would require habitats secured under biodiversity gain to be maintained in perpetuity, rather than the current 30 years specified in the Bill. It would also ensure that the habitat secured under biodiversity gain is secured “in its target condition”.
On trees, new clause 25 has my full support, as the Blaydon constituency has breathtaking woodlands and forests. The Government should publish a proper tree strategy for England. The current plan sets targets for tree planting, but has little else on protecting, maintaining and restoring existing woodlands. We need a full strategy that holds the Government to account and sets targets for such areas.
Amendment 46 would ensure that species conservation strategies contribute to nature recovery, and that the measures within them contribute to the enhancement of the conservation of species they concern. This could, for instance, ensure that effective strategies are put in place to restore the populations of bees and other pollinator species, and protect them from pesticide use.
On local government, the Bill’s aspirations could be undermined by the planning White Paper. Local authorities must be funded properly if they are to make the most of biodiversity gain in planning applications.
It was an honour to serve on the Environment Bill Committee, as it is to speak today on Report. My thanks go to the Minister and all who have worked so hard on this landmark Bill.
The biodiversity amendments are particularly important to my constituency of Ynys Môn, with its incredible biodiversity supporting common and rarer species. The rare lesser-spotted yellow rock rose—the county flower of Ynys Môn—grows near my home, and at a visit to the National Trust Plas Newydd last week, I was lucky to see native red squirrels. Anglesey Sea Zoo offers an introduction to the secrets of the local marine world. When I joined a North Wales Wildlife Trust beach clean this month, I was horrified to find hundreds of plastic cotton bud shafts, tiny plastic nurdles, foreign plastic containers and bottles old enough to be labelled in shillings.
Last week, one of my young constituents, Wilfy, took me on a walk past Llyn Penrhyn to Ysgol y Tywyn as part of National Walk to School Week. He and his friends in Mrs Griffiths’s class spoke of their concerns about the impact of non-biodegradable waste on their natural environment. We all do our bit for the island. Next Tuesday, I am running my own beach clean as part of Spring Clean Cymru. Gerald Thomas and other farmers plant and maintain native species hedgerows, and sick and injured hedgehogs are restored to health by Sue Timperley at Hedgehuggles. Sue will be delighted to hear the Minister’s news on hedgehogs today.
We cannot achieve the biodiversity targets proposed in the Bill without global action. Non-biodegradable waste is a global problem, and it affects the symbiotic relationship of our natural environment. Both the UK and Welsh Governments have already banned the supply of some non-reusable plastics. Part 6 of the Bill covers England only, but I urge the Welsh Government to enact similar legislation on biodiversity targets as soon as possible.
This year, the UK holds the presidencies of both the G7 in Cornwall and COP26 in Glasgow, and I hope we will use this Conservative Government’s landmark Bill to lead the way on global action to make long-term improvements for habitats and biodiversity worldwide. If we achieve nothing else, let us give Wilfy and his class- mates on Anglesey a natural environment that improves as they get older, not one that continues to decline.
Every aspect of this Environment Bill will have an impact not only now, but for decades if not centuries, so I am pleased to see it return to the House because we cannot afford to wait. Inaction risks the lives of our children, grandchildren and future generations, and legislation on targets, plans and policies is essential to turn the tide. Yet, sadly, this Conservative Government have not shown the ambition needed, while pushing back responsibilities on legally binding targets for two decades and failing to put in place concrete protections for the environment from trade agreements. Given their current record for making promises and not delivering, forgive me if I am not surprised.
Sadly, my Slough constituents know the impact of the environment on their lives acutely. Slough has the second highest death rate from the deadly air pollutant PM2.5. While excellent work is being done at local level by Slough Borough Council, with its low emission strategy and air quality action plan, if nothing further is done at a macro level by Government, we will continue to breathe these dangerous levels of pollution. So can the Minister outline why the Tories voted down the Labour party’s attempts to write World Health Organisation air pollution limits into this Bill?
It seems as though Government rhetoric far outweighs action when it comes to the environment. This is epitomised by the England trees action plan, with targets being missed, staggeringly, by over 50%. This has a real impact because, being a densely populated urban area, Slough has the lowest level of tree canopy in Berkshire and is below the national minimum target of 20% tree cover. While the Labour council with its limited resources is planting 9,000 trees locally, again, more must be done nationally by providing adequate funding, direction and resources to local authorities. As the WWF rightly notes, this Bill does
“not go far enough to protect the world’s forests and other critical natural ecosystems.”
How can the Minister and the Government allow this to continue?
Sadly, this trend extends to biodiversity and species conservation, with very real consequences for my constituency and our planet. Another local project I recently visited, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, has seen this in Slough’s Salt Hill stream:
“Fish were dying. It was clogged up with old car tyres, carrier bags and household waste. Water quality had deteriorated and its future looked bleak.”
However, its incredible work with the community has meant improved water quality, new homes for wildlife, and engagement and education for local people, but it should never have got to this point. Why are the Government so slow to act to stop the ecological devastation brought about by the continual discharge of untreated sewage, plastics and other effluents into our rivers and oceans?
Nationally, over the past 10 years, wildlife in Britain has seen a 44% decline in species, with some charities calling it a “lost decade for nature”. Again, targets have been woefully missed. The Government conceded last year that they have failed on two thirds of targets agreed at the convention on biological diversity in 2010, but analysis by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds later showed that on six of those targets the UK has actually gone backwards. We must set ourselves ambitious targets and ensure accountability so that they are achieved. This is not the time for complacency, and we should be under no illusion: warm words will not tackle the pressing environmental and climate crises that we are facing as a society.
I rise to speak to amendment 41. It is a probing amendment, which aims to strengthen this important Bill further by including a provision to enable local planning authorities to take unlawful tree felling and a lack of compliance with restocking orders into account when considering planning applications. I thank my former researcher, Annabel Jones, for her work in making the case for change that I am presenting today.
I very much welcome the work that my hon. Friend the Minister has done to make sure that the Bill is the groundbreaking measure that is before us today. I also give my wholehearted support to new clauses 26 and 27, which my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) tabled. He spoke eloquently about the need for that change.
I want to focus my remarks on the provisions about tree protection. The Government