Debate (4th Day)
Moved on Tuesday 11 May by
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:
“Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament”.
My Lords, on behalf of your Lordships’ House, I thank Her Majesty for her gracious Speech. I am greatly honoured to be called on to open today’s debate on the Motion for an humble Address. I am delighted to be joined by my noble friend Lord Goldsmith, who will deliver what I am sure will be an excellent summing-up. Given the wealth of experience represented on all sides of the House, both my noble friend and I look forward to a spirited and well-informed debate.
Today, I will outline the Government’s plans regarding communities, welfare, transport and the environment, which are at the heart of our agenda as we bounce back and build back from the pandemic. The Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was focused on two things: protecting lives and protecting livelihoods. To protect lives, we have secured access to more than 400 million vaccine doses and established the largest testing infrastructure in Europe. The vaccine is now available to everyone over 38 years old. To protect livelihoods, the Government have provided an unprecedented level of financial support for businesses and individuals, protecting more than 9 million jobs with the furlough scheme, while helping millions of businesses to stay afloat. Today, we embark on the next phase of cautiously easing national lockdown restrictions, including overnight stays between households and the reopening of hotels, pubs and restaurants indoors.
Building back better from the pandemic means delivering decent, safe and well-designed homes for everyone in our country. That is why the gracious Speech includes a planning reform Bill. It will simplify and modernise the system, embracing digital tools to allow people to visualise and engage with local plans. It will provide a quicker, simpler planning process, speeding up the delivery of the homes that the country needs. It will give a new focus to environmental protections, streamlining environmental impact assessments. It will ask every local area to produce its own design code to reflect its unique identity. It will ensure that developers pay for their fair share of affordable housing and infrastructure, which is why we are exploring a simpler, faster and more transparent infrastructure levy.
We must also take measures to ensure that those homes are a safe and secure environment to live in. I have been horrified by the testimony at the Grenfell inquiry, which highlighted where corners were cut and lives unnecessarily put at risk. That is why the landmark building safety Bill will bring about once-in-a-generation improvements to building safety in this country. The House may recall my remarks to the construction sector last year, when I said that that my goal as building safety Minister was to make it raise its game and thus put myself out of a job. Those noble Lords who wish to see that day come to pass may wish to consider supporting this legislation. The Bill will establish the new building safety regulator, with clear duties and responsibilities for building owners and managers. It will improve accountability and responsibility, ensuring that residents are able to raise concerns and that building owners are held to account.
Our commitment to fairness in the housing market includes securing a fairer deal for future leaseholders. For too many, the dream of home ownership has been soured by leases imposing crippling ground rents, additional fees and onerous conditions. People’s homes should be theirs to live in and enjoy, not an income stream for third-party investors. That is why the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill will put an end to ground rents for new leasehold properties, as part of the most significant changes to property law in a generation.
Last Thursday, we launched the Commonhold Council, an advisory panel of leasehold groups and industry experts which I will chair, to inform the Government on the future of commonhold ownership. This follows recommendations made by the Law Commission to simplify and expand the commonhold system. It will pave the way for millions of homeowners in England to take greater control over their homes, with a greater say on their buildings’ management, shared facilities and related costs. Together, these reforms put us on a journey to give more security to millions of existing leaseholders across England, making home ownership fairer, simpler and cheaper.
The Government also want to deliver a better rental sector that works for tenants and landlords. We will bring forward a White Paper in the autumn detailing our broad package of reforms. This will include more detail on how we will reform tenancy law to abolish Section 21 no-fault evictions; measures to improve security for tenants in the private rented sector, empowering them to hold their landlord to account; and measures to strengthen the repossession grounds for landlords when it is fair and reasonable to do so. We will also outline proposals for a new lifetime deposit model, easing the burden on tenants when moving, and continue to deliver on the social housing White Paper proposals, including implementing the charter for social housing residents, and to legislate on social housing regulations as soon as practicable.
As we look towards our future, we know that people are worried—for themselves, for the people they love and for their communities. We have always been honest that we will not be able to protect every job and every business. Nevertheless, this Government have done everything we can to protect our communities through this difficult period. We provided over £7 billion of extra support through our welfare system in 2020-21. We increased local housing allowance rates for universal credit and housing benefit claimants, so that they covered the lowest 30% of local rents, and we will sustain this cash increase this year. We introduced the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, now the Covid local support grant, with almost £270 million to support vulnerable households with the costs of food and other essentials. In 2021-22, we are extending the temporary uplift to the universal credit standard allowance for a further six months, giving working tax credit claimants an equivalent one-off payment of £500, and we have maintained our commitment to older people through a generous basic state pension, now worth over £2,050 more in cash terms than in 2010, thanks to the triple lock.
The Government’s commitment to building back better after the pandemic also means building back greener, and 2021 will be a landmark year for environmental policy. In November, the UK will be hosting the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. With that global leadership position, alongside our new-found independence from EU environmental laws, now is the moment to put a spotlight on this critical work.
The Environment Bill we are bringing forward is a pivotal part of delivering the Government’s manifesto commitment to create the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on Earth. We will legislate to set long-term, legally binding targets to drive environmental improvements such as in air quality, resource efficiency and waste reduction. A new independent office for environmental protection will provide scrutiny and advice, investigate complaints and take legal action where necessary. The Environment Bill will also give new powers to local authorities to tackle air pollution in their areas and make it illegal for large UK companies to use key agricultural commodities cultivated on illegally deforested land.
Twenty twenty-one will also be a monumental year for animal rights, with our recently published Action Plan for Animal Welfare. The plan will set out our intention to recognise animals as sentient beings through the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill. We will strengthen existing enforcement against animal abuse and ban the import and export of endangered animal hunting trophies. We will make further improvements to farm animal welfare in transport and slaughter, and support farmers in sustainable food production. We will also take action to prohibit the unsuitable keeping of primates as pets, raise standards in zoos and conserve animals in the wild. Shortly, we will bring forward a kept animals Bill to tackle puppy smuggling and ban the keeping of primates as pets. Later in the Session, we will bring forward an animals abroad Bill to tackle issues outside the United Kingdom.
Improving our transport infrastructure is a key part of our agenda to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed. The Government intend our railways to be the backbone of a modern, affordable and green transport network. We will publish a White Paper with proposals to transform the railways and deliver for passengers, ending the complicated franchising model and creating a simpler, more effective system. We also intend to deliver better bus services for England through our national bus strategy, with more frequent, cheaper and reliable services, integrated services and ticketing, and 4,000 new zero-emission buses.
I believe that Her Majesty’s gracious Speech affirms this Government’s commitments to build back a better future for our country, levelling up opportunities across the United Kingdom; to make every part of our country a great place to live and to start a family, own a home and start a business; and to ensure that no community and no person is left without hope or opportunity. These are ambitions I am sure every part of this House shares. Over the course of today’s debate, my noble friend Lord Goldsmith and I look forward to hearing your Lordships’ valuable insights on the measures I have outlined, especially of course in the maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to today’s debate on the gracious Speech. I particularly welcome my noble friend Lord Coaker and the noble Lord, Lord Morse, and look forward to their maiden speeches today. I should begin by declaring a couple of interests: as chair of Rothamsted Enterprises, part of the Rothamsted agricultural research institute; and as a member of the South Downs National Park Authority, which has planning as part of its statutory remit.
Today’s debate takes place against a backdrop of two global environmental emergencies: the rise in global warming, already heading beyond the 2% irreversible ceiling; and the fall in biodiversity, which is declining faster than at any time in human history. Both require international leadership to achieve buy-in from the world’s economies and to save our planet from its own man-made destruction. We will have the opportunity later this year, at the Convention on Biological Diversity conference in China and then at the COP 26 event in Glasgow in November.
Already, President Biden is leading the way but we must play our part too. Sadly, as the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, acknowledged recently,
“to speak with authority internationally, the UK needs to get its own house in order.”
He then admitted:
“This is not the case at the moment.”—[Official Report, 13/4/21; col. 1149.]
This is true. A leaked report from Defra recently revealed that there is still no plan to deliver on the Government’s carbon emissions targets, while the recent Public Accounts Committee report concluded that Defra does not have
“the clout to lead the rest of government”
to deliver their environmental programme. Can the Minister set out what steps Defra is taking to raise its game and prepare government for the huge challenges in the year ahead?
Of course, we welcome the arrival of the Environment Bill to the Lords—as they say, third time lucky. It has been described as a flagship Bill but its history is one of downgrade and delay, causing huge frustration among all of us who have been waiting for this robust new legislation to set environmental targets that are truly meaningful. But now we have the opportunity and we will want to work across the House to make this a landmark Bill of which we can all be proud.
In particular, we want to strengthen the environmental targets in the Bill to make them comprehensive, measurable and legally enforceable. We want to ensure that the office for environmental protection has the powers and independence it needs to hold the Government to account. We will be tabling a range of amendments to reverse the decline in biodiversity, clean up our rivers and oceans, restore peatlands and afforestation, and set WHO limits for air quality.
In the meantime, we welcome the Government’s new announcement on tackling the discharge of sewage into rivers—only weeks after they voted down a similar amendment we supported in the Commons. I hope the Minister will confirm that this spirit of listening and compromise will run through our consideration of the Bill.
We also welcome the announcement of the new animal welfare legislation. Again, this has been a long time coming and the proposals seem based largely on Labour’s recently published Animal Welfare Manifesto. As ever, the devil will be in the detail and we will scrutinise those Bills with great care, undoubtedly with the support of the many animal welfare charities which share our ambition to be a world leader on these issues.
If we are to deliver on climate change and biodiversity, concerted government action across departments will be required. Clearly, transport has a huge role to play in cutting our carbon emissions, which we need to achieve, as it represents 22% of the 2019 UK total. That is why we were so disappointed at the lack of ambition on transport in the Queen’s Speech.
In its sixth carbon budget, the Climate Change Committee made it clear that:
“A comprehensive … package will be needed to deliver the … commitment to phase out new sales of petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030.”
It recommends that, in addition, diesel heavy goods vehicles should be phased out by 2040, with clear alternatives identified now. It identifies that a comprehensive recharging and refuelling infrastructure will be needed to support clean fuel for cars. It recognises the urgent need for aviation and shipping strategies to deliver net zero, and urges an essential rethink to “reduce travel demand” and focus on public rather than private transport—including, of course, a bold vision to reverse the millions of miles of bus routes lost across the country. Where is the legislation to deliver all of this?
The Government have flagged up that a transport decarbonisation plan is in preparation. But where is the urgency? The Government have signed up to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035, which is only 14 years away. Where is the urgency that will drive this forward?
We support the extension of High Speed 2 from Crewe to Manchester but it is clear that lessons need to be learned from earlier mistakes. Can the Minister say what steps the Government will take to increase consultation as part of this project? Will the Government support new railway stations in the smaller towns around Crewe and Manchester? How will the Government ensure that the extension is developed with more sensitivity to its environmental impact, particularly on ancient and modern woodlands? Does the Minister accept that this project should be one small part of a government investment in rail capacity to address the climate change crisis and better connect our towns and cities?
Planning and housebuilding also have a crucial role to play in protecting biodiversity and delivering our net-zero obligations, so we will need to be reassured that the application of biodiversity net gain principles to new developments will trump the pressure to build on land at any cost.
Local people know what is best for the size and character of their community, but these proposals will prevent them from objecting to inappropriate developments in their own street or neighbourhood. Instead, their involvement will be limited to consultation on the area’s local plan every few years. As the Local Government Information Unit has said, the proposed changes
“leave local government with the political liability on planning whilst depriving them … of the powers to manage it effectively.”
We believe that these proposals are a developers’ charter: removing powers from local representatives and handing them to Whitehall-appointed boards of developers. It does not address the scandal of planning permission already having been granted for an estimated 1 million homes that are yet to be built. It does not require all new-build homes to meet the stringent energy and sustainability standards that are crucial to meeting our climate change obligations. It does nothing to address the growing housing crisis our country faces.
Young people have been hardest hit by the Government’s failure to build the homes we need, especially social and affordable homes. However, there is nothing in this Queen’s Speech that captures the scale and urgency of the housing challenge or which provides any consolation for young people priced out of the housing market.
So many young people cannot afford to buy their own home because they have been forced into insecure, low-paid jobs; and it is getting worse. The lesson from the pandemic is that 11 years of government failure have left our country ill prepared for a job and welfare crisis. A recent report from the Trussell Trust shows that 700,000 households now need to use a food bank, with a 49% increase in children being supported, and 95% of people referred to food banks are described as “very deprived” or “destitute”.
We have to end the insecurity and lack of opportunity in the economy by tackling the jobs crisis and replacing universal credit with a fair and compassionate system that offers security for all. But there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech to address this. In fact, the Department for Work and Pensions is not mentioned once. Where are the plans to protect workers and create jobs for the future? What happened to the employment Bill, which would have protected workers from exploitation and created new jobs for the future? Why have the flaws in the Kickstart scheme not been addressed?
This Queen’s Speech fails to meet the key challenges of our generation. Coming out of the pandemic, we have the opportunity to build something better: a fairer and more equal society, with well-paid jobs, delivering a greener economy built on strong environmental principles. Sadly, we must conclude that this gracious Speech fails to address this ambition or meet the challenge.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his opening speech, and I look forward to the maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse. As the Minister’s speech highlighted, today’s debate covers a cornucopia of issues. But hanging over all of them is the climate and ecological emergency which threatens every area of our lives and requires a response with every policy lever at the disposal of our Government.
Last week, in another context, the Minister for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, reminded us of Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi’s wise words when he warned that the future is decided by what you do today. That is both instructive and alarming because, while the Government are happy to promise the world tomorrow, in this Queen’s Speech today they propose to do nothing, in effect, to tackle the climate crisis.
In the year that we host what may turn out to be the most critical conference in the struggle to contain global warming, the Government’s legislative programme is silent as the grave on the subject. That matters, because every year we delay taking the required action ensures that the measures we will have to adopt in the future will be that much more difficult. The Government need to wake up to the fact that the one thing we do not have is the luxury of time.
Carbon Tracker, an NGO expert in this field, has calculated that, at the current burn rate, the world will exceed its carbon budget within 15 years and that, if we burn all the fossil fuels in known reserves, the world will have no prospect of keeping within its Paris targets. Yet still our financial institutions continue to finance exploration for new oil and gas reserves which, if exploited, can bring us only to catastrophe. However, in this Queen’s Speech the only legislative proposal relating to any aspect of the energy sector is the draft downstream oil resilience Bill, which seeks to provide resilience for the oil sector rather than the planet.
It is astonishing. It would be easy—but, I suspect, unproductive—to spend the afternoon criticising the Government for their lack of action, so I will try to be a little more constructive instead and suggest some ideas for the Government to take up.
First, they could introduce the climate and ecological emergency Bill proposed by a civil society coalition with cross-party support, which asks the UK to take responsibility for its fair share of greenhouse gas emissions, actively restore biodiverse habitats in the UK and set and implement a strategy to tackle the climate and ecological emergency.
Secondly, the Government would be very welcome to take forward my green finance capital requirements Bill, which would properly price the macroprudential risk that further fossil fuel exploration and exploitation poses to the entire financial system, not to mention the planet as a whole.
Thirdly, they should bring forward a new energy Bill to set the framework for the smart and resilient generation and distribution systems that will be needed, as we place ever-increasing demand on the electricity sector. This framework will need to be capable of facilitating the expansion of decentralised and community power generation and providing the incentives to deliver the innovation to expand our energy storage capacity.
In 2013, when Ed Davey, as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, piloted the last Energy Act through Parliament, 40% of electricity was generated from coal and just 7% from wind. Last year, coal accounted for just 1.3% of power generation and renewables accounted for well over 40%. We need similar radical thinking today further to transform our energy sector and to allow zero-carbon fuels, such as green hydrogen, to play their full role in decarbonising industry and the heavy transport sector.
We also need significantly to reduce wasteful and unnecessary energy consumption in transport and buildings. On transport, we welcome plans to improve and decarbonise bus services, but we have concerns about how the money will be deployed, which my noble friend Lord Bradshaw will say more about. This Queen’s Speech should have gone much further and set out a clear route map for the wider decarbonisation of the transport system. It should have announced the restoration of differential vehicle excise duty, depending on vehicle emissions, and introduced steps to make electric vehicles affordable to those on middle and lower incomes, including measures to ensure that motorists are not fleeced by on-street charge point operators, where electricity costs can be up to six times higher than for those who can charge their vehicles from their domestic electricity supply. It should also have abandoned the consultation on reduced air passenger duty and instead introduced a ban on fossil-fuel-powered domestic flights between points where the train journey is less than two and a half hours. This would both reduce emissions from domestic flights and incentivise the development of non-fossil fuel aviation.
My noble friend Lord Stunell will speak in more detail about the Government’s failure to tackle emissions from buildings. I simply note that, despite all the hype about building back better and a manifesto commitment to invest £9.2 billion in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals, the Queen’s Speech and the Prime Minister’s accompanying letter had literally not one word to say on tackling greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, which represent 19% of total UK emissions.
We propose a green buildings Bill that would require all new buildings to be built to the zero-carbon standard, with the energy component rising to Passivhaus standard by 2025. All existing homes in the social sector would be required to reach at least energy performance certificate band B by 2025 and all other homes and non-domestic buildings to reach the same band by 2030.
An effective planning framework will also be critical in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, but the proposals for the planning Bill have nothing to say on either issue, instead riding roughshod over local democratic decision-making. If the Government actually want to see more houses built, they need to recognise that it will not be achieved by stripping powers from local authorities. The facts are clear: we have never succeeded and will never succeed in delivering the 300,000 homes annually that the Government have set as a target without a significant municipal housing programme so, instead of curtailing local authority powers, as the Government propose, they should restore their ability to finance, build and maintain large-scale social housing programmes in their communities.
In line with the Government’s climate policy, the planning Bill should also have at its heart a requirement for all planning decisions to have regard to the 2050 net-zero objective. We will be happy to assist the Government with an amendment to this effect when the Bill comes before Parliament.
The Queen’s Speech should also have set out new commitments to protect and enhance biodiversity and improve land use to reduce climate impacts. While we look forward to the long-overdue Environment Bill coming to our House, there is no mention in the Queen’s Speech of biodiversity or the major shifts in land use that will be required to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture, which is currently responsible for about 10% of our greenhouse gas emissions. There is no Bill to provide for the protection of peatland, and there is no clarity about whether the environmental land management scheme will be used to transform land-use practices to tackle climate change or whether they will simply sustain business largely as usual.
There is no doubt that the Government face many complex and challenging issues but, reading this Queen’s Speech, you would be hard put to believe that it represents the programme of a Government who have set themselves some of the most demanding climate objectives of any country on earth, so I have this nagging worry: do they really mean what they say? Do they really have the stomach for the difficult decisions that are required or are these climate commitments to be as fleeting as the 2019 manifesto pledge to
“proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on development”?
Will these climate commitments evaporate as easily into the dark winter nights that follow COP 26, accompanied with the same sort of excuses: “The circumstances have changed” or “We are doing more, in any event, than others”? Will we squander our global leadership on this issue just as casually and with as little care for the consequences to others as we have done on overseas development aid? I hope that my cynicism is misplaced, but if the Government are to dispel such concerns, they will have to move rapidly from the realm of targets to the sphere of action.
This brings me back to Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi, who chose his words advisedly. He told us that the future is decided by what we do today, not by what we say today or the distant targets that we set today but by the actions that we take. By that standard, this Queen’s Speech falls tragically and woefully short.
My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. I, too, enormously look forward to hearing the maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse.
I welcome many of the measures outlined in the gracious Speech, particularly the opportunity to consider the Environment Bill, which forms part of a trio of measures—including the Agriculture Act and the energy White Paper—moving from the environmentally damaging basic payment scheme to sustainable farming and the enhancement of the environment.
However, the Agriculture Act and the Environment Bill are enabling legislation and, therefore, lack sufficient detail to allow land managers the tools to plan a forward business strategy. Despite this regrettable deficiency, farmers and land managers are doing their best to prepare by carrying out capital audits, improving soil structure, mitigating methane, researching carbon offsetting opportunities and investing in forestry and trees.
However, without detail, much of this preliminary work, which is often done at considerable expense, is totally at their own risk. For instance, in the case of soil condition, methane measurement, carbon sequestration and wider natural capital audits, there appears to be no agreement on the recommended measuring tools and standards. Surely this is fundamental to the success of environmental legislation. We need to know more about regulatory standards and financial incentives as a matter of urgency.
In the Environment Bill, there are many areas that need further thought. For instance, the only reference to trees is in Clause 100, which covers tree felling and planting, except that there is no further information on tree planting. Surely this is the opportunity to place the new English tree strategy in the Bill. The planting and maintenance of woodland are central to policies on climate change and carbon capture, and much more, but further commercial realism is required for planting at scale in England to succeed, due to the likely devaluation of land and farm income by switching from farming to forestry. Although grants largely cover the cost of establishment and early maintenance, there is no current return to the grower. I therefore urge the Government to investigate the reintroducing of basic annual payments for up to 25 years that existed under the farm woodland scheme of the 1980s. That was successfully brought in to counter the huge loss of elm trees by incentivising the creation of new woodland.
On biodiversity net gain—BNG—which is central to the Bill, farmers and growers should be in prime position to provide developers with BNG. However, pressure on land use needs to be carefully considered, as environmental policies must recognise the importance of food security. Details of how the BNG market will work are scarce. The measurement—again—and financial benefits are very unclear, but the likely cost of implementation will undoubtedly be high. We await the updating of Defra metrics. Other issues, such as what happens at the end of the scheme, how tenant farmers can be involved and taxation, all need resolving before BNG can be effective.
The Bill needs also to address the issue of field drains, which impact on farm productivity, flooding and much more. In many instances, field drains benefit net zero and are very important in underwriting domestic food security. This issue should also be in the Bill, as it is not really something that should be dealt with under the Agriculture Act or the environmental land management schemes.
Finally, I believe that public education is key in just about every aspect of the Environment Bill and climate change in general. I urge the Government to review and update the national curriculum as required to achieve this, as use of knowledge and behavioural change are cheaper than remediation.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and I look forward to the maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse. My entry in the register of interests tells of my family business in agriculture and horticulture. In Holbeach, we have an outlier of the University of Lincoln in the form of the National Centre for Food Manufacturing and a food enterprise zone.
I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Goldsmith is to sum up this debate. We are all looking forward to the Environment Bill; it will be interesting legislation which I think is seen by the whole House as important. I also welcome the secondary legislation following on from the Agriculture Act, which was taken forward with such great aplomb by my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble, who has now been promoted and who we look forward to seeing in his new role. I welcome my noble friend Lord Benyon on his return to Defra, where we served together as Ministers in the coalition.
I have a further interest, however, about which I wish to speak. I have become the chairman of the visitor economy group of the Midlands Engine APPG. This is a really interesting group; your Lordships will be hearing later from the co-chairman of the Midlands Engine APPG, the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale. I want to raise the visitor economy because, although it is relevant to a whole range of government departments, it is essentially community based and, much to my surprise, is a key sector. It is in the top five sectors of significance as an employer and of value. It is, however, fragmented into many SMEs. The proposals for a national skills fund and lifelong training through the skills and post-16 education Bill will greatly assist this fragmented sector of our economy.
As I have said, the visitor economy is a significant area of employment. In the Midlands region as a whole, it accounts for nearly 10% of employment. In some districts, it is double that—in East Lindsey, Derbyshire Dales and Staffordshire Moorlands, it is 20%—while it is even higher in towns such as Skegness, Mablethorpe and Bakewell, where seasonality can be a real challenge. Last week, we as a group of parliamentarians met Nick de Bois of VisitEngland—some noble Lords will probably remember him as a Member of another place. Much is going on. English Tourism Week starts next weekend; Coventry began its year as our City of Culture this past weekend; and Birmingham is looking forward to the Commonwealth Games in the summer of next year. It is not just about the seaside or the open air; it is about cities and the attractions they have to offer. Of course, it is also about place—the need to be local—and about communities. In Lincolnshire, the destination management organisation works well with local authorities, including those with towns funding such as Skegness and Boston, and the Greater Lincolnshire enterprise partnership.
Put all this together and we see that the visitor economy can be fully part of the engine for bounce-back and building back better. That is why I look forward to this Session of Parliament and the measures in the Queen’s Speech, which have been so ably spoken to by others.
My Lords, I too look forward to hearing the maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse, but I want to start by congratulating the Minister on introducing the leasehold reform Bill.
Ending ground rents—or, as one person called it recently, the serfdom charge—in new developments is an important and positive reform, and I will welcome this opportunity to be mostly congruent with the Minister, after been being on opposing sides of the Fire Safety Bill. While this is a great victory for future leaseholders, existing leaseholders, particularly those in developments affected by the building and fire safety scandal, nervously await their fate.
During the previous parliamentary Session, those Members, including myself, who sought to amend the Fire Safety Bill to protect leaseholders were told that Her Majesty’s Government would address our concerns in the building safety Bill, which I was pleased to hear announced in the Queen’s Speech. There is an urgency to this crisis. Bills of debilitating proportion are already being handed to leaseholders, bankruptcies have occurred, and, tragically, so have related suicides. This is a financial and a mental health crisis that is growing worse every passing day that it is left unaddressed. I therefore urge Her Majesty’s Government to move with haste to bring forward their building safety Bill, so that we can finally provide leaseholders with peace of mind.
Having said that, I want to get this Bill right. The pre-legislative scrutiny committee for the building safety Bill crucially raised the absence of any measures in the Bill to pursue developers for inadequate historic works. While ACM cladding was legal prior to 2019, there are now numerous documented cases where this was fitted not to regulations, without requisite firebreaks or adequate compartmentalisation measures. During this injustice, the six-year limitation preventing legal action is conspiring to force leaseholders into bankruptcy, rather than what the Government have always claimed that they want to do: to get those responsible to pay for remediation. I was grateful for the Minister’s assurances during debate on the Fire Safety Bill that Her Majesty’s Government were
“committed to developing stronger avenues for redress”,—[Official Report, 28/4/21; col. 2369.]
and I hope to see this in the revised Bill. The £2 billion levy on developers is, frankly, derisory, particularly when they are essentially receiving £5 billion in subsidy to fix their own defective developments—a net taxpayer subsidy of £3 billion.
I would like to see some strong action from this Government. Now that we are out of the EU, perhaps they could look at excluding developers who fail to remediate their own buildings from applying for public contracts. The Government should also look seriously at extending the forced loan scheme to include other historic, non-cladding related, fire safety defects, given that they were estimated by the Institute of Residential Property Management at between £26,000 and £38,000 per lease. These bills alone still have the propensity to bankrupt leaseholders.
Finally, I turn to the proposed changes to planning laws. Too often, those with disabilities and their families struggle to find suitable homes and are forced into inaccessible and unsuitable homes. The latest figures from the housing association Habinteg found that, outside London, only 1.5% of homes planned over the next decade will be suitable for wheelchair users, despite the ageing demographic shift. Many leading housing associations have called for the mandatory baseline for all new homes to be raised to category 2—broadly the same as the lifetime home standard. I hope that the Government will move forward and publish their responses to the accessible homes consultation, so that parliamentarians know that they intend to make our housing stock more inclusive and prepare it for the challenges of the future.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate; I hope he will forgive me if I concentrate on other matters in the Queen’s Speech. Like other speakers, I welcome the prospect of the maiden speeches from my noble friend Lord Coaker and the noble Lord, Lord Morse.
I was interested at the way in which the Minister glibly waved aside the future of franchising in the railway industry. I have spent the last decade listening to Ministers at the Dispatch Box telling me how wonderful the system was, yet it is to be abolished in one sentence. What exactly is to replace it? The Williams report, which has been around for some time, is unique in that it will actually be published, unlike the 30-odd other reports into the future of the railway industry over the past few years, and I welcome that. The obvious question is when; I hope that the Minister can tell us when he comes to reply.
One thing lacking in the Queen’s Speech is any detail about the future of the eastern leg of HS2. I hope that the Minister will agree that, if we are to—in the phrase used in the Speech—“build back better” through our transport industries, HS2, particularly its eastern leg, will properly be built. However, I fear that what will happen is what we are seeing at present. The Treasury, which, I suspect, is not madly enthusiastic about the prospect of HS2, will tinker at the edges. We are seeing that tinkering at present—a platform less at Euston; rather than one Bill to take the eastern leg forward towards Leeds and beyond, two or three short Bills for short stretches of HS2. Do we never learn? When it is eventually built, as I hope it will be, it will therefore cost far more than building it in one swoop, which would be the intelligent way forward. We never seem to learn that lesson. Teams with experience in electrification and railway building are continually disbanded and reformed. We then wonder why, in the case of the Great Western electrification, the posts and masts cost more to install than previous electrification schemes in this country and certainly far more than such schemes in other parts of the world.
I also look forward to seeing the Williams report’s findings on fares. I did a random exercise this morning. An elderly gentleman, with a senior citizen’s railcard, who is not used to travelling by rail, might decide to travel from Solihull to London Marylebone. This non-regular traveller would find 15 different tickets between the two stations. If he wanted a single ticket, he would have a choice of paying between £7.90 to £100.80. He would be unlikely to pay £100.80, but it is a listed single fare between Solihull and London. If he decided to come back, he would have 16 different fares, varying from £21.80 to £124.60. I think that is crackers and I suspect that most other people who look at the railway fare structure think so too.
If he decided to travel on different trains he would pay different fares, which is why there are so many. If he decided to come back in the rush hour it would cost him more, but if he came back before 4 pm he would get a cheaper fare. That is provided he stuck to Chiltern Railways, which is the operator between Solihull and London Marylebone. If he decided to use the west coast main line and came back on an Avanti train, which has the franchise for that line, he would find that the rush hour leaving Euston starts at 3 pm, although if he got the underground to London Marylebone it does not start until 4 pm. This sort of lunacy has gone on for far too long and the Government really ought to do something about it.
It is not just the fares and HS2. There are lots of other aspects of our railway industry that the Government ought to look at, such as the electrification of the Midland main line. Are we going to get the go-ahead from Corby? Good luck to the people in Corby; it is remarkable that we are going to provide a half-hourly electric train service to London from Corby, a town that did not have any railway at all 30 years ago, because it was closed down. Yet cities such as Sheffield, Leicester, Nottingham and Derby are to be served only by diesel or bi-mode trains. It is lunacy and I hope that the Government can do something about it.
While I welcome some aspects of the Queen’s Speech, there is a long way to go.
My Lords, I too look forward to the maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse. I will speak to the three animal welfare Bills which were mentioned in Her Majesty’s most gracious Speech: the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, the kept animals Bill, and the animals abroad Bill. These three Bills hang under the Action Plan for Animal Welfare, also recently published, which has over 40 reforms across five different workstreams—a large undertaking, but I welcome it.
However, I am disappointed that the protection of children, both physically and mentally, will not receive such a strong commitment. Many will not benefit from the protections they require and deserve. It is a sad fact that 40% of children have viewed unsuitable images on the internet, yet the Government are dragging their feet on providing the necessary stringent protections for children.
I digress, so I will now return to my main purpose. The first of the five themes of the animal welfare action plan is “sentience and enforcement”. Not many weeks ago, we debated the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, which increases the maximum prison sentence for cruelty to animals from six months to five years. This brings the UK into line with many countries with which we trade internationally and was long overdue. There have been many debates in this Chamber about animal sentience. Like many others, I signed a petition against the revolting practice of ear cropping, which has no useful purpose whatever and is purely cosmetic. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is short, and solely about the setting up of a committee to look at the possible effects of government legislation on animals as sentient beings. Who sits on the committee, its remit, and the way it reports are solely the purview of the Secretary of State. I will have more to say on that at Second Reading.
The second theme is “international trade and advocacy”. During the passages of the Agriculture Bill and the Trade Bill, many of your Lordships raised the issue of trade negotiations with countries whose animal welfare standards are inferior to our own. If we are to continue to be a global leader in this field, we must protect endangered animals abroad, including the elephant. Having spoken many times on the Ivory Act, I am frustrated in the extreme that it has not been implemented. Can the Minister give us a reason why this has not happened—apart from the antique ivory lobby—and a timetable for when the Act will be implemented?
The third theme is “farm animals”. Currently, some farm animals are exported for fattening and slaughter. This transportation is distressing for the animals, completely unnecessary and must be stopped as a priority. Similarly, the use of cages for laying hens and farrowing crates for pigs must be phased out as soon as possible. The meat from pigs raised in farrowing crates abroad should no longer be imported into the UK. Effective and clear food labelling is essential to ensure public confidence on animal welfare. The Government must also look at the length of journeys within the UK from farm to abattoir. Many of these journeys are extremely long and distressing. A network of effective abattoirs close to rural communities is essential.
The fourth theme is around “pets and sporting animals”. My colleagues and I have spoken many times about the smuggling of puppies. There has been an increase in the demand for dogs and puppies during the lockdowns and I fear that many new family pets are the result of puppy smuggling. These puppies have been separated from their mothers far too early and will go on to have problems in their adult lives. There are incidents of adult pets being stolen to order, with an increase of 170% in dog thefts in 2020. This can have a devasting effect on a family who have lost a beloved pet. I welcome a crackdown on such practices, with stiff sentences being passed on perpetrators by the courts.
Lastly, the welfare plan covers wild animals. This section seems to be somewhat limited to prohibiting keeping primates as pets and cracking down on illegal hare coursing. Will the Minister consider widening this section? Currently, hare coursing is rising at an alarming rate. with evidence of links to organised crime. Again, can the Minister give the House a timeline for when legislation will be implemented to effectively regulate hare coursing?
Many of the Government’s proposals are to be welcomed. However, as always, the devil will be in the detail. There is unfortunately little actual detail in these proposals and no detail at all on the Kept Animals Bill or Animals Abroad Bill; hopefully, they will be published shortly. We see warm words but little actual commitment.
In the meantime, I welcome the welfare plan and the three Bills and look forward to the Minister’s response to my questions and those of others.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I very much look forward to the maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse. I declare my interests as a director of the cross-party group Peers for the Planet and an engineer and consultant working for Atkins. I also bring to the attention of the House that I am co-chair of the Midlands Engine APPG. So it was most welcome for me to hear the focus of the gracious Speech on levelling up. I would like to build on the remarks of my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who made some excellent points about the visitor economy in the Midlands, and to focus on the opportunities for a green recovery to level up the Midlands region.
As we emerge from the shadow of the pandemic, we need to build back better, greener and faster. With their unique strengths, the regions have a great opportunity to be at the forefront of this change. Data from the Midlands Engine shows that gross value added per capita in the Midlands is nearly £22,000, or 9% of the England minus London average. If this gap were closed, it would add an extra £76 billion each year to the UK economy—£76 billion. That is the scale of the opportunity here. Playing to existing regional strengths, the green recovery can be a key part of closing this gap.
The Midlands was at the forefront of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The new thinking that led to these epochal events is perfectly symbolised by the painting “A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery” by Joseph Wright of Derby, who was himself a key figure in the Midlands Enlightenment. The painting depicts a lecturer giving a demonstration of a mechanical model of the solar system to an awe-inspired audience, their illuminated faces emerging from the darkness of ignorance and superstition into the light of reason. The region now has the opportunity to continue this historical thread by leading the way with a new, green industrial revolution.
One in four energy and low-carbon jobs in England is based in the Midlands and the sector is worth almost £27 billion to the region. It is home to nationally and internationally leading projects, assets and research in low-carbon transport, fuel, heating and energy. The Midlands Engine is the first pan-regional partnership to propose a plan for delivering this and will issue its plan for consultation within the next few months. Can the Minister say what plans the Government have to work with the regions on such initiatives, supporting existing regional strengths to enable a clean economic recovery?
Innovation will of course be vital in meeting our net-zero targets. The Government already have a desire to increase the R&D intensity of the economy to 2.4%, but additional focus is needed on how deploying research funding can help to level up the economy. If the Midlands receives its fair share of this funding, it will equate to a £2.3 billion increase in R&D spend in the Midlands, providing the potential to create tens of thousands of jobs. Crucially, R&D will bring in skills and wider investment from industry, which will boost the productivity of the Midlands and help the Government meet their targets for levelling up. I highlight here the fantastic universities and research assets that we have in the region.
Some thinking is required on the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, ARIA, to ensure that its spend is constructively deployed in aid of the levelling-up agenda, rather than defaulting to research capacity in the south-east. I look forward to returning to this when the Bill comes before the House.
There is a fantastic opportunity here to use the green industrial revolution, along with existing regional strengths, to level up the Midlands, which is home to 11 million people. A year ago, the Chancellor vowed to do “whatever it takes” to support households and businesses through the Covid crisis. If the Government are serious about delivering levelling up, they should make a similarly unambiguous commitment to do whatever it takes to level up the regions. A shock to expectations can in itself produce the momentum required to level up our economy.
My Lords, I stand humbly in this historic Chamber today. I am humbled by the warm welcome of my fellow Peers and the support of all the officers and staff; I wish to thank each and every one of them. I am truly humbled by the enormity of the honour that I feel—a pride that I know is shared by my family, my friends, and so many of my former constituents in Gedling, whom I was proud to represent for 22 years, the people of Nottingham City, the people of the county of Nottinghamshire and beyond.
As I stand here discussing this Queen’s Speech on the theme of communities, voices from my past are calling out to me. I can hear my 94 year-old father, a former Metropolitan Police officer, saying, “Don’t forget neighbourhood policing.” I can hear the man I was named after, my uncle, who is buried in a war grave dated 6 June 1944 in Ranville, in Normandy near Caen, saying, “Never take democracy and freedom for granted.” I hear the voices of Nottingham school pupils, many from disadvantaged backgrounds and growing up in poverty, whom I taught for some 20 years, saying to me, “Make sure every pupil succeeds, whatever their ability, and that we end the academic/vocational divide.”
I can hear the pleas of the many former constituents of mine who needed help with claiming their welfare benefits when the state often made it incredibly difficult for them to do so, when their only crime was poverty. I can hear the voices of young people, including my own grandchildren, demanding that we save the planet for them, if not for ourselves. I can hear so many voices, including me as a younger man, an idealistic socialist standing on the miners’ picket lines or ferociously protesting on behalf of local councils and communities for a better deal. All of them, including the younger me, are calling out: “Vernon what are you going to do with this privilege and this honour you have?”
I say to them, as I say to all noble Lords—this is something we all share, whatever our party background—that I will stand up and speak out, as others have already done on these and other issues, through this House as a proud, working Labour Peer. I say to the Minister that I am no cynic about these things. I know that change has occurred and will occur. However, if the pandemic has shown us anything, it is the power of the state, both at local and national level, to act swiftly and decisively for the benefit of all communities in every region. Why does the state not act with the same level of urgency now for the sake of our communities? I do not want another Peer to be raising in 30 years’ time exactly the same issues of poverty and inequality in our communities as I am.
I wonder what Lord Stanley of Alderley would think. He spoke of the need for a Notification of Poverty Bill, in which he raised many of the issues we still discuss today concerning the working poor. That was in 1935. In discussing welfare and all these other issues, it cannot be right for 2.5 million people to rely on food banks, 980,000 of them children. It cannot be right for over 6 million people to depend on universal credit to survive. It cannot be right for 14.5 million people in our country, including 4.3 million children, to live in relative poverty. It cannot be right for life expectancy, health outcomes and so on still to depend on where you live and where you come from.
It cannot be right for 793 million people across the world to face starvation and for so many of our elderly not to have the social care they need and deserve. We have to act with greater urgency. The cry from communities and the demand from those who were on the frontline during the pandemic, often the poorest paid, is that they want something different. Indeed, is that not the cry from every community? My task, through the vehicle of the Labour Party, will be to play my part, however small, saying that my vision is, “It does not have to be like this”. The state needs to act, and I say to the Minister that that is how this Queen’s Speech will be judged.
To quote the great Romantic poet, Percy Shelley:
“…to hope until hope creates
From its very own wreck the thing it contemplates”.
What inspiring words. My hope, my vision, is to do all I can for a fairer, more equal society. To those voices of my past and present, I say, I have heard you. The power of our words needs to ring out across our nation. The dream of a better future is one we all have to make a reality, and as soon as we can.
My Lords, what a heartfelt and moving maiden speech. My noble friend’s dad and family, watching today, will rightly be so proud.
In 1976, a very young Vernon Coaker started teaching, and that very first classroom set him on the road to here today in your Lordships’ House. That class was 5C. They were tough kids, many struggling to read, with little appetite for authority or school. He recognised then that education would help them, but only so far; real change, the ability to make a difference, not just to those kids in that classroom but to his community and to his country, could come only through Parliament and government. Vernon won Gedling in 1997. It was a marginal seat and he held it, against the odds, at election after election. He was able to do that because he came from—but, crucially, always remained part of and at the heart of—that community.
He is also a principal research fellow in modern slavery and human trafficking at the University of Nottingham, taking the responsibility he had as a Home Office Minister and continuing that engagement and responsibility. I am sure that he will bring his thoughtful and analytical approach, as well as his strong sense of social justice, to debates in this House. Vernon, welcome.
Turning to today’s debate, I want to focus on not the adversities of climate change but the solutions. At this point in history we have not just an opportunity but an obligation to solve the problem of climate change. It is us who can take hold of the lid of Pandora’s box and firmly close it. We want to and can do this through decarbonisation—driving the removal of carbon dioxide from the UK’s economy. Decarbonisation involves two simple actions. First, the Government must invest in renewable energy; secondly, we must reduce and ultimately stop the extraction and use of fossil fuels. These two simple actions, taken together, are the best way to set the future of our planet back on the right track.
Currently, 79% of the UK’s energy comes from fossil fuels. The Government have taken steps to decarbonise the economy. The 10-point plan for the green industrial revolution has made some progress towards decarbonisation, particularly in its uptake of offshore wind energy. However, the steps have been half hearted at best. This Government have seen a regression on the policies that would promote the use of renewable energy. For example, the renewables obligation scheme that created more than 23,000 generating stations and generated 25 gigawatts of energy was closed in 2017, ending its benefit to the renewable energy sector. The feed-in tariff, a policy designed specifically to increase investment in and uptake of renewable energy, has been all but abolished. This has led to uncertainty in Britain’s domestic solar panel industry, reducing Britain’s opportunities for success in the renewable energy and business sector.
As an alternative to this bleak continuation, the Labour Party has a green new deal and has the potential to restore the country’s economy through new business deals and opportunities. Clean energy lies at the heart of the Labour Party’s green new deal and it has the golden touch of creating high-quality, skilled new jobs for people up and down the nation—from solar panel technicians to data scientists, to green financial investors. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said, we urge Her Majesty’s Government to work across the political spectrum to deliver.
David Attenborough, who has been named COP 26 people’s advocate, stated:
“We have one final chance to create the perfect home for ourselves and restore the wonderful world we inherited.”
COP 26 is the conference at which we will ultimately decide which path humanity takes. Let us take that right path.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, on—as the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, said—such a heartfelt and moving speech. I also look forward to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Morse, later. I declare an interest as the owner of rented accommodation and farmland.
Her Majesty’s Government plan to publish a consultation on reforming tenancy law to abolish Section 21 no-fault evictions. It is impossible to do this without introducing rent controls, which historically have never worked and would do immense damage to the rented housing market.
A recent example is Berlin, where controls were introduced in 2020 to maintain rents at 2019 levels for five years. The result was that the number of new rental properties coming on to the market fell by almost half; the scheme is ending after less than two years. There were other factors, but they do not alter the fundamental, which is that freezing rents caused the supply of rented accommodation to dry up.
To state the obvious, landlords let premises in order to get rent; it is preferable to have the income. Landlords ask tenants to leave only with very good reason because replacing a tenant is an expensive and laborious business. You have to advertise the property. There are lawyers’ fees, letting agency fees and fees to check gas and electricity. You must comply with emission rules, and there are almost always redecoration costs. The longer the same tenant stays in place—so avoiding these costs—the greater the benefit to the landlord.
It is blindingly obvious that only a tiny minority of tenants are asked to leave, even by rogue landlords. Removing Section 21 would massively reduce the value of rented properties and be a slap in the face for all those aspiring individuals who have put their savings into rented property—especially those who have taken out a buy-to-let mortgage. Some 90% of all landlords are individuals, nearly half of whom own only one property.
Before the 1988 Act, the average discount for tenanted properties was between 40% and 50% of vacant possession value. At a stroke, by introducing sitting tenancies, the capital value of the present tenanted sector will have nearly halved. In the case of landlords with buy-to-let mortgages, the security for these loans may no longer meet the loan-to-value requirement, with the consequent financial hardship.
Rented premises are well protected by law. If there are problems with the property that the landlord will not deal with, a tenant can complain to the local housing officer, who can compel a landlord to make changes. A gas certificate is needed every year. An electrical installation condition report is required every five years or for each new letting. An energy performance certificate is required. Deposits are now limited to five weeks’ rent, which is unlikely to cover a bad tenant’s damage. Given the massive incentive to prolong tenancies and the continuing drive towards improvements to rented property, it would be counterproductive to introduce a measure that will reduce the availability and quality of rented accommodation and will cause financial hardship for many.
There are many other arguments against the abolition of Section 21, for which there is no time today. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will think carefully when reviewing the abolition of Section 21.
My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests as a member of Kirklees Council and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I listened to the gracious Speech with eager anticipation, then read the Government’s more detailed explanation of their intentions. I was to be disappointed. There was the slick headline of “Build Back Better” and a sub-heading of “Public Finances”. I looked in vain for any mention of local government finances.
The Conservative Government have a cunning plan, it seems. First, cut grant funding to local government by 60%—£16 billion in cash terms—forcing deep cuts to the fabric of local places. Then, accuse councils of closing these selfsame services. The trump card of levelling up is then played, where central government comes to the rescue by carefully selecting additional funding for a few cash-strapped areas. Meanwhile, more councils are on the verge of issuing Section 114 notices—the equivalent of bankruptcy. A positive change to local government funding is one major missing element.
Another is the absolute failure to reform social care funding. This matters to local government, as 57% of council tax income is spent on social care. Council tax—a regressive tax—is being forced to bear the burden of the Government’s failure to deal with the challenge of social care funding. Each year since 2016, the Government have added the adult social care precept to council tax, resulting in a 13% rise to council tax bills. As council tax rises, so potholes increase, to the extent that even the Conservative-led County Councils Network is complaining publicly about the £400 million cut to local roads maintenance even after the pothole fund has been taken into account.
The two major Bills outlined in the gracious Speech that affect local government are the planning Bill and the building safety Bill. It is, I suggest, disingenuous to state in the “Key facts” section on the planning Bill that
“only … 3 per cent of local people engage with planning applications”,
when the majority of applications are, of course, of a minor nature. People are concerned about the changing nature of the place they live in, whether it be the loss of green fields, pressure on local facilities, traffic congestion or air quality. Neighbourhood planning showed that people will engage positively when given the opportunity. Sadly, the principle behind this Bill is that local voices need to be excluded in the interests of development companies—the same development companies that have failed to build 1 million homes for which there is a current planning permission.
The building safety Bill is to be welcomed in that it is the major response to the Hackitt review and the Grenfell inquiry. It will, I hope, put right the decades of regulatory failings in the construction industry. Unfortunately, it will fail to respond to the cries of anguish from leaseholders who are trapped in tower blocks where flammable cladding has to be removed and where the costs of other fire safety defects are being passed to leaseholders. These costs amount to tens of thousands of pounds. It is a scandal of growing proportions, and the Government have an absolute duty to put it right. Are they committed to fulfilling their responsibility in this regard?
Councillors of all parties and none have at their heart a passion to improve their local place. They are the people who can truly help level up. They need the tools to do so. Starving councils of funding and essential powers will seriously hamper any hope of significantly growing and improving the opportunities and prosperity of both people and places. With that, I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Morse.
I very much appreciate the opportunity to address your Lordships for the first time in this debate and follow the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. I am very grateful for the welcoming and helpful attitude I have encountered on all sides, most particularly from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, Convenor of the Cross Benches, and from his secretary, Kate Long, as well as the doorkeepers and all those who have helped guide my uncertain steps as I find my way around this place. Please keep going.
I am a Scottish chartered accountant. They are the humorous, interesting, original ones. After a career in public practice and three years at the Ministry of Defence as defence commercial director, I was Comptroller and Auditor-General and chief executive of the National Audit Office for 10 years. Since leaving the NAO, I have become chair of two London hospital trusts—Hillingdon and London North West. I am lost in admiration for how they both responded to the Covid crisis. I am very proud of them.
At the NAO, I was responsible for auditing central Government and published approximately 600 reports over 10 years, assessing the efficiency, effectiveness and value for money of Government’s use of public resources across a whole spectrum of public sector activity. The largest single area for these reports was the NHS, followed by major projects in transport and defence, and welfare and benefits. Many of the projects and programmes I examined I looked at more than once, and they still continue today—High Speed 2 and Crossrail being two notable examples in transport, and universal credit in welfare.
Let me briefly mention a few of the lessons I learned over 10 years, which I hope are relevant to this debate. In the context of major projects and programmes, including transport ones evidently, considerations of efficiency and effectiveness are often outweighed by the political agenda, which can demand eye-catching but often overoptimistic announcements about the costs, timescales and benefits of the project concerned. Unfortunately, the sugar high of publicity passes all too quickly and is replaced by reality and, quite often, years of highly visible and avoidable underperformance follow. In this context, the independence of the Civil Service in raising concerns about public value is of great importance. Civil servants need to be able to do their job without risking career damage.
In the area of welfare and benefits, the Government need to make sure they understand, from the ground up, the harsh realities of life for people with low or no income before legislating or making benefit rules which can affect those people’s lives so fundamentally.
Finally, I learned that, over time, Governments are judged not just by policies or announcements but by their perceived competence, evidenced by the results delivered to and experienced by the taxpayer and the citizen, who have, after all, underwritten the whole enterprise. It is worth while getting it right first time.
I look forward, in conclusion, to expanding my experience and knowledge in the service of your Lordships' House.
My Lords, it is an enormous pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Morse, in this debate. I warmly congratulate him on his excellent maiden speech. It will not surprise the House that I particularly endorse his comments about the Civil Service.
Most of us will know him from his decade as Comptroller and Auditor-General of the National Audit Office, which he stepped down from in 2019. However, the noble Lord, Lord Morse, had a long and distinguished career before that at the Ministry of Defence and PricewaterhouseCoopers. He brings a forensically sharp mind and a fearless willingness to speak it. His passion, as Comptroller and Auditor-General, was to improve the way the public sector did things. However sharp his criticisms might have been sometimes—and they were—it was always clear to me, as head of the Civil Service, that he had its best interests at heart. His subsequent actions in becoming chair of two trusts demonstrates this. We are very fortunate that he has joined us in this House.
Before going on to comment on the Queen’s Speech, I should declare my interests as chair of Peabody, Be First and Stockport Mayoral Development Corporation, and as president of the Local Government Association. My other interests are listed in the register. These interests are very relevant to what I will focus on in my short speech—the Government’s proposals on planning.
The Government’s legislative programme contains the usual mix of the good, the bad and the very bad, as well as one frankly disgraceful omission, namely, the lack of any plan to respond to the growing crisis in social care. The planning Bill, if it follows the proposals set out in the White Paper, will fall into the “very bad” category. This is not to say that everything in the White Paper is bad. We certainly need to simplify the local plan process, improve design and increase the use of digital technology. However, it is based on a completely erroneous view that the way to more and better housing is yet another reform of our planning system.
As someone who is passionate about the need for more housing, and chair of three organisations that are collectively responsible for building thousands of new homes a year, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that planning is not the main problem. Of course, a few schemes take longer to get approved than they should do, and some councils are better than others. But, in the round, the Local Government Association’s figures tell the real story: nine out of 10 planning applications are approved by local planning authorities, and there are more than 1 million application permissions from the last decade that are still to be built.
In his independent report, Oliver Letwin also found that the planning system was not the main barrier. Viability, infrastructure, grant rate for affordable housing, delivering zero carbon and developer caution on build-out rates for larger sites are much the bigger issues. Yet, based on a completely incorrect understanding of the true barriers to building new homes, the Government plan to remove a basic democratic right of local councils to make decisions on individual applications, and to replace it with a zonal system and a single national infrastructure levy.
The comments by former Prime Minister Theresa May in the other House are worth noting. She said that the proposals
“would reduce local democracy, remove the opportunity for local people to comment on specific developments, and remove the ability of local authorities to set development policies locally … the White Paper proposals would also lead to fewer affordable homes, because they hand developers a get-out clause … I fear that, unless the Government look again at the White Paper proposals, what we will see is not more homes, but, potentially, the wrong homes being built in the wrong places.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/5/21; col. 39.]
I could not have put it better myself.
There is still time for the Government to listen and take a different path on this. I sincerely hope the planning Bill that comes forward retains the sensible parts of the White Paper and ditches the rest. If not, both Houses will have a lot of work to do.
My Lords, what a privilege it is to hear the maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Morse, and my noble friend Lord Coaker. I look forward to many more debates with both noble Lords.
Although this debate covers welfare, there are no Bills concerning the welfare state nor, for that matter, employment, pensions policy, health and safety, child maintenance or anything else within the DWP’s core remit. Yet challenges abound. The pandemic has exposed the impact of poor working conditions, low pay and job insecurity. They could have been addressed in the flagship employment Bill announced in the 2019 Queen’s Speech, which promised to:
“Protect and enhance workers’ rights”.
Had action been taken pre pandemic, maybe things could have been different, but we still have no sign of that legislation, just endless promises to level up. Can the Minister tell us where the employment Bill is? When will Ministers legislate to ensure all gig economy workers have basic rights and protections? When will we see action to ensure everyone has access to decent statutory sick pay and adequate in-work benefits?
Young people have been hit hardest by this pandemic. The unemployment rate for 16 to 24 year-olds is now 14.3%—575,000 young people out of work. This needs urgent action, something like Labour’s jobs promise to end long-term unemployment and our promise to ensure furloughed workers who lose their jobs get intensive support as soon as they need it.
The Government’s answer is Kickstart, which Ministers claim has created 195,000 jobs. However, figures suggest that fewer than 20,000 young people have actually started work. I have some questions for the Minister, though I accept he may have to write to me. Is the target still to reach a quarter of a million young people? What is being done to deal with the awful regional disparities? Why end Kickstart in December when so few young people are in jobs and the target has not been met? Both Labour and the CBI have called for an extension. Will Ministers think again?
The pandemic has also hit older workers. ONS figures show employees aged 50-plus were more likely to report working fewer hours than usual or not working at all, with the biggest effects among those 65-plus. Resolution Foundation research shows that older workers who lose their jobs tend to take longer to get back into work and, when they do, they are likely to earn substantially less than previously. This will hit them now and in retirement. The Government’s answer is the restart scheme, but that will not start until at least July, and it will use payment by results. How will the Government ensure that providers properly invest in those participants, such as older workers, who may have a lower chance of getting a job? What new support will be given specifically to skill and upskill older workers in new and growing industries?
Another major gap is around disability. The Queen’s Speech brief said:
“The Government will bring forward a Health and Disability Green Paper”
“The National Strategy for Disabled People will set out practical changes for disabled people that remove barriers and increase opportunity.”
That is all well and good, but the disability strategy has been delayed for months, having been promised in the previous Queen’s Speech. When will it be published? Are the Government satisfied that the consultation was adequate, given all the protests, and are they really still committed to reducing the disability employment gap?
Finally, there is poverty, which was raised so powerfully by my noble friend Lord Coaker in his cracking speech. As he said, government figures now show that 4.3 million children—equivalent to some 31% of all UK kids—were in poverty last year. Three-quarters of them live in a working household. Since the pandemic started, we have seen food insecurity increase and food bank use reach its highest ever levels. This should shock us to our core.
What have the Government done? In March last year, they announced an extra £20 a week in universal credit as a temporary uplift, effectively acknowledging that it was not enough for families to live on. Disgracefully, this was withheld from those on legacy benefits, most of whom are sick, disabled or carers. The Budget extended that by six months, but it will now be cut at the end of September, something we will fight vigorously. The furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme will both end at the same time. Is the Government’s plan that workers who lose their jobs when furlough ends will be pushed on to universal credit at a rate £20 per week less than today?
In this country we have a crisis of poverty, a crisis of unemployment, a crisis of low pay, a crisis of insecure work and a crisis for disabled people, yet the Government could not find room for a single piece of legislation to tackle these problems. How very disappointing.
My Lords, it was a great pleasure to hear the maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse. I would characterise them as forcefully illustrating what value this House can bring in speaking out for freedom and against injustice, exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said, and, equally, for efficiency and effectiveness and exposing the Government’s legislation and policies to the test of meeting not only the broad principles we are looking for but their practical application as well. We are all grateful to both noble Lords and look forward very much to their future contributions.
I will briefly talk about two things. First, in relation to the planning Bill, I declare my interest as chair of the Cambridgeshire Development Forum. I do not entirely share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, on that Bill. Clearly, Oliver Letwin’s report was right that it is not just all about planners and their speed, but they should not be absolved from the difficulties that those who are developing and delivering sometimes have in pre-commencement planning conditions and the like. A great deal of it is about diversity of supply and the delivery processes. This planning reform Bill will do very well if it focuses on that. For example, simplifying the processes of levying on developers for infrastructure is necessary, but a single infrastructure levy may not be the right answer because it must meet both the broader infrastructure objectives in an area and the infrastructure and social obligations of that development. These two things cannot be readily and easily merged into one infrastructure levy.
While I support the zonal development system, I do not think for a minute that it necessarily takes away the democratic involvement of local planning authorities. It is perfectly possible for planning authorities and the democratic process to be delivered through local plans in a zonal system. Indeed, given the importance that local plans will acquire as a result, it may encourage many more people to be involved in the plan-making stage, as at the moment they very often do not get involved and take an interest in plans only when planning applications come forward, which are largely predetermined by the structure of the local plan.
Secondly, I will mention the environment. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, is absolutely right that it must be at the heart of not just every fiscal event but every legislative programme. Given the urgency of the issue, every Queen’s Speech should be about how we meet our climate change objectives. Perhaps my noble friend will say something in responding to the debate about how we will do this, not just by setting targets and hoping that there will be the necessary transformations in production and consumer behaviour, but by putting the incentives in place between those two things. In the year ahead, we must set out, for example, how our carbon emissions trading scheme will incentivise a net-zero regime. Phasing out free allowances, increasing the auction reserve price and perhaps raising the carbon support price will take us to the point where the incentive structure gets us to net zero on the timescale required.
However, frankly, if we do it, but nobody else does, it will not succeed. We need not just the European Union to do it but the United States. We know that China is considering it, but we need them all to work together or we will end up with carbon border adjustments, which are a major source of trade friction and conflict. Not least—as the noble Lord, Lord Oates, is looking at me—we need a development programme which is sufficiently well resourced to fund decarbonisation in the developing world and developing economies as well. In this year ahead, we therefore need COP 26 to be a negotiation which delivers on an aligned structure of carbon taxation/pricing/emissions trading, which must be consistent internationally or it will fail. I look forward to that in the year ahead.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his speech opening this debate and congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse, for their powerful maiden speeches. I look forward to their future contributions. I draw attention to my interests as co-director of the Quadrature Climate Foundation and co-chair of the Peers for the Planet cross-party group.
As noble Lords have previously noted, we are facing the interrelated and urgent threats of global climate change and biodiversity loss. We should not, however, make the mistake of seeing the growing climate risk as merely an environmental issue. Human society has arisen and thrived during a period of relative climatic stability, but we have changed this. We are now entering a period of instability. We have rendered our planet less safe; like an alcoholic who has damaged their body through excessive consumption, our addiction to fossil fuels has rendered our unique home prematurely fragile. The effects of our continued reckless use of the planet’s resources will touch on all aspects of our society and economy. We are gambling with the youth of today’s future, and they are rightly demanding that we do more.
Within the Government’s Queen’s Speech, it is regrettable that not more is said on the subject. I do not, however, agree that we need a new climate change emergency Bill. We may not need legislation at all to meet many of our decarbonisation goals. I say this because Part 3 of the existing Climate Change Act was designed to give future Governments the powers that they need to take action to tackle sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, public consultation is all that is needed in order to use secondary legislation to, for example, reach 100% sales of electric vehicles by 2030 or to bring agricultural sources of emissions into a carbon cap and trade regulation that would create much-needed clarity and incentives for carbon-friendly farming. I urge the Government to use these powers now and consider whether they need to reinstate the information-gathering powers in Schedule 4 to the Act, which were subject to a sunset clause.
It is welcome that, we hope, the Environment Bill will be finalised this Session. However, the Bill is not new and lacks the specific long-term targets that will give it power, such as passing the Climate Change Act without the carbon budgets and long-term target. I am afraid that, as it stands and without clarity on the policies that tackle the reasons why existing targets are not being met, it will therefore be ineffective.
I am particularly concerned by the treatment of air quality. Just six clauses devoted to this most pressing of challenges for the Government, at every level, is not dealing with it effectively. As the coroner recently confirmed, polluted air has the capacity to kill and preys on the most vulnerable in society—the young, the old and the poor. I am told that the Government have many of the powers that they need to crack down on the sources of the problem. Why, then, have we not made more progress? I support a much more comprehensive approach, consolidating and updating existing powers and reorienting to be more specific about the goal. We should be completely eradicating sources of airborne pollutants that cause harm to human health—those that arise within our borders and are, therefore, within our control. This goal would have the triple benefit of solving air quality, helping to meet our climate goals and rejuvenating our towns and city centres.
This is a short speech and I am glad to be back in the Chamber after a considerable absence. I look forward to engaging in this Session. I conclude with the suggestion that the Government take a close look at the recently passed climate change law in Spain. Over a decade ago, the UK led the world in legislating to protect the world from a looming climate catastrophe. But just a few days ago, Spain stole our crown, passing a Bill with a set of clear and unequivocal regulations, including: outlawing the sale of vehicles that emit carbon dioxide by 2040 and their circulation on the streets by 2050; limiting all new coal, oil and gas extraction projects; and stipulating that, within two years, all towns or cities with more than 50,000 residents must have a low-emissions zone, such as those in place in Madrid and Barcelona.
I believe that we can and should be doing more. We need a global race to the top, with countries competing to reinvent our economies, so that we no longer pollute our lungs, skies, rivers, seas and soils. I support the Government in all the efforts they take to make this a reality.
My Lords, I congratulate both of my noble friends Lord Coaker and Lord Morse on excellent maiden speeches. I am privileged to know both well and know that they will make valuable and valued contributions to the work of your Lordships’ House. I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests, particularly the reference to my relationship with St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and BioRISC, a research initiative that has set itself a challenge to provide cutting-edge evidence-based information about existing and emerging biological security threats and interventions.
I will make three brief points. The first draws on BioRISC’s work and advice. Biodiversity continues to decline at an unprecedented rate, as shown by the 2019 ground-breaking report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the 2020 report Global Biodiversity Outlook. Our natural environment underpins the delivery of clean air, water and food production, as well as promising solutions to the climate crisis. We have been reminded over the past year of the inextricable link between human health and the health of the natural world.
Public investment on environmental policies has had, at best, mixed success, as illustrated by the failure of many agri-environmental schemes which, despite costing billions, are accepted as having achieved little in preventing the dramatic decline of nature on farmland. This is unsurprising since, typically, their design and implementation have not been informed by the best available evidence from a wide range of sources. In medicine and public health, not using the best available evidence would be unconscionable, but it appears to be acceptable in this space. Does the Minister think that existing processes consistently use the best available evidence on the effectiveness of actions to inform decision-making and, if not, what mechanism will the office for environmental protection deploy to ensure the transparent use of the best available evidence, enabling scrutiny by experts and members of the public, to ensure that taxpayers’ money for our environment is spent cost-effectively?
Further, and also about evidence, six years after receipt of the completed report of the Government’s own Lead Ammunition Group recommending that lead ammunition be phased out, on 23 March, the Environment Minister Rebecca Pow announced plans to do just that. The fifth sentence of Defra’s press release is:
“A large volume of lead ammunition is discharged every year over the countryside, causing harm to the environment, wildlife and people.”
It accurately summarises the extensive harmful consequences of its use, which makes a compelling case for regulation as soon as possible to protect human and animal health and to enable us to move towards a greener and safer future. But, inexplicably, it goes on to announce the commissioning of
“an official review of the evidence to begin”
“with a public consultation in due course.”
Information on the impacts of lead ammunition on wildlife, the environment and human health has been known for years. The LAG report was informed by a comprehensive review of all available evidence. Given the Government’s view that extensive harm is being caused today, why have they commissioned a further evidence review?
Yesterday, speaking on the BBC’s “The Andrew Marr Show”, America’s climate envoy John Kerry said,
“I’m told by scientists that 50% of the reductions we have to make (to get to near zero emissions) by 2050 or 2045 are going to come from technologies we don’t yet have.”
UK FIRES, a major research programme funded by BEIS through UKRI, and comprising six leading universities, a consortium of UK-based industries and several policy advisers, in its report, Absolute Zero, published in November 2019, told us the same and set out the first description of the delivery of zero emissions in the UK with today’s technologies. The report informed the Council for Science and Technology’s letter of 20 January 2020 to the Prime Minister on whole systems and was the topic of a debate in your Lordship’s House on 6 February 2020.
The primary recommendation of Absolute Zero, reflected by the Council for Science and Technology, is that the Government should create a delivery authority to guarantee compliance with the Climate Change Act. It reminded us that the London 2012 Olympics were delivered on time and on budget by such an authority which, interestingly, adopted a principle of using no new technologies to guarantee risk-free delivery. The delivery authority would need to be substantive and enduring, able to hold accountability for delivery across different government departments and through to 2050, and necessarily an exemplar of the whole-systems approach recommended by the CST to co-ordinate across the government departments charged with emissions responsibility in different sectors.
The Institute for Government, in its report Net Zero: How Government Can Meet its Climate Change Target, said, at page 9,
“Government should also assess gaps in delivery capability and consider creating the net zero equivalents of the Olympic Delivery Authority to tackle infrastructure challenges, such as housing retrofit and renewable heat.”
Do the Government plan—
My Lords, I declare my interest as co-chair of Peers for the Planet.
Last week, in a speech setting out the Government’s objectives for COP 26 in November, Alok Sharma, chair-designate of the meeting, was very clear that
“the science is getting starker”
“Whether we like it or not, whether through action or inaction, we are now choosing the future.”
It was another in a series of powerful speeches from Government Ministers setting out a commitment not just to our net-zero targets but to the need for our recovery from the immediate crisis of Covid to be one that underpins our resilience against the longer-term and even more deadly crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.
In that speech Alok Sharma also highlighted the need for urgency in taking action and the crucial nature of what we do in this decade in influencing the future globally, echoing the words of many others, notably those of Professor Dasgupta in his review and the Climate Change Committee. So it was disappointing, as others have said, that there was little sense in the gracious Speech of the necessity of moving on from ambitious words to practical policy action—to act, to quote the mantra of the Government’s Project Speed, in ways that are “faster, greener and better”.
We need to put a green lens on all policy decisions and a green thread through all legislation from all departments. This is not just Defra business and it cannot be dealt with through the Environment Bill alone. For there to be a coherent strategy, the interactions between different departments, different Bills and different policies need to be understood and integrated. I hope the Minister will reassure me that this will be a particular consideration in relation to the impacts of the proposed planning reform Bill on many areas of climate and environment policy. Perhaps I could ask him for some words of encouragement and even government support for my Private Member’s Bill relating to the planning aspects of onshore wind.
We need to use all the levers that we have—the hidden wiring of government, to use the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy—not only to achieve net zero in nature recovery but to improve health and well-being, cleaner air being an obvious example; to bring new jobs and skills, from innovative energy sources to retrofitting heating systems; and to drive our economic recovery post Covid in a way that is both sustainable and fair. The Government’s levelling-up agenda is a key opportunity to align innovation and infrastructure, jobs and skills training with an overall environmental goal.
The need for this type of approach is clearly demonstrated in the challenges posed by decarbonising homes and other buildings. Despite buildings being responsible for up to 23% of UK emissions, there was only passing reference in the gracious Speech to the much-heralded heat and buildings strategy. The record of successive Governments in this area is lamentable, the recently withdrawn green homes grant being only the latest in a series of failed schemes. So how do the Government plan to ensure that we have the infrastructure, finance and skills to meet the projected need to install 600,000 heat pumps by 2028? Will the Government now commit to bringing forward the future homes and buildings standards from 2025? If they do not, we face the prospect of a million homes being built that we already know will require expensive retrofit in the near future.
It is well understood that finance is a crucial lever for meeting our net-zero goals, yet there are no concrete plans for delivery in this area. The report by the noble Lord, Lord Stern, on economic recovery and growth, commissioned by the Prime Minister in preparation for the G7, proposed putting a strong price on carbon, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies by 2025 and strengthening international co-operation on tax and climate finance. Can the Minister indicate whether the Government will be taking forward these recommendations, particularly at the G7 meeting?
As many contributors to this debate have said, this Government are strong on rhetoric but what we need now is action and, above all, leadership that brings strategic vision, systemic change and an urgent focus on delivery. Without such leadership, we are in danger of moving from the ravages of Covid to the even greater perils of unchecked climate change.
My Lords, I intend to speak about buses. The Government’s recent proposal, Bus Back Better, is a welcome spotlight on an industry that has not been the subject of significant legislation since 1985. The proposals have been broadly applauded by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Women’s Institutes and the APPG representing county councils, all of which have been calling for action to halt the decline in bus services, particularly in rural areas. The expectations raised by the proposals are high. I received through my door on Saturday a brochure from the CPRE appealing for money to press the case for the 56% of small towns it investigated that are becoming transport deserts or are close to becoming so.
I want to examine how the Government are proposing to spend the money available—some £3 billion—and the likely outcomes. It is proposed that much of the money will be spent on purchasing new hydrogen or electric buses. A modern diesel bus built to Euro 6 standards costs the operator about £250,000. In terms of amenity and comfort, these will be very good and the emissions standards very high. An electric bus costs around £450,000 and a hydrogen bus £560,000. An operator buying one of these new buses is expected to pay the base cost of a new Euro 6 vehicle plus 25%, with the Government covering the balance of 75%.
That is not an attractive deal for the operator, who will lose the premium that he now receives for operating a low-carbon bus and the fuel duty rebate, which together account for 20p per kilometre. In Scotland there is provision to meet the cost of this ownership gap, and I urge the Minister to make inquiries north of the border because I am afraid there will not be any orders for new buses without some movement on the part of the Government. There will have to be some sort of green bus service operator grant. If the department’s object is to reduce immediately the amount of diesel oil being burned, a very modest infill of rail freight electrification would achieve that by removing a large number of HGVs from the road.
How much of the available money will be spent on new buses and how much on the ambitious programme of service improvements? Organisations such as the CPRE are anticipating hourly services from small towns, giving access to jobs, hospitals, shops, leisure facilities, education facilities and other amenities throughout the day. There is the question of timescales, with bus improvement plans beginning in October, when many newly elected councils will not meet to consider the matter until July. There are competition issues to be resolved, and the role of the traffic commissioners. Some highway works will be necessary, as well as some new bus priority measures.
Many local authorities are desperate to make the new arrangements work. There is much to do, and I ask that sufficient time is allowed for the House to examine these welcome proposals in detail.
My Lords, I first congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse, on their excellent maiden speeches.
We should never have too many expectations of a Queen’s Speech, as the reference to “other measures” is often the precursor of most of the legislation that we actually consider and pass. This year, the Speech was certainly quite limited in its extent, so trying to find proposals with a specific aim was difficult—especially in the field of transport, the subject I wish to talk about.
The record of promises in this area is not a happy one. Looking at the previous Speech at the beginning of the 2019 Session, we were told of specific government intentions to provide minimum levels of service on railways during strikes. A Bill was promised but did not appear. Legislation to cover airline insolvency and the repatriation of passengers in such circumstances was to follow after a review. The review reported, and we await something further to occur. Bus services were to be improved as part of the Government levelling up transport connections throughout the country. The Bus Services Act 2017 was to be updated to meet this new initiative to improve future provision, especially in the north and the Midlands. In April this year we were still awaiting legislation which the Government Minister Rachel Maclean then indicated might be brought forward “in due course”.
Of course, the references to transport in this Queen’s Speech included a further reference to levelling up and the need to transform connectivity by rail and bus. This should be welcomed, and organisations such as Transport for the North and Transport Network have done so. But, quite rightly, they have asked to see more action than mere words. Rural areas in particular need assurances that future needs will be better served, especially as we try to meet environmental challenges by discouraging the overuse of polluting vehicles. With our record of implementing measures announced at the beginning of a Session, I hope that we will actually see some early results this time.
I do not want to criticise too much; I know how difficult it is to move on in this sphere of activity. The way in which our land transport is controlled and financed is very complicated. Attempts to reduce bureaucracy and encourage investment have not always been straightforward. I hope my noble friend will use the opportunity of his wind-up speech to flesh out a bit more exactly how the levelling-up process for infrastructure will be taken forward. Will we get a firm commitment to an integrated rail plan which gives strong backing to the full HS2, including the vital eastern spur connecting Leeds, and development of the northern powerhouse rail networks? What might be contained in the much-heralded Statement that we are to hear on Thursday?
The development of a successful public transport system is a critical element in satisfying the Prime Minister’s ambitions to level up. I am confident that we will see some clear assurances and action, and I am sure my noble friend will indeed offer these. But apart from the rather general contents of the gracious Speech, I am also pleased that there is evidence of progress in other areas of the Department for Transport’s responsibilities. Following the work of an inquiry into UK lower airspace—which I had the privilege of chairing—I was delighted when speedy legislation followed to reorganise this and bring the United Kingdom’s control of its air corridors and facilities and the work of the CAA post Brexit up to date. I also commend the enthusiasm of my noble friend and his ministerial colleagues, especially the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, who have done so much in relation to environmental improvements in the transport industry and vehicles. This country is building a deserved reputation for leadership in the construction and distribution of green vehicles and in meeting future needs through electric battery manufacture and innovation, including taking forward hydrogen as a new power source. Sales of electric and hybrid vehicles have taken off in the UK in an exciting way.
Cleaning up transport—whether it is cars, lorries, trains, ships or planes—is a worthy and urgent aim that we simply cannot delay. Covid-19 has changed much of our use of and attitude to transport. I hope that things will reverse so that expectations can be met as before, but we must be prepared to re-examine all areas of transport to both meet future needs and benefit from new ideas and new ways to provide our services.
The noble Lord, Lord Pendry, has withdrawn from the debate, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow two such fabulous maiden speeches, and I look forward to working with both noble Lords. There is much to welcome in the Speech, but there is much that still seems to be about rhetoric rather than action, as many noble Lords have said. It is probably no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am going to confine my remarks to food.
I want to give the House a few facts. These are not suppositions or the ideas of radical NGOs; these are facts and figures drawn up by the IPCC, the Treasury, Defra, the FAO and reputed world experts. It is like looking at climate change targets 30 years ago. Some 34% of emissions globally come from our food system, and it accounts for 30% of all our anthropogenic emissions. Food and drink account for 25% of the footprint of every individual in the UK, and 50% of all habitable land is used for agriculture. It is the driver of 80% of deforestation worldwide and an identified threat to 24,000 of 28,000 species, as documented by the IUCN—the International Union for Conservation of Nature. According to our own Professor Partha Dasgupta, whose report was commissioned by the Treasury, 80% of land-use related biodiversity loss is attributed to biomass extraction, of which the primary products are food and crops. Unless we change our eating and food waste patterns, we will need to double our agricultural production in the years ahead just to stay where we are. The point of all this is what it adds up to, and this is absolutely incontrovertible: even if all other sectors that noble Lords have referred to reduced their emissions to zero tomorrow, we would still overshoot the 1.5-degree target that we are all aiming to achieve at Glasgow and around the world. We must take this on board.
I understand as well as anyone does that food is a real mess, and I have spoken about this. It is in every department, it is extremely complicated, it does not fit into a box and it does not easily subscribe to a target. It is not like saying that we will stop having fossil fuel-powered cars by 2030 or 2040; it is very difficult. But however messy and difficult it is, we can no longer duck this. We cannot ignore it and we have to take it on board. It is the most important thing that we all consume, and it is the one thing we cannot do without. We can all rage about cotton T-shirts causing environmental damage and we can do without so many of them, but we cannot do without food.
What worries me in this gracious Speech is that food really does not get much of a look in. We have the Agriculture Act coming through at the moment, and I welcome the ELMS as much as anyone, but I just want to see how it will work. The gracious Speech makes reference to the food strategy written by Henry Dimbleby, which I have been an adviser on. I am a huge supporter of this because it will help our diets and our comeback from Covid, and it will stop us being such an unhealthy nation and, to some extent, start to work against climate change if we implement it. But noble Lords cannot assume that 34% of global emissions can be dealt with by one White Paper produced by one individual. That is crazy. This must be rethought. I am also really worried that it says that the Government’s response is to consult. I know that they are meant to do this within six months, but it is my understanding from people I know that Defra is commissioning a whole other ball game to try to look at these facts. They are there, and we know them. We have to go much further.
We cannot leave the question of climate change merely to a food strategy, however good it is. Bloomberg News said—it is a ridiculous quote, but I will read it out anyway— last week:
“There is no escaping that beef is a climate villain.”
Some 14% of human-driven emissions come from livestock production.
We are not alone as a country in doing this. It is not something that should be political, but I would welcome a chance to work on it. It can be done. It needs to be seen as a whole, and in the light of the spectacular benefits it will bring us. We went into Covid as an unhealthy nation eating rubbish food. Every single bit of rubbish food is a result of bad farming practices. When you eat a cheap chocolate mousse, you are actually probably destroying the habitat of an orangutang in Indonesia. The same things are true right across the board: if we fix the food system, we fix an incredible number of other things. I really hope that the Government will step up to this and not see it as a party-political issue, but something from which we will all hugely benefit.
My Lords, it is always a tremendous pleasure to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, speak. It is a particular pleasure to be able to follow her, because she speaks from such a depth of knowledge and has such good practical sense. I associate myself with all her remarks today.
I will touch on three Bills in my short contribution. First, I will welcome, when it gets here, the Environment Bill. It is long overdue and has many important provisions and powers. It also, however, has some notable gaps and I will mention just one. It talks of public enjoyment of green space, but there is no actual provision of it in either the Bill or the planning White Paper. There needs to be a duty to create new public green spaces, especially in urban areas. The value of parks has been well highlighted by the pandemic as a necessity for physical and mental health, but it goes deeper than that. A good town or city plan must include green space.
The press release accompanying the planning White Paper merely says:
“Valued green spaces will be protected for future generations”—
in other words, those spaces that already exist—
“by allowing for more building on brownfield land and all new streets to be tree lined”.
However, the planning Bill must make powers and provision for new parks, playgrounds, sports fields, greens and allotments. The fact is that developers will get money for all of the new houses, but unless there is a requirement on them to provide green spaces, they simply will not do it. That needs to be firmly written into the Bill.
Let me take the example of allotments. Sadly, since the Allotments Act 1925 was repealed, waiting lists for allotments in most towns and cities have become longer and longer. Waiting lists of up to 400 people are not uncommon. One member of the National Allotment Society put it vividly when he said, “We will get a burial plot sooner than an allotment.” The pandemic accelerated the demand and, with the combination of healthy outdoor activity, local fresh food production, communities strengthened through shared interests and even biodiversity improvements, allotment provision should surely be a No. 1 issue for new-build areas. The definition of infrastructure for levy purposes must therefore include green spaces of all kinds.
I thoroughly agree with my noble friend Lady Pinnock, who made a powerful speech on this issue, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, that it looks like the planning Bill will cut local people out from being able to make representations on individual developments. They might be able to make representations on the overall local plan, but that is far from the same thing. There will be storms of protest when people realise what this Government have done to their rights.
I must mention how astonishingly crafty, or misguided, is the section on protests in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. “Kill the Bill” protests have already shown the strength of feeling against this part of the Bill, and young people especially are right to fear for the future of our democracy. As the effects of the lack of democracy begin to bite—I just mentioned the example in the planning Bill—I imagine that protests will spread to Tory heartlands and across all age groups. Freedom of speech and assembly and freedom to protest have always been at the heart of British democracy, but now this Government are seriously proposing to hand to the police the authority to decide which protests can go ahead and which cannot. I am not sure that this is a power that the police even want to have.
It is clear that for a protest to be effective, it needs to be noisy and, often, disruptive. However, there are already many laws and safeguards to ensure that a protest cannot be violent or disruptive, and if it is, it is already against the law. I urge the Government to rethink this part of that Bill, because it will come back to bite them. In some ways, of course, I hope it does. However, we as a House have a duty to make sure that we remove this provision from the Bill.
My Lords, I add my warmest congratulations to the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse, on their excellent maiden speeches and I welcome them to the House. I declare my interests as set out in the register. I will speak principally about the passage in the gracious Speech that refers to the Environment Bill.
The Government deserve much credit for their ambitious tree-planting targets and for their success in implementing them so far, despite the delay in the detail being forthcoming in the environmental land management scheme programme, as highlighted earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. There is no doubt that when the fine print has dried on this document, there will be an even greater take-up of the schemes on offer and an even greater hectarage of planting undertaken. Furthermore, in the light of the Nature for Climate Fund intending to provide significant funding for the creation, restoration and management of woodland, and of the English Tree Action Plan this spring, there is every reason to have confidence that we can move on from the current figure of 13% woodland cover in England towards the 30% enjoyed on the continent. This is to be celebrated in the week of the launch of Her Majesty’s green canopy project.
Nevertheless, I ask the Government to consider two further courses of action that would be most helpful to the supporters of silviculture. The first relates to the importance attached to, and the value of, coppicing. Not only does such regular harvesting provide the opportunity for a new generation of carbon capture—arguably more so than from mature stands, which begin to die back at a certain age—it also has substantial benefits for woodland flora and fauna and goes a long way towards mitigating some of the concerns expressed in the latest report from the Woodland Trust. Will the Government consider increasing the level of grant available specifically for coppicing? It is better properly to manage existing healthy woodland rather than to devote too much resource to the planting of new woodland, particularly given that in certain parts of the country the likelihood of successful planting and cropping of hardwoods is much reduced where the populations of deer and squirrels are uncontrollable.
The second course of action that I ask the Government to consider is the wider application of carbon credits to woodland, not just for newly planted woods—which is currently the case—but for existing woodland that is actively managed in an approved fashion. In the context of the Government’s net-zero ambitions, the use of carbon credits in a wider application across both agricultural and silvicultural assets seems to be an obvious government tool for achieving net zero. If you create a commercial, actively traded commodity, you will get a market response—preferable, in my view, to merely qualifying for grants. It would be an easy contributor to both climate and environmental concerns.
The gracious Speech also contains details on the Government’s determination to improve the energy performance of the housing stock. With new builds, this requires straightforward legislation. With older buildings, particularly in rural areas, however, it is not straightforward.
The current proposals regarding energy performance certificates place a totally unrealistic level of expectation on the shoulders of landlords. The proposal to increase from band E to band D by 2025 is out of step with reality. Increasing the level of expense paid by the landlord from £3,000 to £10,000 to demonstrate an attempt to comply with the new regulation will not solve the problem. Many old buildings can never reach these energy-efficiency standards, no matter how much money is thrown at them.
If the consequence of government policy is to make landlords sell tenanted buildings because they cannot comply with the new regulations, the problem is merely moved to the private owner-occupier sector, without a solution being found and with targets for emission reduction being missed. It would be much better to undertake a more detailed consultation with interested parties, to see where workable and responsible exemptions can be identified. To that end, I applaud the Government on publishing an EPC action plan but urge that it is followed up with some alacrity.
My Lords, I declare my interests in several environmental charities as listed in the register. I am very glad that the Environment Bill is finally going to be with us in this House, as was announced in the gracious Speech. It was first promised in July 2018, so we have been waiting quite a while. I hope the Minister can assure us that it will receive adequate time in your Lordships’ House, even though the Government are keen to get it onto the statute book before COP 26, because the Bill still needs improvement.
The state of nature amendment, which was well aired in the other place, needs to return to provide for statutory measurable targets and interim targets for biodiversity to match the statutory targets we have for climate change, and to enshrine in law a commitment to a 2030 target to halt and reverse biodiversity decline. The Environment Bill also needs to provide overdue statutory protection for ancient woodland. It is a disgrace that, in reality, ancient woodland has only permissive protection, as provided by planning guidance. We need similar protection at a statutory level, as is currently given to sites of special scientific interest, and I intend to put down an amendment to that effect. We also need a statutory basis for the England tree action plan, the publication of which—as I understand from the Minister, who very kindly saw me last week—is imminent. For the England tree action plan to fulfil its name, we need it to be actioned, and a statutory basis would mean that that would be more likely. I would also like an assurance that the Bill will give proper priority to native woodland and does not end up overfocusing on commercial forestry.
Perhaps the most important thing, as we see the Environment Bill proceed through this House, is to help the Government join up two very important pieces of legislation in the Queen’s Speech. The planning reform Bill is not yet published, and I share the suspicions of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch. Rumours abound that it will designate land in a topdown way as either to be developed or to be protected, and it will leave local communities powerless to do anything to stop inappropriate development, other than making sure the damaging development looks lovely in accord with the local design code. That is not very much; you can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig. If the planning Bill is not to counteract completely the protection provisions of the Environment Bill, we need in statute measures to link and harmonise these two pieces of legislation.
The Environment Bill needs to give a legal status to local nature recovery strategies, for example, so that plans, planners and indeed developers have to take account of them. We need to enshrine this in statute, as I tried to do during the passage of the Agriculture Act. I hope noble Lords who supported me in that will join with me again, in trying to bring forward a land-use framework for England. The planning Bill sounds as if it will have an oversimplistic binary approach to land use: land is either worth protecting or worth developing. The reality is that the demands on land are multiple and growing: biodiversity, conservation, carbon sequest-ration, flood-risk management, other climate change mechanisms, water quality, food production, timber production, physical and mental health to name but a few. Land needs to be multifunctional and deliver a whole range of public and private benefits. We need a land-use framework to help optimise the use of land, which is a very scarce resource. We need to make sure that we recognise that a much more sophisticated and complex set of decisions needs to be made nationally and locally about land—far more complex than the Government’s oversimplistic planning White Paper envisaged.
I hope that the Minister can tell the House what co-ordination measures will be put in place between the Environment Bill and the Planning Bill, and whether the Government will introduce a land-use framework for England.
My Lords, I declare my housing interests as on the register and will use my time today to address the housing issues raised in the gracious Speech. If we did not know it before, we certainly know after the Covid experience that the widest divisions, the greatest inequalities in our quality of life, are found in our housing circumstances. For those of us in a comfortable home, maybe with a nice garden, the pandemic has been infinitely more bearable than for our fellow citizens in cramped, overcrowded, insecure, poor conditions. We can appreciate more than ever the space indoors, the access to green space outside and the security that comes from owning our home. For so many others, life during Covid has been made utterly miserable by accommodation where there is no room to play, no room to work, and by the impossibility of home schooling and the insecurity that comes from the threat of losing even the poorest quality flat because earnings from an insecure job may be lost.
Covid has revealed the impact of acute shortages of affordable housing, not least in the huge numbers of children living in temporary accommodation, which has followed the halving of social housing—of housing association and council housing—from a third to just 17% of all homes, and the hazards of our dependency on a fragile private rented sector. Does the gracious Speech contain the ingredients to fix these problems, which are causing such damage to our physical and mental health while undermining the wider economy?
Government have provided excellent Covid-related emergency help by enabling local authorities and voluntary bodies to secure accommodation for those sleeping rough, by restoring part of the recent cuts in the benefits for housing help, and by requiring landlords to postpone evictions, but the nation’s underlying housing problems remain. The Queen’s Speech mentions forthcoming measures to enhance tenants’ rights and to support leaseholders. I look forward to the Bills introducing these helpful changes, but the Government’s main proposition for ending housing shortages—thereby stabilising prices and improving affordability, as well as reducing homelessness in its different forms—rests on reforms to the planning system to make it quicker and easier to gain planning consent. The downside of this would be the much-reduced opportunity for input by local communities and their local planning authorities. I understand the Government’s frustration that local opposition can delay new home building, but objectors fearing the worst have often been proved right.
The Government hope to prevent their new arrangements being abused, and instead to improve design and quality by strengthening the rules governing the behaviour of the notorious volume housebuilders. However, it seems unlikely that these planning reforms will achieve a big increase in housebuilding and, disastrously, they could mean fewer affordable homes. Planners have already been releasing land on an extensive scale, but house prices are still rising faster than incomes. The LGA estimates that enough land has been allocated to develop over 1 million homes that have not yet been built. We know from the seminal report from Sir Oliver Letwin that the main reason the housebuilders take their time is so that the speed of sales is slow enough to maintain high house prices.
Sir Oliver called for the nation to take back control of housing development from the oligopoly of major housebuilders to ensure that this country’s precious land resource fulfils society’s needs. He advocated local authorities setting up development corporations to acquire larger sites, paying landowners a reasonable price, underpinned by CPO powers, and then producing master plans that would meet local needs, with plots parcelled out to several housebuilders and to social housing providers, with green spaces, community facilities and so on. Coupled with a real increase in the grants that enable social landlords to make their homes truly affordable, the Letwin proposals for capturing land value for the public good could represent the fundamental change that is so badly needed.
Sadly, the Queen’s Speech suggests that the Government are not yet ready to take the really robust action needed to address the underlying causes of this most pressing national need. Any reassurance from the Minister that there is more to come would be greatly appreciated.
My Lords, I add my welcome to the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse.
I support the Queen’s Speech, which has announced bold and innovative measures to deliver our national recovery from Covid-19 and create new opportunities for all. As a vice-president and former chairman of the Local Government Association, I know that councils are committed to working with Government to help shape and deliver the proposals, so that local communities are empowered to deliver meaningful change.
In the brief time allocated, I shall focus my remarks on levelling up, devolution, the environment, adult social care and building safety. First, I welcome the Government’s commitment to investing in local areas through their upcoming levelling up White Paper. Councils will be key to achieving this ambition, and I know they are looking forward to working closely with the Government to help deliver on this commitment. With the right funding, freedoms and powers, councils can work with partners to drive improvements in public health and economic growth. They can revive town and city centres, build more homes, improve our roads and equip people with the skills they need to succeed, so that no one is left behind.
As a member of the APPG for devolution, I think this is a good opportunity to remind the House of the group’s most recent report, which successfully demonstrated how devolution could play a part in levelling up opportunities and inequalities. As we look to the future, the British state needs to be reimagined to manage the burden on central government and turbocharge the powers of local areas to deliver on both national and local priorities. With this in mind, can the Minister confirm whether the levelling up White Paper will take forward the Government’s commitment to devolution?
I also welcome the Government’s ambition for the environment, including the reintroduction of the Environment Bill and the 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution. Councils share this ambition and want to work with the Government and business to establish a national fiscal and policy framework for addressing the climate emergency. Councils can play a significant role in supporting national government to create green jobs. They can use their role as local leaders to bring together the skills and low-carbon agendas to unlock growth in their areas. The LGA’s report on local green jobs estimates that, across England, there could be as many as 1.8 million direct jobs in the low-carbon and renewable energy economy by 2050.
I want to touch on adult social care. While it was promising to see the Government commit to bringing forward proposals on social care reform, councils urgently need a clear timeline and a commitment to new funding proposals. These should provide sustainable support to people of all ages who draw on social care to live the life they want to lead. The LGA and councils are keen to work with the Government and with other stakeholders on a cross-party basis in order to achieve this.
I support the building safety Bill. As well as the crucial issue of fire safety, we should use this Bill to reduce the pain, loss of life and financial burden associated with falls in the home. I declare an interest as vice-president of RoSPA. This is not a party-political issue. Enshrining British Standard 5395-1 in law as part of the building safety Bill would save lives. It would also give much-needed relief to our NHS, which has to deal with more than 300,000 accident and emergency admissions every year because of falls on stairs. Will the Minister for building safety meet with RoSPA to discuss this proposed amendment to the Bill on stair design? This is a vital issue which the Government should address as part of its agenda to keep people safe in the home.
In closing my remarks, I commend the Government’s legislative agenda to the House. As its response to Covid-19 has demonstrated, local government does deliver and can be trusted. I therefore look forward to national and local government working together to truly level up and build back better.
My Lords, along with others in this House, I welcome the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse. I remember making my own maiden speech in the debate on the Humble Address in 2019, though of course in rather different circumstances. When I gave that speech, we were looking ahead to 2020 as the year of climate action. Instead, the impact of Covid-19 has understandably been the focus of global activity. However, the situation for our planet is becoming more urgent, not less. With another year of action now lost because of Covid-19, we need meaningful global, national and local agreements on the climate and biodiversity issues more than ever before.
Your Lordships will be well aware of the reasons: mass deforestation, ocean acidification, wildfires, unsustainable farming practices, excessive use of harmful fertilisers and pesticides, and unabating plastic pollution, to name just some. Other noble Lords have named others. Our planet and its ecosystems are delicate. Each organism has a valuable role and purpose. As Covid-19 has so painfully revealed, we cannot continue to violate this symbiotic community with impunity.
Our political life is similarly symbiotic. Let me explain. While it is true that we cannot simply legislate our way out of this crisis, we must do more to attempt to keep the global average temperature below 1.5 degrees centigrade and bend the curve on biodiversity loss. I will not speak in depth now about the forthcoming Environment Bill, given that there will be the opportunity to do so in the coming weeks, but I will record my desire to see an increase in its ambition. I and other right reverend Prelates look forward to working with colleagues across this House to ensure that the legislation addresses ecological degradation and biodiversity loss as an integral part of addressing the climate emergency. Furthermore, I welcome the spirit of the climate and ecology emergency Bill and the urgency with which Members in the other place are trying to draw attention to these issues. Both Bills are long overdue and much needed.
However, to go to back to political symbiosis, what is really needed is a fundamental change of perspective. Rather than an environmental policy, we need every policy to be environmental. We need to join up our thinking and ensure that every department and every sector of society is making efforts to combat rising global temperatures. A proper agreement to protect our planet will affect every single sector of every single society—our private and public sectors, our businesses, our farms, our waters, our schools, our cities and our homes. It will affect every individual and until we understand our collective responsibility, we will not have the impact that is needed.
I want to speak briefly about the work that the Church of England is doing. While it is an intrinsic human instinct to care for our environment, people of faith in particular are mandated to care for the planet because creation is a gift of God. We acknowledge that we have not always acted on this belief—to our shame, rather the reverse—but now the Church of England has committed to achieving net zero by 2030, a decision made by synod last year as a bold statement of intent.
As an example of our action, to achieve net zero we need to decarbonise all our heating. This is as true for our churches and cathedrals, our clergy houses and church halls, as it is for the rest of society. My diocese was the first to declare a climate emergency and commit to net-zero carbon by 2030. As part of that work, we have calculated our baseline carbon footprint and found that the largest portion of emissions—38%—is from our school estates. We have started working closely with head teachers and estates managers to explore options for decarbonisation.
We have also hugely benefited from the green interventions of Bristol City Council. One of our flagship schools and largest emitters, St Mary Redcliffe, has already benefited from the installation of solar panels and full LED lighting. It will soon gain from linking into the Bristol heat network, after which the school will be carbon neutral. This partnership with a local authority shows the real, positive impact that local government can have on meeting both its and our net carbon targets so, following the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, I record my thanks to Bristol City Council for its work on this.
To develop that work nationally, I eagerly await the Government’s heating strategy to understand what help will be given to transition from fossil fuel-based systems. In addition, laid on the local and national plans but supporting them, we need an ambitious global plan to be agreed at both the CBD COP 15 and COP 26—one that puts nature and the planet firmly back on the road to recovery by 2030. While nations rightly rally to eradicate the Covid-19 virus, we have another and even greater crisis on our hands: the loss of biodiversity and—
My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership. I am also a director of Aldustria, of Wessex Investors and its associate companies, and of the Green Purposes Company, where I am also a trustee.
I want to talk mainly about the environmental side of things but I was particularly struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said in his maiden speech: that we must never take democracy for granted. He illustrated that, if I am correct, by referring to his uncle, who lost his life on the beaches of Normandy. I want to restate that because we have in this Queen’s Speech a piece of legislation—the electoral integrity Bill—that takes not just a page but a whole chapter out of the Republicans’ playbook in the southern United States, which is around restrictions of the franchise. That Bill crosses the red line in terms of restricting the franchise in this country and I hope either that the Government will withdraw it or that we will defeat it on Second Reading in this House. I feel that strongly about it and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, is absolutely right about defending democracy. This House must make sure that that is done.
I come back to the environment. COP 26 is coming up later this year, as we know. I used to be in corporate business; it was tough but somehow predictable. It had its systems that worked. I went through processes, either with people who reported to me or the board that I reported to, where we would set a strategy; we then had budgets and then we had to do stuff—we actually had to make it happen. In this topsy-turvy world of Parliament, it somehow does not work that way. We might say, “Right, we’re going to set a target”, and then that we will do strategies. The timetables that were absolutely rigid in corporate life sort of slip in the parliamentary sense. One thing I would never have said in a board meeting was: “Never mind about that—just look at my past performance. Look how well I’ve done in the past.” If I had said that in one of my board meetings, those there would have looked at me with incredulity. They would have said: “How naive are you, Robin? Forget that—it’s not about the past. That’s banked, so it’s about what you do in the future.”
In this country we have a great track record, yes, through various Governments. What we do not have is a plan to meet those targets that are some way in the future and which we need to meet. What are we waiting for at the moment? We are waiting for a hydrogen strategy and for Her Majesty’s Treasury’s review of net zero. We are waiting for the heating and building strategy and for the transport decarbonisation strategy, which I am sure my esteemed colleague and noble friend Lady Randerson will talk about later on. My noble friend Lord Bradshaw already did. We do not know when those strategies are going to arrive and yet we have six months until we are on the international stage in Glasgow, at COP 26, to lead the rest of the globe in meeting this crisis. I ask the Ministers and the Government: when are the strategies going to be delivered, let alone the actions? We need them.
When it comes to biodiversity, we are waiting for a nature strategy. I congratulate the Treasury on the Dasgupta report, but when will we have a government response to that? There is the 25-year environment plan that Michael Gove brought forward: I would give it 10 out of 10, except that the National Audit Office gave it a scathing report last year. Regarding COP 15 in China, I can get nothing out of the Government about who is going to represent us at that conference to ensure that we approach the biodiversity crisis in the same way as we intend to approach the climate one.
In my last few seconds, I want to talk about one other area: the marine. I am absolutely delighted that the Government have chosen to bring the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, back into Defra. It is absolutely excellent. He had a report, I think it was last year, about higher-level marine conservation areas. When is that going to be implemented? I hope that he will do so. We are great at putting protection around our overseas territories—I think there are 40 million square kilometres of marine zones—but what about our own coastline? We need to have that right as well, so what about protection for those areas? Lastly, Defra has had a consultation out on remote electronic monitoring. When are we going to hear the answers?
Marine, biodiversity and climate change are all key areas. Let us get on and do stuff.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. I agree with almost every word of his speech. It is also a pleasure to welcome my noble friend Lord Coaker and his maiden speech, which was heartfelt and delivered against the background of a thunderbolt. He is very welcome in this House; it is just slightly alarming that I was already in this House when he was pointed out to me as a promising young new Labour MP, and now he has made it to the House of Lords—well done.
I also welcome the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Morse. To be honest, I had not worked out who he was until he spoke—I thought he might be a retired policeman—but, in practice, I now remember that his is the name at the end of a number of trenchant, important and constructive reports on the way in which the machinery of government works. He is also very welcome here.
I must register my disappointment at this legislative programme, particularly the absence of three important Bills and the inadequacy, as we understand it at the moment, of at least two of those that are on the list. First, there is no social care Bill. This Covid crisis has thrown up, and shown to the whole population, the inadequacy of present system of social care in this country, particularly for the elderly. We need a new plan, a new injection of money and a long-term move to a proper social insurance method of dealing with us in old age. That is absent, despite the promises.
Secondly, there is no employment Bill. The situation in the labour market post Covid is grim and made grimmer by the long-term undermining of the status, security and prospects of much of our labour force, with the disintegration of different parts of the labour market. We need a comprehensive employment Bill that provides employment rights and a major training and retraining programme.
Thirdly, I deplore the absence of an energy Bill. We have bits and pieces of what make up an energy strategy but not a full energy Bill, and I will come back to that in a moment.
Two Bills that are on the list that are inadequate in their present form or what is likely to be their form. I welcome the fact that the Environment Bill is coming back to us, but in many respects it is still an inadequate Bill. In particular, the structure of the institutions is not clear, which regulator has what powers is unclear and the clear commitment to deliver what is set out for us very clearly by the Climate Change Committee is not really made a responsibility for the totality of government. That Bill needs significant strengthening.
The other Bill, which does not yet exist but has been rumoured, is the planning Bill. What has been said about it suggests to me that we might be moving the planning system in entirely the wrong direction, in a way that not only does not deliver public support but does not deliver more environmentally sustainable housing and other buildings or the social demands for housing, which the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Kerslake, and others were talking about. It is a Bill to try to increase the amount of development, but it does not make it subject to either public accountability or the social need for housing for the poorest in our population, in particular.
I return to the energy side. We have a clear plan, put to us by the Climate Change Committee, for how we will reduce energy in our system. It is a combination of what we do in energy supply, transport, housing and other construction and industry. However, we need much more than that: we need the means to deliver it. We need new investment institutions for green investment and the manufacturing sector to support it. We need new planning processes that recognise net zero and put it centre stage. We need a new highly trained, high-status workforce to manage and operate our new green sectors. We need new sorts of regulators to deliver this, and we need investment in R&D to deliver new forms of green technologies and solutions. None of that is provided in the legislation promised in this gracious Speech. I hope that we can put some bones on it in the next few months, but, at the moment, I will be rather critical of what is before us.
I congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse, on their impressive maiden speeches; they will clearly make powerful contributions to our deliberations.
I wish to address what is described in the Queen’s Speech as a transformation across the union of
“connectivity by rail and bus”.
I will briefly address the extension of 5G mobile coverage and gigabit-capable broadband. I support what others have said on these issues, including my noble friend Lady Hayman, the noble Lords, Lord Bradshaw and Lord Kirkhope, and others. These capabilities will of course be vital if we are to remain economically competitive as a nation and maintain a high quality of life for our citizens.
However, to be economically competitive, we will have to build and maintain more of this infrastructure ourselves, with our own industrial capability, than we do at present. We need to stop buying most of our infrastructure from others and to recognise and support our own exceptional abilities to innovate and engineer the technologies of the future.
In addition, to meet our climate change targets, transport, especially by rail, bus and aviation, will have to be transformed. Debate remains about which technologies should be used. The same can be said for heavy freight trucks, earth-moving equipment and other heavy-duty industrial equipment. Electrification will be extremely difficult here because it is unclear whether batteries can be developed to be capable of economically powering the vehicles and equipment for these heavy-duty applications. The mining of vast quantities of lithium for batteries is already threatening the environment, and large quantities of carbon dioxide are already being emitted in battery manufacturing, offsetting the reduction gained from electric propulsion. In addition, green electricity will have to be used to charge the batteries of all electric vehicles before the benefits of electric propulsion are fully realised.
It may be better to use hydrogen in heavy-duty applications. We are already introducing hydrogen-powered trains, produced in Germany, and buses are to follow. Hydrogen may also be used as an aviation fuel, offering the possibility of long-range carbon-free flight. Needless to say, much has to be done before this becomes feasible. At the moment, hydrogen costs much more than diesel and aviation fuels, and excessive quantities of carbon dioxide are emitted in its production.
Deciding which approach to take is fraught with unknowns, but it is clear that, in all cases, we will need carbon-free electricity and heat. This can be achieved with wind and solar power, backed by nuclear power, as has been done in France, although with a different combination of renewables. Electrolysis can then become the primary means of generating hydrogen. All forms of nuclear power plant produce both electricity and heat, and high-temperature gas reactors are especially suitable for hydrogen production because they produce high-temperature heat. This combination would completely avoid the use of fossil fuels and the accompanying need to capture and store CO2, a technology that is far from being demonstrated at the vast volumes required. Batteries would be used for cars and to meet other relatively low-energy needs, and hydrogen would be used for rail, bus and other heavy-duty applications, including aviation.
We have the skills to produce much of what would be needed to follow this path; let us ensure that we enable our industries to provide it. It is comfortable to say that we should pursue all alternatives for reducing carbon, but we have neither the resources nor the time to do so. We now need to make focused, strategic choices and then establish the project-management framework to deliver them, as we have in coping with Covid-19. I say “Hear, hear” to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on this issue.
Before finishing, I will say a brief word about 5G communications, where we find ourselves once again at the mercy of others because we lack the ability to provide our own equipment. Here, and with semiconductor chips—my speciality—I suggest that we collaborate closely with international partners, especially the Americans. The Biden Administration are working with all of their leading industrial companies to address these issues at scale, and they should welcome our participation.
My Lords, I too commend the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse, on their maiden speeches, which were excellent in their different ways. I declare my interest, as set out in the register, as a shareholder in an electric vehicle company.
On the Environment Bill, the gracious Speech and the Government’s accompanying briefing contain many admirable goals, but there is little mention of the realistic true costs or challenges involved in reaching net zero. As we know, the Government’s central target is to achieve a 78% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over 1990 levels by 2035, which will mean a 58% reduction over the next 14 years.
I will look at two key sectors; the first is electric vehicles. The Government have now said that there should be no new internal combustion engine vehicle sales after 2030. I draw attention to a few points regarding this stipulation. UK car manufacturers have recently called for this deadline to be put back five years, against a background of electric vehicles currently representing less than 10% of new car sales. The CEO of Vauxhall Motors recently said that owning a car after 2030 might become the preserve of the rich. It is also estimated that 1 million charge points will be needed by 2030, against a current background of a third of UK homes not having off-road parking. How will the national grid cope with the accompanying increase in electricity demand?
I turn to homes. It is estimated that about 20 million homes will need to be converted from gas to heat pumps; in other words, about 1 million heat pumps will need to be installed each year by 2023. Who is to pay for all this? If it is individuals or the taxpayer, then they must be told the likely cost by the Government. Several noble Lords have commented that the Government are strong on rhetoric. I would adopt the recent words of the chairman of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee:
“Making 19 million homes ready for net zero Britain by 2050 is an enormous challenge that the Government appears to have not yet grasped.”
Realism must be injected into the Government. A much better understanding of cost, pace, scale, and the feasibility of skills development, is desperately needed for net zero.
In debates on Scottish independence, the Government rightly ask the SNP to be honest about the true economic cost of an independent Scotland. Should the Government not be equally honest with the UK population and taxpayers about the real economic costs and practical challenges of net zero? I hope that they will, but if they will not, people may reasonably ask whether they are hiding something.
My Lords, the Public Services Committee on which I sit, so ably chaired by my noble friend Lady Armstrong, published its first report, A Critical Juncture for Public Services: Lessons from Covid-19, in the autumn of last year. That juncture was about the importance of recognising the effects of the pandemic on communities as well as on public services. I will focus on two parts of those communities: the charity sector and unpaid carers.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, charities have faced a double whammy, with a huge increase in demand and a vast drop-off in their income, as charity shops, street collections and fundraising events stopped overnight and led to reduced donations by the public. On the plus side, there were huge innovations. Things which would have taken months were organised overnight and rigid rules became relaxed. Process was replaced by greater trust and collaboration. The intimate knowledge that voluntary organisations have of their clients and users suddenly became a thing of value, and charities report being consulted by local public services about the best way to provide those services. This acknowledgment of the special skills, knowledge and experience of local charities must not be allowed to retreat and slip back into the old meaning of consultation with the local voluntary sector. All too often that has meant post hoc consultation, telling the sector what it is to do once policies have been decided, instead of very early involvement. If the failure of track and trace means anything, it is surely that you must rely on local networks and local knowledge, rather than a top-down approach.
Across the United Kingdom, local community organisations, often working closely with local authorities and primary care providers, have recruited volunteers to support those who are vulnerable by organising food banks and helping in vaccination centres. This volunteering response to the pandemic has the potential to create a legacy that will make civil society stronger. Local authorities in the charitable sector want these good experiences to inform their relationships going forward, but this will need support by local authorities, which are so cash-strapped that many can fund only the very highest level of need and are unable to fund the vital preventive work and early warning systems at which charities are so good. Voluntary organisations are very good value, but they are not cost-free. They need support so that the public duty ethic can flourish, as we have seen it do during this last year.
When it comes to public duty, there is no better example than that of unpaid carers. Until the Government set out concrete measures for social care reform, the reality for millions of families is that they have no choice but to take on more and more care for their older or disabled relatives, costing them their livelihoods and relationships, and at the expense of their own physical and mental health. Unpaid carers could not be clearer that they are worn out and overwhelmed; 81% have been providing more care for relatives during the pandemic and 64% have been unable to take any breaks at all for more than a year. A huge majority have seen their loved ones’ health deteriorate.
Without the United Kingdom’s millions of unpaid carers, our health and social care systems would have collapsed in the last year. While the Government have committed to social care reform proposals being brought forward, we have been hearing this for far too long and further delays cannot be tolerated. We need to see detailed plans for reform which ensure that unpaid carers get the practical and financial support that they need to care.
The NHS White Paper failed to mention unpaid carers at all. Support for them must be a core part of the health Bill which we will be scrutinising over the next year. We must see a duty on the NHS to have regard to unpaid carers, to promote their health and well-being, and to ensure that they are identified, supported, and included across the NHS and social care. That is a goal to which everyone should be committed. Social care can work only if unpaid carers are visible, recognised and counted.
Finally, I remind the Minister that we are still waiting for the Government’s response to the consultation on carers’ leave and need to see, as soon as possible, concrete plans about how this will be taken forward.
My Lords, I add my welcome to the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse.
We face a climate and nature crisis, yet this Government are not on track to meet their fourth or fifth carbon budgets and have failed on almost all the global targets to reverse losses in wildlife and the natural environment by 2020. We needed the gracious Speech to offer up new plans to deliver for our environment, protect our rights to environmental justice and ensure that all of government aligns with climate and biodiversity goals.
Despite some welcome steps, the gracious Speech is not sufficiently transformational. The Environment Bill should include a legally binding target to halve the decline of biodiversity by 2030. Doing so will drive action across government to restore nature and encourage other nations to raise their nature ambitions in advance of COP 15. Your Lordships must amend the Bill to include such a target and to strengthen measures to tackle waste and to improve resource efficiency and air and water quality, if we are to deliver the scale of environmental improvements that future generations need.
This Defra Bill also risks being undermined by other departmental plans, as other noble Lords have mentioned. The planning system should create great places for people to live and contribute to nature recovery, but the Project Speed planning proposals and recent decisions on extending permitted development rights and excluding major infrastructure proposals from biodiversity net gain run counter to that. The Government must do far better in encouraging co-ordination between departments to deliver climate and biodiversity goals.
The Queen’s Speech comes at a time when the clock is ticking for environmental action to protect our planet. All of us, not just the Government, must act. As citizens, we must transform how we travel, what we eat and how we heat our homes—in short, live sustainable lifestyles. Some 59% of the measures in the climate change committee’s recent pathway for the sixth carbon budget contain some element of societal behavioural change. Securing those changes requires public engagement, yet the one climate assembly in the UK to build consensus on how to do that was initiated not by the Government but by six Select Committees in the House of Commons.
The Government must provide more opportunities for participation in environmental decision-making alongside better education and communication. Doing so is part and parcel of delivering our right to environmental justice. Worryingly, the Queen’s Speech points in three ways to a Government determined to undermine that right—a right established in the Aarhus convention, to which the UK is a signatory.
First, as proposed, the office for environmental protection, which will hold public bodies to account on environmental law, is insufficiently independent of the Government and has limited remedies, including no powers to fine. This means that we have weaker sanctions to hold the Government to account now than when we were members of the European Union. I wish the body well, but it is even blocked from advising the Government on planning proposals contrary to environmental legislation in the way that the climate change committee did so effectively recently on the impacts of allowing a new coal mine in Cumbria.
Secondly, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill proposes measures that could curtail peaceful environmental protest, despite the police already having powers to limit protest to ensure safety, as my noble friend Lady Miller rightly said.
Thirdly, the judicial review Bill could neuter environmental groups seeking to hold the Government to account. Only last week, three climate activists applied for a judicial review to challenge the Government’s support for continued North Sea oil and gas production. Maintaining the right of citizens to challenge the Government of the day to deliver the climate and environmental goals that we must deliver is a fundamental cornerstone of British democracy.
The threats in this Queen’s Speech to our right to environmental justice, alongside insufficiently transform-ational initiatives to deliver for our environment, show a Government not yet fully committed to putting climate and biodiversity goals at the heart of all their agendas.
My Lords, this Queen’s Speech proposes many Bills. Some are controversial, and some will have a long-term effect on sections of the population. One such Bill is the flagship Environment Bill, because the Government seem determined to push on with achieving net-zero carbon—and rightly so. This is laudable, but we must also consider the practical and downside effects.
Let us take energy performance certificates, which currently apply to rental properties. I declare my interest as an owner of such places, and hope that this does not bar me from pointing out the flaws in the scheme. First, why only rental properties, which account for 20% of the housing stock? Can the Minister confirm that all houses will be subject to the higher criteria by 2025?
Secondly, the Government propose increasing the landlord cap to £10,000 spend every five years. This is a huge percentage of capital and rental value, and will, as many agencies, and the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, have pointed out, lead to a rush of sales as landlords realise the unpalatable economic effect on their investment. This will have an exacerbated effect in rural areas. Where will farm workers move to when their landlord informs them that he can no longer physically or economically improve the energy efficiency of his traditional home so can no longer legally let it?
The flaw is in the assessment methodology, where unchangeable physical criteria such as solid wall construction and off-gas heating automatically downgrade the result because the formula was designed for modern buildings. The conflict between energy costs and carbon reduction must be reassessed urgently, long before the 2025 rules come into force. There is equal concern about the damage done to heritage buildings in attempts to retrofit crude efficiency patches in order to continue letting them.
The Government are pressing on with banning the sale of diesel and petrol cars by 2030. That is splendid but, again, the practical consequences appear to be being overlooked. That date will be here in nine years, yet working charge points are way behind schedule and the £20 million fund will not ensure that these points are installed in sufficient numbers. So who will supply and pay for them? Where will the electricity be generated, given a peak demand forecast of a 10% increase on present use? I was interested to see today that the Services Committee has commissioned a demand survey for such things on the Parliamentary Estate.
Electric vehicles are not a panacea. A lithium ion battery, giving a 250-mile range, takes 20 tonnes of CO2 to manufacture. Batteries also need rare-earth metals, which cause environmental degradation in their mining. So, I wonder, are the Government turning their back on hydrogen cell vehicles when hydrogen is probably the cleanest fuel and the most suitable fuel for HGVs and trains, and should be developed in tandem with EVs? Once again, an infrastructure lacuna appears.
Today’s debate topics include welfare. Does this include the welfare of harmless foreigners caught up in the Government’s aggressive war on immigration? From asylum seekers in Glasgow to those looking to find work legally being detained at Gatwick and taken to Yarl’s Wood, this confrontational posturing to exclude anyone not deemed useful to this country is very unattractive and creates bewilderment and fury. Of course, it will be reciprocal, and the EU will react tit for tat by coming down on Britons living out their retirements in Spain and France when they do not have their paperwork in order in time.
Brexit may be done, but that should not mean punishing well-meaning people so harshly. Who came up with the 90/180-day rule for non-workers, which will impact on people’s lives so unnecessarily? Surely a gentler formula that looks after the welfare of all citizens could be found. Petty aggression from Border Force officers—such as confiscating phones, crowding detainees into holding rooms at risk of Covid and ignoring offers to buy an immediate return ticket—are unacceptable actions in a civilised society. The Home Office rules explicitly allow non-visa holders to attend job interviews, so why this humiliating and traumatic treatment? Welfare? What welfare?
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak during this debate and to support Her Majesty’s gracious Speech, with today’s important focus on communities, welfare, transport and the environment. I also congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse, on their excellent maiden speeches.
I support the levelling-up fund, the future high streets fund and the towns fund. They will culminate in driving forward the regeneration of towns and delivering long-term economic and productive growth. They will play an important role in supporting our country’s economic recovery by bringing forward public investment to create jobs and boost confidence in towns, as well as by levering in investment from the private sector to improve everyday local life. As we have been reminded, many places have been left behind for too long, demonstrating the need for cultural identity, strong viable communities and enabling people to feel good in their surroundings.
The end of the common agricultural policy provides a framework for how we choose to manage and improve our land for increased food production and our horticultural sector, all while balancing our support for managing nature and the environment. Brexit helps us to create and exploit our own opportunities and decisions on what is right, particularly to deliver the highest standards of animal welfare while promoting our values in our worldwide trade deals. Importantly, it provides the UK with an opportunity to improve food labelling for meat by requiring that products containing meat be labelled British only if the animals were born, bred and slaughtered in the UK. Also, food produced outside the UK but processed in the UK should not be classed as British.
I welcome the increased protections to eradicate cruel practices for all animals: in particular, ending the export of live animals for fattening and slaughter; the banning of battery cages for laying hens, of sow stalls and of veal crates; and an end to the terrible welfare conditions found in puppy farming—many are transported in poor conditions often at a too-young age. Tougher penalties are needed to stop heavily pregnant bitches being illegally brought into the UK to dupe buyers into buying UK-bred puppies.
Businesses are our wealth creators and the Government have been on their side, with the undeniably unprecedented £352 billion package of support during this pandemic and further measures to make the lives of small business owners across the country easier as they seek to recover their businesses and livelihoods after the pandemic.
Much has been made of the current planning system in England. With a full overhaul, the reforms will give communities a greater voice from the start of the planning process. Local plans will be protected, making planning much more straightforward and accessible, with protected areas to include heritage and outstanding natural beauty sites. However, we must ensure the greater use of our brownfield sites. The target of 300,000 homes per year, together with the proposed future homes standard, will ensure that all new homes from 2025 will produce at least 75% fewer carbon emissions than those built to the current standard.
The Government’s economic recovery will be a green recovery, which I welcome, and ensure that the UK remains on track to meet its net-zero target. This was demonstrated by the early announcement of £8.8 billion of new infrastructure, decarbonisation and maintenance projects—including a £3 billion green investment package. This could help support around 140,000 green jobs, upgrade buildings and reduce emissions.
A green light has been given to eight freeports in England, with the commencement of the first one this year and further freeports planned in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This helps strengthen economic ties across the union, as a growing clustering of businesses leads to economic advantage and can play a large part in rebalancing economic equality across the UK and boosting international trade.
Finally, there are much-awaited measures to revolutionise how we recycle and reduce air pollution. But we must secure long-term resilient water supplies and wastewater services which protect nature, improve biodiversity and, importantly, lead to a reduction of sewage discharges from storm overflows into rivers. We must also not forget the protection of our peatlands, which are our biggest terrestrial carbon store and home to some of our rarest species. As only 13% of our peatlands are in a near-natural state, we cannot delay any further.
Brexit done, we need to build on it by being bold in rebuilding our economy post pandemic to benefit all in the UK. It is all about place.
The title of the Government’s energy White Paper is Powering Our Net Zero Future. It addresses the need to staunch our emissions of carbon dioxide in view of the advancing crisis of climate change. It proposes that, by 2050, we should double our generating capacity for electricity, while reducing our overall energy consumption to two-thirds of its present level. This is a gross underestimate of our requirements for electricity and power.
According to a widely accepted analysis, the electrification of transport would require a 75% increase in generating capacity. The decarbonisation of the economy will create numerous additional demands, some of which I will mention later. The only source that could meet such demands is nuclear power. Therefore, I believe we should embark without delay on the necessary infrastructure projects to create this supply and exploit it.
An alternative opinion has been offered by the FIRES report, which is the work of a group of academic engineers. FIRES is an acronym that stands for “Future Industrial Resource Efficiency Strategy”. The report argues that we have run out of time. It proposes that the only way we can hope to meet the 2050 target of net zero emissions is by a radical regression which would entail abandoning much of the technology that accompanies our present state of affluence.
According to that report, we would have to immobilise ourselves by forgoing our present means of transport, including automobiles and aircraft. International shipping would also need to be much reduced. Building construction involving steel and concrete would need to be severely curtailed, and we should cease to eat red meats. Such a curtailment of economic activity involving a further abandonment of manufacturing would lead to mass unemployment and the immiseration of much of our working population. It is an appalling prospect to contemplate.
As evidence of the lack of time, the report talks of the 30-year period covering the time from the inception of a new technology to its realisation in a fully operational system. One can point to the length of time it has taken to design and complete the third generation of nuclear plants, such as the European pressurised water reactors, or EPRs, at Olkiluoto in Finland, Flamanville in Normandy and Hinkley Point in Somerset. However, there are convincing recent and historical counterexamples suggesting that such projects can be accomplished far more rapidly. In fact, an EPR reactor which is virtually identical to that at Hinkley Point has been constructed at Taishan in Guangdong province in China. Work began in 2008 and, in spite of numerous reported setbacks, it began full operation in 2018.
One might also consider the post-war experience in Britain in establishing our civil nuclear industry, which, at the time, embodied a wholly new technology. Britain’s first nuclear power station at Calder Hall in Cumbria was opened officially by the Queen in October 1956. The construction had begun in 1953 and its design work could not have begun much before 1952 when Churchill called for the construction of the plant. There should be ample time between now and 2050 to revive our nuclear industry.
We should now consider some of the uses of the enlarged supply of electricity which would be required for domestic heating and to power numerous industrial processes. Steel, which is currently manufactured in coal-fired blast furnaces, could be made in electric arc furnaces fed by both iron ores and scrap metals. Hydrogen and ammonia, which would be among the predominant vectors of energy, should be produced by high-temperature electrolysis of water, the heat and electricity for which should be provided by nuclear reactors.
Provided that the hydrocarbon fuels are created in a manner that does not add to the burden of atmospheric carbon dioxide, there should be no need to forgo the use either of the internal combustion engine or jet engines. The technology for the direct air capture of carbon dioxide, which is energy intensive, already exists. It could be deployed on a large scale to provide the carbon component of the fuels.
Portland cement, which is used in concrete, has become a major element in modern building construction. Its manufacture emits large quantities of carbon dioxide and it should be greatly reduced. However, a reversion to the use of lime mortar in brickwork could be mandated, since the setting of the mortar reabsorbs the carbon dioxide that has been emitted in the reduction of the calcium carbonate limestone to quicklime. Bricks that are now fused inseparably by a sand and cement bond could be reused extensively, as they are in much of present-day domestic building.
The time is not available for me to describe such a scenario in more detail, and to realise it will require energy, imagination and government initiatives. At present, all three of these ingredients are in short supply.
My Lords, I too join other noble Lords in welcoming the maiden speeches from the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse. I look forward to their participation in this House.
I am a novice in this area so feel slightly trepidatious in speaking about the environment and transport, but that is what I am going to do today. I express disappointment, along with other noble Lords who know a lot more about this, at the lack of a transport decarbonisation strategy. It is particularly disappointing to find the lack of a coherent strategy to tackle aviation emissions. I know this issue was close to the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, so I hope he will touch on it when he winds up.
CO2 has a lifespan measured in centuries. Today’s emissions will combine with those that have accumulated since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Yet, nearly a quarter of a century ago, Kyoto did not want to tackle it, instead leaving it to the UN agencies responsible for the aviation sector to attempt to find some sort of consensus. We know how difficult it is to get consensus at the UN—I would not look there if we really want to make progress. I understand that the only goal adopted by the UN aviation agency, ICAO, is to keep net emissions from international aviation at or below 2020 levels, mainly through the use of carbon offsetting and reduction, not through tackling the heart of the problem: excessive recreational and business flying and the overuse of distant supply chains.
Inexplicably, we have left international aviation and shipping emissions in the UK out of the five-yearly carbon budgets. One can only assume that that was because they fell into the “too difficult for now” category—and that is for a Government with an 81-seat majority. Given that technology has shown that we do not need to leave home to engage with a large part of commerce, that businesses have found that having executives jet over from London to New York for a three-hour meeting is not vital to success, and that consumers are discovering the merits of staycations, now would appear to be the ideal time to reduce aviation emissions permanently.
Tackling them in domestic legislation is important. We have left the EU emissions trading system, so an ambitious plan to set clear targets in law would be appropriate. I would call it a “levelling down” for the climate. I say this because in the UK we have a particular problem with overusing aviation as a means of transport. It is mainly people on higher than average incomes, who fly about 50% more than the average for other advanced economies. While emissions in many sectors are falling, UK aviation represents around 10% of total CO2 emissions, compared to 2% of global emissions. I urge the Government to come forward with a strategy to tackle this and to announce bold targets to reduce air travel and transport before COP 26.
Inevitably, one element of this issue is airport expansion and here, the greatest challenge is Heathrow, arguably the biggest emitter of CO2 in Europe. We have to ask ourselves why we should allow a never-ending expansion of this particular airport. The economic case for a third runway, which was always weak, has now become untenable. Even the Supreme Court ruling last year that the expansion strategy was legitimate was based on previous, less stringent climate targets and invites reconsideration. The noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, will know all about this; it is very much his interest area. When the courts point to Parliament and effectively say, “We cannot solve the problem; it is for the Government in Parliament to change the law”, the public rightly expect to see such action reflected in the Government’s programme—the one we are discussing here.
In 2009, when the Labour Government pushed through Heathrow’s third runway, our determination as a nation to tackle climate change was less developed. Now that we know about the damage to the environment caused by aviation, we need to tackle it through legislation. However, here, the chance to do so has been missed again. If, when the third runway’s inevitable public inquiry is concluded, it finds against expansion, will the Government act to stop it? They cannot avoid their responsibility. If we have to have “long grass”, let it grow over the north-west third runway at Heathrow.
The noble Lord, Lord Deben, has withdrawn so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker.
As a daughter of Nottinghamshire, I applaud the warmth and passion of my noble friend Lord Coaker’s splendid maiden speech. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Morse, on his important speech. I shall focus on the climate emergency and declare that I am a member of Peers for the Planet.
However, first, outside of my five minutes, I hope your Lordships will allow me to say a word about the contribution to sustainability of my noble friend Lord Rogers of Riverside, who is barred from membership of this House through absence. He is, in fact, gravely ill and would not have left of his own volition. As he cannot make his own valedictory speech, I just want to say that as president of the All-Party Group on Design and Innovation while I was vice-chair, his distinguished and conscientious contributions were invaluable in furthering the case of sustainable design and architecture. That is quite apart from all his other extraordinary achievements, both public and professional.
I am concerned that the Government have not integrated their environmental policies throughout departments. They have announced some good policies, not least the undertaking on 20 April to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions by 78% by 2035, compared with 1990 figures. In an excellent debate in your Lordships’ House, several questions about how the commitment would be implemented, notably asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and the mover of the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, went unanswered. My noble friend Lord Whitty asked which Cabinet committee would oversee implementation. I ask that question again.
There are other signs of a lack of embedding the essential aim of net-zero carbon throughout government policy and programmes. My noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch referred to the Public Accounts Committee’s criticism of the Treasury. This is the department that commissioned the seminal Dasgupta report. Do the different branches talk to each other? Do they require environmental impact assessments? Why is the Treasury—and, for that matter, the Ministry of Defence—exempt from Defra’s environmental principles? A key department is obviously Environment but, as has been said, we have not heard what its plans are to meet the carbon emission targets.
The United Nations published a report last week charting the large and increasing contribution of methane gas to global heating, and proposing means to reduce it. What are the departments’ plans to deal with this environmental hazard, notably in agriculture?
The authoritative Energy Transitions Commission says that we shall need to increase our production of clean energy by two to two-and-a-half times to meet the demands of transport, industry, buildings and so on. How is this to be managed without intolerable cost? How can it be done without legislation to reform the grid? Where is the promised energy Bill?
Then, there is the specific question I have often asked about domestic gas heating in blocks of flats. Here, we are far below Germany, France and the Netherlands in the installation of heat pumps. Domestic gas boilers are a very large source of carbon, because most building emissions come from homes and the majority of these are gas-fired. Residents of blocks of flats are numerous—some 20% of homes are flats, about 4.7 million in total—and on average they are far from the wealthiest, so a programme to enable them to exchange their boilers, perhaps on a building-wide basis, will need to be devised and funded. Following the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax, I ask: what is it to be?
In general, my questions to the Minister are as follows. What are the structures to ensure that all government policies and programmes contribute to arriving at zero carbon by 2035? Which posts are tasked with monitoring this and how is it co-ordinated at Cabinet level? What is the accountability structure within departments? It needs to be in job descriptions at specific levels, so that performance in the outcome of reducing carbon emissions is measured, incentivised and censured or rewarded accordingly. Finally, the legislature has a right to know what these structures are and to be reassured that they are as developed and effective as the targets themselves. I look forward to the Minister’s answer.
My Lords, the 2021 Queen’s Speech includes an emphasis on levelling up, research, development and innovation, and the environment. This was always going to be a crucial Queen’s Speech post Brexit and in the midst of the awful Covid-19 pandemic. The skills and post-16 education Bill proposes a lifelong learning entitlement, which is very close to the recommendation of the CBI, of which I am proud to be president, for more people to develop higher-level skills throughout their working lives. It is also in line with the recommendations of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, of which I was a member, which reported in November 2019. CBI research shows that nine in 10 people will have to acquire new skills by 2030. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, mentioned the Kickstart Scheme and a request to the Government made by the CBI that this be extended by six months until June 2022. Will the Government please agree to this, to enable more young people to take part in and benefit from this excellent scheme? The noble Lord, Lord Oates, quoted Mahatma Gandhi. One of my favourite sayings of Gandhi is: live as if you are going to die tomorrow and learn as if you are going to live for ever. Enabling lifelong learning for our nation is crucial.
I was privileged to chair the B7 last week. The B7 feeds into the G7 next month. One of our members said, “Thank God for digital in this pandemic”. What would we have done without digital today? We would not have been able to hold this Hybrid Sitting of the House in which we are all taking part. With more digitisation, however, comes more vulnerability. Therefore, the online safety Bill is crucial in dealing with cybersecurity. The product security and telecommunications infra-structure Bill will deal with gigabit coverage. Will the Government confirm that, having earlier committed to 100% national broadband coverage by 2025, they rolled back their commitment to 85% in the spending review in November? Surely this pandemic has shown more than ever that we need 100% gigabit broadband coverage. Does the Minister agree?
The Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill—ARIA—is great news to enhance the UK’s R&D capability. Do the Government also agree with the CBI’s recommendation that we should create clusters around the country, with universities at their heart? The best example is the Cambridge cluster. Initially a tech cluster, it now also encompasses life sciences, with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine being manufactured by AstraZeneca, which is headquartered in Cambridge. Do the Government agree that we need to do much more to help businesses and universities work together on research, development and innovation, which in turn would power forward our nation’s productivity?
The Queen’s Speech contains a lot, but some important things were missing; for example, the reform of business rates. Business rates reform is fundamental to the levelling up agenda and to reviving our high streets and stimulating business investment, let alone encouraging greener buildings. Surely the Government agree that we need a full reform of business rates, which is long overdue.
The Environment Bill is a positive milestone to us building a greener United Kingdom. Businesses are looking for the legislative measures needed to reach the net zero emissions target following the Government’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution. It appears that the Bill does not provide for this. Will the Government confirm that? Furthermore, the planning Bill is a key element of the Queen’s Speech. Do the Government agree that modernising the planning system must be done in lockstep with the vital task of decarbonising homes and buildings? I was privileged with the CBI to chair the heat commission along with the University of Birmingham, of which I am proud to be chancellor. The commission highlighted that one-third of greenhouse gas emissions comes from heat. Half of that comes from buildings. We need to convert our 29 million houses in the United Kingdom from gas boilers to either hydrogen boilers, heat pumps—as the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, said—or community heating if we are to reach net zero by 2050. To do this, the heat commission recommended the creation of an Olympic-style delivery body, including green finance, and there is a proposal that this delivery body could be the national centre for decarbonisation of heat, which is located in the West Midlands and of which the University of Birmingham is a member. Do the Government agree with this approach?
This is a watershed year for the United Kingdom to show global leadership, in hosting not only the G7 but COP 26 in November. There is, therefore, an urgent need for legislation to speed up the race to net zero. The Prime Minister said at the B7 last week that the race to net zero is not a zero sum game. In true Boris style, he also said: “Green is good.” Kwasi Kwarteng, our new Secretary of State for Business, says that his priorities are the acronym ENZI, standing for enterprise, net zero and innovation. Thankfully, the Queen’s Speech is full of ENZI.
My Lords, I welcome the gracious Speech and will take this opportunity to draw together some strands on the environment, transport and communities. I warmly congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse, on their outstanding maiden speeches. I refer to my entries in the register. I am a member of the Church of England Rural Affairs Group, vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities, president of National Energy Action, and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Water. I also had the privilege of chairing the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the House of Commons between 2010 and 2015.
I will focus on the role of farming in the rural economy, market towns and the hinterland of rural communities. I am an enthusiastic advocate of the Government rural-proofing all their policies on health, social care, education and transport, so that they are fit for purpose in a rural setting. Rural communities must have good access to banking and post offices, access to cash so that the elderly, young families and others can pay their bills, affordable housing and good transport, as well as fast-speed broadband and good mobile connectivity.
I would like to consider the challenges to rural areas in the context of the planning Bill and ask my noble friend whether the Government will end the practice of building in inappropriate places, especially flood plains. Will they use more natural flood defences and sustainable drains? We all know that Flood Re does not apply to houses built after 2009, so how will the Government protect existing developments from the consequences of building on flood plains and ensure that future developments are flood-proof? Will the Government use the planning Bill to finally implement the recommendation of the Pitt review in 2007 to end the automatic right to connect for major new developments?
I turn to the Environment Bill and its link and relationship to the Agriculture Act, in particular the fact that details of the environmental land management schemes and current pilot schemes are very sketchy. We must ensure that the link is recognised and made between the active farmer and those taking the economic risk, as well as the importance of livestock farming in upland areas and issues relating to common land. I recognise that farmers have a role to play in tackling climate change, for example carbon sink—capturing and storing carbon in that way—but, for a sustainable farming future for the whole of the UK, tenants must be able to benefit from the new schemes, not just landlords. I add a note of caution on banning the live trade of animals, which is already heavily regulated and very limited. We must consider the economic consequences of losing a very considerable market and losing market share to other countries, such as New Zealand, particularly at this time of year with the sale of spring lambs to France. The loss of that market would have a huge negative impact on hill farms in the north of England and elsewhere in the United Kingdom—I am thinking of Perthshire. Imagine the consequences of losing flocks through such a loss of market.
I also recognise the role of framework agreements and partnership committees with EU parliamentarians under the UK and EU trade and co-operation agreement, as well as working with the devolved Administrations in setting and implementing agricultural policy and environmental law in all the jurisdictions of the United Kingdom. We must be ever-vigilant about animal health and welfare and ensure that the Government make good their excellent commitment to a level playing field on environmental standards. The Government have repeatedly said that they are committed to ensuring that food imports meet the same high standards of production as foods produced here. I hope that that will continue to be the case in the legislation set out before us.
I pause for a moment to consider the future challenge of mental health in the farming community, particularly in rural communities. I pay tribute to all the charities involved.
As well as broader issues in the Environment Bill, in view of the fact that landfill sites are full to bursting, should we be exporting our waste to Holland, Denmark and Turkey or looking to expand the opportunities for energy from waste at home? Can my noble friend confirm that the Environment Bill extends to the marine environment and that the Government will use that opportunity to ensure that offshore wind farms in the North Sea are environmentally safe and friendly. Finally, given the rule of the OEP, how will the Government guarantee that it operates independently? How will its relationship with its opposite bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland work?
My Lords, there have been many excellent contributions to the debate today, including those of the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse. I am sorry to add yet more to the Minister’s workload at the wind-up, but I can at least start by welcoming the announcement that the building safety Bill will come before your Lordships’ House this Session. I urge the Government to give this Bill every priority to achieve that. Can the Minister confirm that it will be published before the fourth anniversary on 14 June of the Grenfell Tower fire? The residents and survivors have waited long enough.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans reminded us, Ministers gave repeated pledges during the passage of the then Fire Safety Bill that a comprehensive scheme to deliver necessary initial finance for remediation work on defective high-rise residential blocks would be in the new Bill. We on these Benches will be holding the Government to account for those pledges. Will the Minister undertake to publish an early draft of the scheme of remediation and compensation that they propose, and to engage with your Lordships’ House and leaseholder organisations at the earliest practicable moment?
The gracious Speech also highlighted the urgency of climate change and the November COP 26 session, which will be hosted by the United Kingdom. The Government have set what I am sure the Minister would describe as “world-beating” targets for carbon reduction for the UK right the way through to 2050, but the gracious Speech was notably silent about how they plan to hit those targets. One thing is certain: a wholehearted partnership will be needed between central and local government and between Governments of all sorts and industry, as well as civic society, to get anywhere near successful outcomes.
Industry is rightly wary of targets that are boldly announced by this Government. Industry always needs to see hard evidence of long-term planning and investment by the Government before it can take the risk itself of investing time and money in the learning of new skills, and the investment in training and in plant, that is needed to deliver those targets on time. The experience of the green homes grant last year—announced completely without consultation with just three months’ notice and cancelled after six months, leaving 40,000 applicants in the lurch—has undermined whatever appetite industry might have had for running the risk of being left stranded again by yet another government initiative.
To achieve zero-carbon success, the Government will have to take the lead in joining up the dots of both policy and investment. For a start, the long-delayed heat and building strategy and the net-zero strategy must be published. We have to know what the rules will be. The Government must endorse the Construction Leadership Council’s retrofit strategy to upgrade our 20 million existing homes and, alongside that, there must be sustained and substantial government investment in long-term financial support and incentives. Until that happens, business plans, investments and skills training will remain in limbo, and the idea of hitting any targets a mirage. The gracious Speech is silent on all this. Surely if the Government want to exert maximum leverage on their international partners at COP 26, they would surely be wise to get the infamous Whitehall grid of announcements into alignment with that outcome in November.
Finally, will the Minister agree to take back to his department and the Cabinet Office the message from your Lordships’ House, coming from every side in this debate, of our genuine concern that the unique opportunity to build a strong international consensus in Glasgow is being weakened by every day of delay in making public their plans for the future?
There is very little new on transport in the Queen’s Speech, apart from promising a Bill for HS2 from Crewe to Manchester. As my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch said, there was a distinct lack of ambition for the transport sector in the Queen’s Speech. So, at the start of this new Session, it is time to review the purpose, benefits and likely outcome for HS2, and to ask again whether it is needed at all.
According to cost engineer Michael Byng, to whom I pay tribute for his professionalism and work in checking the cost of HS2, the latest cost estimate is £158 billion. Many would think that some of that could be better spent on improving the regional lines in the Midlands and the north, which need about £100 billion more to meet their levelling-up needs. HS2 costs have risen tenfold over 10 years, and it is time to bring to account those who have promoted it and withheld information from Parliament and the public since 2015-16.
I welcome the very powerful maiden speech by the noble Lord, Lord Morse. The National Audit Office has of course regularly investigated HS2’s costs and programme overruns. Quotes about its reports include:
“Ministers have no idea how much HS2 will end up costing”
“The high-speed rail project is running wildly over budget and will not deliver good value for money”.
My worry, which I am sure the noble Lord will share, is why the Government ignore such advice and comments.
So I suggest that we go back 10 years, when there was a comprehensive campaign of cover-up to Parliament of the true costs and delays. At a Commons Select Committee hearing on phase 1, the DfT’s Permanent Secretary, Bernadette Kelly, when asked why her department had not given the Select Committee the latest and highest estimate, said that if they had done so, Parliament would probably have cancelled the project.
In January 2017 the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, who was then Transport Minister, arranged a meeting for Michael Byng and me with an official from HS2, a man called John Stretch, and an official at the Department for Transport called Mike Hurn, to discuss the budget for phase 1. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, expressed surprised that Mr Stretch declined to provide a detailed, measured estimate in support of the costs that he was tabling. Later, during a meeting at the Oakervee review, of which I was deputy chair for a bit, HS2 directors admitted that they had no budget for measuring the work, despite having spent £11.4 million on cost consultants.
It was very odd that during 2018-19 Nus Ghani MP, the Minister of Transport, and Mark Thurston, chief executive of HS2, both stuck to the £55.7 billion figure when all the evidence led to new chairman Allan Cook’s stock-take of £88 billion, which of course left out quite a few elements of HS2 that would have taken it up to £100 billion. More recently I have received documents alleging that the Said Business School’s Professor Bent Flyvbjerg confirmed his earlier advice, given in 2015-16 to the then Leader of the Conservative Party, who of course is now Prime Minister. The forecast cost is supported by a presentation given in January 2018 by Jeremy Harrison, then director of risk and assurance at HS2, in which he stated that the total value of contracts for the entire project—without risk allowance—exceeded £80 billion. So the Prime Minister and other Ministers knew of this £80 billion figure in 2015-16. One has to ask why the Minister, Nus Ghani, and the chief executive, Mark Thurston, said three years later that the budget was still £55 billion.
The latest cost increase will be at Old Oak Common at the London end, where Michael Byng has finally costed the station at £7.1 billion, compared to a cost estimate from the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, of £1.67 billion. This is only a fourfold increase in costs—I suppose that is all right for HS2—but it does not include the cost of passenger disruption for trains using Paddington station, which will have its train and seat capacity halved for four years during the building. It is very clear that many DfT and HS2 officials and Ministers, with the honourable exception of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, have misled Parliament over years.
The NAO has stated that lessons need to be learned—
I am grateful for the reminder, but a Bishop was recently allowed to carry on for six minutes and 40 seconds, so may I finish?
Doug Oakervee has stated that pressure from the construction industry persuaded him to recommend that HS2 went ahead. This need could have been met equally well by regional upgrades in the Midlands and the north, so I suggest that HS2 be stopped now and the relevant officials and Ministers held to account for misleading Parliament.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse. I thought their maiden speeches were admirable.
In view of what we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I feel it necessary to go down a rather different path. The Government are commendably engaged in levelling up, with emphasis on the north and the Midlands. There is no question that these parts of the country need jobs and houses. In such a large-scale exercise, a vast and efficient train network is essential. To my mind, HS2 is a vital part of that if we are to transform in an upward direction the economies in parts of the country that have lagged behind.
Furthermore, the Government should put it beyond doubt that HS2 phase 2b will proceed. The east Midlands not having the benefits of the West Midlands and east of the Pennines not having the benefits of west of the Pennines is unthinkable. The noble Lord, Lord Snape, said he thought the Treasury had severe doubts, but perhaps he should remember that part of the Treasury being moved up to the north-east might bring about a change of opinion.
In terms of better rail services, it should not be forgotten that levelling up is long overdue in parts of the south and east. I point to the Anglian region—reminding your Lordships of my interest as chair of the West Anglia Taskforce—where the east coast ports have a great strategic significance for our country. The freight conveyed from them, largely by rail, needs to be assisted by increasing the capacity of the Ely junction, a proposal which I think is subject to public inquiry at the moment. The West Anglia Main Line is only a two-track railway, its third and fourth tracks having been removed after the recommendations of Lord Beeching some 60 years ago. That two-track railway has to support increased frequency in north-east London, the needs of Stansted Airport—the third London airport—and the expanding biomedical campus at Cambridge. Not all these things can be done on a two-track system in a way that satisfies any of the customers.
Liverpool Street station, which is the London central terminus for the West Anglia line, is an admirable Victorian structure but has very little scope to become a modern railway station meeting the needs of passengers, and it is now severely congested. There is now the possibility—or has been the possibility—that Stratford might also be a destination for trains on the West Anglia line. But the only space left that could possibly accommodate an extra platform at Stratford is more likely to be used, I am told, as an entertainment venue. The congestion already on the line makes it very difficult to encourage freight to be taken on the West Anglia line and off the roads which, otherwise, it has to use.
I look forward to learning how the promised railway White Paper assesses these and all the many other competing demands that I know exist. I suggest it might be helpful to have a clear, visible and comprehensive rail plan to take us forward, setting out all desirable improvements, what each might achieve and at what cost. It might also show how an entire project could be divided into sequential sections, some of which might attract local authority and private sector development. My hope is for nothing less than a railway revolution that will help to galvanise our economic regeneration throughout the country.
My Lords, two important issues that need to be high on the Government’s priority list are the environment and children and young people’s well-being. If these issues are not addressed urgently, the consequences are dire. I was pleased to hear both mentioned in the gracious Speech, but the policies do not go far enough.
The planting of trees is just one way of making an impact on climate change, and I am honoured to have been appointed an ambassador for the Queen’s Green Canopy to encourage the planting of trees all over the UK in celebration of Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee next year. It is great that Defra is involved with this initiative, but the Government need to do much more by working across departments on a coherent strategy, as it will take an army of planters to reach the Government’s goal of 30,000 hectares of trees a year. When the Government are considering areas where trees can be planted, are they also looking at local employment levels? Will there be a training and skills component to it to ensure that planting is successful? Currently, most trees are being planted by the devolved nations, so England needs to up its game massively, and the Treasury needs to release the funds to make this happen, because in the last financial year, only 1,956 hectares of trees were planted with government support.
The announcement of a skills Bill is welcome, but what is being done to put climate at the heart of under-16 education, encouraging children to develop an interest in gardening and consider a career in horticulture? Perhaps the Minister will let us know whether this is on the cards. We now know that children in communities across the UK have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. We do not yet know exactly what impact this will have on their future. What is certain is that the Government owe it to the younger generation to put them front and centre of their plans, because childhood lasts a lifetime.
Play is something I have been long associated with. It was great to see play mentioned in the SNP’s election promise to renew every playground in Scotland, and to hear the call by the Association of Play Industries for the Prime Minister to match that pledge because of the big decrease in play areas over the years. It is shameful that parents are having to resort to crowdfunding to save their local playgrounds, as reported in an article in the Guardian. A report from the University of Reading also confirmed the importance of playgrounds, with its finding that, away from home, the most common place for children to play is in a playground or green space. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will encourage local authorities to maintain and improve playgrounds and green spaces for the nation’s children to enjoy?
I declare an interest as vice-president of Barnardo’s. It has long called for a family hub in every community. The goal should be to provide a safety net long before families reach crisis point. Will the Government make funding available so that every community can have this vital resource for a community centre to act as the family hub?
The harm that happens to children online does not stay online. Children who are groomed on chat forums and apps often go out to meet their abusers, in person, in the community. We therefore need alternative activities for children so that they are not reliant on the online world. We need safe places, such as youth clubs and community centres, for young people to congregate and interact safely, under supervision, because today many children find themselves victims of crime. They may see someone they know murdered and have to deal with the unbelievable trauma that that entails. Will the Government start to open youth clubs across the country to help stop children and young people resorting to joining gangs, which lead them down county lines, on a path of knife crime and drug abuse, with sometimes fatal consequences?
The gracious Speech contains some welcome signs that children’s needs are now being taken seriously but, as always, much will depend on the funding available and the Government’s willingness to be ambitious on behalf of those who need us most. To ensure that this happens, will the Government respond to the call, by me and others, for a Cabinet-level Minister for Children, whose role will be to co-ordinate policies that affect children—our future?
My Lords, I speak on the environment—one of the themes of today’s debate—and, in particular, the urgent need to improve the quality of water in our river systems. The gracious Speech includes a commitment to “set binding environmental targets”. I imagine that this mainly refers to carbon emissions, but I suggest that Ministers should be more concerned about the shocking amounts of raw sewage, plastic and other domestic products that are daily allowed to enter our rivers.
I wonder whether the Minister watched “Panorama” on BBC1, five weeks ago. The programme was entitled “The River Pollution Scandal”. I think it is required viewing for Ministers and officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The programme is not easy to watch, as it shows, in a most revolting way, the amount of untreated, raw sewage discharged into rivers and the used domestic products that now cover the beds of the Thames and other rivers.
In the previous Session, there was a Private Member’s Bill in the other place tabled by the right honourable Member for Ludlow, Philip Dunne, which sought to limit these discharges and prohibit certain plastic products entering the sewage system. Unfortunately, the Government were not prepared to accept or take over Philip Dunne’s Bill. I have therefore tabled a similar Private Member’s Bill in this House and have been allotted 12th position in the ballot, but I would much prefer to persuade the Minister and his colleagues to amend the Environment Bill so that it has the same intent and rigour as Philip Dunne’s Bill.
On the day after the Queen’s Speech, Defra announced that it would table amendments in this House to place three additional legal duties on the Secretary of State: to publish a plan by September 2022 to reduce sewage discharges, to report to Parliament progress on implementing the plan and to require water companies to publish annual data on these discharges. I say to Ministers as politely as I can that this is far too little and shows no sense of urgency. We have two Ministers—the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, in this House, and Rebecca Pow, in the other place—both of whom care passionately about the environment.
If a farmer allows a cupful of silage effluent or other farm waste to drip into a ditch, he will find himself in trouble with the Environment Agency, but water companies are allowed to release millions of gallons of raw sewage into rivers every year. There was a piece on Radio 4 on Saturday about Ilkley in West Yorkshire. The locals have calculated that on more than 100 days a year, raw sewage is discharged into the River Wharfe. The water company’s response is that it plans to reduce the discharges by 20% over five years. I cannot believe that any Member of your Lordships’ House thinks that this is good enough. Will the Minister state whether he thinks that the situation in Ilkley is acceptable?
On my way here this morning, I read with great interest a press release from Ofwat, the water regulator, entitled:
“Water sector to plunge £2.8 billion into the green recovery”
I thought that it might have pre-empted my speech but, sadly, when I read further, I found that only just over 5% of this sum is to be devoted
“to help eliminate harm caused by storm overflows”.
Surely this is an insufficient reaction to the seriousness of the situation.
I conclude by asking Her Majesty’s Government to think again. Should cleaning up our rivers not be a higher and more urgent priority? I ask my fellow Members of this House to support appropriate amendments that we intend to table when the Environment Bill reaches us.
My Lords, I want to talk about the proposed building safety Bill referred to in Her Majesty’s gracious Speech. In doing so, I declare an interest as vice-president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.
Following the tragedy at Grenfell, the Government’s response in bringing forward further legislation is welcome, and this House has rightly spent much time debating and discussing fire safety. However, I draw the Minister’s attention to another area of building safety as crucial and urgent as fire safety. Is he aware that a person in this country is 234 times more likely to be hospitalised from a fall in the home than from a fire, and that almost one-third of a million people attend accident and emergency each year because of falls? Unsurprisingly, the majority of them are elderly people, given that 12 million people in the UK are now over the age of 65. Most Members of this House will know someone who has had a fall in this way and be aware of the consequences that falls can have. As well as the physical injuries caused by a fall in the home, it will often be a catalyst for a longer decline in health from which many never recover. The cumulative cost of this, in terms of the pain and suffering inflicted on individuals and their families and the cost to the NHS, which is estimated at £4.4 billion, is unacceptable.
The Government’s building safety Bill offers an opportunity to make a significant contribution to ending the reputation of the home as the most dangerous place in Britain. RoSPA’s concern for safety in the home has led it to work with representatives of the housebuilding industry, and together they have developed a new framework for safety in the home, called Safer by Design. Among other things, this framework calls for the adoption of British Standard 5395 on stair design, which is backed by industry as being commercially and technically viable and creating a radically improved safety outcome, with 60% fewer falls on stairs designed to this standard.
The Government have an ambitious housebuilding programme and I am sure that they are equally ambitious that when houses are built, the safety of the occupants is seen as essential. I can tell them that “safer by design” was crafted to fulfil that ambition. Their involvement in the project would signal a clear intention to make the home a safer place.
I urge the Minister and his colleagues in the other place to use the Building Safety Bill to demonstrate their direction of purpose by first addressing the critical issue of staircase safety. This would require that the new British Standard not only be in this Bill but be made mandatory. Many lives would be saved as a result, and it would also prevent Britain’s best builders being undercut by those in the industry who are prepared to sacrifice safety in pursuit of profit. If the tragedy of Grenfell has taught us anything, it is that measures designed to secure people’s safety must not be optional. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse, on their excellent maiden speeches. I draw attention to my entry in the register, in particular my presidency of BALPA, the pilots’ union. I am addressing what is fundamentally a transport issue to the Minister. I realise that he is not a transport Minister, so all I am going to ask him to do is to say that he will pass my comments on to the Transport Minister and ask her to respond to me in writing. That is as much as I could really hope for.
The subject I want to raise is the problem of what is called the potential airline insolvency Bill. This issue has been around for two or three years. It comes to the fore when an airline such as Monarch goes under, and then it disappears from the headlines and people forget all about it—until the next tragedy happens.
In March 2019, the Airline Insolvency Review published its full report. We are now two years and two months on from that. Just over a year ago, before the Covid shutdown, I table a QSD asking for a report, and the then Minister what had happened and what was going to come forward. First, the review called for arrangements to be put in place to finance the cost of protecting customers. Everyone will remember that when an airline goes bust, you suddenly have customers all over the world who need to be brought home. Secondly, it proposed that the airlines themselves should fund a financial package that would cover these eventualities and the cost of repatriating passengers. Thirdly, it said that some legislative cover was needed for all of this. It is not only passengers who are affected; people often forget that staff are also affected. If an airline goes bust, the staff are just left with the administrators; they do not even get their wages paid. Of course, in the case of airline pilots, they could not only have no wages; they could be on the other side of the world. There are severe difficulties. The suggestion, which I think very sensible, is a kind of US chapter 11 situation whereby an airline could keep flying for a short time in order to bring passengers back and get a sensible wind-down.
This is not an area of great controversy. I do not think that the party opposite would find any difficulties with this; indeed, the vice-president of BALPA is the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, with whom I have a very good relationship. I would therefore like the Minister to put to his colleague that this is exactly the sort of Bill that could be introduced in the Lords, that would be unlikely to cause any great problem here and that could then be sent down the Corridor. It is something we need, particularly at the moment, when the aviation industry is in dire trouble.
It will take some time to get it out of that trouble. There are a lot of problems, which I am not going to go into, associated with reopening the industry. Certainly, the transatlantic routes need opening up, because that is where the principal finance comes from. I would be grateful if the Minister took that on board.
I make one other observation before I close. It is now two years since the Government promised a workers’ rights Bill to look at basic problems such as the gig economy and employment regulations. This is another issue that has not been addressed in the gracious Speech. Will the Government look at introducing not a complex but a simple Bill to sort out some of the manifest injustices and to correct the law as it has been applied according to successive court judgments? There needs to be some tidying up in this area as well. I hope that the Minister will be able to write letters to get other people to do the work to address the two suggestions I have made.
My Lords, I am deserting foreign affairs today in favour of the environment because of the importance of climate change to all of us. I also declare my interest as a farmer and NFU member, especially because my family is committed to rewilding and biodiversity—amid the hailstones in west Dorset. Here, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, on his achievements as a Minister; he has done really well and I look forward to the Environment Bill. I welcome my noble friend Lord Morse to the Cross Benches; and I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, who is a great campaigner against modern slavery.
Today I will focus on this Government’s international policy on the environment. The Covid pandemic is teaching us some urgent lessons about sharing the world’s resources. These lessons apply as much to poverty reduction and climate change as they do to vaccines. In fact, the two are closely entwined through the Covid fund and through climate finance, which is becoming the major concern of environmentalists in a world of chronic indebtedness.
The UK’s COP 26 January statement says that developed countries must come forward with an ambitious post-2020 climate finance pledge list to achieve and surpass the $100 billion a year goal. The noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, said on 28 April that we would be doubling our international climate finance to £11.6 billion by 2025 and that we would commit at least £3 billion of it to protecting the natural world. These are impressive figures. The Government are right to be proud of them and of the UK’s record; but what do they mean in practice?
Alok Sharma says we need to drive up global collaboration. Are we doing this? Are we sharing green technology and providing expertise in, for example, east Africa and Nigeria, which have become priority areas? All our trade agreements must surely reflect this necessity and become spurs of action against climate change. How will the Government end their support for fossil fuels overseas? Can the Minister give examples? He will know that much of eastern Europe has long been dependent on brown coal and coal-fired power stations. I saw two of them outside Pristina in Kosovo, smoking away. Will the UK put climate finance into finding alternative sources of energy in the Balkans? My noble friend Lord Broers points the way with hydrogen.
Then, on our own doorstep, we have the Cumbria project, a genuine dilemma for this country, which is setting an example to others. The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, mentioned incentives and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, said that we need more imagination. Surely, we now have politically to decide to phase it out, even if it takes years to achieve. How else can we hold our heads up?
The noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, has said that
“The UK is the first major donor nation to commit to making its entire ODA portfolio compliant with the Paris Agreement.”—[Official Report, 28/4/21; col. GC 559]
This is a remarkable claim, even if the amount of ODA has fallen, and I hope that the Government can stand by it. However, does it mean that even less is going into other forms of aid? The poorest countries are not the culprits. Someone has worked out that the entire carbon consumption of sub-Saharan Africa is less than that of one small country in Europe. What we should be concerned about is the proportionately far higher cost of climate change in the LDCs than anywhere else. They know this, but we are slow to realise it.
Let us not characterise ourselves as good Samaritans handing out money to developing countries. Global Britain need not remain a nation of shopkeepers and consumers, making money out of the poor, importing cheap products, condoning corruption and, in many cases, failing to meet environmental labour and human rights standards. We now need to look outwards to spread more ideas on green technology, alternative fuels, diversification and the engagement of the private sector. We have an obligation to share our resources, just like our vaccines, spreading common knowledge and helping other countries to develop their own climate change strategies.
Finally, I am glad to see that Parliament is now taking climate change seriously. The IDC has launched an inquiry about climate change in time for Glasgow. There are at least three other Commons committees and a new one in the Lords following climate change, so all government departments will have to cope with their recommendations.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, brought us passion and poetry, and the noble Lord, Lord Morse, is going to bring formidable financial expertise. I welcome and congratulate them both. I would like to focus on rural communities, for which I had hoped to see more in the gracious Speech but sadly did not. In doing so, I remind the House of my rural and farming interests as set out in the register.
As we know, farming, which of course manages and maintains our landscapes which we all revere, faces a seismic change with a reduction in farm support, the need to find new markets, new overseas competition, potential additional cost burdens imposed by climate change and animal welfare legislation. All of that is against a background of reduced profitability and an ageing population. The threat to the future of the traditional family farm, especially in the uplands, has never been greater and without a government focus to help keep them in business, and help with increasing productivity and diversification, we are going to end up with industrial-scale farming in their place.
We are getting a planning Bill. More houses are clearly needed and some of them have to be built in rural areas. But if we are not to destroy rural communities and their different, special way of life, then that Bill has to show sensitivity to local decisions. New housing in small communities can work well when local people have the final say on where it is to go, how it looks, and if it has a meaningful, affordable element—but not when 200 executive homes are tacked on to a village with no additional infrastructure, adequate transport or suitable roads.
Almost exactly two years ago, a Select Committee of this House, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, and containing a number of others, including myself, who have spoken today or are about to speak, published a report on the rural economy. That report recognised the changes and challenges, which are now a reality, but also the opportunities by which the digital revolution, properly encouraged, could transform the rural economy, reverse years of underperformance under successive Governments and improve the quality of life for the nation as a whole. We saw how that could happen ourselves in places where local authorities, planners and a number of rural-minded LEPs—of which there were, sadly, few—could help bring about dynamic new enterprises with locals and newcomers working together yet retain that special and different sense of community.
Our central recommendation was for an urgent, effective rural strategy underpinned by better rural proofing of legislation and delivered through a locally based approach. Two years have gone by and the response so far has been disappointing, to put it very gently. I will give four examples.
In late 2019, the government promised £5 billion for full-fibre broadband everywhere by 2025. In spring 2020, those figures were cut to £1.2 billion and 85%, with no commitment to bring rural areas up to urban standards.
Fourteen recommendations related to the much-hyped UK shared prosperity fund, which was promised way back in 2017. A full consultation was promised in 2018, but no full open consultation has yet taken place.
The first report by Defra on rural proofing has been published, but it deserves no more than three out of 10. In a number of Bills, no such exercise appears to have been performed at all. In others, simply adding the words “and rural” seems to have been considered enough. This was clearly set out in a letter dated 17 March from the noble Lord, Lord McFall, to the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, in the respective jobs they then occupied.
Above all, our most central and urgent recommendation for a comprehensive rural strategy was rejected by the Government. Instead, they said that they would be producing their own vision. Two years later, we are still waiting, and I cannot see any sign of it in the gracious Speech. Can the Minister tell us when rural Britain can expect to see that vision become a reality?
My Lords, I too welcome the maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, with whom I served in the House of Commons, and the noble Lord, Lord Morse—I served for many years on the Public Accounts Committee, and I am sure that his future contributions will be much valued in the House of Lords.
I will focus on community and welfare. Cohesive communities thrive when vulnerable minorities do not fall through the safety net. I welcome the Government’s support for rough sleepers. When Covid struck last year, we all felt a sense of relief when we saw how quickly rough sleepers were accommodated. It seems right to build on that now. I welcome the announcement of £203 million this year, including for 2,700 support staff.
Dealing with rough sleeping is not just about providing a much-needed roof. Support for mental health, addiction and all areas of life is needed to help get people off the streets. The Government are to be commended for their action, as well as for the initiative in the gracious Speech on drug addiction. In particular, I welcome the Government’s support for both treatment and recovery; this will not just stop at the distribution of methadone.
In his opening remarks, my noble friend briefly mentioned one or two benefits. I want to speak about disability benefits for those of working age—in particular, personal independence payment, or PIP, and employment and support allowance, or ESA. Next spring, Scotland plans to give disabled people more choice as to how they can apply for disability benefits. This will be by phone, email or online, and there will be support and more information about their entitlement. The assessment will involve people who are qualified and specialists in the disability they are assessing. I believe that the Government should do the same and not take time before doing it.
At present, we know that, of the people who apply for personal independence payment and are refused, more than 70% win on appeal. This is a formidable process which can take many months while appellants wait without any money. Not everyone can use a computer or use online. This is often said of older people, but it also applies to some younger people.
Coroners have also identified that the difficulty that some disabled people have had in applying for disability benefits has been so dire that it has contributed to their death. Some 82 deaths are recorded where the benefit has been terminated. It is no wonder that the charity Sense believes that 61% of disabled people feel that they are second-class citizens.
As a Member of Parliament for over 18 years, I was able to support people in need of disability benefits, but I too have struggled with some of the cases I have supported recently. Letters are sent with helpful telephone numbers and, when you ring them, it is just an automaton replying, always just directing you to the website. Nobody is there to give help—so how people with disabilities are expected to cope, I really do not know.
But these things are important and serious. Disability, however it occurs, can be a disease that degenerates. Mental health itself is not an exact science. Terminal illness should not be based on an arbitrary six months. Over nine months? Then the answer is no. The Government have the power to change this, like Scotland has, and I hope that they do.
My Lords, my colleagues and I have spent the last 14 months operating at the sharp end in challenging communities across the country. We can see in detail what is happening outside the Chamber. We have been taking the principles and learning from the last 36 years of practical work in challenging communities in east London, and in the Olympic Park, into challenging communities initially in the north of England, and now nationally, through the Well North programme. With local people and public and business sector partners, we have created innovation platforms in towns and cities across the country, which focus on practice at the front edge of the issues that this Queen’s Speech addresses. I declare my interests.
I welcome the focus in the Queen’s Speech on levelling up in health, innovation, skills and infrastructure, and the attempt to bring together funding streams and create a more integrated approach. This is the right direction of travel. However, some of us have been here before and the proof of the pudding will be in the detail and implementation. The UK has not always had a good track record of translating Bills into effective, transformational programmes. My colleagues and I have the grey hairs to prove it. We have tried before to bend other funding schemes developed by our Civil Service, which has often failed to grasp the practical realities at the front end.
Looking at the levelling-up fund and more broadly, I ask the Minister the following questions, in a spirit of willingness to help him and his colleagues learn from real, practical experience on the ground, gained over many years. First, are the Government going to be a learning organisation? Have they looked at what has worked well and what has not in previous regeneration programmes? Can the Minister share the insights that his department has learned from its experience of running previous programmes, when putting together the levelling-up fund and other build back better programmes? We all now need to get very interested in practitioners, not talkers and commentators.
Secondly, is there sufficient focus on joining the dots in the integration of funding streams and services, and bringing together other partners, for example from health, education, and the private and social sectors? Are we willing to learn from best practice in the place-making space? My colleagues and I are working with some of the largest businesses in the country, and the public sector, in precisely this space. We are happy to share our practical learning and point to the blockages that are preventing real change in some of our most challenged communities.
Thirdly, is there sufficient focus on change and innovation, and entrepreneurial approaches to transformation, in projects that deliver quality and excellence in our most challenged communities? Many Civil Service processes, we have noticed over the years, are great at putting old men in new clothes. Little changes: real learning and transformation rarely happen. Our inner cities are littered with previous short-term three-year government and lottery-funded programmes that came to very little because they were not built on and did not take the long view. Does government understand that pumping money into some situations can drive perverse decision-making? Are this Government serious about moving beyond business as usual? It is a sign of madness to repeat the same processes and expect different results.
Fourthly, as the taps are turned on and money is spent, is government going to be interested in the people question this time? Will we be looking at the leaders, backers and bidders and their practical track records? Will we learn from the best? Will we be concerned about the individuals who will be responsible for these programmes and plans—not just process, strategy and plan? The modern entrepreneurial world is all about people and relationships before structures; does our Civil Service understand this? Can we learn from the UK’s Covid vaccine programme—the best in the world, because key people with key skills and experience were empowered to get on with it? How can we learn that lesson?
I ask the Minister to consider all of these points when considering the large shared prosperity fund, which will replace the EU structural funds. Could he ensure that the voluntary and social enterprise sectors are not precluded from being invited to bid for these large-scale government programmes, as well as public bodies? In some parts of the country, the Government might want to ask themselves: are the public sector and local government actually up to the task? Do they have the necessary skills and insights to do transformation—or are the limitations of local government and the public sector, and the calibre of their people and their limited insights and skills, actually preventing transformation and the development of a more entrepreneurial culture?
There is a lot to play for. My colleagues and I want to support this Government at this important time, but the devil in the detail really matters.
My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Coaker and the noble Lord, Lord Morse, for two excellent maiden speeches. I have known my noble friend Lord Coaker for many years, and we collaborated in recent times as members of the Council of Europe. I have also known the noble Lord, Lord Morse, for many years, and, when I served on the Public Accounts Committee in the other place, I greatly admired his leadership of the NAO.
Some years ago, when I was MP for Islwyn, I became the president of a charity called Access, working to support disabled people and their families in the south Wales valleys. I learned a lot about our disabled fellow citizens. Most strikingly, one Saturday, the group invited two able-bodied supporters to sit in wheelchairs and invited me to push one of them up and down Blackwood high street.
Although I did not realise it at the start, they were educating me. As I walked up and down and people stopped me to talk, I immediately sensed that, for some—perhaps too many—there was unease about the person in the wheelchair. Not one person who stopped and spoke to me spoke to the person in the wheelchair. It then struck me: had I also been like that in former times? Had I passed and ignored wheelchair-bound people? I tell the story because, in today’s Britain, we are told that the new mantra is “levelling up”—but our disabled fellow citizens would say, “Level up by all means, but first notice me. Don’t ignore me. I have the same rights as you; I have human rights”.
Like many colleagues, I support the Disabled Children’s Partnership, a coalition of some 80 charities. Its January survey, The Longest Lockdown, revealed that
“disabled children are not receiving support for their disability or medical condition via health services or their school placement. Parents report a detrimental impact on their child’s disability”
and reduced levels of informal and formal support. Families say that delays to routine health appointments had a “negative impact” on their child’s condition, causing anxiety, behavioural problems, sleep loss, loneliness and depression.
Its March survey, The Loneliest Lockdown, focused on the impact that Covid had had on the mental health and well-being of disabled children and their parents and siblings. It revealed that disabled children endured “serious mental health issues” during lockdown and that a high proportion of families were socially isolated—almost 50% of disabled children had not seen a friend for a month, either online or in person.
To be fair, the Government advised that service providers should continue to deliver and prioritise different support, such as respite care and therapies. However, advising services to continue does not mean that families get them. The reality is that parents are consistently saying that these services are not reaching them.
On mental health, the Government have recently announced a £79 million package of mental health support but have not allocated any of it specifically for disabled children and their families, despite the over-whelming evidence that they have felt a disproportionate impact from Covid and therefore require tailored interventions. It begs the question of why. Perhaps the Minister can tell us.
This brings me to the promised national disability strategy. In the 2019 manifesto, and highlighted in the previous Queen’s Speech, the Government promised a national disability strategy. They promised to transform the lives of disabled people, ensuring that they have access to opportunities and can achieve their potential. They promised that it will be ambitious, supporting disabled people in all aspects and phases of their lives. They promised to publish the strategy in 2020. Alas, it was delayed, we were told, due to coronavirus.
We are now told that the Government will publish the strategy this spring. Time is running out, and I echo my noble friend Lady Sherlock in asking: can the Minister tell us when the strategy will be published? Can he assuage our fears that it will have insufficient focus on children? It is vital that it addresses the issues faced by disabled children and their families. Even before the pandemic, the system was in crisis, with people having great difficulties. Too often, families can get the support that they need only once they get to a crisis point. It is important that the strategy provides great support for children and their families, but it is time that we had some answers. Disabled children and their families are not second-class citizens. They deserve better, and they deserve some answers now.
My Lords, this has been a wide-ranging and fascinating debate, and my contribution will focus solely on one aspect of the much-heralded planning reforms: public engagement, or the lack thereof.
I am certain, judging by the controversy stirred up by the release last August of the Planning for the Future White Paper and a wide range of ongoing consultations, that this will be one of the most contentious Bills of this Queen’s Speech. There will be ample time to dissect the Bill when it eventually comes before us, but I have huge concerns that the Government are taking neither the public nor their own MPs with them on this important journey to solve our housing crisis, and thus they are probably doomed to failure.
I have noted in the press over the last week that MPs from the shire counties are already organising to oppose these reforms. The Government have already caved in to these MPs by scrapping the algorithm that produced the new targets, so they got some reduction in their targets, while urban areas saw theirs increased. In Watford, ours have been tripled in recent years, resulting in our oven-ready local plan having to be scrapped and started again.
In my former position as an elected mayor, development was a very real and constant worry. Sadly, development management meetings were usually acrimonious, with the anger and bewilderment of the public evident. Their main cry was: “Why don’t you just say no?” As we all know, councils cannot “just say no” to government policy, yet, as was shown in the recent local elections, councillors of different parties and in different parts of the country are being punished at the ballot box for what is seen by their electors as overdevelopment.
Planning by appeal is not a sign of good governance, but it gets you on the side of the voters, with cheers at the planning committee, only for hopes to be dashed as inspectors overturn the decisions on appeal. Currently, about a third of appeals go in the developers’ favour, which in the Government’s eyes means that too many schemes are being refused that should be approved. Presumably it is to avoid that there are also plans to penalise local planning authorities when they lose appeals.
The planning reforms will further dilute democratic involvement. We believe that they are being introduced precisely because public engagement is difficult and challenging, and so the Government are finding ways of bypassing it altogether without actually saying so. Where are the plans to change this confrontational narrative and to press the need for more homes and for more appropriate housing, such as social housing, supported housing and homes for the elderly?
The reforms will mean that the future focus of local engagement in planning will be at the local plan-making stage, so communities will not be able to influence applications as they do now. Good councils already do this up-front consultation, so there is plenty of evidence that, while working closely with communities in the early stages can be positive, it does not preclude massive protest when a detailed application eventually goes in. It is doubtless this that has led to the Government’s presumption in favour of development in the zoning proposals. There is ample evidence that zoning has not worked in planning previously, so where is the evidence that it will work now?
Development within growth zones will receive automatic outline consent, while renewal areas will have presumption in favour of development. As a result, there will be no opportunity for either public consultation or assessment by local authority councillors or officers. According to the White Paper, public involvement will be limited to
“detailed matters to be resolved”,
rather than on a particular building or development and whether it is appropriate in its local context. This, alongside proposals for faster decisions on planning applications, and further expansion of the controversial permitted development right, leaves far less room for local input into individual decisions and is an erosion of democracy within the system.
Finally, development is always bound to be controversial. People are never likely to be thrilled that the attractive fields that their garden backs on to are to become a housing estate; nor that low-rise town centre offices are to be demolished to make way for something much taller. But, as things stand, we have a broken national conversation about development in which local authorities, planners and councillors feel as though they are everybody’s scapegoats, whether for building too little or too much. If the Government are serious about solving our housing crisis, they must first convince the public that there is one. That key issue is ignored in this Queen’s Speech.
My Lords, like others, I congratulate the two noble Lords who made their maiden speeches in this debate. I will start my remarks where the noble Lords, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Clark of Windermere, concluded on day one of this debate on the gracious Speech. I refer to the controversy surrounding Newton Rigg College near Penrith, where I studied myself. As chair of the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership, I considered it inappropriate publicly to man the barricades on this matter; rather, I have been busy behind the scenes, including keeping the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, up to date with my concerns. However, now that the Cumbrian campus has publicly been placed on the market, with a view to unilaterally expatriating the proceeds to Yorkshire, I feel free to express my personal feelings and anger, shared by so many other Cumbrians.
Together with the chief executive of the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership, I was a witness at a hearing of the other place’s EFRA Committee on 23 March this year. In the same session, there were two witnesses from Askham Bryan College, neither of whom was either the chair or vice-chair of the governors. The committee’s questioning was skilful and forensic, led effectively by the honourable Member for Brent North, Mr Barry Gardiner. My LEP colleague and I spoke relatively little. I left the hearing stunned by the college’s evidence and its inadequacy and shortcomings, and was more or less completely bemused by it all. Since then, I have revisited the evidence, which was recorded, and have given it careful thought. It correlates with what I know has been happening on the ground and with Askham Bryan College’s behaviour, which has been evasive, disingenuous and inconsistent, including gagging its employees.
As noble Lords will know, FE colleges are charities, but they are not required to register with the Charity Commission; rather, their principal regulator is the Department for Education. None the less, their charitable purpose is paramount. However, in the face of what appear to be considerable financial difficulties, Askham Bryan College’s prime purpose seems to have morphed into one of preservation of itself to the exclusion of everything else, in a manner which specialist legal advice—which I have seen—suggests may be unlawful and certainly seems to me to disregard a number of the Nolan principles.
All this is very similar in a number of respects to what happened some years ago in the case of the Kids Company. That was a real scandal, and this is equally so. It is as simple as that.
I conclude with three pleas. First, I say to the Minister and the Government: this FE college is part of the nation’s system for delivering education and training, and the Government are the college’s principal regulator and guardian of the public interest. Their prime concern must be the integrity of the system and proper administration of the provision of FE, skills and training to everybody in this country, not just to those in Yorkshire. They should not emulate Pontius Pilate and weakly stand by wringing their hands. They should take a grip.
I say to your Lordships: one of our roles as parliamentarians is to identify abuse, bring it to public attention, place it under public scrutiny and stamp it out. As I have said, the EFRA Committee’s hearing on 23 March has been recorded and is available. I urge your Lordships to view it and form your own conclusions. I believe that something very wrong is going on.
Thirdly, I would say through the House and via Hansard to the media—I speak as an ex-Minister in the then DNH who had considerable involvement with the media, as an ex-chairman of the Communications Committee of your Lordships’ House when we produced an important report on investigative journalism, as chairman of a local newspaper group for more than a decade and now a director of Full Fact and the Public Interest News Foundation—that you the media, both local and national, because this is not a parochial issue, are part of the wider system of checks and balances in which our system of government and administration is set. I know a scandal when I see it. Go out, investigate, form your own conclusions and then tell truth to power. That is what you are for.
My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, has withdrawn, so I now call the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow.
I welcome the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse, and congratulate them on their inspiring maiden speeches.
Today, I wish to concentrate on aspects of leasehold reform and planning. I first declare ownership of two rented flats, as stated in the register. In addition, like the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, I welcome a building safety Bill, particularly following the Grenfell tragedy, apparently accelerated by the French cladding. I read that when the French manufacturers became aware of the unacceptable fire risk of their product, they banned its sale in France for high-rise housing but, as I read to my disbelief, they continued selling the cladding in the UK. If this is true, it is a disgrace. Seventy-two people died, and the fact that some executives from the French company refused even to attend the inquiry speaks volumes. The Government should seek redress. The new Bill must have regard to the need for a building standards agency to test foreign-designed or manufactured materials with special care.
On leasehold reform, I welcome many of the proposed changes. The concept of lifetime deposits for lower-income renters is a blessing. There will be a difficult debate on how this will be policed without the unaffordable extra costs of professionals defending those tenants from spurious dilapidations claims. Another welcome feature is the opening up of the registers of rogue landlords and rogue agents to greater transparency. This was discussed and requested when the Bill was debated in this House not long ago, but I am afraid that layers of confidentiality, concealing the rogues, was counterproductive to the its wider objectives, so I commend the Government for admitting this and promising to make such registers of bad landlords and their agents more transparent.
However, I do not welcome the proposed abolition of no-fault evictions. Without repeating his comments, I echo the warnings from the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, about the serious fallout that this policy could have on the supply of properties to rent, to say nothing of the impact of the value disruption.
Reform of the current leasehold ground rent system, on the other hand, is long overdue and I welcome reform. Unfortunately, it appears to have taken the unethical behaviour of some housebuilders and their recommended solicitors to bring this issue to the fore. I do not condemn leasehold tenure in principle at all, but the Law Society’s recommendations in its recent report on commonhold provides an opportunity to completely overhaul the structure of ownership where freehold is not practical. Providing lease renewals and new leases for terms of hundreds of years is something that I support if it can incorporate the practical necessity of redevelopment when required. It achieves the objective of preventing landlords from financially milking their tenants from time to time. Long leaseholders who need extensions to satisfy mortgage providers, and indeed to maintain a reasonably saleable unexpired term, will also welcome this measure.
I turn to the proposed planning reforms and the opportunity that they provide to utilise brownfield land—land that requires remedial treatment to remove contamination and render it safe. There is lots of it sitting in plum locations throughout England that would be ideal for new housing. CPRE research has found 21,000 registered contaminated sites covering more than 50,000 acres, with capacity for more than 1 million new homes. Last year’s planning White Paper expects these brownfield sites to be utilised fully before more edge-of-town development on greenfield is considered, but that was buried on page 32, which was not encouraging. The difficulty is that the cost of cleaning up these sites often exceeds their market value following remediation. However, we must not turn a blind eye and ignore these urban eyesores that blight our towns and cities.
I am in full agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, in my disappointment at finding no reference to reforming business rates. What a missed opportunity that the very recent debates on non-domestic rates have not followed through into the Queen’s Speech. We were told that a fundamental review is currently under way. This matter has become urgent as the health of hundreds if not thousands of SMEs is at stake. I ask the Government to please publish the review soon and follow it swiftly with a Bill. I look forward to the forthcoming debates on these subjects.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse, on their excellent maiden speeches. I will focus on the provision of homes. I declare an interest as chair of the National Housing Federation, the representative body for housing associations in England.
I welcome wholeheartedly the Government’s recognition in the Queen’s Speech of the importance of housing and their plans to bring forward several Bills on it, but I have some real concerns, which I know are shared by many others in this House and elsewhere, that this legislative programme does not truly represent the ambition on housing that this country needs. I hope that the House will soon debate the building safety Bill, a critical piece of legislation needed to ensure that a tragedy like the Grenfell Tower fire can never happen again, but there has been yet another missed opportunity to provide certainty for leaseholders and charitable housing associations by bringing forward the up-front funding that is so desperately needed for immediate building safety works.
We were reminded just in the last few weeks of the stark reality of this crisis following the recent fire in a block of flats in Poplar that is still wrapped in unsafe cladding. The truth is that, despite the best efforts of many building owners, many people continue to go to sleep every night in homes with building safety concerns. They also often face the short-term and long-term personal and financial impact of huge building safety bills for errors that were not of their making.
While the Government have provided much-needed funding for some remedial works, we are still far short of a complete solution. For instance, there is still no money available for social housing providers to undertake remedial works on properties where tenants live. Social housing providers are charities; they do not make a profit but are now facing costs in excess of £10 billion to do these works.
Just two weeks ago, the Financial Times reported that the number of affordable homes built by four of the largest housing associations in the country will be reduced by 40% because of the mounting financial pressure of building safety. There is a housing crisis, and we need more homes. We also need those existing homes with faults to be made safe as quickly as possible. Does the Minister acknowledge that the only real solution is for the Government to provide up-front funding for building safety works and then recoup these costs from those responsible?
The Government’s planning Bill may become a second threat to the construction of much-needed affordable housing in England. I strongly support the Government’s ambition to make the planning system more transparent and to speed up the process of development. However, their intention to change current mechanisms, such as Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which has delivered a significant number of affordable homes over many years, is a grave worry.
Can the Minister give the House more detail on the Government’s new proposed mechanisms for funding affordable housing and will he assure us that this new system will result in greater numbers of affordable homes, not fewer? I was also disappointed not to see the Government bring forward legislation on the social housing White Paper, which had been expected. Can the Minister confirm when the Government will bring forward this legislation?
Similarly, we were promised a White Paper on renters’ reform. I had hoped this would lead to effective legislation to provide security for private renters, for example, by changes to Section 21 and no-fault evictions which leave renters in a very precarious position. The Minister said in his opening that it is hoped to introduce it in the autumn. I hope I have got that right. Can he confirm that it will cover these issues?
Other noble Lords have regretted that there was no mention of social care, and I share these concerns. It is a huge gap in the Queen’s Speech. Can the Minister say anything at all about what the Government’s plans are?
As housing associations look to the long-term future, more clarity over their role in helping the Government achieve their decarbonisation net-zero target would also have been welcome. As I have raised before, the housing association sector is central to our efforts to meet our net-zero targets by building greener homes and making existing homes more sustainable. I hope the Government will heed the words of the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax of Cameron, on this issue. This is a vast exercise that housing associations have the skills, scale and ambition to undertake. In making future spending decisions, I hope the Government will consider the support the sector needs to reach its potential as a central partner to the country’s ambitions to tackle the climate crisis.
Finally, I will close by touching on levelling up. Safe, affordable and good quality homes can be at the centre of place making and drive forward prosperity. Will the Minister assure us that the Government will closely consider the role of housing and housing associations as they look to deliver this agenda? As community anchors that exist to serve and respond to people and places, housing associations stand ready to deliver the much- needed change these towns and regions deserve.
My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of interests. There is much to commend in this Government’s Queen’s Speech. I will comment on the proposals for the planning and building safety Bills.
I welcome the building safety Bill and would ask that, either in this Bill or the planning Bill, it is made compulsory for all new builds or buildings being converted for residential use to have at least two staircases for means of fire escape. Perhaps American-style external fire escapes could be made compulsory for all conversions where there is only one internal staircase.
I also make a plea for a safety regime for all short- term lets, such as those on Airbnb and Booking.com. This is currently an unregulated area. These types of lettings are meant to be for up to 90 days a year only, yet in most cases they are professional businesses operating throughout the year and there does not appear to be any means of regulating standards or safety requirements. As local councils do not know who or where they are, a register would help. They go uninspected and are potentially an accident-in-waiting. Surely all short-term lets should meet minimum safety standards such as fire safety doors, smoke alarms, heat detectors, fire escape lighting and maps. I call upon the Government to include them in the remit of the building safety regulator and the Bill.
I worry, however, about the Government’s proposals to reform the planning process with fast-tracked planning and removing the right of an individual to object to an application. It is just too easy to blame the process when, as the Local Government Association has stated, nine out of 10 planning applications are granted, yet over 1.1 million homes do not get built by developers despite having planning permission. It is not the system’s fault, but the developers, who are so often over- ambitious in cramming too much on to a site or chasing greater profits at the expense of the quality of living accommodation and space. I know of a site in Kensington, where the developer had three live planning permissions, yet was seeking a fourth. In Kensington and Chelsea alone, it was worth just sitting on land as the value increased and the demand for houses did also, creating a suppliers’ market. The Government need to remove such incentives. They also need to ensure that we do not find the new planning process becomes a developers’ charter to build high and without quality, leaving the ruination of our streets and landscapes, littered with poor-quality homes as this Government’s legacy.
Lastly, I know that many of these builds will rely on people using online resources and portals—for example, the planning regime. However, not everyone is online. Many do not have the skills or the kit to navigate the technology needed to join in. We need to ensure that the Government’s agenda does not preclude people from participating. Digital exclusion is a real issue if we move everything online, and often forgotten by those in front of a computer or a smartphone screen when drafting the necessary legislation.
I also support the views expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, about providing for children’s needs.
My Lords, my interests are as recorded in the register. I would like to congratulate new Members on their excellent maiden speeches.
I shall comment on Her Majesty’s gracious address, as far as the Government’s policies on agriculture, the environment and rural issues are concerned. Let me state from the outset that I applaud their intention to introduce a Bill on animal welfare and look forward to the debate on it, and on the imminent Environment Bill. Both are of crucial importance and present an opportunity for this country to set new global standards. This is of particularly import in view of hosting COP 26 in November. As a country, we are proud of our commitment to high standards of animal welfare—it is one of our global claims. The intention to raise welfare standards for farm animals will, I am sure, be welcomed by the public, and elements of the Bill will also be supported by farmers provided that the trading field is level.
I am aware of the substantial work that has been done by Defra to design an enhanced animal welfare element of the ELM scheme. To reward farmers, willing to go beyond the norm and improve their facilities and standards, is a big step forward. However, if this is overlaid by further legislation that will apply to all farmers, significant additional costs will be incurred that are unlikely to be compensated for by government support through the ELM scheme.
I have a similar concern about the Environment Bill. We absolutely have to embrace the measures proposed in the Bill, to improve biodiversity and resource efficiency, the quality of air and water, to reduce waste and pollution, to limit abstraction, and so on. These are essential and worthy ambitions, but it is inevitable that these measures will lead to cost increases for farmers and land managers, and these could be substantial in some cases.
In addition to these two topics—animal welfare and the environment—we have the overarching challenge of climate change, as articulated by many Peers today and very convincingly, by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, in this debate.
There are only two sources of income that farmers and land managers will have access to for ensuring that they successfully deliver on these ambitions: the public funding through ELMS and the rewards in the marketplace for the food that we produce. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the public goods that we can and need to deliver to achieve real success in meeting government objectives will soon drain the Treasury commitment within the current agricultural budget. No values have yet been determined for the various elements of the scheme, but the ambition and the list of desired outcomes continues to increase. Can the Minister inform us whether the Government are regularly reviewing the potential cost of funding ELMS as our ambitions increase, and whether the department is doing this in conjunction with the Treasury?
Moving to the marketplace and the potential for the market to reward farmers for the higher standards that they will be committed to deliver, this was raised as a matter of serious concern in debates on the Agriculture Bill and subsequently on the Trade Bill. The Government’s decision to establish the initial Trade and Agriculture Commission was very welcome, and the confirmation in the Trade Bill that this would be given a statutory role was finally agreed after much debate and negotiation. The TAC delivered its report as commissioned earlier this year, yet so far the Government have not responded to its recommendations. Can the Minister confirm when this response is expected? Also, when can we expect progress in establishing the new TAC on a statutory footing? The Trade Secretary is making very good progress in negotiating trade deals. These deals must be urgently scrutinised by the non-existent TAC to ensure that they do not undermine the high domestic standards that we aspire to on the environment, climate change and animal welfare.
I very much supported the Government’s post-Brexit promised land ambitions for our countryside. The vision is an exciting one, but to extend the Old Testament analogy, the country is likely to flow with substandard imported milk and honey, fruit, vegetables and meat if those are not subject to the same high standards. How counterproductive would it be if our investment in even higher standards led to a fall in domestic production and did not result in any net national benefit due to an increase in lower-quality imports? The delay in establishing the TAC is becoming a real concern.
Finally, I fully endorse comments made in this debate on concerns about planning policy and the importance of the levelling-up agenda regarding rural areas and how the Government intend to address this.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to join with other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Morse, and my noble friend Lord Coaker on their wonderful maiden speeches. We look forward very much to hearing more from them. I must confess that I was a bit jealous, as never in this House have I made a speech which has been greeted with a clap of thunder. It sets a new standard for all of us to see what we can achieve.
The fundamental question at the heart of this debate is: what does it mean and what does it take to build better for the communities of the future? Many noble Lords have answered that question this evening with great sophistication and power: good jobs, lifelong skills, decent incomes, accessible, affordable housing for all ages, robust local services, reliable transport and a safe, clean, beautiful place to live in. These are basic rights and requirements, but they are without the reach of many people in this country. Yet the opportunity is staring us in the face. After the unparalleled last 15 months, there is a real appetite and a real sense of urgency for change.
There has never been a better time for the Government to tackle the long-term, fundamental, systemic problems which face this country: for example, the failed housing market, which is geared towards the developer; and a disjointed, vulnerable social care system, which is financially ruinous for many families and yet does not guarantee good quality or choice of social care. What an opportunity for a Government to turn to the country and say, in a paraphrase of another time: “We have the tools, we can do the job, we have shown that we can act fast, we can inspire innovation on an unparalleled scale, we can find the money for what we need to do, because the people expect us to do better and to do differently, in a way which is safer, fairer and more efficient.”
I am very disappointed that the Government seem not to have been able to grasp that. I am sad to say that I find that the Queen’s Speech fails on three basic tests. The Minister opening the debate today gave us a catalogue of reasons for delay. I do not think that is good enough. The first test is about honouring promises. There was nothing on social care, of course, but the charge sheet on housing is much longer. Housing has become almost totemic in its significance as a place of safety and distress, and increasing homelessness looks even more likely when housing subsidies are withdrawn.
Many noble Lords have said that there is nothing about accelerating social housing, only the statement that the Government will continue to legislate on the social housing proposal White Paper proposals and will legislate as soon as practicable. The White Paper was three years in the making and that was four years ago. There is nothing on renters’ reform. That was promised 17 months ago. There was no mention of a White Paper. Reform seems to be receding. There was nothing on landlord registration. That was promised 13 years ago in the Rugg review. There was nothing on the scale of leasehold reform that we were anticipating. Yes, ground rent reform is important, but it is the low-hanging fruit of leasehold reform. When can we expect these Bills? I welcome the building safety Bill, of course. I hope the Minister has answers to the many questions raised on it.
The second basic test is that policies should at least agree with each other. The two Ministers at the Dispatch Box this evening are at odds with each other. The new planning Bill is virtually incompatible with the Government’s targets for a greener and healthier economy. The Justice Minister has promised leasehold reform while the Housing Minister presses ahead with permitted development which will, for example, remove the rights of leaseholders, who will have storeys built above their heads while losing their rights to object.
The third test for a Queen’s Speech is that it should at least find support among its own friends. I think the planning Bill has more enemies than friends already. One speech from the other place last week says it all. It
“would reduce local democracy, remove the opportunity for local people to comment on specific developments, and remove the ability of local authorities to set development policies locally.”
“would also lead to fewer affordable homes, because they hand developers a get-out clause … what we will see is not more homes, but, potentially, the wrong homes … in the wrong places”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/5/21; col. 39.]
In this case, Theresa May was absolutely right and many others agree with her. The Bill is described by the CPRE as a descent into the dark ages of planning. It means the end of the Section 106 agreements, which my noble friend referred to, and fewer mechanisms for ensuring that affordable housing targets are met. Unless the Bill is changed, it will not build faster, better or greener. I am afraid I can assure the Minister that it will have a lively passage through this House.
I add my welcome to the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse. There is much to be proud of in the United Kingdom when it comes to the environment. I am thinking here particularly of the global leadership we have shown in setting out our 2050 net-zero target for carbon emissions. Why then do so many of us treat our beautiful country as if it were a rubbish dump? Why does not everyone care about where we live? What has happened to our self-respect? When did our nation of shopkeepers become a land of litter louts?
I warmly welcome the promise in Her Majesty’s gracious Speech that the Government
“will invest in new green industries to create jobs, while protecting the environment,”
“will set binding environmental targets.”
I desperately hope that we can also take big, positive strides towards a cleaner, greener Britain because there is one area in which Britain is most definitely not a world leader and that is in the way that we treat our urban and rural environment when it comes to waste disposal. We are only too familiar with the mountains of trade and domestic waste deliberately and illegally dumped on the roadside—the stained mattress, the old sofa, rusting refrigerators, electrical items, plastic bin bags of builders’ rubble and, now, disposable face masks.
It is no surprise that research suggests that we have few, if any, rivals for the unwanted title of “most littered country in the developed world”. It is getting worse; if an area looks like a tip, it is no surprise that many will consider that a green light to treat it as one too. If you drive along the highways and byways in Britain, the evidence is there for all to see. It is an eyesore. Verges are awash with rubbish—cans, plastic bottles, fast food wrappers, cigarette ends, Styrofoam burger boxes and crisp packets casually hurled out of vehicle windows. Pavements are encrusted with chewing gum. What a fine impression this will make on those who visit us for global economic or environmental summits, or tourists from abroad—what a memory of our green and not-so-pleasant land.
Sadly, we have become a “don’t care” society, where too many people just do not give a jot about their community and the environment on their doorstep, who do not regard the dropping of litter as an anti-social and criminal act—not only a contravention of the law but a crime against society. It is soul-destroying and dangerous to humans and animals; it pollutes the very air we breathe; it depresses and saps a nation’s morale. Living in filth makes us feel worthless. It is expensive too; street cleaning alone costs the taxpayer over £1 billion annually.
What are we going to do about it? How can we mitigate this growing litter epidemic, clean up our act for the next generation and make this appalling behaviour socially unacceptable? While business in general and the Government clearly have a part to play, at root it is a societal problem. It is people who litter—us. The only lasting resolution is to change our behaviour. That requires a cultural shift.
Clearly, in the long term it is a challenge of education and persuasion. That starts in our schools, colleges and homes. But there are positive actions we can take now; notably, making the new office for environmental protection responsible for litter enforcement and ensuring that local authorities and Highways England and its counterparts in the devolved nations actually fulfil their responsibilities to act against litter droppers—fine them, enforce the existing sanctions and clear up the detritus they leave in their wake.
Some 50 years ago, we saw much less litter on our roadsides, but back then it was also socially acceptable to get behind the wheel of a car while the worse for wear from alcohol—not any more. The same kinds of changes that made drink-driving uncool can also turn the tide on litter: education, advertising and penalties—not just heavier fines, but the likelihood of being ostracised for defying social norms.
This is still a beautiful country, but it is, sadly, a messy, dirty and scruffy one—and getting worse. Improved air and water quality, the regeneration of nature and the reduction of carbon emissions are all essential to the long-term health of the environment, but so too is ensuring that we stop despoiling our cities, towns and countryside by treating them as rubbish dumps, with their threat to public health. It is a massive, nationwide problem. Action is urgent and long overdue.
My Lords, as we have heard from many erudite speeches, including two excellent maidens, this is a time like no other. It is an unprecedented year for environmental policy; for the sake of the natural world, I can only wish the Government and the Minister success and offer my support. With the G7, COP 26 and COP 15, there are many global stages on which to parade. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, noted, if we cannot get our own house in order, we cannot lead that parade. There is much to do.
As if to emphasise the vagaries of our climate, a tornado ripped down our valley in Devon last week, littering trees and timber buildings for over a mile. I currently join your Lordships from my in-laws’, having been evacuated from home due to wildfires in May—I am not in Devon.
Of course, ecological catastrophe is not new. Alexander von Humboldt, the father of modern environmentalism, visited Latin America in 1800 to witness the devastation wreaked by empire and resource-hungry capitalism. His words could describe Bolsonaro’s Brazil today:
“When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere … The beds of the rivers … are converted into torrents, whenever great rains fall … The sward and moss disappearing from the brush-wood on the sides of the mountains, the waters falling in rain are no longer impeded … and instead of slowly augmenting the level of the rivers by progressive filtrations, they furrow during heavy showers the sides of the hills, bear down the loose soil, and form those sudden inundations that devastate the country”.
This was written over 200 years ago, and yet still we rape the Amazon of its natural capital with ever more mechanised efficiency—then for coffee and sugar, now for soya too. Our problem is not awareness—von Humboldt was the star of Napoleonic Europe, feted across the continent—but simply that the drive for profit has always overcome the fear of environmental Armageddon, which impacts those in hotter, poorer countries before us. This must change.
Her Majesty’s Treasury took a bold step commissioning the Dasgupta Review into the economics of biodiversity. His conclusions, which we debated recently, could not have been clearer, yet the Government have yet to publish their response. Can we expect that before we see the Environment Bill? Principal among the Dasgupta recommendations is that natural capital must be priced. What steps are the Government taking to price ecosystem services? Similarly, Professor Dasgupta extolled increased access to nature and mandatory nature studies. While ELMS addresses access, it is an optional scheme, and farmers’ fear of unregulated access will discourage its adoption unless the policy is sympathetic. As for mandatory nature studies, the Government have simply ignored this recommendation. I am in agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin: please think again, or else another generation will move yet further away from our mother Earth.
Is it right that the Government expect to pass the Environment Bill by November’s COP 26? If so, will the Minister assure us that sufficient time will be made available? Rushing to meet a false deadline is not to the environment’s benefit. Noting my interests as a Devon farmer and a lawyer active in the space, the costs of well-intentioned environmental regulation must not fall unduly on those managing land so as to drive them out of business just as BPS is withdrawn. Abandoned farmland will not help the environment or our production of locally produced food.
On food, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, in championing the national food strategy, but we must do more for our health and environment. Noting my interest as a board member of the South West Food Hub, I ask that the Government support efforts for public procurement to be locally sourced, building a direct link for healthy food to flow from farm to fork.
There is a massive hole in the Environment Bill where heritage sits. Given that our island’s natural environment reflects millennia of human interaction, it is a mockery to think that we can manage our natural capital without a mind to its heritage. We will replace environmental degradation with cultural degradation and wipe out the wisdom of ages. As an example of this, we see planning and EPC rules that render 400 year-old cob cottages built of local mud and straw dismissed as carbon non-compliant. This cannot be right.
I look forward to more detail on our national tree strategy and to understanding how we will plant the millions of broadleaf trees desired despite the current unchecked assault of pests and diseases. Also, as a former property barrister who contributed to Lexis’ Commonhold: Law and Practice in 2002, I look forward to debating leasehold reform—not only might someone finally buy the book, but we might ensure an increased supply of affordable homes.
Finally, as chair of a forthcoming APPG inquiry into the role of social enterprise during the pandemic, I hope that the Government will acknowledge and support the vital role of social enterprise within our communities.
My Lords, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I too congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse, on their excellent maiden speeches.
This has been a challenging debate for the Government, partly because of what is not in the gracious Speech, such as local government funding reform, including business rates reform, the Government’s plans for reforming social care, or the plans they may have for greater devolution in England. It is partly also because of what is in the gracious Speech, such as the proposed planning Bill—which has not been properly thought through—and the elections integrity Bill, about which my noble friend Lord Teverson spoke so convincingly.
First, let me acknowledge the important principles behind the building safety Bill and the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill; these are both welcome. I look forward as well to the details of the subsidy control Bill, which should permit local authorities to support key industries, together with the procurement Bill, which could encourage public-private sector working in which social value can be a factor. I welcome, too, plans to widen opportunities for the development of adult skills.
However, I was concerned to hear the Minister say earlier in relation to the private rented sector that a White Paper is planned for the autumn. I had been expecting a renter’s reform Bill, so can the Minister confirm whether this means that the timetable for promised reforms is about to slip significantly?
Moving on to the planning Bill, in his introduction to today’s debate, the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, said that it is about modernising the system to make it quicker, simpler and streamlined. Simplification is always welcome as long as standards are not reduced. However, in simplifying planning procedures, the Government must not reduce local democratic accountability, which is part of the essential process for ensuring high standards. Poor accountability leads to lower standards. The Government know that we have suffered in recent years from a culture that has encouraged poor-quality building. The danger in this Bill is that local planning authorities will not be able to turn down poor-quality developments, which they currently can do. This is not in the public interest. The Government should not be reducing the powers of local planning authorities in the way they are attempting.
The Government are right to want to increase housebuilding but the truth is that this cannot be achieved without a substantial element of new building led by local authorities. New homes, whether for purchase or for rent, must be at prices and rent levels that people on average incomes can afford. We need more social homes to be built—around 100,000 a year for several years—which requires more financial freedoms for local authorities to achieve that. This should be the Government’s priority.
Instead, we are witnessing a boom in house prices caused largely by demand-side subsidies from the Government. The average cost of a new home has now reached £200,000. I submit that this is not the kind of growth the economy needs. Also, despite the need to build more homes, 1.1 million homes granted planning permission in England in the past decade are yet to be built. It is hard to see exactly what problem the Government are trying to solve with their proposed planning Bill. It does not seem to be the planning system that is responsible for not enough homes being built.
There are two other issues on housing. First, more than half of local planning authorities set no requirements for any accessible housing standards, so will the Government create a mandatory baseline for new homes broadly equivalent to the lifetime homes standard or category 2 in the building regulations? This is already the case in London, so why can this policy not be implemented across England?
Secondly, have the Government got their demand forecasts right? I ask because the Office for Statistics Regulation has recently been critical of the Office for National Statistics for its population forecasts, which in some places seem much too high. What is the Government’s response to this conflict of evidence?
Finally, I welcome the proposed levelling-up White Paper, which will set up new policy interventions for poorer areas. I suggest that this should include the role of the private sector in supporting levelling up through the use of the tax system to encourage its investment policies to be directed towards supporting all parts of the country.
I start by adding my congratulations to the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse, on their excellent maiden speeches. I add my support to Her Majesty’s gracious Speech and congratulate the Government on their visionary leadership.
I have been heartened by the commitment to publishing a levelling-up White Paper that will set out bold new interventions to improve livelihoods and opportunities throughout the UK. This is a crucial agenda to pursue, but how do we know what policies will deliver the levelling up that we seek? How are the Government defining levelling up? How are they measuring success or identifying what levers need to be pulled, and in which communities? How do we understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of our communities so that we know where to put the energy and focus to level up? As far as I can find, the Government have not yet set out an established baseline against which to assess the effectiveness of this ambitious focus. But because this agenda is so important to the British people, last week the Legatum Institute—I refer to my entry in the register of interests—launched a tool to measure the success of the levelling-up agenda: a UK prosperity index to provide the baseline against which to measure progress and success.
With calls for regional renewal across the political spectrum, the moment is right for a new and holistic assessment of the UK’s strengths and weaknesses, which will help point the way towards true prosperity. Building prosperity—levelling up—is much more than bridges and trains, bricks and mortar, and material wealth. It reaches beyond the financial into the political, the judicial, the well-being and character of a nation; it is about creating an environment where people are able to reach their full potential. A community is prosperous when it has an open economy, an inclusive society with strong formal and informal institutions, and empowered people who are healthy, educated and safe.
If the country is to make the most of this reset moment, we will need to unlock prosperity and level up across all our regions and communities. In many ways, the UK is well positioned to do just this—it is one of the most prosperous countries in the world, ranking 13th out of 167 nations. Our national institutions are robust and we have one of the world’s strongest economies, powered by innovators and a world-class education system. This is an amazing country and we have been making great strides in many of the areas that already dominate the debate about levelling up, including infrastructure and the natural environment.
But there are also clear challenges. While levels of prosperity in the UK remain much higher than in other nations and increased during the first half of the 2010s, in more recent years this prosperity has been stagnating. This underlines the need for a more detailed assessment of what is going well and what is not. Interestingly, this stagnation is not driven by factors that currently feature much in the political debate—for example, infrastructure. Rather, we are being held back by declining enterprise conditions and weak health systems that were simply not pandemic ready, and we have insufficiently created the environment in which our family life and relationships have been able to thrive and feel valued.
All our concern has been for the economy, but we should have been even more focused on who we are becoming as a people at a local community level. For example, the index reveals that the West Midlands non-metropolitan region is the sixth most prosperous in the UK, with strong governance, low crime rates and good conditions for business. However, the region performs poorly on the strength of social capital and quality of health and education. This is where the opportunity for levelling up lies. The index reveals that London is the fourth most prosperous region of the UK, with a strong economy, good infrastructure, a supportive environment for business and good education. However, the city’s prosperity is undermined by declining safety and security, failure to build inclusive and connected communities, and the highest rates of poverty in the UK. This is an example of where the levelling-up opportunity lies.
To really become a prosperous nation, we need to understand these issues by local area and by community. This is why the UK prosperity index is such an important tool for the levelling-up agenda. Britain needs to become a place where we strengthen our local communities and truly value the family; where we care for one another, investing in our mental and physical well-being; and where we can innovate and build businesses that are not stifled by unnecessary regulation.
If this hugely important levelling-up agenda is to be effective it needs a baseline, an accountability tool. Will my noble friend the Minister agree to meet me to understand the UK prosperity index, a tool for levelling up, and how it can be used to measure the great strides forward this Government will make as they commit to levelling up the nation?
My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Department of Health and Social Care’s oversight panel, which is reviewing the care and treatment of people with learning disabilities and of autistic people who are being detained in long-term segregation. As the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, has just discussed, the gracious Speech set out an ambitious and laudable levelling-up agenda to tackle the long-standing geographical disparities facing the country. I will speak about another kind of disparity: that faced by people with learning disabilities, which is as apparent in considerations of community and welfare as it is in health.
Debate about people with learning disabilities often ends with the comment that services need to be better. The Mental Health Act White Paper published earlier this year recommended a duty on commissioners to ensure an adequate supply of community services for people with a learning disability and autistic people. This duty aims to address the failure of both local authority and NHS commissioners to commission skilled local community services, thus leading instead to involuntary detention in hospital at times of crisis. The proposed statutory principles in the White Paper are choice and autonomy, least restriction, therapeutic benefit and the person as an individual. Perhaps a fifth principle should be added: care in the community.
The Mental Health Act White Paper hopes to drive significant change for people with a mental disorder. When it is published, the Bill must address the financial disincentives which serve to encourage lengthy hospital admissions and an explicit requirement for a duty to make reasonable adjustments in community and welfare services. Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a good place to start, given that the UK is a signatory to the convention and ratified it in 2009. Article 19 demands that we recognise
“the equal right of all persons with disabilities to live in the community, with choices equal to others, and shall take effective and appropriate measures to facilitate full enjoyment by persons with disabilities of this right and their full inclusion and participation in the community”.
The gracious Speech was notably silent about the widely anticipated social care Bill. Following the disruption of Brexit and the human tragedy of the high number of Covid-related deaths of people dependent on our care system, will Her Majesty’s Government now commit to fully overhauling the social care system—including for disabled adults of working age, not just older people living in care homes?
We need a trained workforce to meet the needs of people with learning disabilities. Commissioners, many of whom are buying the wrong services, must receive specialist training on the needs of the populations they serve. In the course of chairing the oversight panel for the independently chaired care and treatment reviews programme, I have heard panel members angrily decrying the fake lives and fake homes provided for some people with learning disabilities and some autistic people, who, after lengthy countertherapeutic hospital admissions, are too often discharged to alternative institutions such as converted wards away from real life and outside their communities. One important reason for this is the lack of suitable housing providers and suitable safe homes for people.
As we hear today of the importance of community and welfare, let us not forget those who are so often forgotten and ask: what does levelling up look like for people, for example, with learning disabilities from a black and minority ethnic background, whose average life expectancy is just 35 years; or for the over 2,000 people with a learning disability or autism still held in assessment and treatment units almost 10 years on from the Winterbourne View scandal; or for thousands more living their lives in institutional segregated services, denied a chance to live an ordinary life and now facing even more barriers to the most basic of institutions: the democratic vote?
I urge Her Majesty’s Government to take seriously the needs of people with learning disabilities and autistic people and to avoid measures such as Covid passports or photo IDs, which are likely to constitute serious barriers to their full community participation.
My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a couple of points regarding the gracious Speech in today’s debate. One is minor and the other is a little bigger. I hope that the Minister will be back for the bigger one because, every time I raise it, we never engage with each other.
The first point relates to the introduction by the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, who spoke about—and I support him all the way—the need for decent, safe and well-designed homes, in the context of the planning Bill. Many people have followed the Government’s exhortation to stay at home, work from home and travel less. These are some of the important messages that we have been getting, and I declare an interest here: I live on a private estate where a lot of the younger people have stayed at home and converted their attics into working rooms. But they have a problem. They have local authority permission to do that, but they cannot get past the management board, which has restrictive covenants saying that they cannot touch the tiles on the roof. They cannot install a simple VELUX window, which would give light and air to a working space. In many instances we have people working in unfair conditions because of these restrictive covenants.
My question is whether this issue has been examined in the context of the planning Bill. If not, will the Government look at it again? Can we not adopt a more reasonable approach, rather than some of the nimbyism we encounter on issues such as this, whereby people’s health and well-being is being damaged by the enforcement of aesthetic views of what a roof should look like? A simple little VELUX window should not offend anybody.
My second point concerns the wider context of the future of God’s planet. I have had a number of exchanges with the Minister recently about the growth of the world’s population. This is the most fundamental issue relating to climate change and the unsustainable position in which we find ourselves. The Chinese are complaining that their numbers are growing in the order of just over 5% only, and they want to see bigger growth. The Pope has been complaining that young girls are not having enough babies, yet we are living in a world that has grown from 1.7 billion, when the Duke of Edinburgh was born in the early part of the last century, to 7.4 billion. All the projections are that, unless there are fundamental changes, we will be heading towards 10 billion, which many say is unsustainable. The planet cannot support it.
I have been trying to get answers from the Government on the extent to which they will engage in a discussion with people of influence. Why is this issue not on the agenda for COP 26? They engaged Dasgupta to report on biodiversity issues, but he spent several pages looking at world population and the absence of policies on it. I again ask the Minister: when will we have a debate on this fundamental issue?
I know that this is difficult and extraordinarily sensitive, but there are two people in the world who could greatly influence the course of events. One is the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church and the second—and he has made a very good start as a new President—is President Biden, who is a Roman Catholic too. They should engage in discussion about the fundamental issues of contraception, abortion, dying with dignity and so on. I know that these are difficult topics, but we cannot run away from the fundamental problems we face in this world of ours. There are other major ethical issues which require a deep-seated examination of where we have been going and why we have ended up in the mess we are in. I hope that the Minister can give me hope that some thought is being given to how we might have worldwide engagement on this issue. If we do not, the state of the planet will get even worse.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. I refer to my entry in the register of interests, particularly as a trustee of Neighbours in Poplar and as an officer of the APPG on Global LGBT+ Rights.
We have all been shocked by the levels of loneliness, deprivation, inadequate social housing and mental health needs, and the varying quality of adult social care that the pandemic has revealed. Sadly, many of these issues have been ignored by this gracious Speech. I could go on at length, but it is late, so I will instead recommend a report by the small charity Neighbours in Poplar, commissioned by Sister Christine Frost. She has inspired generations in Poplar, east London, and, during the Covid crisis, she has gathered an army of volunteers to provide support, food banks, befriending and hot meal deliveries to hundreds of people who would otherwise have been forgotten, isolated or ignored. As others have said, the gaps created by the state should not be filled by charities. It is clear, therefore, that the Government now need a far greater focus on the social care economy, recognising that it is broken and simply does not work for care workers, employers, local government and—most of all—users.
I turn to the announcement that the Government will bring forward measures to ban so-called conversion therapies. The announcement is welcome, but what detail there is is deeply flawed. We do not need more consultation. It is nearly three years since the Government first committed to banning conversion therapy; further delay would put more people at risk from these inhumane and degrading practices. We urgently need a draft Bill and a clear timeline for its implementation.
It is stated that the ban will focus on coercive practices. This is entirely unacceptable: it will create loopholes or exemptions, and would be a tacit endorsement of conversion therapy. LGBTI+ people and our allies need a comprehensive ban on all conversion practices in all settings. Let us be clear: banning conversion practices does not undermine religious freedom. Holding, teaching and preaching religious belief will always be protected, but trying to change or cancel a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity through religious practices is unacceptable and a form of abuse. Indeed, the Government’s own research—the LGBT survey of 2018—found that a majority of conversion practices happen in faith-based settings. Therefore, such an exemption for these practices would render the ban meaningless and inoperable. Sadly—and I do not wish to seem ungracious—this half-hearted approach reflects the widely held view that the Government are not fully committed to delivering equality.
Concerning ministerial commitment on equality, I refer to the letter of 28 April from the chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, the right honourable Caroline Nokes, to the Secretary of State, Liz Truss, where she says:
“I have become concerned in recent months about the approach being taken by the GEO and its Ministers to my Committee and its essential scrutiny work. We have become increasingly frustrated by a lack of positive engagement from Ministers and note that a growing public perception of Government intransigence on equalities issues is being reflected in our own relationship.”
In conclusion, sadly—deeply sadly—I remain concerned about the continuous defamation and misrepresentation of trans people, particularly trans women, from within your Lordships’ ranks and elsewhere. This misrepresentation of trans people, and particularly trans women, as a threat is reckless, dangerous and diminishes us as a civilised society. This vilification of trans people is wrong, and it must end.
My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Lords who made their maiden speeches today. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, spoke with such passion about poverty that the gods responded immediately with a thunderbolt. In his excellent speech, the noble Lord, Lord Morse, reminded the House that his career at the National Audit Office will greatly strengthen our hand in our role of scrutinising the Government.
In his speech, my noble friend Lord Stunell said that the environmental targets exist, and many of them are perfectly good, but we lack the detailed steps on how we get there. This has been the theme of today. There are no proposed Bills in the gracious Speech aimed at cutting emissions and tackling the climate emergency. The key is there in that phrase: it is an emergency, and it requires government action this year—not next year or the year after. This applies particularly to transport-related emissions, which are responsible for around one-third of the total. They constitute a two-pronged assault on our well-being, causing ill health as well as climate change. There has been significant technological progress, so as a nation we can tackle many of the issues. However, transport is the one sector where, despite having the technology, there has been no reduction in emissions in recent years. That is because we travel more often and further. There are particular problems in relation to aviation and the increased sales of SUVs, which produce much greater emissions than average cars. Those points are being neglected by the Government.
The Government have a unique opportunity, as national life restarts following the pandemic. We can drift back largely to our bad old ways, or maybe even take a step backwards by returning in greater numbers to our cars, or the Government can use this time to steer us into less polluting habits. We urgently need the Government to lead the way, with legislation, investment and a new environmental tax regime, but sadly there was nothing in their proposals. The Government have so far shown little commitment to the steps needed to meet their targets. Rail fares were increased above inflation this year, while vehicle fuel tax was frozen yet again and grants for purchases of EVs were cut. The Government’s spending commitments include £27 billion on A roads and motorways, which academic experts have estimated will produce an astonishing 100 times more CO2 than official government estimates. How can the Government be serious about leading COP 26 when they remain wedded to that?
The reference to the next phase of HS2 in the gracious Speech was welcome but the omission of any mention of the eastern leg to Leeds undermines the Government’s claims to be levelling up in the north-east. Yet, at the same time, they maintain their support for the outdated and damaging plan for the Heathrow third runway. There is a welcome commitment that public transport connectivity will be extended. In the previous Session, they unveiled their national bus strategy, which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, discussed, but we are still waiting for details of the long-promised 4,000 zero-emission buses. On Wednesday, here in Westminster, the Campaign for Better Transport is launching its new campaign, “The way forward is public transport”. I hope that Ministers will find their way over to that event and pick up some good key action points.
I very much hope that the White Paper on rail reform is followed rapidly by legislation. The pandemic has stretched the current structure beyond breaking point but, again, we need action now to restructure the industry for the widespread investment in electrification and line reopenings that is so badly needed. Unlike bus services, which can be transformed in a small number of years, transformational investment in railways takes decades.
On many occasions, I have referred to the need for more measures to encourage the take-up of EVs. Motor manufacturers are increasingly concerned at the slow and chaotic development of the infrastructure to support them, including urgent investment in the national grid and a well co-ordinated and massive expansion of urban and motorway charging points. Neither of these can be left to the market alone; they need government leadership.
Then there is taxation. What is the future for vehicle taxation? Will the Government tax EVs as they do petrol and diesel cars or will there be road pricing? There are crucial issues for the future that need to be planned now. Even minor steps, such as changes to vehicle taxation to discourage the use of SUVs, would make a worthwhile difference.
In the Budget, the Government announced that they would remove APD on internal flights. Short-distance flights are more carbon-intensive. There is a need for reform of APD and aviation taxation, and, as my noble friend Lord Oates suggested, we need to follow the French and ban domestic flights that cover journeys of under two and a half hours by train.
The failure to use taxation as a weapon in the climate change fight is noticeable. I will give noble Lords another example: the Government charge 5% VAT on gas for a household boiler, but they charge 20% VAT on home improvements to improve energy efficiency. That is nonsensical.
The Government are also failing to set out the huge benefits that the revolution to come will bring to our economy: the many jobs that will come in building homes to the highest environmental standards and replacing all our gas boilers. The Government must level with the population: our apparent success in reducing emissions has come from relying on other nations to manufacture the goods that we use. If we measure our carbon footprint on the basis of our consumption, it has hardly changed. The scandal of the abandonment of the green homes grant was mentioned by many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Stunell. I urge the Government to give it another go, with redesigned policy and financial support.
This has been a very wide-ranging debate. A frequent theme was the notable omission of social care. My noble friend Lady Benjamin talked about the importance of young people and made the memorable statement that “childhood lasts a lifetime”. Very recently, my noble friend Lord Shipley, among others, concentrated on the need for decent affordable housing.
Many noble Lords have expressed serious concerns about the planning Bill: the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and my noble friends Lady Pinnock and Lady Thornhill. They all emphasised the danger of excluding local voices, and they made the point that there are 1 million homes for which planning permission has been given but which have not been built. The Government really must not let the building industry off the hook on this. My noble friend Lady Pinnock, among others, also referred to the cladding scandal, which the Government must deal with.
In conclusion, I spur the Government on. Social change does happen, underscored by legislation. They must act now to ensure that social change can make throw-away fashion and technology as socially unacceptable as drink-driving. I press the urgency of this. So far, all that we have done as a planet is to slow the rate of the increase of climate change. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has kept on growing. I end by restating my noble friend Lord Oates’s reference to the words of Mahatma Gandhi: the future is decided by what you do today.
My Lords, we have had the privilege this afternoon and this evening of listening to many thoughtful and interesting speeches, not least to the acclaimed maiden speeches of my noble friend Lord Coaker and the noble Lord, Lord Morse. Judging by the comments of so many who have spoken, both maiden speeches have been much appreciated. I am sure we all hope that they will be but the first of many contributions in this House from both noble Lords.
In her comprehensive opening speech, my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch raised numerous questions and points. One point which she raised was the recent Public Accounts Committee report’s conclusion that Defra
“does not have ‘the clout to lead the rest of government’”
to deliver their environmental programme. That does not bode well for the relevance and effectiveness of the Environment Bill and our ability to address climate change. It also raises the issue of how much clout any of the departments with responsibility for the issues we are discussing today actually have in influencing government policy.
Local government has been decimated over the last decade, with spending power reduced by a third at a time when demand for services has soared. To meet legal duties to balance budgets, already depleted reserves and yet further cuts to already heavily reduced services are having to be used and made. What is it that this Government continue to have against local government and the vital services it provides to the communities it serves? The government department concerned is clearly either unwilling to, or incapable of, standing up for local government. Yet the effects of the rundown of local government services on local communities are all too obvious and numerous. For example, while the Government express concern about levels of youth crime and acknowledge the social and mental issues that many young people now face, including youth unemployment, they seem unwilling to accept that the rundown of local government youth services we have seen has withdrawn a vital pillar of support for many young people in need of help and advice.
The extent and breadth of social care provision has already been, and continues to be, cut back by local authorities as a result of funding being reduced over the last decade. One in seven adults were unable to get the social care they needed even before the pandemic. Yet there was nothing specific in the Queen’s Speech that recognised the hardship and problems this has created for many vulnerable people and their carers. The continuing non-appearance of the Prime Minister’s oven-ready plan for social care clearly indicates that it remains simply a figment of the Government’s imagination.
A projected planning Bill, based on proposals drawn up by friends of property developers, will further reduce the ability of local government and local communities to influence the nature and form of future developments directly affecting their localities, as many noble Lords have already said. Existing planning laws and regulations are not unnecessary red tape. They are there to prevent inappropriate and excessive developments, and to strike a balance between protecting the environment, while taking proper account of the interests, needs and priorities of local communities, and ensuring an appropriate supply of new homes and other needed infrastructure.
My noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch and other noble Lords have referred to planning permission that has already been granted for an estimated 1 million homes that have, nevertheless, still not been built. A Government who were serious about providing more affordable homes and social housing would be addressing this unacceptable situation, rather than seeking to pass legislation which rides roughshod over democratic local government and the concerns of local communities. This legislation seemingly also takes priority over acting now on the cladding scandal arising from the Grenfell tragedy four years ago and its already devastating effect on leaseholders, to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans referred.
I turn to transport. The Government have just produced a bus strategy. They say they want to increase levels of service but seem unwilling to accept that a key reason we have lost so many bus routes is because local authorities no longer have the financial resources to support loss-making but much-needed routes and services.
The Government’s bus strategy refers to an objective of cheaper fares outside London, which are way higher than those within London, where the mayor and Transport for London have much greater power over levels of services, routes and fares. I hope that, if elected metro mayors also want greater powers over bus service provision within their areas, the Government will not allow bus operators to delay or thwart them in achieving that objective. Perhaps in winding up the Minister could give that assurance on behalf of the Government.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said, there has been no reduction in overall transport emissions, which make up a significant percentage of the UK total. If we are to reduce harmful pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, address the looming disaster that is climate change and improve the environment, we will have to encourage people back on to public transport through the provision of better and cheaper services. That means recognising—including by providing the necessary resources—that the overall value of such services to society and the environment extends far beyond the state of a financial balance sheet.
The likelihood of this Government recognising any such thing is a matter of some considerable doubt. We have recently seen the Government put pressure on the Mayor of London to increase fares, which might suggest that their approach to reducing the gap between fare levels in London and most areas beyond it will be more by forcing up fares in London than by providing the resources to reduce them outside London.
We have recently seen the Government’s approach to encouraging people back on to our trains; namely, an above-RPI inflation fare increase some two and a half months ago. Quite what that is meant to achieve when it comes to encouraging passengers deterred by Covid and government instructions back on to our trains is far from clear. The Government claim that above-inflation fare increases are needed to finance improvements to the rail network. The reality is that the Government’s deliberate high-fare policy is to ensure that passengers in this country continue to pay a higher percentage of the running costs of the rail network than in virtually any other country in Europe. Environmental and societal considerations and benefits appear to get little of a look-in, which says a great deal about the attitude—or alternatively the lack of influence—of both the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The only high-power energy source offering rail potentially net-zero carbon is electricity. Rail decarbon-isation is unlikely to happen without further electrification, yet in 2017 the Government cancelled a number of major rail electrification projects—another short-sighted decision if ever there was one. Indeed, this Government have cancelled more rail electrification projects than probably any other.
The Queen’s Speech provides for a Bill for phase 2b of High Speed 2 from Crewe to Manchester. Consultation with residents and communities affected by phases 1 and 2a has left a lot to be desired. Whether or not the Government have learned anything will become clear over their approach to phase 2b. If the Government want communities immediately affected by a new high-speed rail route running non-stop through their back yard, as well as communities further away, to at least not strenuously oppose the project, they need to look at it also from the perspective of those impacted—including looking at improving transport links from those communities to the new high-speed route so that those most affected can at least see some potential benefit coming their way. There is, though, continuing silence in the Queen’s Speech on the exact fate of phase 3 of HS2 from Birmingham to Leeds—not so much levelling up as levelling off.
My noble friends Lady Sherlock and Lord Coaker, the latter in his passionate maiden speech, spoke powerfully about the inadequacies of current welfare and employment rights and protection policies and the silence of the Queen’s Speech on this issue. Even before the pandemic, there were over 5 million people in low-paid or insecure work and well over 4 million children growing up in poverty. The pandemic has now ruthlessly exposed the inadequacies and gaps in current government policies, which an either unwilling or lightweight Department for Work and Pensions does not intend to address or does not have the clout within government to address. What, for example, has happened to the employment Bill announced in the 2019 Queen’s Speech?
We now await the Government’s response to the many questions and points raised in this debate on communities, the environment and climate change, transport and welfare. However, that response cannot cover up the reality that too many of the crucial major issues requiring transformative change we face today have not been addressed by the legislative programme set out in the Queen’s Speech.
My Lords, it is an honour to conclude today’s debate on Her Majesty’s gracious Speech—the first since the United Kingdom’s formal exit from the European Union. Before I start, I join noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Morse, on the delivery of excellent maiden speeches, delivered with great passion and commitment.
The UK has embarked on a period of great possibility and has the opportunity to make headway on the hugely important issues that matter, not just to me and to many noble Lords here today, but for the British people as a whole. My noble friend Lord Greenhalgh outlined an ambitious agenda, raising issues such as building and planning reform, the importance of getting people back into work post lockdown and the Government’s plans to revitalise the nation’s transport network to help the UK to build back better, post pandemic. The noble Lord also detailed the reforms we will make to improve the way our natural world and its animals are treated, which says so much about who we are as a nation.
I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to today’s debate on these important matters. The range of topics has been wide and there have been many contributions, so I will not be able to respond to every noble Lord—indeed it is not physically possible for me to do so. However, I will do my utmost to respond to the key points that were raised. Should any noble Lords seek further assurances, I shall endeavour to write and copy these responses to the Library.
The case for tackling the environmental crisis and biodiversity loss—experienced both here and globally—is patently clear, as many noble Lords have said. However, I am obliged to take issue with a number of comments, particularly those from the noble Lord, Lord Oates, echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson. They said that the Government are doing nothing, there was nothing in the Bill and we are achieving nothing in relation to climate change and biodiversity. The word “nothing” appeared over and over again, and it is simply not true. That is not a serious observation of where we are. Of course, there is no Government in the world who are doing enough. The gap between where we are and where we need to be is huge, but the idea that this Government are doing nothing is absurd.
We were the first country in the world to commit to net zero in law. We are the only country in the world, at this point, to have begun to take steps to legislate to clean up our supply chains, to get rid of deforestation from our supply chains as 80% of the world’s deforestation is caused by commodities. We are the only country in the world to commit to, and actually begin, the process of shifting our land use subsidies away from destruction towards environmental renewal. If every country in the world did that, we would be well on our way to restoring the abundance of the natural world. We have doubled our international climate finance, the only country to have done so in the last couple of years at least. We will be finished with unabated coal by 2025. We are one of the only countries in the world to stop investing in fossil fuels overseas, and our emissions reductions have been faster than any other country in the G20.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, quoted me. Her quote was correct, but it was slightly out of context. I made a comment that we are not doing enough, but the comment was really “we” in a global sense. As I said, the gap between where we are and where we need to be remains huge. All governments need to catch up. That gap is there, and the UK is doing everything it possibly can to encourage the world to join it in closing that gap. She is right to say that President Biden is providing leadership, but the US has an enormous amount of catching up to do. I am not aware of any important, significant step that the US has taken to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss that we have not already taken. Indeed, the US needs to catch up fast with where the United Kingdom is, and most officials in the United States that I have been speaking to in the last few weeks would very readily agree. Yes, we do need leadership; we need leadership all around the world, and I think the UK is providing much of that leadership.
The noble Lords, Lord McNicol and Lord Stunell, both questioned the lack of detail in the Queen’s Speech. My understanding is that the gracious Speech is normally pretty high-level and does not go into the minutiae of how policies are going to be delivered. But what I would say is that the steps outlined in the Speech are just part of a much wider programme. Net zero, for instance, is not covered by the commitments made in the Queen’s Speech. It is affected by them and features throughout many of the areas where we have made significant promises, but net zero goes far beyond the commitments made in the gracious Speech. This is a cross-Whitehall endeavour. Indeed, we are not going to get to net zero without a cross-Whitehall endeavour, and every Minister, every colleague, has a role to play. That is something we are very much aware of. As my noble friend Lord Lansley and the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, pointed out, we need global action but not all the change needed will require legislation. We need to operate on every conceivable level.
The Environment Bill is an important part of the Government’s response to the clear scientific case and the growing public demand for a step change in environmental protection and recovery. Acting as one of the key vehicles for delivering the bold vision set out in the 25-year environment plan and the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, the Environment Bill will act as a catalyst for urgent and meaningful action to challenge the environmental crisis we are facing and support the economic recovery from Covid-19. This legislation will deliver radical benefits by setting legally binding targets on biodiversity, air, water quality, resource efficiency, waste reduction and more. Thanks to measures in the Bill, we will have powers to set standards for eco-design and consistency in recycling that will move us towards a more circular economy and lower emissions.
We are setting legally binding targets on levels of fine particulate matter—or PM 2.5—that permeate the air. The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, stressed the damage to human health this particulate matter can cause. She identified some measures being taken in Spain, such as diesel engine bans and fossil fuel investments being cut back. Actually, it sounded like much of what she proposes is already being done here in the United Kingdom, but I will look further at the policies she identifies. PM 2.5 poses a real risk to the health of the population, and exposure to high concentrations can cause all kinds of health issues and respiratory conditions. While the World Health Organization guidelines on PM 2.5 are not specifically being legislated on, we are gathering the necessary evidence to set targets that best fit the UK’s particular context. This approach is endorsed by the World Health Organization, and this Government will engage in a fully costed analysis before a target is set.
In answer to the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, this legislation will also fortify the way our precious water resources are managed through the development of new statutory regimes and regulations that reduce the risk of poor farming practices and the impact of storm overflows on water quality. The Storm Overflows Taskforce was set up in September 2020 to bring together government, the industry, regulators and environmental NGOs to accelerate progress in this area. This is just the next step in a journey that we are committed to seeing through. In direct answer to the noble Duke, we are incorporating Philip Dunne’s Bill as a series of amendments to the Environment Bill.
The urgency to act means that while the Bill has been carried over from the previous Session, the work has continued. This Government have been working with experts to develop our legally binding targets. The draft of the environmental principles policy statement was published and is now out for consultation. Consultations have been launched on the deposit return scheme for drinks containers, extended producer responsibility for packaging and consistent recycling collections.
I assure my noble friend Lord Kirkham that we are going hard on both waste and litter. Indeed, they are a central part of the environment Bill that we will shortly be introducing. The Government appointed Dame Glenys Stacey as chair of the Office for Environmental Protection. We are particularly excited about the challenge being set by this independent public body. The OEP will monitor the way public authorities implement environmental law, unencumbered by ministerial or any political agenda.
In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Browne, the Office for Environmental Protection will work closely alongside our world-leading Committee on Climate Change, and I thank my noble friend Lord Deben and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, for the guidance they have provided in this regard.
I am confident that this Bill will deliver on the Government’s manifesto commitment to create
“the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”,
even as we navigate economic recovery. It will help establish the UK as world leaders as we head towards COP 26, taking place in Glasgow this year.
I want to address points made by noble Lords on the Environment Bill before I move on to other areas. The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, mentioned the importance of food. She rightly suggested that our climate agenda cannot rest on the shoulders of a single food strategy, and of course it does not. We address the issues that she raised in many different regards. I mentioned earlier our legislation to break the link between commodity production and deforestation —a world first—and that is something around which we are now building an international coalition of countries committed to doing the same.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh questioned whether the shift to ELM would prevent inappropriate development, a point echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Curry. The answer is that the principle of ELM is very clear: it will be the provision of public money purely and simply in return for the delivery of public goods. Yes, the definition of “public goods” remains broad, as it should.
The noble Lord, Lord Curry, asked whether our standards would be damaged through imports of low-quality food. We have been very clear that, in our pursuit of free trade agreements, we will not allow our standards here domestically to be undercut.
The noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Benjamin, all in one way or another touched on the tree strategy, woodlands and related issues. The answer is that we must use every tool that we have to deliver the hugely ambitious strategy that we are shortly to release in a few days’ time. That involves talking to other departments; I am lobbying colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, asking them to make available some of the land that it does not use—it is one of the biggest landowners in the country—in order to help us to accelerate our plans towards achieving the objective of 30,000 hectares per year by 2025. A number of noble Lords asked about the funding. We have a fund specifically designed to support the tree programme as well as our peat restoration, and that is the nature for climate fund.
To the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, I simply want to say congratulations to his relatives on their rewilding initiatives.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and the noble Earls, Lord Devon and Lord Sandwich, all talked about the importance of global agreements. Clearly, the UK cannot do any of this on its own. We can provide a moral authority through the example that we set, but we can achieve nothing without global targets, agreements and commitments.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, talked about the importance of forests. He is of course right. Again, the UK can make a difference on our own but not a defining one, so we are building an alliance in the run-up to COP 26 where we hope we will be able to deliver a significant forest moment—a moment where people can afford to invest a bit of hope that perhaps we can turn the tide on deforestation, which continues at the rate of 30 football pitches’ worth of forest every single minute.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, talked about the tension between the need to keep costs down and the need to reduce carbon, but in fact that conflict is out of date. As we have seen, the cost of solar has collapsed by 90% since the banking crisis. Even under President Trump, who lavished public money on keeping the coal sector alive, coal use declined faster on his watch than under President Obama. The market is moving rapidly ahead of the politics in many respects, and the costs are coming down.
In the interests of time, I am going to move on to another area of Defra’s agenda, and that is animal welfare. The UK has a record that we can be proud of. The UK banned keeping calves in veal crates in 1990, 16 years before the rest of the EU. We banned keeping sows in close-confinement stalls in 1999, we banned conventional battery cages in 2012 and we banned fur farming and foie gras production in the UK. More recently, we required CCTV in all slaughterhouses and banned the use of wild animals in circuses. Our ivory ban is the strongest in the world. I was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, why it has been delayed; the answer is a combination of Covid and, I am afraid, vested interests taking us to court to try to stop us, but we are very nearly there. Only a fortnight ago, as noble Lords will know, we raised the maximum sentence for animal cruelty offences from six months to five years. We have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and our plans will build on this record and go further.
Indeed, I believe the action plan for animal welfare that was launched a couple of days ago represents the biggest shake-up of animal welfare standards for generations, and that is something that I think has been acknowledged by pretty much all the animal welfare organisations—certainly the ones that I have been in contact with. Our exit from the EU allows us to do things that simply were not possible before. The plan contains five key strands of focus: recognising animal sentience, supporting international advocacy and enhancing the welfare of farm animals, companion animals and wild animals. As part of the action plan we are going to crack down on puppy smuggling, unscrupulous breeders and pet theft. We will incentivise farmers to have healthier animals on their farms that are kept to higher welfare standards. We are examining the case for ending the use of cages for poultry and farrowing cages for pigs. We are ending the live export of animals for fattening and slaughter, and we are committed to improving the conditions of animals subjected to lengthy journeys.
We are honouring our commitment to end the keeping of primates as pets. We will stop the import of gruesome hunting trophies from endangered animals. We are banning the import of shark fins and low-welfare produce. We will introduce greater protections for British hares and will end the use of excessively cruel implements such as those appalling glue traps.
Beyond our borders, we want holiday firms to cease advertising entertainments abroad that involve extreme cruelty, such as elephant training, and there is a whole range of other measures. The action plan is not exhaustive. I know that there are welfare issues that concern many noble Lords and the wider public. There is always more that we can do, and this Government are always open to pro-welfare reforms. As my noble friend outlined earlier today, our animal welfare strategy will be implemented in law, initially through a kept animals Bill, which will set an example for the treatment of animals in a domestic context.
I turn to communities issues and say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans that our building safety Bill will catalyse a once-in-a-generation improvement to the building safety regime to ensure that tragedies such as Grenfell never happen again. As well as introducing a new, more stringent regime for higher-risk buildings, the Bill will create clearer accountability and duties for those responsible. We will also give residents a stronger voice in the system. The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, asked about timing. I am afraid that I am going to defer to my colleague, who will be in touch with as much information as he can provide. Following expert advice, the Bill takes a risk-based approach, prioritising action on the buildings that face the greatest risk. We are providing direct funding to address unsafe cladding in buildings over 18 metres in height, ensuring that those buildings most at risk will pay nothing. The noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, mentioned the French company that failed to show at the inquiry. All I can say is that its actions speak for themselves. The noble Lord, Lord Jordan, raised important concerns about other dangers associated with buildings, not least unsafe staircases and the consequent falls, usually of elderly people. That is an issue that I know my colleague will also be considering.
We have brought forward a financing scheme to ensure that leaseholders living in buildings between 11 and 18 metres in height will never face costs of more than £50 per month. Again, many will pay nothing at all. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, that this will protect leaseholders from big remediation bills while also respecting taxpayers’ money. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, that we are also introducing measures to protect future leaseholders from unreasonable ground rents.
My noble friend Lord Howard raised a number of concerns, citing Berlin, in relation to ground rents and reforms thereof. I know those concerns will have been heard by my colleague, my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh, who will take them away. The Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill, will, however, remove the inconsistency and ambiguity around the issue that have plagued leaseholders for too long.
We are introducing vital reforms to make our planning system fit for the future. The planning reform Bill will leave behind an antiquated and unengaged system. Contrary to concerns raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock, Lady Mallalieu and Lady Thornhill, and the noble Lords, Lord Kerslake and Lord Rosser, among others, the Bill will give people a greater role in shaping how their communities will look through their local plans and design codes. It is a localist agenda. It will replace lengthy documents with easy-to-access digital tools and map-based local plans, allowing people to visualise local plans for development and participate in a way fit for the digital age—that was a point made by my noble friend Lord Lansley. It will support every community to produce its own design code, to reflect its own local needs, heritage and identity, putting design and quality at the heart of the planning system.
Throughout these reforms, the Government will prioritise maintaining environmental protections—I say this in response to questions raised by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and the noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Shipley. We will identify opportunities for environmental improvement and simplify and improve methods for assessing environmental impacts.
I turn briefly to Department for Work and Pensions matters. Alongside these important reforms, this Government want everyone to be able to find a job, progress in work and thrive, whoever they are and wherever they live. The Government champion work as the single best route out of poverty and towards financial independence. Pre-pandemic, this approach delivered record levels of employment, supported by a universal credit system which withstood extraordinary challenges, with caseloads doubling in number since March 2020. As we make an economic recovery, through our ambitious £30 billion Plan for Jobs, the Government are creating jobs and supporting people of all ages to move into work or gain the skills that will open up new opportunities.
I recognise that I have not got a chance of answering all the questions that were asked. A very significant number of questions were asked in relation to transport, and I long to be able to answer in more detail about the plans put forward by my colleagues to decarbonise the transport sector—an issue that came up time and again in numerous speeches by noble Lords. Needless to say, the plans are there and my colleague Grant Shapps is particularly enthusiastic about a shift to zero-emission buses and vehicles. I recognise that I will not be able to give any evidence of that in this speech, but I am happy to follow up afterwards.
This is an important gracious Speech, made even more so by its timing. We are at the forefront of the opportunity that the UK’s exit from the EU presents the Government to create a more prosperous, healthy and sustainable future for our people. As a Government, we will continue to put the necessary support in place to ensure that our bold and ambitious vision for the future is achieved and the issues discussed in this debate will play a key part in this process. I thank most sincerely all noble Lords who have taken part in this important debate today for their insightful contributions and dedication to progressing these important matters.
Debate adjourned until tomorrow.
House adjourned at 9.37 pm.