House of Lords
Monday 7 June 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask all Members to respect social distancing and wear face coverings while in the Chamber except when speaking. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them no longer than 30 seconds and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Health Partnership Schemes: Funding
To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they have reduced funding to health partnership schemes used by United Kingdom clinicians to support doctors and nurses abroad with training in (1) infection control, (2) pandemic management, and (3) the care of COVID-19 patients.
My Lords, UK health professionals have made a substantial contribution to achieving global health goals in developing countries by giving their time voluntarily through health partnership schemes. However, the UK is facing its worst economic contraction in over 300 years and a budget deficit of close to £400 billion. Given the impact of the global pandemic on the economy, the Government have been forced to take tough but necessary decisions, including to close our UK Partnerships for Health Systems programme.
I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. As he says, hundreds and maybe thousands of health professionals every year, voluntarily and in their own time, support their colleagues in low and middle-income countries with Covid and in all other kinds of areas. It is good for those countries and good for the NHS, because it provides training and development as well as learning; we learned so much during the Ebola epidemic. For the last 10 years Her Majesty’s Government have supported these schemes in some areas such as transport, and so on. They have been very positive but, as the noble Lord says, they have been cut completely. So I have two specific questions. In February, Her Majesty’s Government agreed or committed themselves to continue to support the partnership scheme in Myanmar, which is dealing with Covid but also the dreadful emergency. Will the Government honour that commitment? Secondly, how will the Government continue to support UK volunteers, who give and gain so much and who are great ambassadors for the UK, given the withdrawal of this scheme?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, I agree that our medical professionals play an incredible role around the world. Certainly, I am keen to explore with the noble Lord and key Ministers, including my colleague Minister Morton, to see how through the contributions we make to health through institutions such as the World Health Organization we can continue to leverage that expertise. On Myanmar specifically, of course with the coup the situation has been extremely difficult. The noble Lord is correct in saying that we are cancelling future activity on this particular programme, but we will fund a round of grants to support voluntary health partnerships working in Myanmar.
Does the Minister recognise the importance of assisting low-income countries to prevent the spread of Covid and to treat the disease? Given the closure of this programme, how will the FCDO ensure that countries can learn from our clinical experience?
My Lords, first, I agree with my noble friend and I assure her that the FCDO and the Government are committed to supporting low-income countries to tackle Covid-19, both to reduce the impact of Covid-19 and because of course we all recognise the importance of vaccines globally. This includes supporting countries to learn from each other as well. I assure my noble friend that we are looking quite specifically at country-by-country programmes, and health support is an essential handrail within our ODA support that we will continue to prioritise.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that Her Majesty’s Government provide no medical aid to the middle-belt regions of Nigeria, where thousands have been killed and tens of thousands displaced, and where the people are in dire need of help? Will the proposed reduction in funding destroy any hope of potential funding for life-saving aid where there is such desperate need?
My Lords, as I already indicated, we have had to make extremely challenging and difficult decisions. However, we will be working through multilateral agencies, particularly through enhanced funding of the World Health Organization and our support through Gavi and CEPI and other key programmes, to ensure that the most vulnerable get access to health provision as well as to the vaccine.
My Lords, the Minister has said that he recognises the important role UK clinicians can play in supporting health systems in low-income countries. Does he also recognise how much UK clinicians learn from their experience of working in partnership with others and the benefits this brings to the NHS? They are also excellent ambassadors for global Britain.
My Lords, I concur with the noble Baroness’s view; indeed, I have friends and family who have shared such experiences with me. We will continue to work with the profession to see how best, in difficult situations, we can leverage expertise both ways.
My Lords, can I remind the Minister again that he committed to meet the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, myself and the Peers for Development group? This week and next, the UK is hosting the richest countries in the world at a time of perhaps unprecedented health challenges for the least-developed countries in the world in our lifetime. The last two times that the UK hosted the richest countries, we had on the official record the UK calling on the other G7 members to meet the 0.7% commitment on assistance. Can the Minister be explicit and on the record: is the UK calling on the other G7 countries to meet that 0.7% this time?
My Lords, first, reminders from the noble Lord are always welcome, but a meeting is very much on the schedule and we will make that happen at the earliest opportunity. On his second point, I can put on record our Prime Minister’s and the Government’s commitment to ensuring a global health response to the current pandemic that we are facing. That is why we have led on the important issue of the COVAX Facility, which we will continue to emphasise with our G7 partners.
My Lords, as I said last week, it is the speed and scale of the cuts that are having such a damaging effect. The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, made the point that the cuts impact the most vulnerable countries with fragile health systems: Myanmar, Uganda, Zambia, Ethiopia, Somalia, and, of course, Ghana and Sierra Leone—places where we know the impact of failing health systems on global health. This is also linked to cuts to nutrition projects, which help maintain the efficacy of vaccines—cut by 80%. Will the noble Lord commit to a proper impact assessment of these cuts on the global vaccine programme?
My Lords, as I have already said, the Government remain very much committed to the prioritisation of the health response, particularly when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic. The noble Lord is right to recognise the important role our health programmes play across Africa, but these are challenging circumstances and difficult calls have been made. We are working through the country programmes to see how we can best prioritise health programmes in different countries, particularly those across Africa.
My Lords, why are the Government proposing to reduce funding for the Health Partnership Scheme, which has been one of the big successes of DfID’s increased overseas aid expenditure programme? The HPS has trained over 93,000 health workers across 30 countries, especially in Africa and Asia, 191 partnerships have been formed and 210 projects delivered. If some reduction in planned overseas aid expenditure is necessary, I am sure there are other, less valuable and less affected areas than the HPS.
My Lords, I hear what my noble friend says. But, as I have already indicated, these have been extremely difficult budget rounds. However, I can assure him that we are working with multilateral organisations; indeed, some of the additional funding we are providing through the World Health Organization will focus on global health priorities, including universal health coverage, providing support to professional midwifery, and sexual and reproductive health.
My Lords, I know that the Minister keeps a close eye on Nepal. Are the FCDO and NHS also supporting and encouraging any volunteer health workers in the UK who want to go out to train Nepalese health workers, especially in rural areas where, as we have heard, services are most fragile? The need is quite desperate in places.
My Lords, as the Minister responsible for south Asia, I assure the noble Earl that I have prioritised support to Nepal, particularly on its requirements and prioritisations. We are working very closely with the Nepalese Government in identifying needs. Because of the situation on the ground, it is important to identify the safety of health workers who may be deployed, but we have teams on the ground who are providing first-hand information.
My Lords, the G7 summit taking place in Cornwall this weekend must be the first summit of global leaders in history where the host country is reducing its international commitments at the same time as every other country attending is increasing its international commitments. This is bringing shame and ridicule on our country. It is not too late for the Prime Minister to change tack and say that additional resources for climate, education, global health and the global economic recovery could be delivered with a return to 0.7% of GNI spent on international development. Will the Government change tack this week at the last minute and make this summit a success?
My Lords, I believe that the summit will be a success, because a lot of work has been put into the planning for that. On the specific commitment, the noble Lord will be aware that I cannot make the kind of commitment that he is seeking. However, I will say to him, through my own engagement both in-country and with multilateral organisations, that the United Kingdom, through the over £10 billion we will be spending this year, is still regarded as among the premier countries when it comes to development support.
Net-Zero Carbon Emissions
My Lords, leading up to COP 26, we will publish a comprehensive net-zero strategy setting out the Government’s vision for transitioning to a net-zero economy, making the most of new growth and employment opportunities across the United Kingdom. Through the net-zero strategy we will communicate our approach to public engagement and support the public to make green choices. Achieving our net-zero target will be a shared endeavour requiring action from everyone in society.
I thank the Minister for his Answer. For public-led behaviour change to happen, there will need to be perceived and real fairness. Those are not my words, but those of Dr Christina Demski, who has been advising the Government on this issue. Currently, that fairness is lacking. The Cambridge Sustainability Commission report shows clearly that it is the global elite who have been responsible for most of our emissions since 1990. What are the Government doing to tackle this inequality, both real and perceived? The BEIS public attitudes survey shows that there is a great deal of concern about climate change but quite an area of misunderstanding of what net zero means. Will the Minister encourage the Government to write to every household in the UK explaining what it means and what they can do to play their part in it, so that when we get to COP 26, we will all feel involved?
The noble Baroness is right that we need to involve all members of society in this. We have done a lot in this space. Since 2019, we are funding or running 13 deliberative dialogues on a range of net-zero issues such as net-zero homes, heating and transport, decarbonisation, and so on. A lot is going on in this space.
My Lords, will the Government let us know how they propose to get many more members of the public to commit to or be remitted the considerable expense of exchanging their gas boilers for ones with zero carbon emissions? What will be the carrot and what will be the stick?
The noble Baroness is right that this will indeed be a challenge. If she will be patient, we are planning to publish our heat and buildings strategy in due course. That will set out how our industry and consumers can take the immediate actions they need to take in order to reduce emissions from all buildings, both industrial and commercial.
My Lords, according to a summary report from the Public Accounts Committee, as much as 62% of the reduction in future carbon emissions will rely on individual choices and behaviours such as replacing boilers or buying electric vehicles. Have the Government told the public that they are relying on such behaviour change and what it will mean ultimately for individuals if they have no choice but to comply? When will the Minister tell the public how much net zero will cost them? As we have just heard, gas boilers cost a great deal less than the heat pumps being proposed, which produce a lot less heat. For an ordinary home to achieve net zero will cost approximately £90,000. Whether they are carrots or sticks, they are very expensive regardless.
I do not recognise the figures given by the noble Baroness. It will be an expensive change, but I do not think that it will cost that much per home. However, she is right in theory. We need to educate people about the changes required and to take them with us, and of course the policy will be brought about by a mix of regulations and grant assistance.
My Lords, given the Government’s admirable net-zero target for carbon emissions by 2050, will that include all transport becoming electric? We will have silent motorcars and buses, but will there also be legislation to make motorcycles electric?
These are matters to be decided in the future, but we will not be able to power all transport by electric means. Certainly, some will be, but heavy articulated lorries, trains and so on mean that we will have to look at other solutions such as hydrogen.
Do the Government recognise the key role that local authorities need to play in public engagement strategies to support net zero? Can the Minister tell the House what discussions his department has had with the Local Government Association on how best to integrate the work of central and local government in this respect?
The noble Lord is quite right that we need to involve local authorities and we are doing that. Indeed, local authorities are one of our key partners in many of our strategies, such as the local authority green homes grant. I am the Minister responsible for this. We are working closely with local authorities and so far they are doing an excellent job in helping us deliver it.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Can my noble friend explain how our planned net-zero goal actually contributes directly to checking the prospective growth in global carbon emissions and atmospheric concentrations? As these continue to rise worldwide, as they are likely to do, are any changes in priorities or in the direction of British resources to combat climate change being considered so as to make a real impact on the major emissions sources, especially the Asian utilities, where most of the increase is going to come from?
My noble friend has made a good point. The UK was one of the first major economies to legislate for net-zero emissions by 2050, and of course our ambitious domestic action gives the UK the credibility to influence and to accelerate global action. If the noble Lord looks at some of the commitments that have been made by major economies before COP 26, he will see that considerable action is being taken.
My Lords, I return to the issue of decarbonising homes. Does the Minister accept that public confidence and engagement have been damaged by the failure of several schemes, culminating in the green homes grant? Will the much-delayed heating and buildings strategy provide a clear and comprehensive framework for the changes that are necessary, including costings, so that industry and individuals alike can plan?
The noble Baroness will have to be patient to see the detail of the heating and buildings strategy, but it will provide a clear and comprehensive road map for the challenging work that we all understand will need to take place on decarbonising the heat that goes into both commercial and domestic buildings.
The Government are right to insist that companies bidding for government contracts should publish their plans on how their own companies will achieve net zero. However, for the Government, it is necessary that they publish detailed delivery plans to accompany legislative targets in a timely fashion. The current policy is insufficient even for the existing targets. While we await the net-zero strategies, how are the Government working together with the devolved Administrations, mayors and local authorities to secure buy-in? Does the Minister agree that it is unsafe to rely on as yet undeveloped technologies to come along just in time?
As I mentioned in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Oates, we are working closely with local authorities and the devolved Administrations because this will be a shared effort. There are often challenging targets that we need to meet, but we are working with all our partners across the country and engaging with the public as well so as to take them along with us on this journey.
My Lords, total CO2 emissions from the national vehicle fleet have hardly reduced in recent decades, despite emissions from individual cars being much lower in many cases and despite the increase in popularity of electric vehicles. The main problem is the increasing number of highly polluting SUVs on our roads. Does the Minister agree that the Government need to restructure taxation levels so that people are discouraged from buying more heavily polluting vehicles?
The noble Baroness will be aware that I cannot give any commitments on taxation because that is a matter for the Chancellor. However, there are some excellent examples of electric and hybrid SUVs; people can continue to use these vehicles while still contributing to the cause of reducing their emissions.
Does the Minister agree that the engagement of the not-for-profit sector in developing public strategies is absolutely crucial? Does he also agree that this is an excellent opportunity to ensure that we strengthen our democracy by involving young people through non-governmental organisations?
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that what he is going to publish before COP is merely the start of a long, ongoing process that will happen every year, for many years to come? Could he tell the House what he is doing, particularly with schools, as an education programme? Unless we are all educated, we will not achieve anything near the target that we all hope for.
Indeed, my noble friend is right that COP is an important milestone, but that this work—this strategy and policy—will go on for many years until we achieve our net-zero target in 2050. The young people in schools and taking part in youth groups now will be consumers in the years ahead, so it is important that they are educated and informed of the changes that they will need to make.
Secondary Schools: Arts Subjects
My Lords, the Government are committed to high-quality education for all pupils, including in the arts. Schools are required to teach a broad and balanced curriculum, which includes promoting pupils’ cultural development. We have spent over £620 million between 2016 and 2021 on a range of cultural education programmes, which we continue to fund this year. This includes the Model Music Curriculum, which supports teachers to deliver high-quality music education.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the £90 million arts pupil premium, promised last year and due to start this September, will go directly to schools? Secondly, does the Minister agree that proposed cuts to HE funding of arts subjects, based on perceived strategic priorities, are misguided? The innovation this Government wish to encourage will not come from STEM subjects alone, but as much from the creative subjects, and that starts in schools.
My Lords, the Government have had to make some difficult fiscal decisions on the arts premium. As noble Lords are aware, we have no money for free schools this year. That, along with the arts premium, will be in the spending review in the autumn. The Office for Students has just consulted on the request to reprioritise the strategic priorities grant and, as the noble Earl is aware, an extra £10 million will be made available for specialist providers, which includes drama and arts institutions.
My Lords, research shows that creative activity, at all levels of education, promotes original thinking across the sciences. Will the Minister take this research on board to press for further positive support for the arts, in this important link?
My Lords, the Government have made clear in all the guidance that we have issued to schools that they should be delivering that balanced curriculum, which includes the arts and cultural activities. We recognise not just the innovative thinking that comes from cultural activities, but the pupil well-being that is often related.
My Lords, to follow the noble Baroness, arts and creative activity are seen to be a direct enhancer of other subjects. Where is this taken into account when setting targets? If you are to get the best out of this, you will have to make sure that people actively get involved and have opportunities at school. If you do not, you will cut down grades.
My Lords, in relation to input, DCMS recently did a taking-part survey and well over 90% of students have taken part in some kind of cultural activity, ranging from carnivals to music. It is a specific criterion of many programmes, such as the National Youth Dance Company and the national youth music orchestras, to include children with special education needs.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, whereas 85% of independent schools have a school orchestra, only 12% of state schools do? Will the Government ensure that the £76 million provided annually to so-called music hubs is spent more effectively to allow more young people to play classical music together? I declare an interest as chairman of the English Schools’ Orchestra.
My Lords, as the noble Lord just heard me outline, we fund through many of these projects, such as the national youth music orchestras. The forthcoming national music plan, with its one-year extension to the music hubs, will take the matters that the noble Lord outlined into account.
My Lords, many secondary schools can provide performing arts education only with the support of specialist external arts teaching practitioners, particularly for dance and drama. Many of these are linked to awarding organisations, validated by the Council for Dance, Drama and Musical Theatre, which offer Ofqual-regulated graded examinations. What plans do the Government have to promote the use of such specialist performing arts teaching by schools, thereby broadening their access to these highly regarded qualifications? How will the education recovery plan ensure that all schools can offer the balanced curriculum that the Government require?
My Lords, it is correct, as the noble Lord outlines, to say that schools need those specialist teachers. Recruitment of trainee teachers is up by 23% and we have no information about a gap in the recruitment of those teachers. Schools are free to use the £650 million universal catch-up and recovery premium as they see fit. If they wish to spend it on the type of provision that the noble Lord outlines, we hope that they will do so.
My Lords, as well as lost learning, Covid-19 has had a major effect on the mental health of children. Arts subjects and activities have the potential to reduce stress and anxiety, and are proven to encourage language development in children, particularly the most disadvantaged. Recently, Sir Kevan Collins—I wonder what became of him—said that
“we need to think about the extra hours not only for learning, but for children to be together, to play, to engage in competitive sport, for music, for drama because these are critical areas which have been missed in their development.”
Does the Minister agree and can she explain why the National Tutoring Programme does not apply to creative and practical subjects?
My Lords, schools offer a number of co-curricular or extracurricular activities. As the Minister responsible for out-of-school settings, I know that much of that activity takes place in those areas. Indeed, the National Tutoring Programme does not deliver as the noble Lord outlined, at the moment. However, a proportion of the tutoring money from the latest and third tranche of recovery money will go directly to schools. As well as being able to spend the universal catch-up and recovery premiums in the manner that schools choose, the school-led aspect of the National Tutoring Programme will enable them to have small-group or one-on-one tutoring in the subjects that the noble Lord mentioned.
My Lords, the creative industries are facing a challenge in finding young talent to maintain their high profits, which provide over £100 billion to the Treasury. Apart from that, six out of the 10 top skills that secondary students will need for any industry in 2025 are well fostered through the arts subjects and will ensure that they are career-ready in our competitive world. I ask the Minister how the Government are planning to support students today to reach their potential in the world of work in years to come, if creative subjects are not being taught at sufficiently high numbers in schools. I declare an interest as per the register.
My Lords, since the introduction of the EBacc, the take-up of GCSEs in the arts has remained broadly stable. As I believe the noble Baroness is aware, we also developed a pilot project, funded by DCMS, for apprenticeships, which are important in this sector. We are developing this with ScreenSkills as a partner, because people do not tend to have one employer in this sector and move from project to project. We had to pause because of Covid, but we hope to extend the pilot and look again to make sure that there are apprenticeships in this area for young people to take advantage of.
My Lords, the Minister referred to the well-being benefits of the arts. She is probably aware of the “HEarts survey” published in the PLOS ONE journal in March, which showed that arts involvement is
“associated with higher levels of well-being and social connectedness”
and lower levels of loneliness. Surely, education in secondary schools is essential to set that up. Given the Government’s avowed attention to build back better, should the £90 million arts pupil premium referred to by the noble Earl not be certain and guaranteed, rather than up in the air? Schools are planning staffing now and staff are planning their future careers—they need to know what is happening.
My Lords, all I can say to the noble Baroness is that, unfortunately, we have had to make some difficult decisions in relation to current priorities. An arts premium will be considered in the spending review but, as I have outlined, about £84 million this year has gone into the music hub and various programmes to ensure that provision. I wish we had the ideal world that the noble Baroness outlines.
My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Independent Schools Association, which is made up of over 550 smaller independent schools serving their local communities up and down the country. Following on from my noble friend Lord Lingfield’s question, have the Government noted that, before the pandemic, state and independent schools were working together in over 1,200 partnership schemes involving either music or drama? With so many pupils having missed out over the last year, is this not the moment for the Government to encourage more state schools to work with their local independent colleagues so that the education system as a whole achieves the maximum benefit of collaboration between the two sectors?
My Lords, my noble friend is correct: there are many successful partnerships and I have the pleasure of regularly meeting the Independent Schools Council and other sector bodies, as he outlines. In the next couple of weeks I am holding a round table for precisely that purpose: to see how the existing partnerships could be strengthened and whether we could see an expansion of that activity.
Iran: British-Iranian Prisoners
My Lords, it is unacceptable and unjustifiable that Iran continues with its arbitrary detention of dual British nationals. The Prime Minister has raised the cases of arbitrarily detained dual British nationals with President Rouhani and the Foreign Secretary has raised them with Foreign Minister Zarif. We continue to seek their release and return to the UK. We do not detail the number of British nationals detained when the low numbers involved may lead to individuals being identifiable.
The Minister will be aware that Gabriella, daughter of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, has her seventh birthday this week—the sixth without her mother. I assume that the UK Government still regard Nazanin as a hostage, and that the UK will support the Canadian declaration against arbitrary detention at the G7 meeting this week. What has happened to the promise that the UK will pay the money owed to Iran? Is Nazanin still under diplomatic protection, and will the British embassy in Tehran try to attend her trial as well as that of other dual nationals?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s last point, in one or two cases we have received information for added diplomatic protection and we are looking at that issue. The noble Lord is right about the situation the Ratcliffe family continues to face and we are making that case consistently. There are, at least, some small glimmers: Nazanin remains out of detention and her ankle tag has been removed. On the long-standing debt, we continue to explore options to resolve this case, but I do not want to go into details here, and nor do we attach the two issues specifically.
My Lords, this brutal regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps kidnaps and imprisons British citizens, has an appalling record on human rights and exports terror and extremism across the Middle East, including providing thousands of rockets for Hamas to rain down on Israeli citizens. Will the Government use this week’s G7 to make the case for much tougher sanctions against the regime’s leadership? Will the UK proscribe the IRGC, as the US did in 2020 and which the Biden Administration have maintained?
My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that we will continue to work very constructively with our key partners to ensure that the obligations Iran has under the JCPOA are fully met and upheld. On future sanctions, the noble Lord will of course be aware that I will not speculate on what we may or may not do in the future.
My Lords, the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and others held by the Iranian authorities is truly terrible. We can only imagine how ghastly it must be serving time in one of their prisons or under house arrest; as has already been said, it is a very repressive regime. Can the Minister therefore confirm that, as the negotiations proceed in Geneva on the JCPOA, they will deal with the nuclear issue and also the export of terrorism and the seizing of hostages—both of which were omitted under the original JCPOA arrangements?
My noble friend is right to highlight the limitations of the JCPOA—specifically on arms, for example, ballistic missiles are not included. As I said earlier, we continue to work with partners in asking Iran to uphold its obligations. I assure my noble friend that we are working at the highest level, including through the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, to ensure the early release of all dual nationals under detention and their return to the UK.
My Lords, many of the World Service Persian staff are dual nationals who live in the UK but cannot visit elderly parents or attend family funerals in Iran for fear of arrest and imprisonment. The aim of this intimidation appears to be to coerce them to leave the BBC, and family members in Iran are often targeted too. What practical steps, in addition to the support I know the noble Lord has expressed before, are the Government able to take to step up the efforts to end this harassment?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to raise the issue of journalists. As she will be aware, media freedom remains a key priority for Her Majesty’s Government. We are working with key partners, most notably Canada, on this important issue and on the arbitrary detention of journalists in Iran.
My Lords, last month the Foreign Secretary stated that the treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe “amounts to torture”. Previously, Amnesty International has suggested that another dual national, Anoosheh Ashoori, has been subjected to similar treatment. Will the Minister confirm what recent steps the Foreign Office has taken to protect imprisoned dual nationals in Iran from such torture?
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that, as I have already said, we are taking direct steps through bilateral engagement with the Iranian Government, and that, as we receive specific requests from the families of those who are detained, we seek to process those in the most efficient and effective manner possible.
My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, at the G7 meeting will the Prime Minister raise with President Biden the necessity of getting Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other British and American hostages home from Iran? The noble Lord also mentioned attending court cases, which, of course, other European countries do, as the Minister will know. Will our embassy officials attend the revolutionary court next week for the case of the most recent British detainee?
My Lords, on the latter point, we continue making the case to attend any hearings that we can. Of course, those are subject to the approval of the Iranian authorities. On the first point, we raise all opportunities, working with our key partners, including the US, on the early release of all hostages held in Iran.
My Lords, six weeks ago, James Cleverly said that we were co-operating with international partners, including the US and the E3, on a whole range of issues regarding Iran. He referred to the renewed mandate of the UN special rapporteur, the March Human Rights Council and joining the Canadian initiative against arbitrary detention, which the Minister mentioned. What further action, in concert with our allies, has the United Kingdom taken over the past six weeks to ensure the return of Nazanin and the release of the other British detainees?
My Lords, we are working on specific measures on a raft of issues with our allies, as my right honourable friend Minister Cleverly indicated, including, without my going into the details of each case, engagement directly with the Iranians on the early release of all those currently held in Iran, as I have said already.
My Lords, can the Minister study this morning’s statement by openDemocracy, which includes an appeal by a survivor of the 1988 mass executions of Iran’s political prisoners, and support his call for an international commission of inquiry, requested in a letter in May to Michelle Bachelet by more than 150 UN officials, lawyers and human rights activists? Also, given the alleged role of Ebrahim Raisi in those events and in subsequent executions and impunity, and given his statement that amputation of arms and limbs is a “divine punishment” and that divine punishments are
“a source of pride for us”,
how do the Government view the prospect of his election as Iran’s next President?
My Lords, I have not seen the statement, so I will write to the noble Lord on the specifics of his question. I assure him that we continue to make the case through multilateral engagement as well as directly with Iran about the well-being and, ultimately, the early release of all hostages.
My Lords, having watched this cruel saga play out over the years, it becomes obvious that the Revolutionary Guard are playing mind games with a British citizen who is being used as a political pawn. This matter must be divorced from any procedural or historical debt that may or may not have been incurred by different Governments. If the UK accepts the debt liability in principle, surely the matter can now be settled amicably without either side losing face, and the torture of a mother and her family can be brought to an end.
My Lords, do the Government have a coherent policy towards dual nationals? Do we know how many dual nationals there are with a British nationality, and which other countries it is most commonly shared with? Do the Government have a clear policy towards the right of protection that we offer when they are back in their other countries of nationality? Do we intend allowing them to vote both in Britain and in their other country of nationality, regardless of where they are resident—for example, under the forthcoming EI Bill? Will the Government issue a White Paper on this?
My Lords, I think that I followed the train of the noble Lord’s question. He will be aware that Iran does not recognise dual nationalities. We are aware of all dual nationals, including those who hold more than two nationalities. As I said earlier, we do not go into the numbers, to protect those who are being held.
Arrangement of Business
Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the resignation of Sir Kevan Collins as Education Recovery Commissioner, what steps they will take to develop a long-term plan to help pupils make up for lost learning during the Covid-19 pandemic.
My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring that children and young people catch up after the disruption of the pandemic. As the next step in these efforts, we have announced an additional £1.4 billion of funding for high-quality tutoring and great teaching. This brings our total recovery package to more than £3 billion. We will consider the next steps ahead of the spending review, and catch-up is for the lifetime of this Parliament.
My Lords, I cannot really believe that the Minister is comfortable defending the indefensible following the chaotic events surrounding what can only be described as the Government’s bargain basement recovery plan for school pupils. The promise of jam tomorrow is highly unlikely to satisfy many appetites. When Sir Kevan Collins presented his plan, costed at £15 billion, to the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister reacted by moving the decimal point one place to the left. Perhaps he thought that Sir Kevan would not notice, but Sir Kevan is nobody’s fool. He is widely respected throughout education and across the political spectrum, and now he is lost to the vital task of education recovery. As the Minister said, planned spending on school recovery is now around £300 per pupil, but that compares with £1,600 per pupil in the United States and £2,500 in the Netherlands. Can the Minister explain why her Government believe that children in England need so much less support than their American and Dutch contemporaries?
My Lords, the Government wish to thank Sir Kevan for his work. He supports the tutoring and teaching proposals we have outlined. In relation to the methodology, it is not accurate to make a comparison between different jurisdictions. For instance, the £3 billion I have outlined does not include the £400 million that has been spent on remote learning, including on 1.3 million devices, the Covid costs recovery fund, the workforce fund et cetera, so we are not comparing like with like when comparing different jurisdictions.
My Lords, we know that this Government have a self-confessed distrust of experts and prefer to shamble from crisis to crisis, yet they appointed the expert Sir Kevan to this vital role and the Prime Minister appeared to be supportive. The money that Sir Kevan’s well-researched report identified to help all children—particularly disadvantaged children—to make up the devastating educational losses of Covid was decimated. Why did the Government appoint Sir Kevan if they had no intention of listening to his authoritative findings?
My Lords, as I said, the tutoring and support for teaching that I outlined were part of Sir Kevan’s plan. More than £1 billion is going into tutoring for young people. That should pay for 100 million hours for children and young people across England by 2024. Those are disadvantaged young people. Using a “per pupil” analysis is not accurate when certain pots of money have been targeted at, for instance, tutoring disadvantaged children and summer schools are available to secondary schools only.
My Lords, in many families, the main breadwinner has died as a result of Covid-19, leaving their spouse a widow or widower suffering not only the grief of bereavement and poor mental health but facing immense financial pressure at a very uncertain time. What special steps will the Government take to assist and support the children of such new widows or widowers in catching up on learning lost during the pandemic?
My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important and tragic consequence of the pandemic. I visited a school about two weeks ago where 70% of the students were close bereaved. In this regard, the task of schools is immense. The money that I have outlined—the universal catch-up money, the £650 million which is in schools’ banks now—can be spent on additional pastoral support. We announced during Mental Health Awareness Week that we have invested £17 million to train up mental health support leads in more than 7,800 schools. I note that bereavement is not a mental health need, but it may be that that workforce also does bereavement support.
I refer to my interests as recorded in the register. My noble friend will be aware that many disadvantaged pupils lose ground over the summer in terms of both their physical fitness and their academic ability compared to their better-off counterparts. Even at this late stage, can the Government take action for this summer to roll out nationally much more strongly pioneering work—like the work promoted by Mayor Andy Street in the West Midland—to bring the facilities of schools in the summer to the benefit of disadvantaged pupils for physical activity, meals and catch-up academic work?
My Lords, my noble friend is correct. We have now had three reports from the government-sponsored research by Renaissance Learning and EPI in relation to disadvantaged children falling behind. In addition to the summer schools that I have outlined, it seems that the majority of secondary schools have bid to do summer school for their incoming year 7. The holiday activities fund has now been rolled out across all local authorities so that children can get the balance of nutrition, activity and some education.
Does the Minister accept that Sir Kevan Collins made a fundamental error of judgment when he accepted the appointment as commissioner for education recovery? His fundamental error of judgment was that he believed that the Prime Minister’s definition of priority for education recovery was in the same ballpark as his own, and in that he found he was sadly mistaken.
My Lords, I can only repeat our thanks for the work that Sir Kevan Collins has done. Much of what the noble Lord outlines is a question for Sir Kevan himself. However, as I said, more than £3 billion is being invested in recovery. The subject of further recovery money will be part of the spending review. It is important that we follow the evidence from the research I outlined in terms of areas of the country that have had a differential impact. For instance, SEN children and disadvantaged children seem to have been impacted most.
My Lords, if the Government intended to be so parsimonious with spending to help children recover the schooling lost during the pandemic, might it have been more sensible to have given Sir Kevan a budget to work with? Can the Minister say how much the Government are prepared to spend and whether they will note the campaign by Marcus Rashford to increase the amount?
My Lords, as I have outlined, money for recovery is the subject of the spending review, which we hope will be a multi-year review this time. In addition to the funds I have outlined, there was a commitment for the core schools budget to go up by £2.6 billion for 2020-21 and by £2.2 billion for 2021-22. All this is welcome extra money for schools, but no one underestimates the tasks that schools are doing both educationally and pastorally at the moment.
My Lords, lost learning will not be made up just by giving large sums of money to schools. Some 80% of attainment is attributable to pupil-level factors, such as parents knowing how to encourage learning and good relationships at home. The need for family support has become increasingly salient during the pandemic. How are the Government helping councils and their local partners to develop family hubs, which have delivered well in this area?
The noble Baroness is correct that family hubs have delivered well. The Government are investing £14 million and we have just finished a procurement for the National Centre for Family Hubs to ensure that best practice is spread across local authorities. These hubs should bring together charitable as well as statutory services, ranging from birth through to 18 or 19 years old, so they should provide the support that families need.
The Minister knows that this is a mess. When Conservative MPs met the Prime Minister’s PPS and two Education Ministers, they were told that
“there has been a big mess-up over the last few days for no reason.”
So there is a revolt in the Conservative ranks. What process took place that made the choice of Randstad preferable to the National Tutoring Foundation, which was set up by the Education Endowment Foundation? Sir Kevan Collins himself was briefly CEO of that foundation. If the Government are not prepared to pay up or trust schools, how will they ensure that the children most disadvantaged by lockdown will be helped?
My Lords, as is required, the department ran a commercial procurement for the next years of the national tutoring programme. Randstad won that procurement, so a contract has been signed. But schools are trusted; that is why, as a development of the tutoring fund, £579 million will be going to schools themselves. Schools might want to employ a local tutor or use existing staff; particularly for those with special educational needs, using staff that pupils have an existing relationship with is often of great benefit to those students as well as others.
My Lords, the Disabled Children’s Partnership is calling for dedicated catch-up funding for services for disabled children and their families such as therapies and respite, to address the disproportionate impact that they have felt during the pandemic and to allow them to heal. Can the Minister outline what action she, along with ministerial colleagues, will take to address this important issue?
My Lords, in respect of the different funds, there have been three announcements for recovery: the initial £650 million catch-up, then the summer schools, then the £302 million recovery premium, and now we have the school-led element of tutoring. All are weighted for specialist settings, whether SEND or AP, so schools are free to use that revenue in the manner they see fit and for the purposes that the noble Baroness has outlined. We do recognise that those settings need a higher per-pupil allocation.
The Government state that their package should ensure that extra support is available for every disadvantaged child. Following on from what the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, has just asked, can the Minister reply in the context of those with SEND in mainstream settings? Inclusion is a really important principle for disabled children to be able to prosper. Exactly how much of the additional £1.4 billion that she talks about will be spent on the therapies and health services that disabled children in mainstream schools need?
My Lords, in respect of the premium of £650 million that I mentioned, although it is weighted, the schools can choose how they spend that money. In respect of tutoring provision, which is school-led, schools can choose to spend that, for instance, on one-on-one provision for SEND children who are in mainstream settings. We have weighted a number of these per-pupil pots but, of course, we trust the schools and school leaders, who are obviously closest to the pupils, to know how to spend that money, what tutoring provision to buy, or whether to run a summer school specifically for SEND children.
My Lords, to give a slightly different angle to this problem, 400,000 people may fall homeless in the next period according to the Rowntree Foundation, and 1 million people have been warned that they may be evicted. If this hits schools, imagine the damage it will do to the children who are the most dispossessed, as well as those who are living slightly above the level of dispossession but may also be drawn into that. Will the Minister raise these issues with other Ministers? This is becoming a desperate situation.
My Lords, when children and their families are at risk of homelessness, there are obviously certain obligations on the school. A child can be removed from a school register only for specified reasons that the school must outline. If schools do not know of such reasons, they have to liaise with local authorities and make inquiries to be satisfied that the child is on a school register elsewhere. If the child is not on another register, they are a child missing from education. So we have processes in place to track children to make sure they are in education, but I will pass on the noble Lord’s comments to colleagues in MHCLG in relation to homelessness.
My Lords, just a year ago, the Secretary of State was berating teachers and their representatives, accusing them of scaremongering and not putting children first when they asked reasonable questions about Covid transmission in schools. Indeed, the Government used children and their educational interests time and again as an excuse for entering into successive lockdowns late. What does the sorry episode of Sir Kevan’s resignation say about the sincerity of those past claims by the Government, and what does it say about the so-called “levelling-up” agenda and the Government’s financial and moral priorities going forward?
My Lords, the Government are determined to do all they can to help those who have been disadvantaged by the lockdowns to catch up on their education. The recovery package will not be the last word on recovery catch-up in education. Schools have done an amazing job in setting up testing, running bubbles and making their schools—which obviously are also workplaces—as safe as possible. One must not forget that, during the second lockdown in the autumn, schools remained open. The Government are committed to students catching up; we are watching the evidence that we get from Renaissance Learning carefully to see what it reveals about the differential impact of Covid in England.
House of Lords (Hereditary Peers) (Abolition of By-Elections) Bill [HL]
A Bill to amend the House of Lords Act 1999 so as to abolish the system of by-elections for hereditary Peers.
The Bill was introduced by Lord Grocott, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill [HL]
A Bill to place a duty on water companies to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers and other inland waters.
The Bill was introduced by the Duke of Wellington [V], read a first time and ordered to be printed.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I am delighted to commence Second Reading. As we progress with the Bill’s passage, I will be assisted by my noble friend Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist and I am very grateful to her for all her support so far. It is an enormously important Bill that will deliver meaningful change for our environment and support our goals to achieve net-zero emissions, stem the loss of our precious species and their habitats, and reduce the impacts of pollution.
2021 is a “super year” for nature, a turning point. Through the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference, the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, and the upcoming G7 leaders’ summit, the UK has both the opportunity and responsibility to provide world leadership. The Bill is an important part of demonstrating that leadership.
The Bill sets a new and ambitious domestic framework for environmental governance as we maximise the opportunities created by leaving the European Union. It will give the Secretary of State a power to set long-term, legally binding environmental targets of at least 15 years. The Bill’s framework allows for long-term targets to be set on any aspect of the natural environment or people’s enjoyment of it. However, it requires the Government to set and achieve at least one target in four priority areas: air quality, biodiversity, water, resource efficiency and waste reduction, as well as a target for fine particulate matter or PM2.5.
These targets will be set following a robust, evidence-led process that will include seeking independent expert advice, a role for stakeholders and the public, as well as scrutiny from Parliament. They will build on progress towards achieving the long-term vision of the 25-year environment plan, complement our net-zero target and help tackle some of the serious challenges that remain. We are also tabling an amendment to require a historic, new legally binding target on species abundance in England for 2030, aiming to halt the decline of nature. This world-leading measure will do for nature what our net-zero target is doing for emissions. It will spur action across government and across society on the scale required to address the biodiversity crisis.
The new independent office for environmental protection will hold us to account in ensuring that these targets, and all environmental law obligations on public authorities, are met. The OEP’s principal objective will be to contribute to environmental protection and the improvement of the natural environment. It will provide the necessary oversight to support long-term environmental governance. The OEP, chaired by the highly respected Dame Glenys Stacey, will independently monitor the way public authorities implement environmental law. Her appointment is a huge win for the OEP; she is a strong voice for the environment and will not shy away from holding this Government, or indeed any Government, to account. The OEP will track and report on progress on environmental improvement plans and targets. It will also receive and investigate complaints on serious breaches of environmental law by public authorities, taking legal action where necessary. On that note, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Krebs and Lord Anderson of Ipswich, in particular for our detailed conversations already on this matter.
Clearly, the environment must transcend the work of Defra alone. That is why we are embedding internationally recognised environmental principles into domestic law. These principles include the integration, prevention, and precautionary principles, as well as the rectification at source principle and the polluter pays principle. Policymakers across government, from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Department for Transport, will be legally obliged through a statutory policy statement to consider these principles in all policy development where it affects the environment. This is a serious innovation in how the Government make policy.
The resources and waste measures in the Bill will move us away from a “take, make, throw” model to a more circular economy that keeps materials in use for longer. Measures in the Bill will act across the product life cycle so that we can become a world leader in using resources efficiently. The Government will not only ensure that producers are paying the full costs of the waste they create through extended producer responsibility, but empower our citizens to make more sustainable choices, with clearer product information through material efficiency and eco-labelling, in addition to a more consistent recycling system that is common to every local authority
We will provide for more effective enforcement against litter and fly-tipping. We have also taken powers to act on our manifesto commitment to ban the export of plastics to non-OECD countries. These measures combined will have tangible impacts on citizens and our economy, ensuring that the Government are reducing the impact of consumption on our planet. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, for their interest in these matters particularly.
The Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to amend REACH regulation, including the REACH Enforcement Regulations 2008. Effective regulation of chemicals is essential for the protection of human health and the environment. The UK is a world leader in the management and regulation of chemicals; that does not change now that we have left the European Union. This power will ensure that legislation can keep up to date with and respond to emerging needs or ambitions for the management of chemicals. We will build on our global reputation and continue to provide a strong and influential voice on the world stage as an active party to the four UN conventions on chemicals and waste. We will continue our work to improve regulation, strengthening the evidence base and ambition globally. The intention is to make sure that we have the means to keep REACH fit for purpose.
We are learning more and more about the damage that poor air quality does to human health, including from knowledgeable advocates in this House. I was pleased to meet the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, a couple of weeks ago to hear more about this issue from her. The Bill will require the Secretary of State to set at least two legally binding targets on air quality. This will include a concentration limit for fine particulate matter—the most damaging pollutant to human health—and a more sophisticated population exposure reduction target. Last year, we set out our plans for the long-term PM2.5 target to drive continuous improvement through reductions in exposure to pollution for all citizens irrespective of whether future statutory limits have already been achieved. We will set out further detail on this world-leading approach to air quality in due course, including through public consultation. The new powers in this Bill, alongside the existing legal framework for air quality, build on the £3.8 billion we have already invested in action to tackle air pollution.
In a changing climate we need additional tools to help us to manage our precious water resources. Modernised legislation will secure a long-term, resilient water supply and sewerage services. This will include powers to direct water companies to work together to meet current and future demand for water. Planning will be more robust; it will ensure that water companies are better able to maintain water supplies and support Defra’s broader efforts to address flooding. We will also strengthen our powers to vary or revoke abstraction licences where these cause environmental damage. These powers will be available from 2028 after our current abstraction plan is fully implemented by 2027. Through the plan, we are collaborating with stakeholders now to achieve sustainable abstraction.
I am also pleased to announce that the Government will be tabling amendments to the Bill in Committee to help to reduce the harm from storm overflows to our rivers, waterways and coastlines. A significant amount of work has gone into this and I thank the right honourable Member for Ludlow, Philip Dunne, in the other place for his work on this hugely important issue.
Many noble Lords share my passion for our natural world, and the nature part of the Bill is full of innovative measures to support our ambitions for a green recovery. I mentioned already how our collective appreciation for nature has increased over the course of the pandemic. Many have discovered new corners of refuge in our local green spaces, and the Government want to ensure that local communities can share these green spaces with the wildlife which calls these valuable habitats their homes. Biodiversity net gain will be mandated in the planning system, ensuring that developments such as new homes are not built at the expense of nature, and creating thriving natural spaces for communities. These will require a 10% net improvement in biodiversity, guaranteeing that richer natural spaces will come with new developments.
Local nature recovery strategies will create strong local leadership to support nature recovery. They will identify priorities and map opportunities for conserving and enhancing nature, helping to ensure that our investments will have the maximum benefit. Local nature recovery strategies will form the foundation of an England-wide nature recovery network. To complement these new tools for nature, we are amending the biodiversity duty in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act, following post-legislative scrutiny by a Select Committee of this House, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. This strengthened duty will require an active process of improvement to conserve and enhance nature, rather than merely maintain the status quo.
The Government have also amended the Bill in the other place to provide for powers to amend the habitats regulations. This will enable us to focus our conservation efforts on our new domestic framework, developed as part of this Bill, while ensuring that we continue to fulfil our international obligations under multilateral environmental agreements such as the Bern convention. Our forthcoming Green Paper will explore how we can deliver this as part of our ambition to halt the decline of nature and protect 30% of our land by 2030. The paper will also consider measures to improve the status of native species such as the hedgehog, water voles and red squirrels.
These measures will collectively underpin the delivery of a new legally binding target on species abundance for 2030, which I mentioned earlier and will table in Committee, aiming to halt the decline of species. This will put our ambition for the recovery of nature on a par with our net-zero ambition.
I thank my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge and the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Manchester, the Bishop of Chichester, the Bishop of Oxford and the Bishop of Salisbury, as well as the Bishop of Norwich and others whom I met recently, for their valuable contributions on this issue. These new amendments will be complemented by actions set out in our recently published England tree and peat action plans, on which I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for their useful insights.
The Government are working hard to ensure that we tackle biodiversity loss at home, but we are also taking action abroad to protect the world’s most precious and significant forests. We are the first country in the world to introduce legislation to prohibit regulated businesses from using agricultural commodities that have been cultivated on land that was illegally occupied or used. Over 90% of deforestation is illegal in some of the world’s most important forests, such as the Amazon.
I am aware of the anticipation surrounding the Bill, and, while its passage has been delayed due to exceptional circumstances, work on implementing its measures has not stopped at any point. Dame Glenys Stacey has been appointed as chair of the office for environmental protection, and an announcement on appointments to the OEP’s board is being made today. A draft principles policy statement has just finished public consultation, and the Government have started developing our legally binding targets with experts. Technical consultations have been launched, for example on the deposit return scheme for drinks containers, extended producer responsibility for packaging and consistent recycling collections. I have spoken to many noble Lords already about measures in the Bill, for which I thank all noble Lords.
I would like to notify the House that, in addition to the species abundance target and storm overflow amendments, I will table some devolution-related and minor amendments. First, I will table an amendment to increase the scope of the environmental principles duty for UK Ministers to cover reserved matters in Scotland. This will ensure that there is no gap in the application of the environmental principles, and that it is in line with the devolution settlement. Secondly, I will table a couple of amendments requested by Senedd Cymru to enable better collaboration between the OEP and the equivalent devolved bodies. Finally, I will table some minor amendments to ensure that consultations will count towards the statutory duty to consult, even if they are technically conducted before the Bill achieves Royal Assent.
Finally, I hope that noble Lords will agree that this truly is a landmark Bill. It provides a holistic approach, tackling real-world issues, such as simplified recycling systems, through to more structural changes to our environmental governance, ensuring that policy decisions account for the environment. This is an ambitious Bill that will aid our recovery and help us to meet our goals of net-zero emissions, stem the loss of biodiversity and reduce the damage that pollution does to our natural world.
I look forward to what I am absolutely certain will be a rigorous and lively debate. I expect nothing less for a Bill of such magnitude and gravity, at a time when we can wait no longer to act. I beg to move.
My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my environmental interests in the register. As a former Member of the European Parliament, I recognise the very real challenge in satisfactorily replacing the EU’s environment policy architecture. While nothing is ever perfect, the EU has long been recognised as a global leader on many of the issues that noble Lords will reference today.
Underlying the architecture for a number of decades has been the European Commission, whose enforcement powers play a key role in making member states take their responsibilities seriously. Now that we are outside the EU, we will gradually depart from its policy framework but, in doing so, I hope that the Government will keep and build on the better features, including in their design of the office for environmental protection.
Your Lordships’ House has dealt with a variety of significant pieces of legislation in recent years. While I was not a Member at the time, I watched from afar as colleagues tackled the EU withdrawal Bill and its multitude of constitutional implications. Concerns about the environment featured during the debates on that Bill and, despite the passage of time, many remain unaddressed by the Government. Other legislation, such as the Trade Act, was highly contentious.
While we will, of course, approach this Bill in the same constructive spirit with which we approach all government proposals, it seems inevitable that its journey on to the statute book will require cross-party co-operation on key issues and a genuine willingness from Ministers to bring forward improvements.
There is little doubt that we must put in place a new system that protects and eventually enhances our precious natural environment. After all, we are in the midst of a climate and ecological emergency that threatens the survival of many species across the UK and, by extension, our survival as well. Inaction is simply not a choice.
However, we are not convinced that the Bill as drafted will deliver on the lofty promises made by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and others. In some areas, it presents a step backwards from the status quo or previous proposals. Even where important progress is being made, such as with new provisions around deforestation and supply chains, there remains a lot of room to be more ambitious.
This weekend, I was in Birmingham, talking to local authority members, including the cabinet member for the environment and transport. I learned about the journey that Birmingham is on to become carbon neutral by 2030, which is very ambitious, considering that the Government’s target is 2050 and the West Midlands Combined Authority’s target is 2041. We welcome this bold and brave commitment by Birmingham City Council, the largest local authority in Europe.
I also heard about the council’s plans to ensure that every citizen has the fundamental human right to breathe clean air. The city council recently launched a clean air zone on 1 June. While I am aware of the partnership between this Government and the council, the important thing moving forward is to understand the impact that the project has on the business community, which has struggled over the past 12 months, especially during Covid. Will the Government and the Minister commit to resourcing local authorities that are seizing the initiative to launch clean air zones—and provide the right level of support to the communities that may be impacted by them?
Sadly, the Bill as it stands does not set a target for air quality, leaving it to the discretion of the Secretary of State. This is a missed opportunity. The WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements, and we call on the Government to use them nationally. Air pollution has reached dangerous levels, with 60% of people in England now breathing illegally poor air. The office for environmental protection will be effective only if it is sufficiently independent of the Government. Parliament must play its role in supporting the principle of the OEP’s independence. The public need the confidence that the Government will be properly held to account on their duty to protect the environment.
The UK is currently using and wasting resources at unsustainable levels, contributing to simultaneous climate and ecological breakdowns. UK consumption is now such that the average UK citizen will have a greater carbon footprint in 12 days than citizens in several other nations will have in a year.
Litter is wreaking havoc on British wildlife, killing millions of mammals every year and choking our seas with plastic. There must be an increased emphasis on reducing resource use and encouraging design for resource efficiency, including through reuse. Reducing resource use will ensure a more efficient economy, reduce the effects of extraction and disposal on wildlife and ecosystems and contribute to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
The Bill is the Government’s first opportunity to show that we will not lose out as a result of leaving the EU. If we cannot secure strong environmental protections in the Bill, that does not bode well for the workers’ rights, workplace protections and consumer protections that we need in our everyday lives.
My Lords, nearly half our species—our birds, our bees, our wild flowers—are in decline. Yet we rely on them for our physical health, and indeed for our mental well-being. So we need to respond urgently to this crisis. The Liberal Democrats welcome the introduction of the Environment Bill, but it requires significant strengthening if it is to be sufficiently transformative for the challenges that our nature faces. We welcome the fact that the Government are enabling targets to be set, including, as the Minister said, the 2030 nature recovery target. We know from the Climate Change Act how important targets are for driving delivery right across government and beyond, so long as they are accompanied by legally binding interim targets.
However, in many parts of the Bill, progress is tentative: it is almost as if the Government are moving forward towards environmental protection, yet the dead hand of another government department pulls them back. For example, the environmental principles should be the means of putting the environment at the heart of all policy-making. Yet, as things stand, they are merely for guidance, and are to be proportionately applied. There are critical exemptions: they do not apply to public bodies, to the Treasury or to the MoD.
The Dasgupta review said that it was time for a new vocabulary, to put the environment and its value at the heart of the economy. But by excluding the Treasury, the Government are showing that they are not prepared even to open the dictionary. As for the MoD, that has one-third of all UK SSSIs—our most precious sites for biodiversity and wildlife. That is 117,000 football pitches’ worth of our most precious land. Yet although the MoD is subject to the provisions of the Climate Change Act, it is not subject to the provisions of this Bill. Those opt-outs are political choices, to weaken the environmental protection of our country. As things stand, that leaves the environmental principles pretty toothless.
The Minister said that the Bill would be the means of introducing biodiversity net gain. That should be a powerful way of achieving a net gain for our nature in the future. Yet major infrastructure projects are excluded. We need all planning applications and developments to be included, and all government departments to be subject to the provisions of this important Bill.
In certain respects, the Bill leaves the environment worse off than when we were under the auspices of the European Union. It will introduce the new governance body to hold the Government to account—the OEP—and we welcome the setting up of that. However, as it stands, it is insufficiently independent of the Government, whom it is meant to hold to account. It has no power to fine, and its actions are hampered by the fact that if it applies for an environmental review, a court cannot impose any sanctions if those would cause substantial hardship. That just cannot be right.
On Report in the Commons, late additions were introduced, which will sweep away important protections for our most precious habitats for wildlife and biodiversity. Those were previously protected by domestic legislation enacting the EU habitats directive, but those protections are to be swept away to ensure that Project Speed can go ahead. Particular protections for the homes of creatures such as our nightingales and bitterns are to be swept away just so that developers can have a free-for-all in the new zoned planning areas that planning reforms are bringing fast down the track.
In an awful lot of areas in the Bill, the Government are taking powers unto themselves, including on setting provisions for the critical issue of water quality. We need the best quality for our water, yet here the Government seem to be saying, “In future we’ll decide who we want to consult, and then we’ll tell Parliament what we’ve decided.” Of course we need to look to amend water quality standards as our understanding of the science changes—but the process review must be consultative and transparent, and it must make it clear how any changes will ensure that government targets are being met. As it stands, Clause 83 is not sufficiently robust, and needs significant amendment.
Where the Bill is right is in making clear the vital role of local authorities in delivering nature for their local communities. I applaud the fact that the Government have listened to the lobbying—if I may call it that—of Peers right across this House on strengthening local authorities’ biodiversity duties. That is welcome—but they will need the resources to do the job properly. Only recently, the Association of Local Government Ecologists said that only one in three councils has in-house ecology officers.
Local authorities will need the resources, particularly if they are to make a good job of delivering the new local nature recovery strategies. We accept that, as the Government say, those could be a powerful way of bringing together multiple stakeholders and funds, both from biodiversity net gain and from ELMS, to deliver ecologically coherent nature recovery strategies. They could be a really powerful tool, but at the moment they are separate from local authorities’ planning functions and strategic decision-making. I look forward to reintroducing an amendment tabled by Sarah Olney MP in the Commons, which would rectify that omission and embed local nature recovery strategies in the planning process.
We know that nature is important for people’s mental well-being, but in order to enjoy it they have to have access to it. Recent ONS figures showed that nationally, only one in eight households has access to a shared or private garden. In London that figure drops to one in five. Clause 1 says that the Government “may” introduce targets for people to be able to enjoy local nature, but that is not set as a priority area. In the list of targets that the Government produced last August, which was updated in October, there are no targets for access at all. I know that my noble friends Lord Addington and Lady Scott of Needham Market—who cannot be with us today—will seek to return to this issue in Committee, because it is critical to increase the proportion of people who have access to good-quality natural green space to enjoy.
As the Minister said, the Government will enable targets to be set for air quality. But we agree with Labour that what is in the Bill now is not strong enough. My noble friend Lady Walmsley, from the Liberal Democrat health team, will seek to work with others across parties in Committee to strengthen the air quality provisions.
In their 25-year environment plan, the Government said that they wanted to improve the environment within a generation. If they really want to do that, the Bill is a little sluggish in certain respects. For example, although I welcome the inclusion of the extended producer responsibility obligations, which could be a powerful way to embed the polluter pays principle in law, the Government have not moved on from some of the low-hanging fruit on which they have already delivered, such as single-use plastic, to address other plastic issues. Why do they not take the opportunity to say in the Bill how they are going to deal with other single-use plastics, such as wet wipes? Wet wipes contain plastic, but we know that they can be produced without plastic, and they are affecting our wildlife and clogging up our waterways.
Equally, where are the measures to address the commercial abstraction of water? There is nothing in the Bill on reducing household water consumption, whose effects we know will be exacerbated in future years by climate change. We will introduce amendments to ensure that there is labelling of water-efficient household appliances, and compulsory water metering.
Of course, this is not just about driving down consumption of our resources; it is also about looking at the UK’s global ecological footprint, as the Minister rightly said. We really welcome the inclusion of the due diligence obligation on companies selling commodities in the UK which contribute to deforestation. I would say that we welcome it, given that it was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, but, credit where credit is due, I take my hat off to the Minister for personally championing this issue. It has been well noted and we are grateful for it. He would be surprised if I did not say that I wished it went a little further, and that we hope it will address both legal and illegal deforestation, tackle the issue of businesses which finance those operations and respect the rights of local communities.
I hope that everybody who will speak today accepts that there is a nature crisis. On that front, I look forward to the valedictory comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury, who both in this Chamber and in wider civil society has been such a champion for respecting our planetary resources and encouraging people to take those responsibilities seriously. He will be missed, but I look forward to what he has to say to us today. The nature we love is in crisis. As the Minister said, this is a massively important year for us, with the CBD coming up in October. It is an opportunity for the UK to show global ambition and to have a route map to get there. We on the Liberal Democrats Benches look forward to working with colleagues throughout the House to ensure that this Bill enables the UK to stand proud and to have the ambition and the route map to protect the global and national environment that we all love.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer/landowner and as chair of UKCEH research.
This Bill is a once-in-a-generation chance to set a course for a better quality of life for all flora and fauna, including humans, that live on our overcrowded island. While a 30-year generation is a mere heartbeat in terms of our environment, the same 30 years is also a very long time in politics. So the passion for the environment which I recognise fully in the current Ministers in both Houses must be as of naught to us during our deliberations. We must ensure that this Bill continues to protect our environment as Secretaries of State and Ministers come and go over the years and decades.
It is a huge Bill with much that is very good in it. I shall not outline that because our traditional 10-minute speaking time for Second Readings seems to have been curtailed, but I support most of what the Bill is trying to do. However, there are two main areas where I think we can improve. First, if you were from outside government and were thinking of setting up a body to oversee the Government’s environmental performance and to replace the European Commission in this respect, you would definitely never put this body with Defra or under the guidance of its Secretary of State. After all, two of the main bodies that the OEP will scrutinise are the Environment Agency and Natural England, both of which have their budgets and activities almost totally controlled by Defra. MHCLG would be another no-no department, because it manages and partly funds local authorities, which are perhaps the other main target for scrutiny.
In the private sector, when shareholders appoint auditors to scrutinise their company, they have by law to appoint outside, independent auditors, not the internal accounts department of their own company, which is what is happening here. The independent auditors are there to check on the internal accounts department, for which read Defra, and not to do their bidding. Anyone—actually, everyone—can see that the currently proposed set-up is completely wrong. The OEP has not only to be independent but to be seen to be independent. As currently set up, it is neither.
The other area is one where a truly independent OEP would of course come down like a ton of bricks: the urgent need for Defra and the Environment Agency to put right the appalling pollution of our rivers. Eighty-six per cent of our rivers are not in good ecological condition. We have once again reverted to being the dirty man of Europe. Something needs to be done and done quickly. Rumour has it—and the Minister mentioned it today—that Defra has its own set of amendments here, but it would be good to know exactly what is proposed as soon as possible. Even then, I would hope to push the Government a little further. For instance, water pollution is as much about what you are taking out of a river as what you are putting in. Abstraction licences and compulsory water metering are on my target list for amendments.
Then there is the major problem of combined sewer overflows and the huge quantities of sewage we put into our rivers. I shall not bore you with statistics but, believe me, what goes on is totally shocking. From talking to scientists it is clear that river pollution is no simple matter. Every catchment is different and has different problems needing different solutions. We should make better use of existing catchment-based partnerships, increasing their number and formalising them within the Bill. Like the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities set up by the 2009 Act, these catchment conservation authorities should be given more powers to monitor and control their own rivers.
Finally, I want to air a nagging doubt that lurks always at the back of my mind. It is not really to do with this Bill, but it is something we should think on. For sure, our generation of farmers has fallen short by overfocusing on the production of cheap food, to the detriment of our biodiversity and possibly even our nation’s nutrition, but we are a very crowded island: England is three times more densely populated than France and four times more than Spain. I worry that, with all our current demands for more habitats, more trees, more forests, more carbon sinks, more rural leisure, more national parks and masses more new housing, all of which I approve of, we will wake up in 40 years’ time, in the middle of a third world war, and say, “Hang on, was it your generation that diminished our ability to feed ourselves, so that now we cannot survive?” I am sure we can fit all the land uses into our landscape, but during the frantic activity we shall all have on this Bill over the next few months, we must never forget that the primary purpose of agricultural land is to produce food for our nation.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for setting out this important Bill. I am grateful too for his long-term advocacy of many of the proposals it contains.
The Bill offers a unique opportunity to create a coherent, long-term framework for the environment that is capable of motivating all sectors and all parts of society to plan, to commit to and to collaborate on improving the environment on which we and future generations depend. I therefore especially welcome the Bill’s seeking to address the core governance elements that will be needed for the decades ahead. This is the critical component. Business will clearly have a key role to play in delivering the changes needed to meet our long-term environmental ambitions and hit our net-zero target. Unlocking private sector finance and investment will be essential, particularly given the pressures on the public purse.
For businesses to feel able to invest for the long term, it goes without saying that their trust and confidence will be prerequisites. Such trust and confidence will to a large extent depend on the governance mechanisms and processes by which long-term environmental targets and a national environmental improvement plan are set. This begs the question: do the governance mechanisms and associated processes proposed in the Bill need optimising?
The Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment—IEMA—and the Broadway Initiative are two respected bodies which think that the answer to this question is yes. They see a lack of alignment and coherence between the objectives and processes in different elements of the governance framework proposed in the Bill, which, if it remains unresolved, could result in their pulling in slightly different directions. For businesses, this raises questions about predictability and could unintentionally undermine their confidence to invest. For instance, Clause 1 places a duty on the Secretary of State to set at least one long-term target in each of four priority areas, but no directly stated purpose or outcome is specified to guide setting targets. Making good this omission would help increase certainty for businesses.
Another example is to be found in Clause 7, which covers environmental improvement plans, or EIPs. Their implementation will be key to achieving national, long-term environmental targets. While an EIP will be required to include interim targets, there is no specific requirement for one to include the policies and actions that the Government intend to take to ensure that long-term environmental targets are achieved. Is it not the case that the confidence and certainty that businesses need to make long-term investments would be strengthened if the Bill required EIPs to include the policies and actions that the Government intend to take? I can therefore understand why bodies such as IEMA and the Broadway Initiative see it as essential that the Bill closely aligns its core governance elements with a coherent set of objectives to give businesses the trust and confidence that they need to invest in the future.
Trust and confidence are also the watchwords that will underpin the development of environmental markets. There is a significant private sector interest in the potential of well-designed markets for nature alongside sources of private funding that are potentially available to support nature recovery. However, to maximise the impact of both public and private investment in nature, there is a need for agreed standards and accreditation to give confidence to markets, investors, regulators and other stakeholders. I declare an interest as chair of the United Kingdom Accreditation Service—UKAS—which is the government-appointed national accreditation body. UKAS accreditation already provides this confidence and assurance in many environmentally related areas, such as carbon trading schemes, emissions measurements, the microgeneration certification scheme and the Woodland Carbon Code, to name but a few. We work closely with our UK quality infrastructure partner, the British Standards Institute—the BSI—in the development of consensus-based standards that meet the needs of all stakeholders. In short, the UK already has in place a proven means to create both the standards framework that will be needed and the underpinning accreditation to demonstrate whether and where those standards are, or are not, being achieved. As the saying goes, if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it. This is especially true if this Bill is going to achieve its effect.
In conclusion, I strongly support this very important Bill. It is a good Bill and, with a few tweaks to its governance proposals, it could become an even better one.
I declare my interest as chairman of the advisory board of Weber Shandwick UK.
The Bill comes before the House following Professor Dasgupta’s influential review of the economics of biodiversity. The opening paragraph of that review sets out the stark challenge that we face.
“We are totally dependent upon the natural world”,
it reminds us, and goes on to say:
“It supplies us with every oxygen-laden breath we take and every mouthful of food we eat. But we are currently damaging it so profoundly that many of its natural systems are now on the verge of breakdown.”
The report goes on to highlight that
“our demands … far exceed Nature’s capacity to supply”
us with the goods and services that we all rely on; that biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history; that our unsustainable engagement with nature is endangering the prosperity of current and future generations; and that at the heart of the problem lies deep-rooted, widespread institutional failure. The report warns us that reversing these trends requires action now. The Bill has to be measured against these challenges and, while I welcome much of it, regrettably, it falls short in a number of respects.
The first of these is on targets. Instead of action now, we have action sometime in the future. While the framework for setting environmental targets is to be welcomed, we need to have binding interim targets alongside the long-term ones so that we can ensure that we get started on the journey, underline the urgency of taking action now and ensure that Ministers can be held accountable for targets in the immediate future. In some cases, such as air and water pollution and water conservation, we simply need far more ambitious measures now.
Secondly, where we needed a powerful, independent office for environmental protection, backed up by the full force of the law, the Bill gives us a hobbled regulator, its independence compromised by the ability of Ministers to interfere in how it carries out its enforcement functions and its effectiveness undermined by the constraints placed on judicial enforcement, as my noble friend Lady Parminter pointed out. As briefings from the Bingham Centre and ClientEarth have highlighted, the Bill curtails the power and discretion of the courts. Extraordinarily, Clause 37(7) states:
“A statement of non-compliance”
by the court
“does not affect the validity of the conduct in respect of which it is given.”
Clause 37(8) compounds this reversal of legal precedent by constraining the power of the court to provide a remedy if that would
“cause substantial hardship to, or substantially prejudice the rights of”
any third party.
In its briefing, ClientEarth gave an indicative example of how absurd this is. If a permit for a new mine was granted with a failure to consider the impact on air quality, such that the operation would cause serious pollution and adverse health impacts for many years, the court could not quash it unless it could show that it would not cause serious hardship to the mine owner or substantially prejudice their right to operate the mine. The court would obviously not be able to do that; as a result, the mine could operate indefinitely, regardless of its impact. Far from addressing the institutional failures that Professor Dasgupta highlighted, the compromises to the independence of the OEP, and the constraints on the courts’ ability to enforce environmental law, bake that failure in from the very start. I am sure that noble Lords will wish to improve the Bill in this area during its passage through this House.
Another area that will need to be addressed is the role of local authorities in protecting biodiversity. While the Bill has much to say about the duties of local authorities—as my noble friend Lady Parminter said, that is welcome—it has next to nothing to say about their powers to carry out these duties. Local authorities are on the front line in protecting biodiversity and they need to be empowered to do so. Consequently, I intend to table amendments in Committee that would allow local authorities to designate land as a site at risk of biodiversity loss, with associated powers to inspect such land and enter into conservation covenant agreements with landowners, as provided for in Part 7 of the Bill.
We welcome the fact that this Bill is finally before this House but we regret that the urgency of action that the Dasgupta Review called for is largely absent, despite the Minister’s declaration just a few minutes ago that we can wait no longer to act. We regret that institutional weaknesses remain abundant and are, in fact, reinforced by the Bill. Improvements to the Bill need to be made across a wide range of issues, including tackling air pollution, protecting local and international biodiversity, acting to end the financing of deforestation, enforcing packaging waste responsibilities, conserving water resources and protecting rivers from pollution.
However, there is good news for the Minister, who I do not doubt would prefer a much more effective Bill, given his personal commitment to this subject. We intend to help him out by working across the House to bring forward constructive amendments to strengthen the Bill and tackle the urgent challenges that noble Lords, including the Minister, have so starkly highlighted.
My Lords, like all noble Lords, I welcome this Bill and congratulate the Minister on his passion and conviction on this. However, there are a number of concerns.
The first is about the office for environmental protection. If the Government take the environment as seriously as they say they do, I do not understand at all why this cannot be an independent body, of the nature of the National Audit Office. However much the Government choose to stretch the definition, its independence will always be constrained because of its nature as a part of Defra. I fail to understand why the Government think it would be constitutionally inappropriate to allow this body to have the power to initiate legal enforcement proceedings against the Government. Just the other day, I was speaking to someone who lived on and looked after the upper reaches of the Test. This is looked after by Southern Water yet, at the same time, that company is siphoning off money from the water, which is damaging the river course further down and reducing the wetland. We are going against each other—who is going to sort this out?
I am also concerned that the OEP will not have enough funds. A lot of this is about investigation—looking, visiting, seeing and monitoring. A whole series of attention-grabbing green headlines will become meaningless if we cannot enforce the good environmental rules we need.
I would like to talk about a couple of things that are very scary right now. One, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Cameron, is the UK’s rivers. I declare my interest as someone who swims in rivers a lot; I have swum in three in the past week. But I take my life in my hands, because I know that agricultural pollution is rampant and we release untreated human sewage directly into our waterways. This is due not to a lack of laws but to the inability to enforce these laws. There are regulatory agencies in England and Wales, but they have been drastically weakened by cuts to their funding and resources.
The EA’s environment and business budget, which covers agricultural regulation, waste crimes and incident response, has been cut from £117 million in 2010 to just £40 million in 2020. Even if you do not allow for inflation, that equates to an effective quartering of what we spend per year. The net effect is that in many critical areas our regulators are completely impotent. For example, in 2019-20, the total budget for agricultural enforcement across England was just £320,000, equating to 0.65 full-time staff in each of 14 areas. Such drastic cuts to regulatory agencies mean that polluters can continue, secure in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be caught or prosecuted. Staggeringly, each farm in England can now expect an inspection just once every 263 years. It is useless. The number of court actions against river polluters fell from 235 in 2002 to three last year.
Currently, the state of many of our farming and policing policies means that on the River Wye—a place I am concerned about and a place where I swam—you can erect sheds containing 40,000 birds. These are usually paid for by big multinationals, which get tax breaks, as the sheds are classed as farm buildings although they are factories. There is almost no authority to stop them putting the slurry, the chemicals, the phosphates and the sewage back into this amazing river, which is now almost without fish in large chunks.
As has been brought up by many noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Oates, I am also concerned about the planning permissions. The proposals on net gain and protecting habitats will become much more difficult.
In my remaining couple of minutes, I would like to bring the House’s attention to something very current; it happened last week. Noble Lords may or may not like Knepp rewilding estate in Horsham, but it is a beacon of an attempt to bring rewilding into this country. It is visited by hundreds of thousands of people; it has set a fantastic standard. Yet the owners of Knepp lost a case just last week. Horsham District Council declared by six to three that it will allow a housing estate of 3,500 new houses right on the border of this extraordinary natural wilding achievement. The Minister just said that we want 30% of land to be maintained for nature, so what on earth is happening? Horsham District Council, which has its own nature recovery programme, has been leaned on by the Government to produce more houses. It appears, staggeringly, that this project will go ahead.
I believe the Minister: having visited Knepp, he knows how wonderful it is. We, with Natural England, want to encourage more such places around the country—little ones, big ones and ones that entrance adults, children and teachers about the flora and fauna that are so precious to us all. Yet 3,500 houses will block the nature corridor, bringing pollution, noise and light right to the edge of Knepp, not even separated by a road. Something has to be done. I am pleased with the Bill but, my gosh, it needs a lot of work, and I will be supporting all the amendments I believe in.
My Lords, it is a real honour to speak in this debate and share in the passion and expertise of this House in favour of clear, swift, accountable action to safeguard the environment and combat climate change. It is a particular pleasure to pay tribute to my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury, who makes his valedictory speech today, to which I look forward. I thank Bishop Nicholas for his leadership within the Church of England, this House and more widely on climate questions. That leadership has played a key role in our national Church’s commitment to net zero by 2030.
The evidence is stark. Humanity stands at a crossroads in these next five years. We have a tiny window to make rapid decisions and take action that will affect the life of the entire planet for, perhaps, centuries to come. The majority world is looking to us and this Parliament for justice, for an example and for leadership on climate and environmental matters in this year of COP 15 and COP 26. My sister and brother Anglicans in Kenya, South Africa, Bangladesh and many other places are already suffering the effects of our and others’ delay. Future generations—today’s young people—look to us to take the right actions now to give them at least a better chance of keeping global heating below 1.5 degrees. We are stewards of this good earth—God’s wonderful creation. As a nation, we bear a disproportionate responsibility for its present condition. As a Parliament, we have the opportunity for extraordinary and disproportionate leadership for the coming decade. It is a powerful testimony to human endeavour that our combined impact on the planet is now rapidly altering its climate and threatening the life of the earth. It is a powerful insight into the complexity and selfishness of the human heart that progress in environmental matters is so immensely difficult.
In that context, I warmly welcome the Bill. As other noble Lords have said, it is wide-ranging and contains a number of ambitious targets. The Bill will be closely watched as an indicator of the Government’s priorities in the run-up to COP 26. The creation of the office for environmental protection is a vital and imaginative step forward. However, I do not yet see in the Bill sufficient guarantees of financial and political independence essential to good governance. I believe this has now been mentioned by every noble Lord who has spoken thus far. The trajectory is clear, and I hope that the Government will listen very carefully and take action.
Many of the decisions required of the OEP across the next decade will be difficult and unpopular politically, but right and just in terms of risk, geopolitics and intergenerational equity. Financial and political independence for the OEP is therefore essential. Parliament and government need a voice in both appointments and budgets for the OEP not only to lead in the United Kingdom but to be a gold standard internationally.
It is never easy to share or give away power or entrust oversight to others. But this new body must be above party politics and immune to particular Ministers’ enthusiasms or lack of enthusiasm. I urge the Secretary of State to give further serious consideration to measures that will strengthen the financial and political independence of the OEP in the debates that will follow. I warmly welcome the Bill.
My Lords, I welcome the Bill and declare my family interest as a livestock farmer and other interests in the register.
This is a massive Bill. We can see that, overall, we have worked on this topic in many guises before, and that is well exemplified by the huge sections devoted to amending previous legislation, right up to the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. In addition, there is a virtual forest of Henry VIII powers, which I hope your Lordships will be able to narrow and point more clinically where necessary.
The elements I draw to your Lordships’ attention are, first, the statement of principles; secondly, the 25-year plan to improve the environment; and, thirdly, the current calculation of our agricultural emissions. On the first, I hope we can get a bit more detail on the principles we can expect over and above the generalities listed, and I eagerly await the government amendments that my noble friend the Minister hinted at earlier. In its briefing, the Countryside Alliance outlined a few suggestions, and I think there could be merit in its innovation principle and possibly in its appropriate scale principle. The Bill already incorporates the precautionary principle, which might do with clarification on whether it applies to definable harms or must include unknown harms, as it has done before.
Other than straightforward environmental elements, the Bill’s essential contribution is that it combines the element of sustainability with environmental and species recovery. The main strategy for this is already laid out in the 2018 policy paper A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. This incorporates and addresses more directly the questions of mitigating and adapting to climate change.
As we struggle to find a commercial solution to the capture and storage of CO2 to meet the targets set for us, adaptation and mitigation on land is still one of the major paths we have found, so there is immense pressure on land managers. Anyone who farms will see this as an attempt to manage nature—and there are few things which are more unpredictable than nature. Good scientific data in this field is available for the carbon potential of forests and peat bogs, and there is a lot on emissions from livestock. However, as yet there is nothing very comprehensive on grassland.
Traditional and organic agriculture are heavily dependent on the benefits that accrue from having ruminant animals as part of their rotation; that is stated in the 25-year plan. To address biodiversity and carbon storage, a necessary place to start is with soil, which is much degraded in some areas. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board has produced figures some of which sit uncomfortably with our popular preconceptions. It estimates that degraded arable soils contain only 23 tonnes of carbon per hectare, whereas in mixed woodland and improved grassland the soil contains around 63 tonnes of carbon per hectare. The surprise comes with permanent grassland, which contains 83 tonnes per hectare. Surprisingly, if that is then planted with trees, it might take a few years to balance out the loss of storage capacity with the amount of new carbon to be accumulated in the crop.
The latest news on grassland I have received is that our friends in Australia and New Zealand, with whom we are likely to be sharing our markets, are now working towards net zero in the production of sheep and cattle. This would be an immense challenge to our production, and the industry here will be looking to see if there are lessons that we can learn and how we could move in that direction. Agriculture is currently burdened with responsibility for 10% of UK emissions. If these lessons are meaningful, this could change markedly, and it could bring the association of grazing livestock with carbon emissions more into line with other foodstuffs.
I look forward to Committee stage of the Bill.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of the Woodland Trust and my involvement in a range of environmental charities, as listed in the register.
Ministers must quail when they hear noble Lords welcome a Bill as an okay Bill and then go on to say that it will need substantial amendment to become a better one. I welcome this Bill, at long last, but it needs amendment to do the job. I thank the Minister for meeting me to discuss some necessary amendments.
The species abundance target that the Government have indicated they will come forward with needs to provide clear, measurable statutory targets and interim targets for biodiversity, to match the statutory targets we already have for climate change and to enshrine in law a commitment to a 2030 target to halt and reverse biodiversity decline—a commitment that the Government have already made. We look forward to seeing the detail of this addition to the Bill, and I hope that the Government welcome and act on the recommendation of the Delegated Powers Committee that the publication and any subsequent amendment of the biodiversity metric should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
The Bill also needs to provide long-overdue statutory protection for ancient woodland. Noble Lords have heard me go on about that before. We need similar protection to that accorded to sites of special scientific interest. We need a statutory basis for the England tree action plan to ensure that it is indeed action, gives proper priority to native woodland and does not end up overfocusing on commercial forestry as part of the dash for trees.
But perhaps the most important thing as we see the Bill through our House is to help the Government join up two pieces of important legislation. The planning reform Bill is not yet published, and I have big suspicions about it. Rumours abound that it will designate land, in a top-down way, as either suitable for development or to be protected, and leave local communities powerless. As other noble Lords have highlighted, if the planning reform 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 so that plans, planners and developers have to take account of them.
We also need to enshrine in statute a land-use framework for England. I tried to do this during the passage of the then Agriculture Bill and was told that the Environment Bill was a much more suitable place to put it—well, here we are, now at the Environment Bill. The planning Bill sounds like it will have an oversimple, binary approach to land use: worth protecting or worth developing. The reality is that we need a much more nuanced approach to land use, as it needs to deliver multiple benefits: biodiversity, conservation, climate change, food, flood risk management, water quality, health and mental health, to name but a few. Land needs to be multifunctional and to deliver a whole range of public and private benefits, and we need a land-use framework to do that.
A number of other changes to the Bill will be necessary. The Government’s commitment to a much-enhanced tree planting programme will be fruitless if imported tree and plant stocks do not have to be disease free and conform to a single clear plant and tree health standard, with UK and Ireland-sourced and grown planting stock being an absolute requirement for all planting supported by public funding. A much wider network of safe nurseries should be established now in preparation for the future, creating jobs as well as safeguarding tree and plant health and preventing future decimations of newly planted stock by the introduction of tree and plant diseases.
There are many other amendments which noble Lords will want to see, and we have heard about some of them already. This is a big Bill, which risks getting even bigger. The Minister will no doubt threaten that if we attach too much to it, it will be further delayed, or even collapse under its own weight. I am always rather mystified when Governments say that; there is one simple way of getting a Bill to go through quickly, and that is to accept some sensible amendments rather than resisting them at all costs. If the Government did that, the Bill would progress more quickly, the environment would be better protected, and we would all be happier. I hope the Minister will confirm that he will do just that.
We need not just an amended and stronger Bill but action. We are striding the global stage right now, with the G7, with COP 15, and especially when we host COP 26 in Glasgow. We need domestic action at a scale and pace which inspires global action and encourages leaders to tackle climate change and promote biodiversity across the world. The Government are going to find providing global leadership jolly hard to do if back home they have been resisting every sensible improvement to this Bill.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership.
Here we are, nearly two years after Theresa Villiers introduced the Environment Bill in the other place on 15 October 2019. It will be two full years until this Bill becomes an Act. I look forward to that, but as my noble friend Lord Oates and Professor Dasgupta said, we are in a crisis of biodiversity, yet we amble along, fiddling while forests burn and polluted rivers flow under bridges. We need urgency here, and this Bill, excellent though it is in many ways, does not show that urgency, nor the decisive need to start to put the biodiversity issue right. A year before 2019, we had the 25-year environment plan, which is now three years old—and what has happened? We had a National Audit Office report last year which was damning about what had been undertaken by the Government in the meantime. I regret that it said there was very patchy co-ordination between government departments on the environment, something which is a characteristic of this Bill as well. The report also said that there were no costed plans to meet the visions in the 25-year environment plan, and I will come back to that regarding the nature recovery networks.
There are a couple of areas for strengthening the Bill which I will talk about. We have a global gold standard—something similar to what we want—in the Climate Change Committee, set up by the Climate Change Act 2008. That committee is admired worldwide and by this House, and does excellent work. I do not understand why we cannot have a biodiversity body which is the same—or, even more radically, why do we not make biodiversity one of the Climate Change Committee’s responsibilities as well? It already deals with that area, and they are well connected. Then we can have the OEP, with its limited budget and staffing, looking just at enforcement. We are rubbish at enforcement in this country, whether by the agencies which cannot afford to implement it, or by the local authorities which also lack the resources. Noble Lords have already discussed the OEP, and I will not go on any further about that, although I was going to. Clearly its independence with regard to its budget is in doubt while it sits within Defra. I have much admiration for Defra, but I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, that the OEP should not be in Defra. Defra describes itself as the “Defra family”, and within it you are expected to look after your family members, as in the Mafia. That cannot be the case for an enforcement organisation.
The one area which this Bill ignores almost completely is marine, as I have discussed with the Minister before, and he has been very receptive, for which I thank him. Marine is very important for the environment; we are an island nation. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, we have 884,000 square kilometres of sea under our jurisdiction. Yet the UK’s land area is only 242,000 square kilometres—only a quarter of the size. The Bill ignores that part of our environment, despite its importance in carbon sequestration in seagrass and similar areas. We are weak at enforcement of marine conservation areas. I very much welcome what Defra has done with the blue belts for our overseas territories, although enforcement of those is not adequate either. With the appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, to Defra, I very much look forward to him implementing his own report into higher-level marine conservation areas. But the Bill says nothing about marine, and surely it must.
Nature recovery networks are a great idea, and in Cornwall we have a pilot of the nature recovery network strategy which is being sent to Defra as I speak. They are a great concept, and yet, as far as I can see, they have no route to resources to actually deliver them, and they are not statutorily strong enough to ensure that local authorities actually have to comply with them. There may be some funding around ELMS and agricultural areas, but if we are serious about these strategies, then they must have a statutory basis and be resourced.
I too welcome this Environment Bill. We are in a biodiversity crisis. We need quick implementation, so I hope the Government will listen to some of these amendments so that we can speed this process through. I look for the Minister to be as co-operative with us as he has been in many of our conversations over the last year.
My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate this important Bill, and in doing so declare my relevant interests as a vice-president of the LGA, as a professional involved in construction and land management, and as the owner of land and buildings with environmental significance. I welcome the general thrust of the Bill, its proposals for net environmental gain, and also applaud the proposals to tackle air pollution in urban areas, and the new responsibilities for waste materials such as plastics. However, I am concerned that the Bill is not holistic in its own terms. Its definition of “natural environment” excludes the human dimension, especially in terms of the built environment, a matter which the Country Land and Business Association has raised. It is the environment which we create and use, and which involves the generation of huge quantities of waste, not only from construction materials to create it, but plastics from normal occupation and home delivery packaging in particular. It is our first priority that this Bill is not just for wildlife and habitats, but for the very well-being of the globe and, with it, the future of mankind.
At the local level, even buildings are habitats, and those of us with historic houses know how many critters share our homes. Following on from that, I find the exemption of taxation spending and the allocation of resources from within government from the primary effects of this Bill disturbing. It suggests that this area may not benefit from joined-up thinking. It is this very issue—silo thinking across much of government—that has fettered progress for so many years. To that extent I welcome the overarching office for environmental protection, and hope that, in future, reporting of environmental misdemeanours does not simply fall on the same deaf ears which I have encountered in questioning such things as asbestos in crushed concrete, used for construction, and malodorous effluent in drainage ditches. At the same time, I hope that proportionality will prevail. I mention here the polluter pays principle, which, when translated into reality, means that if the polluter or fly-tipper is undiscovered, it is the objectively innocent owner, or perhaps the community, who become responsible. Equity matters, and I have always thought it unjust that societal ills should be laid at the door of the innocent simply because HM Treasury wants to prevent a burden on the public purse, and spots what it thinks is a deep pocket.
The noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, raised a point with which I entirely agree: that environmental policy has often suffered from a lack of proper measurement and objective assessment. If net gain is to have any meaning beyond the facility of sectoral interests to make it mean whatever they choose, or for public administrations to use for some other purpose altogether, we need something less ethereal than carbon counting. Most people understand the efficiency code on our appliances, energy performance ratings of buildings and smart meter information. However, they do not have comparable information on the true environmental cost, which could include the embedded energy involved, the cost in use that includes maintenance, and end-of-life disposal of many daily life products and processes.
I refer to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, about new housing being constructed near the Knepp Castle estate, to which I am a neighbour. That is an area where housing has been planned or, rather, dumped—where everybody will have to use a car; where there is certainly an issue of water shortage; where there is no character, design merit, locational culture, identity or sense of community purpose or cohesion, which is why the built environment matters, because unsustainable environments simply are a cost on the environment in themselves.
We have to ensure that the Bill takes the public with it; that the message is clear and uncomplicated and that the processes of decision-making are objectively sound, transparent and consistently applied. If not, people will simply lose confidence.
I particularly want to mention single-use plastics. The amount of plastic waste in construction is phenomenal. Certainly, my litter-pick along the lanes near my home tells me that something needs to be done to prevent wholesale despoliation. However, it does not mean that all plastic is bad, as one authority of my acquaintance has tried to suggest in having a policy against protective plastic coatings on metal roof sheets. As a valuer, I know that such coatings double or treble the lifespan of the material and that one of the ways in which environmental or any other accounting should be steering us is lengthening lifespans of products, as the Minister mentioned. It also means being able to get spare parts, so that a life of 20-plus years for a domestic appliance becomes the norm, just as 50 years should be for a metal roof sheet, or 10,000 hours for a light bulb.
Valuation is also the key to investment, as the noble Earl pointed out. A scheme to revitalise peat-land and water retention on the southern slopes of Exmoor is an example of how long term such programmes may be, as peat deposits grow at no more than 1 millimetre a year, I am told.
All these need to form part of the equation. I very much applaud the proposal for a deposit scheme for single-use containers. As a 10-year-old, I used to get a lot of my pocket money by picking up returnable bottles from the roadside. But essential to this is a unified national scheme which really works; something along the lines of the Scandinavian idea, which seems to have cracked it, where it is easy and environmental improvement is as convenient as possible. We have to bear in mind that producers’ and retailers’ responsibility takes us only so far, because of the huge amount of plastic and other waste in circulation in landfill and floating in our oceans.
There is an awful lot to do. I wish the Bill well but, like other noble Lords, I fear it will need some amendment.
My Lords, my Twitter bio starts:
“Hates waste of all kind”,
and so I do. Whether time and money or other forms of waste, such as energy, water and food waste—matters we are discussing today—“conserve” is my watchword. For those speaking from the Conservative Benches today, there should be a clue in our name.
Not only do I run around my home switching the thermostat down and the radiators and lights off, I do as much as I can in this crumbling old building, turning the lights off, but sadly the radiators are still controlled centrally, so I am unable to turn them off or down, despite the heat inside and outside and the fact that the windows are still all open. I am careful with water usage. I loathe fast fashion and the thought of textiles going to landfill. In fact, I hired my wedding dress 33 years ago, pioneering a very welcome trend which has become unexpectedly fashionable.
Clause 1 requires the Secretary of State to set at least one long-term environmental target for each of four priority areas. As may by now be obvious, I will focus on the fourth, resource efficiency and waste reduction. Michael Gove’s foreword to the December 2019 resources and waste strategy includes the following:
“Our goal is to move to a more circular economy, which keeps resources in use for longer”.
Three cheers for that, but is this not the time for the Government to develop an indicator of how circular the UK economy is and then to set a long-term target for how circular we want it to become?
The extended producer responsibility of Clause 49 and Schedule 4 will mainly focus on the current consultation on EPR for packaging. However, in the resource and waste strategy, the Government indicated other waste streams for consideration, including the possibility of an EPR scheme for textiles and clothing as an early priority. Given that I made a pledge about five years ago never to buy any new item of clothing, barring underclothes, for the rest of my life, this is welcome news.
As a former board member of WRAP, the Government’s delivery partner, I welcome its latest voluntary agreement, Textiles 2030, designed to provide the UK clothing and textile sector with the tools to enable it to halve its carbon footprint by 2040 on the way to achieving net zero by 2050.
Although plastic is a magical invention, we have to do more to reduce its use. I cannot imagine buying anything, especially bottled water, in a single-use plastic bottle and Clause 54 is welcome. WRAP has already done good work in this area, under the UK Plastics Pact, reporting in December last year that 400 million items classed as problematic or unnecessary were sold by pact members, a reduction of 40% from 2018. This is welcome progress, although there is clearly much more to do.
Finally, I come to my greatest bugbear: food waste, addressed in Clause 56, currently under consultation, which makes standardisation of waste collection requirements to local authorities to collect the same range of material for recycling from households and, belatedly, to provide a separate weekly food waste collection. The noble Lord may know that if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after America and China. A mandatory weekly food waste collection will help to transform our engagement with food and food waste, making people more aware of the amount of food they chuck out.
I remember meeting Rory Stewart when he was Defra Minister over six years ago and him enthusiastically advocating for all this. Why does it take so long and when is the long-delayed consultation on mandatory reporting to be launched? While on the question of food waste, would my noble friend undertake to look again at the issue of feeding this waste, treated at the right temperature, to pigs? Reintroducing this practice, properly regulated, would also have the advantage of reducing the amount of soy, as feed, grown in parts of the world where ancient rainforests are being cut down, not to feed the indigenous people but for our food stock.
The Bill is the first piece of major environmental legislation in 20 years. Leaving the EU has provided us with the chance to radically improve environmental policy and to put the environment at the heart of policy-making. We will not have a second chance and we must grasp the opportunity to be radical with both hands to make this country and the planet a more sustainable place. Government and individuals must play their part. Our very survival as a species is at stake.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has withdrawn, so I now call the noble Lord, Lord Trees.
My Lords, I very much welcome the Bill. I welcome the introduction of an office for environmental protection; the efforts to tackle waste and simplify recycling; to tackle littering, which is a national disgrace; the measures to improve and enhance nature, biodiversity and conservation; and many other aspects of the Bill. Others more qualified than I am will doubtless comment on these at great length—some already have.
I would like to discuss three issues. The first concerns antimicrobial resistance and the environment. The current pandemic has emphasised the catastrophic consequences of emerging infectious diseases, but globally we face another major health challenge, that of antimicrobial resistance, so ably championed by the former Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, and the subject of a major report led by my noble friend Lord O’Neill. As a result, this issue is now included in the UK national risk register.
This challenge is of course posed by existing known infections which can develop or have developed resistance to currently available drugs. In response to this major global threat, the Government have published a UK five-year national action plan on AMR for 2019-24. This plan includes a substantial section involving the environment: for example, to better understand how AMR spreads between and among humans, animals and the environment. The plan emphasises the need to minimise the spread of AMR through the environment, deepen our understanding about AMR in the environment and minimise antimicrobial contamination of the environment. Given such a fundamental threat to human and animal health which involves the environment, it is surprising that this extensive Bill, in all its 249 pages, does not mention AMR once.
One appreciates that the Bill has to cover a wide range of issues but perhaps this is a missed opportunity to highlight the importance this Government place on the threats posed by AMR. This has been highlighted by the APPG on Antibiotics in a letter to the Secretary of State for Defra from its chair, Julian Sturdy MP. I declare here an interest as an officer of that APPG. We are very grateful for a detailed response to that letter from Rebecca Pow MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. However, it appears that currently there is no mandatory routine surveillance required for antimicrobials in the aquatic environment, nor is there routine surveillance for antibiotic resistance among bacteria in that environment. These seem to be essential data-collection functions which would help enable the national action plan to deliver its objectives. Moreover, it is not clear who will be responsible for setting environmental quality standards for antimicrobial environmental contamination. I appreciate that the Bill leaves much detail to secondary legislation but, given the importance of AMR for environmental, human and animal health, will the Minister consider making specific reference in the Bill to actions to monitor and mitigate AMR?
There are two other issues I would like to raise. The first concerns Clause 133 and the amendment of REACH legislation, which concerns the safety of chemicals. In previous debates on Brexit and REACH, I and others were concerned that data derived from animal testing for the toxicity of chemicals should be shared between European and other competent authorities to minimise the use of animals in such toxicity experiments. Animal welfare is an important priority for this Government; avoiding the need to replicate animal experiments in different jurisdictions while protecting consumer safety would be an obvious way to demonstrate this commitment. Can the Minister assure the House that in any amendment to REACH legislation, this will be a significant consideration?
The last point I wish to raise is connected with Clause 109 on “forest risk commodities”, the principle of which I wholeheartedly welcome. I raise it in connection with food, especially the potential of livestock imports reared on areas recently deforested, or on soya bean or other feed crops grown on cut-down forest. The explanatory notes to Schedule 16 state that among forest risk commodities, beef is
“likely to be considered for inclusion”.
This I would welcome, but it is not explicit in the Bill. Moreover, the Bill currently refers only to illegal deforestation, but we know that in some jurisdictions deforestation is not illegal. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider extending this to encompass legal deforestation, as argued by many environmental NGOs and mentioned already by several noble Lords?
I would point out that according to the recently published Rangeland Atlas from the International Livestock Research Institute, 54% of the world’s land area is natural grassland. Consequently, there is no global excuse for destroying forest to create artificial grassland. The Bill requires suppliers of forest risk commodities to carry out due diligence on such commodities. My final questions to the Minister are: will he assure the House that beef will be included as a forest risk commodity, and who will ensure that due diligence is exercised by importers of beef? I welcome this Bill and look forward to the Minister responding to my questions, if need be by letter.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Green Party since 1988. Our manifestos since that time have included almost every single issue that we have heard about today. There have been some excellent speeches. It seems that is partly because we have waited so long for this Bill. The Minister himself said that it is an important Bill and there has been a lot of anticipation around it; that is absolutely true. There is also the fact that your Lordships’ House has a level of expertise on so many diverse issues that will be relevant for the Bill.
During the time that we have waited for the Bill to arrive, there has been a huge strength of feeling among your Lordships about our natural environment and how to preserve it. That strength of feeling has translated into action: we have made legislative changes, for example, to what are now the Agriculture Act, the Fisheries Act and the EU withdrawal Acts. However, that strength of feeling and action have been hampered by the Government because we have had repeated assertions and promises that whatever we brought up was not appropriate for a particular Bill but would be appropriate for the Environment Bill. Although the Minister was not one of the Ministers making those promises, we will of course hold the Government to account for them—and sadly, he is going to be in the firing line. All these issues, whether about water, air pollution, forestry, biodiversity or farming, have been saved up for this Bill. I can imagine that there are going to be a lot of amendments. Quite honestly, I am excited about that and looking forward to it.
I am not going to argue that we have an environmental or ecological crisis, or a nature or planetary crisis, because for me those things are absolutely self-evident. What we have is a political crisis. We have a Government who simply do not want to enable us to do our job. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, had it absolutely right: if the Government want a safe and fast passage for the Bill, the best thing would be to accept some of the superb amendments that are going to come from your Lordships. Many more amendments are required if we are to face up to the scale of the damage that is happening to our planet, and to the human race.
The Bill has some ambition but falls far short of what is needed, not least because its fundamental mechanics are hooked on a duty for Ministers to merely have due regard to the environmental policy statements. This creates a very weak foundation that can be overridden by Ministers far too easily. In talking about the office for environmental protection the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford cited a lack of independence. That would actually make the OEP dysfunctional, even pointless, so that office really has to be bolstered by some good amendments.
Then there are the concerns raised by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. Many more noble and learned Lords able to articulate those issues will speak later in the debate, but the point is quite simple. The Government are creating a new system of environmental law that is almost undeserving of being called law because it is so full of loopholes and get-out clauses and allows unlawful acts to carry on unimpeded.
The Greens in your Lordships’ House will be incredibly helpful during the passage of the Bill; we will try to help the Government improve it as much as we can. However, none of this is from the Government themselves. They have promised to leave the environment in a better condition than we inherited it, and the Bill will not do that. The noble Lord, Lord Khan, described it as a step backwards, but in some places it is a full retreat. It is therefore incumbent on your Lordships in our House that we defeat the Government vigorously and repeatedly during the coming stages of the Bill. We have to do it for our own well-being but also for our children and grandchildren—and for the humans and species who will inherit the earth long after we have gone.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, talked about unpredictable nature. We have to be absolutely sure that what we are doing is the safest way forward. I believe that, although the Minister is very committed to the environmental agenda, the Government are not. They simply do not understand that the environment encompasses everything. It is not an issue on its own; it encompasses the economy, transport, education and social well-being. It is absolutely everything, and the Bill is our one opportunity to get it right.
My Lords, I declare my environmental and conservation interests as set out in the register. It is a delight to be taking part in this Second Reading today, so ably and passionately introduced by my noble friend the Minister. It is not just because I know that the knowledge, expertise and commitment to our precious environment in this House will make this a debate that will match the Government’s enthusiasm and commitment to legislate on this issue, but because I was privileged to be present at the birth of the Environment Bill before it was officially announced by Prime Minister Theresa May. Indeed, her foresight in initiating the Bill cannot be understated. Of course, it has been a long time coming as a result of both our leaving the EU and the political impasse that followed, which stagnated our legislative programme. But then, just as things started off again, the world was plunged into the Covid pandemic.
Interestingly, however, two things have come out directly from those delays. First, I have to say that the present Administration have improved the Bill significantly. Secondly, I believe that the pandemic has made us all more aware and more protective of our precious environment. There are of course elements of the Bill that I and many others will want to see strengthened and aspects added to—we have heard about many of them so far and will hear more. However, this should not deflect us from welcoming this much-anticipated and ground-breaking legislation.
The inclusion of the state of nature target has been most welcome although, as always, I shall want to see the details before I can give my 100% support to that aspect. Targets are one thing but only if they are ambitious enough to create meaningful action to achieve them. I welcome the targets in the other areas. I would like to see more ambition around air, water and soil quality, which I am sure we all acknowledge are at the heart of a healthy environment.
The measures with regard to water quality are, as I say, welcome but must go further. I am appalled by the current state of many of our rivers and streams, including those jewels in our riparian crown, the chalk streams. I echo the comments of my noble friend Lord Cameron of Dillington about sewage being discharged into our waterways. It is a national disgrace and we cannot sit idly by. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to give real increased resources to our enforcement agencies to reverse this situation.
Speaking of enforcement, as others have said —I am sure that others will follow—the office for environmental protection must be given genuine independent status if it is to achieve what we all hope it will, although I have to say that I have a lot more faith in Dame Glenys Stacey than some other noble Lords apparently have. I think she will do an excellent, independent job.
It is probably useful that we have an advisory time limit on the length of contributions today as there is so much in the Bill that I would like to discuss. However, I will just mention a few more points. The ideal of net gain on planning is admirable but it must apply to major infrastructure projects if it is to have meaning. There will be ample opportunity for me to speak about the environmental damages caused by HS2 at further stages of the Bill. However, noble Lords might be interested to hear that only last week, despite rather complacent answers from both HS2 and, indeed, the Environment Agency, it has now been acknowledged that there is a real risk of contamination to the drinking water at various locations along the route, including in Uxbridge and elsewhere in the London Borough of Hillingdon. That has emerged thanks only to the dogged campaigning of Sarah Green, one of my former constituents.
That issue raises something we should all be aware of. Sometimes, projects or schemes are put forward as environmentally friendly and are in most cases genuinely thought to be so, but end up being harmful to the environment. Biomass is one such area that must be looked at closely, especially as it receives huge subsidies from the taxpayer. That industry’s potential for deforestation brings me neatly on to the provisions in the Bill for the use of forest risk commodities in commercial activity. As many have said, this is a welcome step in the right direction, but I fear that it also has serious weaknesses around the question of illegality and may even convince some Governments to make more deforestation legal. I will return to that at later stages.
Planting more trees of the correct sort and in the right places is admirable, but we should not ignore the immense carbon storage potential of wetlands and grasslands. We should not just be ambitious about protecting what we have but equally ambitious about creating new habitats. I commend the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s “A Blue Recovery” to my noble friend and all those hard-working officials working on the Bill.
The overuse of pesticides is not only a danger to the whole fabric of our natural world but directly a threat to human health. I think my noble friend can look forward to some amendments on that issue too.
Finally, we have waited far too long for the introduction of a meaningful deposit return scheme. We must have a scheme that is the same throughout the United Kingdom and it should cover as many items as possible.
Although I have teased with promises of amendments to come, I will be trying to practise a certain degree of self-restraint as, above all, I want this important Bill to become law in the best state possible but without too much further delay. I thank my noble friend and his officials for discussing with me and many others across the House to try to sort out issues beforehand. I sincerely believe that the Bill could not be in better hands in this House and I hope that other departments will be as understanding on forthcoming issues around planning, transport and energy, which could derail the Government’s sincere and good environmental credentials, demonstrated so admirably by my noble friend the Minister. Indeed, I sincerely believe that the Prime Minister shares those environmental desires. However, I would mention the proposals to develop—or rather destroy—Swanscombe, and, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, the threat to the area adjacent to that standard bearer for rewilding, the Knepp estate, from housing developments.
Let us get on with this very important Bill. Our natural world cannot wait any longer, but there is much useful work for us to do first.
[Inaudible]—it has been a long time getting here and we should all welcome it. That is not to say that I or this House will welcome the Bill in all its aspects; indeed, many have already been touched on. I shall probably be following some amendments on air quality, pesticides—as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Randall, just now—and various aspects of water quality and the whole regime governing water and our natural waterways. During the subsequent process of the Bill, I shall also touch on issues arising from the interface between it and the Agriculture Act. I make no apology for returning to the issue to which so many noble Lords have already spoken: the central problem of the structure and the authority of the office for environmental protection and the powers given—or not given—to it by the Bill.
The switch from a largely European-determined framework of environmental legislation was never going to be an easy one. The Bill makes a bit of a stab at it but gets some fundamental things wrong. The Bill requires serious modification before we get back to a pre-Brexit situation. This House can improve it in that respect—it is good at scrutiny and we are required to be at our best as we go through the Bill clause by clause—but, like the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and my noble friend Lady Young, I have heard some rather disturbing rumours. I am apprehensive about the siren voices that are coming, which say that the Government want to see this Bill through as rapidly as possible, that they do not want the Lords to hold it up, that they are looking for a minimum number of amendments and that they are not prepared to compromise. I do not associate the Minister or the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, with these comments, but they do come from sources pretty close to the Government. I hope that the Minister can dissuade his colleagues from taking a negative or defensive attitude during the course of our proceedings. This Bill can become a better Bill and it can deliver a better environment, but that requires us to be allowed to scrutinise it and amend it properly.
In essence, the problem with the office for environmental protection is this: in our recent European past, the European Commission could ultimately strike down decisions or failures of any public body across Europe to act in accordance with European law, and could also require pretty substantial reparations—I know for a fact that Permanent Secretaries would on occasion quake in their shoes when they were told that the Commission was on their case—but that is lacking in the tone of this Bill. Like others, I was often critical of the Commission, its cumbersome methods and its very indirect approach but, at the end of the day, it had the power to ensure that even the most powerful public authorities and the most powerful private sector interests obeyed the diktats of European legislation and the principles that were laid down in that legislation.
However, the OEP, in the form presented here, falls well short of that. That is no criticism of the new chair or anyone who is likely to serve on it but, for example, taxation and public spending are excluded from its purview, its relationship with the Climate Change Committee is obscure and its powers to hold individual public authorities to account are limited. In effect, the powers are limited to the new process of an environmental review—a process that is still pretty obscure but clearly is not directly enforceable since its conclusions do not have the force of law and the courts are not obliged to uphold them. The reality is that, as set out in this Bill, the OEP is not fit for purpose. It is the job of the House of Lords to change that.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. He has raised some of the issues that are close to people’s hearts—especially whether the OEP will have the teeth that it needs. I also raise the issue that the Environment Agency has been cut to the bone so savagely that the idea that it will be able to enforce many of the measures is unlikely, which is a failing of many of the regulators at the moment.
This Bill is obviously a cornucopia. It has many good things coming out of it, but I raise one issue: the omission of heritage. This means that, under the Bill, monitoring and reporting and future environmental improvement plans would not be required to cover the historic features and structures in our landscape, which are inseparable from the natural world. Excluding them is to the detriment of both elements of our environment. It is also a particular concern in relation to the funding of heritage assets. We have lost half of our traditional farm buildings. Hundreds of thousands more are in decay, and almost half of all scheduled monuments are under threat, as are stone walls, parklands and historic field systems. As the 25-year environment plan says,
“our failure to understand the full value of …the environment and cultural heritage has seen us make poor choices. We can change that”.
Goal 6 of the current 25-year plan is
“enhanced beauty, heritage and engagement”
with the natural environment.
Similarly, the Agriculture Bill approaches the funding of all parts of the environment—natural and historic—on an equal footing but, in complete contrast, the Environment Bill does not follow this through. It ignores the 25-year environment plan’s lead. It excludes most heritage from its definition of “environment”, meaning that environmental planning would not need to take the holistic approach that is so effective in the current plan. This has implications for future heritage funding and the connections to the Agriculture Bill, as well as, in terms of data, annual reporting requirements for the Secretary of State and the office for environmental protection. It would not be difficult to reinsert “heritage” into the Bill. Obviously, the Defra officials will fight tooth and nail to stop any new elements being brought in, but it does not move very far from the present 25-year environment plan, which was of course brought in by the present Government.
I must declare an interest, having recently received a grant to restore an old stable block—a historic building that is over 200 years old. Since this was done with a grant, ensuring that the environmental aspects are adhered to, it now has house martins, swallows, greenfinches and even a red-squirrel feeder. I very much hope to talk to the Minister about his plans for the protection of red squirrels, mostly by the slaughter or contraception of grey squirrels. I ran a campaign a number of years ago in which we culled 27,000 grey squirrels in Northumberland to protect red squirrels. We sold them, and many were eaten in London restaurants.
The issue of water is covered in the Bill but there is a major omission in it as it is set out, in that it discusses water abstraction but not water use. In the water Bill, there is a specific duty for Ofwat to look at resilience, including water efficiency. I must declare an interest as CEO of the Water Retail Company, which works in the non-household sector. We set it up in the hope of selling water to people specifically on the water efficiency measures that we would produce. However, we have had no customers who actually look at water efficiency, and it has been a major failing that I cannot think of any examples, in any of the water contracts undertaken with all water retailers, of water efficiency being taken into account. As we are looking at running out of water in London in the next few years, the idea that we are not pushing water efficiency to the maximum extent seems short-sighted; also, of course, the more we use, the more we need to extract. I very much hope that the Government will look at including an element of water efficiency or making some provision for water efficiency. It is an area that should be covered by Ofwat, but Ofwat has failed to push this through as an element of its duties.
In such a short time there is little opportunity to raise other issues. However, one area that will need to be looked at carefully—and funded—is tree planting. I am looking to plant quite a substantial area. However, schemes that have gone before worry me. Farmers are paid for the first five years to plant trees and establish woodlands, but after that there is no ongoing support. We will end up with the situation we had with hedgerows, where people planted hedgerows, only for them to be grubbed up a few years later and not kept going. There is an opportunity to work with the private sector on carbon management to take this forward and I hope very much that this can be explored further in the Bill.
My Lords, the Bill is urgent and long delayed, so we must not waste time deliberating on it at length. It has been well scrutinised, but there are a number of points that the Commons have missed. My own interest is like that of most people: to prevent damage to the planet, especially to the least developed countries which have been hit hardest by climate change. However, I am also a member of the NFU and keen to introduce ELMS to west Dorset and to recommend any legislation that helps farmers adapt further to biodiversity and more sustainable land management.
It is not easy for farmers because there is understandable concern that ELMS will present considerable risks. While they are being offered a range of environmental choices to suit everyone, they fear they will lose their sense of security in the present landscape which provides the nation’s regular food supplies and the dependable regular income which goes with that. These fears are being amplified by the challenge of a whole raft of new trade deals. I realise that this issue came up in the Agriculture Bill but it is highly relevant to this one as well.
I suffer from a lung condition and am therefore acutely conscious of air pollution in London. Of course, there are cities around the world that are more extreme examples. But as the noble Lord, Lord Khan, said earlier, we in the UK still have to come up to WHO targets or guidelines if we are to prevent thousands of deaths. We need a better answer than the one given by the Minister, Rebecca Pow, in the Commons, which was basically to tighten local regulations and report and review the position annually.
The Government are trebling their tree-planting targets in England under the Trees Action Plan. That is fine, but this Bill talks about less deforestation, which means that forestry must surely be tackled much more urgently at the international and G20 level. The noble Lord, Lord Trees, made some vital points about pasture and grassland. Any sales here in the UK from illegal deforestation in the Amazon must be stopped, and forest clearance for food production must be slowed down, perhaps via shareholders of companies such as Cargill, JBS, McDonald’s, Burger King, Tesco and Unilever, as well as through pressure on Brazil from the G20 and the BRIC countries. JBS, aside from a massive cyberattack, is also the main target of Brazilian activists concerned about the overconsumption of meat and the destruction of the rainforest. Organisations such as Share Action in the UK which campaign on ethical investments are having a lot more impact these days on corporations and supermarket chains.
Most of us have watched David Attenborough and “Springwatch” or listened to farming programmes. We all know in principle that we need to halt and reverse the decline in habitats and species, but that is going to require a much more radical advance in public awareness and education for us to act on this as individuals. As the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said, we need a new vocabulary. I hope that I have finally reversed my earlier indifference to nature and biodiversity. I now confess that until recently, I did not spend one moment bewailing the loss of bumblebees, but now under the scrutiny of wife and family, I have begun to recognise the southern marsh orchid and all the species that I had dismissed as dandelions. I am learning to respect all the benefits of rewilding and the vital role of the beaver in flood control, which are recognised in the Bill.
Our oceans should be in the Bill. They need much better protection. The Benyon review has shown that the proposed highly protected marine areas must be strengthened. The HPMAs need careful designation, management, monitoring and enforcement, along with the funding that all of this requires. The Government will just have to stand up to the fishing industry, which is bound to suffer in the short term. Like the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, I would certainly support any amendment to further reduce plastic in the oceans and clean up our rivers and canals. I am very concerned about the depleted number of fish, which means that we will have to avoid overconsumption or there will not be any fish to consume.
The Bill deserves to pass. We can always have a second Bill, but we need to get on with this one because, as others have said, it is urgent. It has already been scrutinised at length by the Commons and in various Select Committees, including some in this House, such as the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I sincerely hope that noble Lords will be more restrained than usual in seeking to amend it further.
Finally, I look forward to hearing the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury and thank him sincerely for all the work that he has done in Parliament, including his support for South Sudan and Sudan, which are of special concern to his diocese.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the GWCT and the NFU. I will highlight two issues that are of great concern to not only rural areas but urban conurbations. Both of them are a complete disgrace which must be dealt with by Her Majesty’s Government without further delay. This Bill may well provide the vehicle to tackle these problems.
The first is the discharge of both treated and untreated sewage into our rivers. The Environment Agency’s own figures reveal that untreated sewage, including human waste, wet wipes and other particles, was released into waterways for in excess of 3 million hours in 2020, on over 400,000 occasions. Data on 10 water companies in England and Wales assembled by the BBC’s “Panorama” programme through environmental information requests suggests that seven out of 10 of those water companies had treatment works that were breaching their EA permits by dumping sewage before they had treated the specified volumes. One of the worst offenders was Welsh Water. In December last year, its Aberbaiden plant illegally dumped untreated sewage into the River Usk on 12 consecutive days. For pity’s sake, the Usk is a SSSI and an area of special conservation. It is the home of a very special and rare fish: the greater shad. If you go online to the Rivers Trust site, you will see a map of where water companies have released treated sewage and where overflows of untreated sewage have been sent into rivers. The damage being done to our waterways and the flora and fauna they support, not to mention humans such as canoeists, swimmers and the like, is irreparable unless we act now.
Thames Water is another shocker in this regard. In a statement it said:
“Putting untreated sewage into rivers is unacceptable to us, our customers and the environment, even when legally permitted”—
well, stop doing it. The company goes on to say:
“We absolutely want to go further, invest more, and play our part in helping the environment to thrive.”
That is all well and good in theory, but my feeling is that it is going to take strong action from the Government to make it happen. I have seen reports which say that the Government will bring measures forward, but when and how strong will their actions be? Clause 83 allows the Secretary of State to amend or modify water quality legislation, so let us have some government amendments to give that some real muscle.
On water abstraction, the advice I have received from the GWCT is really sensible. We need to achieve water-efficiency improvements through the harvesting and storage of rainwater from new developments. Hard surfaces in the built environment contribute to flooding, while new developments put pressure on already over-abstracted water bodies. Gathering, storing and utilising would reduce both these problems and current planning attitudes to on-farm storage need to be reconsidered.
I turn to the ever-increasing scourge of fly-tipping and littering in our countryside and urban areas. Nowhere is safe from the criminals and vandals who carry out these acts. Previous actions by the Government to try to tackle these problems would appear to have achieved little. I understand from the NFU that fly-tipping in rural areas is becoming much worse. Only last week, I had an email from a gentleman who had just returned to the UK after many years of working in Africa and Australia. He told me that he was quite disgusted by the state of dumped filth in our towns and countryside, worse than anywhere he has been. What sort of advertisement is that for our tourist industry, which is vital to putting the economy back on its feet?
Under whose remit does enforcement fall? In the case of local government, is it environmental health at district council level? It will be under severe staffing pressure, as are most local government departments, and I doubt whether it has much experience of case-building or enforcing fixed-penalty notices. Does it have the experience or back-up to visit and make inquiries in an area where it is likely to feel uncomfortable and intimidated? It might not have any powers to investigate, in any case. It is not a police priority, but it could be made so by the Home Secretary or individual police and crime commissioners.
Without a doubt, strong deterrent powers would assist. The ability to seize and destroy a vehicle used in fly-tipping, whoever it was owned by, would help. Make the polluter pay for the clear-up. Why should landowners suffer the costs of cleaning fly-tips from their land when it is no fault of theirs? There needs to be a duty on a person whose personal rubbish is in the fly-tip to provide the local authority with the name and company of whoever disposed of their rubbish, failing which the authorities should claim the full cost of clearance and disposal against them. The mantra we are given every day without fail is of the need to improve and clean up our environment. This welcome Bill provides that opportunity and I give it my support.
Many noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Cameron of Dillington and Lady Boycott, have already spoken of the limited independence of the OEP, citing issues of funding and the process for future appointments. The Defra family, as it has been called, is certainly a close one. What stands out for me is Defra’s power in Clause 24 to issue guidance to the OEP on how the OEP should enforce environmental law against Defra and other public authorities. As with other government amendments introduced in the Commons—I will come back to those—it is hard to avoid the sense of second thoughts being had and wings being clipped.
I will focus on a more technical but equally important issue: the enforcement powers of the OEP in Clauses 30 to 40 of the Bill. I venture to do so based on some experience of appearing in English and European courts for environmental activists, for Defra and, I admit with trepidation to the Minister, most recently for Heathrow Airport. As currently written, the new remedies risk being less effective than what we had, imperfect though the EU’s procedures were, and will certainly be less effective than they could or ought to be.
The investigatory stage will be long. Once the internal processes of the public authority have been exhausted, the OEP may conduct an investigation, conclude that there has been a serious failure to comply with environmental law and issue a decision notice, which may include non-binding recommendations. There may be cases that, given good will on all sides, lead to useful results, but they will not be the hardest cases—those in which a public authority has taken a decision that is thought to contravene environmental law. A recommendation from the OEP can neither undo a decision once taken nor require it to be revisited because of the well-established principle that the decision of a public authority affecting the rights of others cannot be altered or withdrawn—even if the decision-maker wanted it to be—in the absence of an express statutory power or the order of a court. Of course, the OEP, resources permitting, can apply to a court for an environmental review, but that procedure is itself fatally limited for two interlocking reasons.
First, it cannot even be invoked until the lengthy prelude has been completed, by which time the action complained of is likely to be well in the past. An investigation stage that cannot deal with unlawful decisions must be endured before the court that can deal with them is brought in, rendering the investigation not only pointless but counterproductive. I hope that the Minister, to whom I am grateful for the conversations that he mentioned—I think we have another one tomorrow—will consider introducing a shortcut procedure for urgent cases.
Secondly, the remedies that the court can grant on environmental review are remarkably restrictive. I do not mean just the absence of an EU-style power to fine, which, in my not-very-glamorous experience of defending against the European Commission in wastewater cases, was a background factor that operated keenly on the mind of the Government. I mean Clause 37(8), already referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, which allows a decision of a public authority to be quashed by the court only if it
“would not … be detrimental to good administration”
“would not … be likely to cause substantial hardship to, or substantially prejudice the rights of, any person”.
This looks a bit like a prototype for the alarming proposal currently being consulted on by the Ministry of Justice to introduce a statutory presumption that the quashing remedy in administrative law should operate only with prospective effect. As with that proposal, Clause 37(8) will tend to leave unlawful decisions undisturbed, remove or reduce the incentive to challenge unlawful decisions and elevate private and bureaucratic interests over public interests—that is, the interest in a clean environment and, as the Bingham Centre explained in its briefing for this debate, the rule of law.
Finally, given the severe limitations on environmental review, much weight will rest on judicial review. I know that the Minister shares my admiration for James Thornton and his organisation ClientEarth, which has enforced environmental standards through the courts in a number of countries—including here, where it successfully held the Government to account for their failure to require action from 45 local authorities with illegal levels of air pollution. I would be grateful if the Minister could answer two questions. First, why was this Bill amended in the Commons—I do not for a moment suggest the initiative was his—to limit the OEP’s power to bring judicial review proceedings to urgent cases only? Secondly, can he undertake that the prolonged and, as I have explained, largely toothless processes of OEP investigation and environmental review will not be advanced by Defra in the courts as alternative remedies that could justify the refusal to individuals of permission to apply for judicial review?
There is much that is sound, even admirable, in this Bill, but aspirations are little use without the ability to ensure that they are realised. I am reminded of the words of our last Advocate-General in the European court, Eleanor Sharpston, who once wrote that German environmental law, which looked good but was hard to enforce in the courts, was like
“a Ferrari with its doors locked shut”.
As the Prime Minister said to Tom McTague of The Atlantic in a piece published this morning:
“People live by narrative … Human beings are creatures of the imagination.”
Those are perceptive words, and the vision of a powerful green watchdog holding the Government fearlessly to account makes for a good narrative. However, to usher into law a Potemkin watchdog and judicial discretions that are unnecessarily constrained would be a dereliction of our duty. Imagination must be backed up by reality, and this House can—and, I hope, will—help to achieve that.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, who raised important issues. I draw attention to my registered interests.
At Second Reading in another place, Labour’s shadow Minister described this Bill as “okay”, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Young, today—faint praise but rightly so since, although the Bill has worthy aims, it falls short on many counts, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, mentioned. Some of these may yet be addressed but, as it stands, the Bill reflects many missed opportunities.
Back in the 1960s, before we joined the European Union, Britain was regarded as the dirty man of Europe. Our polluted rivers, smog-filled air, filthy beaches and the appalling condition of many fast-food outlets reflected atrocious environmental standards. It was only following the application of European regulations on these matters that things improved significantly. Today, 80% of our environmental law comes from Europe. Now that we have left the EU, I shudder to think that we could face regression in such matters. The Bill is needed to replace the framework provided by the European Union with a UK framework. That obviously makes every good sense but, as always, the devil is in the detail.
The Bill fails to engage with the need to reduce Britain’s global footprint systematically, as a cornerstone of the UK’s environmental strategy. My fear is that the proposed OEP will not be truly independent and that the regulator will not be at arm’s length from government, as highlighted by the noble Lords, Lord Cameron and Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. There are no meaningful targets in the Bill, no strategy to counter cataclysmic threats of climate change and no guarantee against regression.
As has just been mentioned, the Bingham Centre has drawn attention to a fundamental deficiency in the new principle being introduced in the Bill for a breach of its provisions; namely, the statement of non-compliance. That does nothing to reverse the validity of the unlawful conduct and we must certainly address this issue.
Important challenges are underplayed in the Bill, such as the marine environment and the urgent need to mitigate inland flood dangers. I look forward to the promised government amendment. The Bill as it stands fails to deal adequately with airborne pollution, which is currently running at 10 times the EU safety level, with particulates killing more than 36,000 people in Britain each year. There is no real attempt to tackle plastic waste in all its forms. The Local Government Association makes the important point that while it fully supports its role in maximising the recycling of waste, the cost should rightly revert to the creators of that waste, but the Bill fails on that account too. There is a massive disparity within these islands on the recycling of waste. The figures speak for themselves: the recycling rate for local authority municipal waste in Wales now stands at over 64%—the third highest in Europe. In England, the figure remains stubbornly low. However, we in Wales also have our problems, such as the release of effluent into rivers, as the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, mentioned a moment ago.
The subject matters covered by the Bill are largely devolved to Wales and Scotland, as is responsibility for associated portfolios which impact on environmental issues, such as agriculture, roads, planning, water resources and healthcare. In these circumstances, I can assume only that the workings of the Act in Wales and Scotland will be by the consent and sometimes through the agency of the Governments of Wales and Scotland and that in devolved matters covered by the Bill, the devolved legislatures will be able to amend legislation as they see fit. In Committee in the Commons, Deidre Brock MP proposed an amendment requiring that when the OEP acts in Scotland it can do so only with the consent of Scottish Ministers. The Minister, Rebecca Pow MP, responded that the OEP had been given a duty to consult devolved Governments on matters regarded as being of general UK applicability, including water. If the OEP is going to meddle with matters relating to water in Wales, it must do so only with the express consent of the Welsh Parliament. I noted the Minister’s commitment this afternoon to introduce amendments requested by Senedd Cymru and I hope they cover this most sensitive of matters.
There is one final point which I ask noble Lords to consider. The impact of global warming would devastate our grandchildren’s generation and destroy the world which we have been so profligate in failing to safeguard for future generations. How do we encourage young people to be unremittingly determined to address this issue without themselves becoming overwhelmed by the enormity of its consequences? I well remember that when I was a youngster one of the issues that worried us was nuclear conflagration. It terrified us to the point of neurosis. I am aware that many youngsters today are petrified that life on our planet could be snuffed out within two generations. In giving this subject overriding priority, we must harness their energy in a way that does not harm them. We must not sweep the issue under the carpet but empower members of the younger generation and give them agency in these matters so that they feel that their voices make a positive difference. The Bill gives an opportunity to do just that, if it is significantly strengthened, and this approach should surely be central to our thinking.
My Lords, I declare my environmental interests as set out in the register. I begin by extending a warm welcome to the latest Defra Minister, my noble friend Lord Benyon. My noble friend Lord Gardiner was an excellent Minister and has been replaced by an equally excellent Minister. Indeed, Defra is an unusual department in that it has been given Ministers who have a long track record of being environmental champions—from my honourable friend Rebecca Pow MP to my noble friends Lord Goldsmith and Lord Benyon. This trend of having Ministers who know their stuff before joining a department might just catch on—I am sure the Whitehall machine will do all it can to put a stop to it.
First, I will comment in my capacity as chair of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. The committee published its report this morning. Despite the large number of delegations—110 of them—and 17 Henry VIII clauses, 48 of the delegations are affirmative and only two Henry VIII delegations are negative, a point which might reassure my noble friend the Duke of Montrose. This 44% of delegations being affirmatives is probably a record for democratic accountability in any Bill, and if Defra can do it in this landmark legislation, there is no excuse for other government departments cutting out proper parliamentary scrutiny. My committee also praised the delegated powers memorandum, which is a textbook example of its kind. When the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee slams into a department for producing a poor, flimsy memorandum, it should look at this Defra memorandum to see how it should be done. I also commend the department on gutting and rewriting the notorious Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill 2019, which we severely criticised and stopped when it arrived in this House. The committee has only five criticisms of the Bill. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will take them all on board and give the department a 100% record of compliance with our recommendations.
In a personal capacity, I can also praise Defra. I warmly welcome the Bill and support every aspect of it. It has taken some time to get here, but it keeps improving every month, with the splendid addition two weeks ago of a species recovery target for 2030. I am particularly enthused by Part 6, which creates nature recovery strategies and a duty to conserve nature. This is in line with all prime ministerial and ministerial speeches which use the word “nature”. The Bill also creates biodiversity registers and biodiversity net gain.
The word “biodiversity” is used more than 140 times in the Bill, but do ordinary people talk about getting closer to biodiversity? Of course not. All the latest studies show that people relate to nature and want to get closer to it. It is a common word that we understand, but biodiversity is perceived by ordinary people to be a more scientific, technical thing of interest only to boffins and specialists. Indeed, I have just looked at an online BBC News article which states that in a recent survey most people thought that “biodiversity” was something to do with washing powder. Experts in this House, government and wildlife NGOs may scoff at that, but getting this law right is about a lot more than using nice, correct legal language.
This Bill is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to engage with people who over the past 15 months have said they want to get out and about and relate more to nature. The Government and everyone talk about nature recovery strategies and nature-based solutions. Two weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Defra went to something called a “nature moment” and announced the nature for climate peatland grant scheme. Since “nature” is the word everyone understands, let us make sure that our legislation speaks in a language that ordinary people use. There is no excuse not to use “nature”. The Office of the Parliamentary Counsel’s official guide to drafting legislation states in paragraph 1.3.1:
“Write in modern, standard English using vocabulary which reflects ordinary general usage.”
Je repose ma valise—as we say in the pubs in general usage—I rest my case.
I have looked at every usage of “biodiversity” in the Bill, and I conclude that we can safely replace it with “nature” and not lose a single legal or scientific concept. Of course, I exempt international treaties and there may be one or two other exceptions. I invite all noble Lords to look for themselves and then support some exemplar amendments I shall put down—not 141 of them. I shall also table an interpretation clause similar to Clause 43 which will ensure that the word “nature” will not leave any legal gaps or create new legal obligations.
Biodiversity net gain—or nature net gain, as I hope it may be called—is a very important provision. It will bring huge improvements to nature wherever it applies. However, the 10% net gain requirement does not apply everywhere, since the Government have exempted nationally significant infrastructure projects, which we debated in the HS2 phase 2a Bill recently. I shall also table an amendment to apply 10% nature net gain to all these NSIPs. I believe the Government should set an example to private developers, not excuse themselves. No Government in history have sought to do more for the environment or nature than this one. The pace of announcements on nature and the breadth of what the Government are seeking to achieve with this Bill are breath-taking. I suggest that making nationally significant infrastructure projects comply with the 10% net gain requirement would add even more credibility, both nationally and internationally, to the Government’s reputation.
Finally, I welcome the peroration of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. I passionately support everything we can do in this Bill and elsewhere to increase our nature and to make sure that we do not just recover it, but enhance it significantly. However, while doing that, we must never forget that we need food produced in this country from our land. In fact, we need more food produced and less imported which may be from less environmentally sensitive systems.
My Lords, the Minister made the point about the magnitude and gravity of the Bill and, in my view, that applies nowhere more specifically than to Part 5, dealing with water. It has become critical that the Environment Agency be given the funds and the freedom to protect our rivers—it needs to be shorn of government directions to put the economy before the environment, and it needs the funding to enforce existing legislation without fear or favour.
In its petition to Parliament to
“Give the Environment Agency the funds and freedom to protect English rivers”,
Salmon & Trout Conservation says:
“The Government must reverse years of cuts to Agency budgets, increase charges for polluters, and give the Agency freedom from overly business-friendly Government codes and guidance, so it can pursue and achieve its principal statutory objective to protect and enhance English rivers.”
I urge all noble Lords to sign that petition.
The big beasts in this tangled forest of contradiction, indecision and confusion are the privatised water companies long ago sold off to corporate investors who loaded their assets with huge debt, used to distribute as dividends to the shareholders, with not much more than a backward glance at the reinvestment in infrastructure of the industry.
Time moves on, and last week’s financial pages were full of rumours of another series of takeovers by the Pennon Group, owners of South West Water among other utilities. The comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, are valid here in regard to the rivers of southern England and, in particular, the chalk streams in Hampshire. Just days before this debate, a glossy leaflet dropped through my letterbox, supported by Southern Water, urging residents on the edge waters of the Test and the Itchen to save water to prevent overabstraction and save our chalk stream wildlife—undoubtedly a very worthy ambition, but with no mention of increasing efforts to reduce leakage in the water supply system or of replacing worn-out pipes and preventing water-main bursts. Yet as the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, pointed out, national statistics show that water companies apparently lose something like 3,000 million litres of water through leakages every day, and suffer 47,000 pipe bursts every year. Southern Water alone apparently suffers a break in each and every mile of its pipe network each and every year.
The outcome of inadequate legislation, poor enforcement and minimal investment has been a relentless decline in the health of our chalk streams and rivers and their wildlife for decades. I have lived beside the headwaters of the River Itchen for over half a century and I can bear witness to this remorseless decline. Scientific evidence from the river bed in the form of kick samples of Gammarus, the shrimp-like invertebrate at the bottom of the food chain, shows their concentration to be between 200 and as low as 70 per sample by the Itchen Valley villages. A good but not unremarkable total would have been more than 4,000 per sample.
About 700 years ago, Bishop de Lucy had a weir constructed to carry the road to Basingstoke out of Alresford over the Alre and the Itchen headwaters. Behind the weir, the Alresford Pond grew to teem with fish and eels to the benefit of town and church. Today, the pond is an SSSI, but over the last 30 years the Environment Agency has allowed it to become polluted by uncontrolled industrial agricultural processing, oversilted and virtually dead.
The following actions should be taken. None of them is a new proposal and most have been urged on the Environment Agency, Ministers, Ofwat and others for decades. They are not comprehensive; they are just those needed urgently. To ensure the sustainable abstraction stressed by the Minister it should become unlawful to abstract water from the aquifer or the watercourse and return it in a poorer state than when it was abstracted—a clear and simply understood and publicly supported measure. Any business abstracting or discharging through septic tanks or otherwise should have to meet the cost of monitoring the water quality above their abstraction point and below the discharge point, strictly at no cost to the public purse.
The Environment Agency should be enabled to direct water companies to install mains drainage generally and particularly in headwater villages, where septic tank systems have been the norm. The ridiculous impasse between the Environment Agency and water companies caused by avoidance of responsibility to regulate new mains drainage must be removed. The current situation leads to villages such as Cheriton, of 1,000 inhabitants and a key headwater to the Itchen, relying solely on septic tanks yet being no more than a stone’s throw away from the Alresford sewage works, in operation since 1944. This situation applies to literally thousands of rural homes where there is as yet no mains drainage.
Manufacturers of domestic chemical cleaners, whether of chlorine or similar base, should be obliged to add conspicuous warning labels to their products against their use in houses with septic tanks because of the danger to the aquifer. All septic tank owners should be advised not to use and discharge harmful chemicals that would damage the aquifer. My final point, for the moment at least, is that water companies should be required to install phosphate strippers at sewage works handling discharges from far fewer than the current yardstick of 10,000 inhabitants. Many already do and, as a start, the figure for compulsory and immediate stripping could be reduced to 5,000 inhabitants.
Finally, I place on record my thanks to the many local residents, riparian owners, action groups and other NGOs that have briefed me with their concerns as the Bill comes through the House of Lords.
My Lords, I welcome the Bill’s quest to ensure that our companies use resources sustainably and limit packaging. Equally significantly it encourages us, the consumers, to become more responsible in recycling and reusing not just plastic but other resources as well. I intend to limit my comments to Part 3, dealing with waste and resources.
Unless we take action to reduce waste now the problem will subsume us all. It is estimated that the amount of plastic entering the oceans will triple by 2040 to become the equivalent of dumping 7 stone of plastic on every yard of coastline around the world. Surveys show that three-quarters of the British public think not enough is being done to stop plastic pollution. Most of us think we are doing our bit to become stewards of the environment. However, so many of us are still resistant to making personal sacrifices of time and money, even if they will benefit the environment.
All of us need a nudge and, in some cases, a big shove from government to make us become more environmentally responsible. The Bill goes a long way to creating that much-needed shove, but it could go even further. I want us to be the most environmentally responsible citizens in the world. I fear that, without rapidly setting targets on waste, making the schemes in Part 3 more urgent and extensive, this country will not achieve that aim. I welcome the initial clauses of the Bill to set targets on waste and resources efficiency, which will be central to the Government’s waste strategy. I hope that they will take the opportunity to surpass the EU’s proposed targets of halving waste and potential resource consumption by 2030.
I am hopeful that the resource efficiency requirements in the Bill will diminish the use of plastics and generate a more circular economy, but there is too much emphasis on the disposal of plastic rather than reducing its initial use—a move which has been strongly supported in a recent letter signed by businesses ranging from Nestlé to Aldi. It feels ungrateful to say that that will not be enough, but it will not. The World Wildlife Fund warns that our emphasis must be not just on the reduction of plastics but on ensuring that the materials used as substitutes do not go on to create another environmental problem. Environmentalists warn that the substitution of wood and paper for plastic can encourage further deforestation, reduction in biodiversity and chemical waste when it is manufactured. So I will be pushing the Government to extend the single charges scheme for plastics to other environmentally valuable resources. The target must be to drive down our culture of single use across a range of materials.
To support this, emphasis must be put on reuse and refill schemes; after all, most plastic can be recycled a maximum of only six times before it becomes unusable. Across the country, we are seeing exciting refill pilot schemes led by Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s. They are all developing stores where an increasing range of products can be bought without packaging. Huge consumer brands that have always used packaging as an important marketing tool are coming round to the idea of reusable packaging. Unilever has just created a deodorant holder that can be refilled with deodorant sticks. This is not only environmentally friendly but, from the company’s point of view, binds the consumer even more tightly to the brand.
Supermarkets are keeping audits on how much plastic packaging they are using, but they are doing so with different metrics. I urge the Government to consider standardising these measurements so that a true comparison of the plastic packaging being used can be created—useful information for consumers, companies and government alike. The deposit return scheme is central to this reuse programme; it will give a strong nudge to encourage us all to recycle and, we hope, reuse containers. However, I am concerned that the Government are being too limited by covering only small drinks containers. Michael Gove, when Environment Secretary, said that a scheme covering all drinks containers would give consumers the greatest possible incentive to recycle. However, I fear that the Government’s new, second consultation on the scope of the DRS has a more limited ambition. There are fears that the Government will introduce a limited scheme, and not until late 2024 at the earliest. Already, the Environmental Audit Committee in the other place has called the delay “unnecessary”. As the noble Lord, Lord Randall, said, this should be an area where the Government introduce uniformity across the country. Scotland is already planning an all-inclusive deposit scheme. The UK must move forward together on this. I urge the Government to be more ambitious and speedy in this area.
What brings into sharp focus our inability to use our resources efficiently is the disposal and recycling of our waste. This country exports half its plastic packaging waste, but recycles just a third of that waste. The BBC’s “Panorama” showed the horrific scenes of this waste being exported to Turkey where, far from being recycled, it was burned in backyards in the poorer parts of the country. The Turkish Government have now banned UK recycling exports and the Basel convention limits where the trade can go. I welcome the transfrontier shipping clauses in the Bill, which will further limit the export of our waste but, unless we reduce our use of plastics and other materials, and unless we reduce what we throw away, we will need to either continue exporting our waste or double this country’s infrastructure for dealing with it.
I applaud the Government for the Bill but, as it passes through its various stages in this House, I hope that the Minister will listen to concerns from millions across this country and be open to amending Part 3 and its schedules. Like most other noble Lords, I hope that, when the Bill leaves this House, it will be at the forefront of legislation to protect the environment and make our economies more sustainable. I want us to be a beacon for the world to emulate.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for his introduction to this already improved Bill, which I welcome in principle. However, I am not as optimistic as he is that this is the silver bullet needed to save our natural environment; we have been here many times before with legislation that has been touted as the answer to our problems. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was enacted to reflect the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, and that on the protection of migratory species. I remember my noble friend, the late Lord Bellwin, introducing the Bill on 16 December 1980, nearly 41 years ago, and saying that the Government recognised the
“awakening awareness, both nationally and internationally, of the need for conservation of our wildlife resources”.—[Official Report, 16/12/1980; col. 983.]
Since then, as your Lordships will know, there have been numerous pieces of additional legislation, including the habitats directive in 1992 and the birds directive in 2009. However, on recent evidence, we have failed miserably to stop the decline in nature and our natural environment; we must ask ourselves why.
Two major contributions to that failure have been the lack of practical wildlife management, which has been overlooked, and the fact that the current rules are often impractical and ineffective. This Bill is just one part of jigsaw legislation and supporting policy statements. Thus, the way this Bill and the Agriculture Act, strategies on tree planting, peatland, food and biodiversity and the industrial strategy work together is key to ensuring that there are no unintended consequences or voids. Looking to the future, the rather feared planning reform Bill will probably undo quite a lot of the good that this Bill will do.
Compliance involves more than just regulation and sanction; it involves understanding motive, incentive, encouragement and soft governance. The latter is part of ELMS, found in the Agriculture Act, while this Bill provides the legal and statutory aspects of environmental governance. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said, the two need to marry to deliver the ambition of a very high take-up of ELMS; but is that enough to achieve an improvement in our environment? I am concerned that the long-term environmental target priority areas in Clause 1 are not fully aligned with the policy ambition
“for significantly improving the natural environment”,
given, for example, the goals that the Government have identified in their 25-year environment plan. Just as the Agriculture Act was amended to reflect the value of healthy soil to society, so this Bill needs to address the environmental damage caused by soil loss, such as the impact on riverine and estuarial habitats through sedimentation and eutrophication, flooding due to sediment build-up in watercourses, and loss of organic carbon from the soil bank due to erosion. My noble friend said that he would introduce amendments on this; I will read them with care.
Furthermore, environmental hazard mitigation, such as for the increasingly common and damaging wildfires, is not sufficiently addressed by the priority areas. While I welcome the ambition of setting targets in law to provide a means of holding government to account, these need to be complemented by a robust review framework to provide suitable accountability and ensure that targets are not simply reset as, for example, in the case of the biodiversity 2020 targets. There is justifiable concern that many of the key environmental indicators do not have relevant or robust metrics, a point made by the National Audit Office report, which stated:
“There remains a patchwork of sets of metrics that do not align clearly with government’s overall objectives or with each other.”
It also said that there are “some important gaps”, such as soil health.
It is essential that advice in setting these targets, which will come from those who are independent and have relevant experience, must include practitioners and not just theorists. Like many others, I am concerned that the role and status of the office for environmental protection is much too weak and a significant step back from the situation that we were in as members of the EU. Picking up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, has my noble friend seen the evidence from the analysis of the Bill by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and, if so, what is his response?
Another area of concern is waste. Although it is right to improve how we handle it, I will be tabling amendments on trying to reduce the amount we produce in the first place, as prevention is just as important as cure.
In the forthcoming stages, I will focus on trying to ensure that the Bill really will provide adequate—rather than just nominal—protection for plant species and our natural environment, which are at risk.
My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register, in particular my involvement with the BioRISC initiative at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.
The UK has positioned itself as a world leader on environmental issues, and now it must deliver. I welcome the arrival of the Bill, however late, but, like other speakers, I recognise that significant work needs to be done if it is to deliver. Deferring to those with greater knowledge and experience of these matters, I shall restrict my comments to two devolution implications and two other issues that I have raised previously, most recently in the Queen’s Speech debate.
On the devolution matters, I have the benefit of an excellent briefing from the Law Society of Scotland, a point to which I shall return. Presently, the Bill’s provisions concerning environmental principles extend to England and Wales and apply to England only. Happily, the principles set out in Clause 16 are in line with the guiding principles on the environment set out in Section 13 of the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021, an Act of the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Act requires reference to the principles themselves, taking account of their interpretation by the Court of Justice of the European Union, whereas, under this Bill, the reference point is the policy statement to be made by the Secretary of State.
Differentiation is a natural consequence of devolution and the extent to which consistency is sought is a political matter. However, coherence in the way principles are understood and applied will be essential in ensuring that international environmental obligations are met. Avoiding disparities is particularly significant given the transboundary effects of environmental impacts, and at all costs we must avoid disparities that encourage “environmental regulatory tourism”. Given the duties imposed on UK Ministers under the Scottish Act, strong collaboration between the UK Government and devolved Administrations on environmental governance is essential. Some coherence will also be of assistance to UK-wide discussions and forums—for example, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the REACH regime.
The second issue is the importance of the office for environmental protection working closely alongside environmental governance bodies in the devolved Administrations. Clarification on the reserved functions of UK Ministers relating to Scotland that will be subject to oversight by the OEP is essential. Clause 42(1) provides for a restriction on the OEP in relation to disclosure of information. Clause 42(2)(f) provides an exception for a disclosure
“made to a devolved environmental governance body for purposes connected with the exercise of a devolved environmental governance function”.
This exclusion is welcome but insufficient. The Bill should provide for either a wider power to, or an obligation on, the OEP to share information and work with relevant bodies in devolved Administrations where necessary, including provisions for joint investigations to be undertaken by the OEP and one or more environmental governance bodies in the devolved Administrations where appropriate.
The Law Society briefing raises many additional issues—too many to cover in the limited time I have. I am sure it has passed a copy to the Bill team for their consideration. If not, I shall forward mine to the Minister’s office. I look forward to seeing the amendments referred to by the Minister in his opening remarks and the extent to which they reflect the issues raised concerning devolution.
Substantial public money has already been wasted through the failure of many agri-environmental schemes because the best available evidence was not appropriately used to inform their design. How do the Government plan to ensure that the proposals for the restoration of peatlands and planting of trees adopt evidence-based principles in planning, execution and monitoring? In the Queens Speech debate, I asked:
“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?”—[Official Report, 17/5/21; col. 350.]
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, which was:
“the Office for Environmental Protection will work closely alongside our world-leading Committee on Climate Change”.—[Official Report, 17/5/21; col. 426.]
He then thanked it for the guidance it had provided in this regard. I hold the CCC in the highest regard, but I am tempted to ask why the Minister believes that climate experts are the best experts to answer on ecology.
Finally, I turn to an issue that I know the Minister has supported in the past: banning lead ammunition. On 23 March, six years after receipt of the completed report of the Government’s own Lead Ammunition Group recommending that lead ammunition be phased out, the Environment Minister Rebecca Pow announced plans to do just that, saying in a Defra press release:
“A large volume of lead ammunition is discharged every year over the countryside, causing harm to the environment, wildlife and people.”
Her words accurately summarise the extensive harmful consequences of its use and make a compelling case for action now to protect human and animal health. But, inexplicably, she goes on to announce the commissioning of
“an official review of the evidence to begin”
“with a public consultation in due course.”
The impacts of lead ammunition on wildlife, the environment and human health have been known for years. So, I repeat:
“Given the Government’s view that extensive harm is being caused today”,
a view shared by many,
“why have they commissioned a further evidence review?”—[Official Report, 17/5/21; col. 350.]
I hope that, in winding up the debate, the Minister will have time to respond to the matters I have raised. If not, I hope he will agree to write.
My Lords, this Bill is both welcomed and long overdue. It could give us the basis for reversing decades of careless mistreatment of our natural environment and the opportunity to enjoy cleaner air and rivers and restore degraded habitats and biodiversity.
As my noble friend Lord Cameron mentioned earlier, in 1973, when we joined the European Union, we were labelled the dirty man of Europe. We have made significant process since then, largely as a result of EU rules and enforcement, but there is still a long way to go. It is said that this Bill will help us go further, but I remain to be convinced. To explain why, I want to focus on biodiversity—or nature, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, prefers to call it.
The UK is one of the most depleted countries in the world in terms of biodiversity. The Natural History Museum has calculated an index of biodiversity intactness. Using this measure of the health of our natural environment, we rank 189th in the world, and we are bottom of the G7 countries. In the past 10 years, 41% of our bird species have decreased and 15% of our wildlife is threatened with extinction. The dreadful state of our nature is at least in part a result of living in a densely populated country in which nearly three-quarters of our land is used for farming or the built environment. We have simply squeezed nature out of its home.
I am therefore very pleased to learn that the Government intend to introduce legally binding targets for restoring biodiversity through this Bill. However, the Government have set targets for halting nature’s decline before and failed to meet them. For instance, in 2010 the Government signed up to the so-called Aichi targets under the global convention on diversity. In 2019, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee found that we had made insufficient progress on 14 out of 19 targets. Furthermore, in 2020 the JNCC reported that only about half the sites of special scientific interest in this country are in favourable condition and that there has been no improvement in this score over the past 15 years. So, forgive me if I sound a bit sceptical, but I would like the Minister to explain why we should believe any new commitments to meet biodiversity targets, given the Government’s past record of failure.
At the same time, I hope the Minister can unpack a bit more of the detail. First, will the targets involve halting the decline of particular species, taxonomic groups or habitats, or all three? Secondly, do the Government know what actions they will have to take to restore nature? Many of the initiatives supported under Pillar 2 of the common agricultural policy failed to enhance nature because they were not based on good science—a point just made by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton. Will the Government be able to avoid making the same mistakes? Where is the science going to come from?
Thirdly, how will the Government calculate the trade-offs that will inevitably have to be made? Creating more space for nature means less space for human activity, be it space for producing food, building houses, roads or businesses—a point made by my noble friend Lord Cameron of Dillington. Fourthly, and more particularly, proposed new Schedule 7A to the 1990 Act refers to a “biodiversity metric”. I hope the Minister can shed light on how this is to be calculated. For example, how many stone-curlews equal one purple emperor?
Last but not least, what the sanctions be if the Government fail to meet their biodiversity targets? We have been told that the new office for environmental protection will hold public authorities, including Ministers, to account. I share the Minister’s respect and admiration for the chair, Dame Glenys Stacey. However, as we have heard this afternoon, there is a tide of expert legal opinion that the Bill does not give the OEP sufficient powers or independence to fulfil its role. These points have been eloquently explained by my noble friend Lord Anderson of Ipswich and others. I would also like to acknowledge a meeting I had with the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and Tim Buley QC to discuss these points.
In sum, I like the declared intentions of the Bill. I know the Minister is committed to improving our environment, but there is still a great deal of work to be done to explain how this will be achieved. I look forward to working with him and other noble Lords as we debate and improve this important Bill.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and my husband’s forestry interests. A legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic must be that we grasp the opportunity to protect and enhance our natural environment and tackle the climate emergency. I welcome this important piece of legislation as it is vital that we continue to improve air quality, protect against flooding and ensure that our transport, waste and energy policies are environmentally sustainable.
Local government is already prioritising environmental goals, including leading the way towards achieving net-zero carbon emissions, increasingly with ambitious plans to achieve this before the Government’s 2050 target. The Bill points to a new environmental relationship between local and national government, with potentially greater responsibility sitting with councils. The impact of this is that councils will have a new environmental improvement role within their localities.
Local government is well placed to take the lead on this agenda, but, to deliver on these ambitious plans, authorities will need to have appropriately skilled staff, which many do not have at present, and be given adequate resources. I would like to see more detail about how certain provisions within the Bill will be implemented and the potential associated new burdens that will be imposed on councils as a result. Will producers be required to pay councils the full net cost of the waste generated by their products? Will councils have the freedom to decide locally on the best system of waste collection? At this stage, it is difficult to predict the impact of the legislation and the costs for local authorities in meeting their new statutory duties. It would be helpful if the Government could confirm that there will be an assessment of how the new duties are operating into the future.
The Bill includes provisions to strengthen and improve the duty on public bodies to conserve and enhance biodiversity, including mandating a biodiversity net gain through the planning system. I support the principle of increasing biodiversity net gain through the planning system, but the Bill currently does not require that biodiversity credits raised from developments be reinvested in the locality. Communities that accept developments in their area should be able to see improved biodiversity. I believe that credits should be retained by local authorities so that funding stays in the area where the development takes place and local people can have a say in how it can be used to improve the natural environment.
There would be a bigger set of opportunities to deliver change if the Environment Bill is properly aligned with the Agriculture Bill and the recently announced planning Bill. Getting land use right is a key factor in protecting nature and meeting net-zero targets. Forestry is a vital component in getting land use right in order to protect nature and meet net-zero targets. The Government recognise that increased tree planting is important. There was a manifesto commitment to increase planting to 30,000 hectares a year in 2025. However, little progress has been made over the past decade: only a few thousand hectares a year have been achieved.
The Environment Bill provides an ideal opportunity to put tree planting on a statutory footing and set a target for England that will drive delivery. The 25-year environment plan, published in 2018, identified the need to plant 7,500 hectares a year. I believe that this should be the target set in the Environment Bill. In order to achieve it, the Government must ensure that the necessary annual grant funding is made available for tree planting. It is vital that the process for approving grant applications, especially for larger areas of planting, is substantially improved. At present, the uncertainty and delay deter many applicants.
Aside from areas of ancient woodland, it is important that landowners are able to plant and manage their woodland to release the ongoing income that is required to pay for the management of woodland and support the continued benefits that these woodlands can provide. There needs to be scope to plant a variety of tree species, including conifers, which make up at least 90% of the market demand for wood.
I look forward to working with the Government and noble Lords as the Bill is debated in this House. We need to listen to councils, charities and other partners, which are calling for a holistic approach to tackling the climate emergency across a wide range of legislation and policy decisions.
My Lords, as has become clear from the debates and amendments in the other place, and as is reflected here today, there is potentially a tension at the heart of the Bill and surrounding it. It begs the question: what should society prioritise?
The claim is that the Bill puts nature’s recovery at the heart of all policies by creating binding biodiversity targets, backed up by yet another legalistic bureaucratic body to enforce regulations. All this has the potential to mean that environmental rules will rule and act as barriers to other political priorities, such as levelling up and economic development. In my opinion, we, and the Government, need to put a rocket under industrial growth, especially for left-behind areas. This is even more urgent after the havoc wreaked by locking down society in response to Covid. I dislike the slogan, “Build Back Better”, and I am even less keen on “build back greener”, which is doing the rounds this week, but building is necessary in whatever context, and it is an example of the tensions.
To illustrate these contradictions, look at the way—and how often—it has been argued that the Bill clashes with forthcoming planning legislation. The promise in that legislation to accelerate and boost much-needed mass housebuilding and large infrastructure projects by removing barriers to growth is surely worth cheering. Yet here, and in lobbyists’ briefings that we have received, it has been described as an utter disaster for biodiversity that will destroy swathes of the countryside—that is misinformation, by the way. It has been labelled a “dark age of development”—it is a dark age only if you think that the environment should trump citizens.
In some ways, there is a philosophical clash over what economic growth means and what our priorities should be. The Green Alliance, a supergroup of eco-NGOs, which sent us detailed briefings on the Bill and was quoted uncritically here earlier today, complains that UK consumption is now such that UK citizens create a greater carbon footprint in 12 days than citizens in seven other countries have in a year. We are invited to infer that UK consumption is too high, but the issue is that theirs is too low. The tragedy is that those seven nations of non-consumers are not consuming because their countries are in dire poverty, so under- developed that living in hunger and destitution is the norm. Even if that means that you do not emit too much carbon, that is not something that I will celebrate.
I hope that some of the Bill’s philosophical tensions can be debated in this Chamber. The problem with having a cross-party consensus on environmental issues is that all the arguments feel like a competition to outgreen one another, with no real challenges. That is not helped by a broader crass demonisation of critics, outside of here, who are called deniers who want to concrete over the countryside. I hope that there will be more nuance, and none of that, in this Chamber.
For example, we need proper debates. We should be debating whether we really should institutionalise the precautionary principle. After all, let us remind ourselves that the EU’s rigid adherence to the precautionary principle on vaccines led to fatal delays and a political debacle. Surely we should also debate the dangers of over-rigid targets and bans. Only recently, that much-maligned material, plastic, with the disposability of its products, became not a waste but a lifesaver, in the form of PPE such as gowns and face masks.
One issue that definitely needs to be debated is the plan to force companies to root out illegal deforestation from supply chains. I wonder whether there is a danger that punitive and onerous regulation of UK companies will create hidden victims in the developing world. I am thinking of the many individuals working in commodity supply chains in the developing world, whose livelihoods may be threatened if the complexities of supply chains are ignored in the pursuit of a Westminster-designed topdown eco-agenda. And what about the sovereignty of producer countries? Many of the UK companies affected have tried to remind the Government that we need to remember to respect those countries as partners. They need to be engaged, not imposed on.
The commentary and amendments tabled in the Commons demanding that that part of the Bill be expanded to financial institutions, in an attempt to prevent British banks financing any companies involved in deforestation—that amounted to £900 million last year—seem so hypocritical. I have heard lots of passionate outrage about aid cuts in this House, but surely attempts to curtail productive investment in the name of the environment are far more egregious.
That brings to mind the persuasive arguments outlined in a new pamphlet entitled Greens: the New Neo-colonialists, in which I declare an interest, as it was published by the Academy of Ideas, of which I am director. I shall ensure that I send the Minister a copy. I am wary of the rich world continually curtailing the developing world’s economic growth under the guise of environmentalism. This is just another example of the dangers of a Bill focusing on preserving the natural environment at the expense of human flourishing and economic growth.
A lot of the material sent by green lobbyists takes a pessimistic, misanthropic and catastrophising tone, implicitly suggesting, with much hyperbole, that human activity on the planet is toxic and responsible for crises, environmental damage and so on. Can we have a bit of perspective and balance as the Bill progresses, and remind ourselves that human activity on the natural planet has not, in the main, been destructive, but has been hugely creative in overcoming natural limits? It has brought us from the caves to modernity, it has allowed agriculture to feed billions, it has allowed us, the human species, to build productive economies and technological wonders, and it has brought freedom and democracy. That is what allows us the leisure time that will enable us to join the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, in bumblebee-watching in due course.
My Lords, I welcome the Environment Bill, which aims to address one of the greatest policy challenges of our time—that of climate change and the future of our planet. I wish briefly to address two issues today. The first is the role that local authorities should play in addressing this challenge. I declare my interest, as noted in the register, as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The second issue is longevity and demographic change, and the impact that they will have on our environment. Here I declare my interest as chief executive of the International Longevity Centre-UK.
The Bill takes the important step of establishing the office for environmental protection, which will hold the Government to account on environmental protection. One cannot ignore the fact that much of the work in protecting our environment must be delivered at local community level. We know that many poorer local authorities and parish councils struggle to play their part, because of financial and other resource constraints. As part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda, will they consider supporting local authorities to improve things such as local recycling or tree-planting initiatives? Will they consider establishing a community environment fund to support local authorities and parish councils in this way?
Many of us are living longer: according to the ILC-UK, one in three girls born this year will live to 100. Because of this longevity, people’s life courses are changing, which impacts on where they live, where and how they work, and how they interact with the natural environment. We also know that—because of immigration, which is essential to our economy and enriches our society, and various other factors—the population of the UK is set to increase by 9.7 million, and will reach 74.3 million by 2039.
In the Civitas report authored in 2020 by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, called Britain’s Demographic Challenge, the noble Lord makes the point that that population increase is equivalent to 3.5 times the population of Greater Manchester, or 1.7 times that of the West Midlands conurbation. If the current distribution of the population continues, the ONS figures suggest that, to house that projected population increase, Norwich and Guildford will have to build about 1.4 houses a day for the next 25 years, Stockton will have to build 1.2 a day, and Dundee will have to build just under one a day.
One of the key focuses in the Bill is water quality, and strengthening the powers of the regulator, Ofwat. As part of this, will the Government consider how the projected population increase will affect the demand for water and put far greater pressure on our environment?
The Bill is welcome, and is an important step in addressing climate change. Most of us accept the scientific advice that the current climate crisis is the result of human activity. Therefore, we as humans cannot ignore the fact that longevity and demographic changes to our population will have a significant impact. We must also ensure that local and central government have the strategies and the resources to address these very important and difficult challenges.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for introducing this long-awaited and largely welcome Bill. In general, I welcome it, as it provides a robust framework for environmental governance. I observed its progress through another place, and I particularly agree with the amendments tabled by my honourable friend Sir Charles Walker and my right honourable friend Mr Philip Dunne, especially on the subject of water extraction licences. The guidance for the Bill will now clearly state that licences may be revoked or varied without compensation where unsustainable abstraction has led to low flows causing damage. Provisions on the discharge of sewage into rivers tighten the obligations on sewerage undertakers to prepare coherent drainage and sewerage management plans.
It is right and necessary to tighten the rules on abstraction, but does the Minister agree with the CLA that as farming accounts for only 1% to 2% of total water use, farmers should be exempted from the risk of losing their licences where such removal would have only a limited impact on the environment but a comparatively large impact on their businesses and their food production?
The noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham, writing in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, perceptively pointed out that our attitudes to nature are being kidnapped by the dogma that nature is good and man is bad. The obligations on local authorities to support enhancement of biodiversity, as well as its conservation, are a case in point.
As the noble Lord pointed out, wild boar are already digging up large parts of the countryside, and the return of wolves is touted. Does the Minister consider that Clause 95 confers a general duty on local authorities to support rewilding schemes, and how are they to distinguish between those which should be supported and those which should not?
The desire to restore species which once roamed our countryside is perhaps not dissimilar to a desire to maintain traditional farm buildings, many of which are very attractive, such as ancient tithe barns. They are clearly part of the environment, but because they are manmade, they are not covered by this Bill. I agree with the CLA that heritage, as a key environmental public good listed as part of the 25-year environment plan, should be included in the Bill’s definition of the natural environment. Over half of all traditional farm buildings have already been lost, and stone walls and other features should also be included in the Secretary of State’s annual reports, and in the monitoring and reporting undertaken by the OEP. If the people’s enjoyment of the natural environment is as important as the natural environment itself, as implied by Clause 1(1) of the Bill, why do the Government not recognise that maintenance of many of our traditional farm buildings is crucial to people’s enjoyment of the natural environment? I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, regarding man’s positive contribution to the planet.
I welcome the Government’s decision to introduce a deposit return scheme for recycling metal, plastic and glass bottles and cans. However, the four large brewers, which hold 88% of the beer market, will absorb the cost within their profit margins, thereby driving smaller challengers and craft beer manufacturers out of the market. It is important that the deposit recovery scheme adopted be completely interoperable with the Scottish one. Can my noble friend confirm that the United Kingdom Internal Market Act provides the necessary powers to ensure this? Does he agree that there is at least a strong case for exempting small breweries producing less than, say, 900,000 pints per year from the new requirements?
As I mentioned in connection with the definition of the natural environment, the CLA argues that traditional farm buildings should be covered by the Bill. Clause 110 seems to suggest that the conservation objectives of conservation covenants can include buildings as well as natural features. Will my noble friend explain how conservation covenants relate to the environmental land management schemes through which it is intended that landowners may recover the significant part of their income under the direct payment scheme, which they start to lose from this year? I look forward to other noble Lords’ contributions, and to scrutinising the Bill as it progresses through your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, with this Bill I feel that we are on round two: we have had the Agriculture Bill, and many themes are coming back to us. Indeed, we are reacting in similar ways. Some of my noble friends might be feeling slightly weak at the thought of that, because it did go on for a while. Certain things have been established: we all want serious solutions, and we do not want our lives messed around too much. I am afraid that it is time to accept that we are going to have to change the way we operate in order to get the best out of this.
We all thought that the new office for environmental protection would be a big beast that would scare everybody into line. Not only are we hearing that its teeth are a little blunter than we thought, but its jaws may not work unless you wind the damn thing up. We must make sure that we have an enforcement process for the new changes, and someone to provide the information we require, which must be both coherent and clear. That is one of the ways in which this will become effective for us all.
Turning to the more niche aspects of the Bill, access to the countryside is a great way to get people to buy in. The Bill says that you “may” be able to take certain steps to ensure that you can enjoy the environment. That is combined with “must” for other things. How do these two combine? For instance, what is the department’s attitude to the new office for health promotion, which talks of encouraging physical activity and so on? How is that going to work? Will the two offices work together? The noble Lord, Lord Benyon, is in his place, and it is hard to pick on him about this, but I asked him a question about this issue and his response was that he might have to write to me. Let us see what we can do, and what the connection is. To get people to engage with this and get the best out of it, they must know what they are getting. Are we going to make sure that the countryside is pleasant to be in, and that people will want to be in it? If we are, then public opinion may be rather more on the Government’s side when they do things which slightly inconvenience people.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, made the fairly valid point, I suppose, that the Government should not let the environment boss them around, because they want progress and growth. But there is only so much progress and growth we can take under the current model. We are going to have very bad water that we cannot drink and that will not sustain life, and soil which does not produce crops of the same volume. We must start addressing this and change the way we behave. Will the Government make sure, as we deal with these issues, that the use of the environment for health and recreational purposes is properly represented? How will that fit into the rest of the model? Regarding the drafting, the “may” and “must” is a variation on “may” and “shall”, so maybe that is progress. How will we bring these together and make sure that there is a coherent plan? Are the fishermen, canoeists and walkers going to come in behind the Minister because he is giving them something they want? As things develop, they can be his eyes and ears when it comes to enforcement. Use of land for sports clubs, for example, must come into this as well. How will this all work together?
We should at least get an idea of the Government’s thinking as we consider the Bill. Where do we look to find the duty for this department to talk to the Department of Health and Social Care and other departments such as Education? How will that duty be carried forward? If it is not, we will go back into silos that ignore each other until they are dragged, kicking and screaming, into the same room, doing the minimum required before going back to their old ways. That is how bits of government behave when they can. I hope that, as we consider the Bill, we will establish these rules, because, let’s face it, round three will be planning, and unless we establish the rules now, that will be much more difficult.
My Lords, I start by declaring my interests as a farmer in south-west Scotland with forestry interests, as chairman of Fleet District Salmon Fishery Board, and as a director of the Galloway Fisheries Trust.
It is of course welcome that this Bill is finally here. It has taken some time, but there is much to welcome in it. However, it suffers from what seems to be a common feature of most Bills these days: there is limited actual substance. Much of the detail is to be added later by ministerial regulation. What this means, of course, is that the details will not be subject to the same level of parliamentary scrutiny as they would have been if they had been part of the Bill itself, even if they are subject to the affirmative procedure. This applies to the most fundamental parts of the Bill, such as the environmental targets, environmental improvement plans, the policy statement on environment principles and the strategy of the office for environmental protection. It would have been preferable if at least more of the principles were included in the Bill.
Almost all environmental actions involve trade-offs. Those might be simply financial; for example, the additional costs of more environmentally friendly boilers. They might be economic; for example, an action that adds a cost or regulatory burden to a whole industry. It is possible that an action affects a particular industry in the country so badly that it becomes uncompetitive, and we end up importing from less environmentally conscious countries. In other words, we simply end up exporting the environmental damage. There are many examples of that already. Plastics disposal in Turkey has already been mentioned; ship dismantling in Bangladesh is another example, but there are many more where products are manufactured more cheaply in environmentally less well-regulated countries. As far as I can see, that could happen even between the devolved nations. What happens if the different parts of the UK apply different environmental standards, perhaps exactly for economic advantage? There is also a risk that the interrelationships between the Agriculture Act, the Trade Act and the Bill could create just such a situation for agriculture, as others have mentioned.
The trade-offs can also be purely environmental, where an action intended to improve the environment in one way damages it in another. Let me give a couple of real-life examples. One environmental target, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is to increase tree planting, which is generally seen to be desirable—and I agree. However, where I live, in south-west Scotland, large-scale conifer planting has led to serious damage to watercourses, to the extent that some are now effectively devoid of life as a result, and a reduction in biodiversity in terms of moorland flora, birds and animals. Another example of an unintended consequence is the Clean Air Act 1968, which mandated higher chimneys for industries burning coal and other fossil fuels to better disperse sulphur dioxide. That improved air quality in urban areas, but it also led to increased acid rain in rural areas and in Scandinavia. The noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, mentioned biomass as another potential such example. It is to be hoped that we have learned from those past mistakes, but it would be foolish to imagine that unintended consequences will not occur again.
I am not trying to say that we should not take the necessary environmental actions—quite the opposite: we must take them—but it is important that we look at our plans and targets holistically when creating them. What is the overall impact of our plans? Do targets potentially conflict? There could well be situations where the negative impacts are large enough to make us want at least to amend the targets to achieve our aims less expensively or to mitigate unexpected damage caused. If we do not look at targets and plans holistically, there is a real risk that they will lose the support of the public.
There is little in the Bill to achieve that. Part 1 describes the requirements for the plans and targets, but there is no requirement to consider the costs or the economic or environmental impact when setting them. While there is a power in Clause 3 to revoke or lower a target if the circumstances have changed such that
“environmental, social, economic or other costs … would be disproportionate to the benefits”,
what if the circumstances have not changed? What if we got it wrong at the outset? Additionally, there is no requirement in the reviewing and reporting duties in the Bill to review and report on those costs or unexpected consequences. It is important that in creating any plans or setting any targets the Bill should require a full cost-benefit analysis to be carried out, which should be published as part of the plan or target. The review and reporting process should then be required to report on both the benefits and the costs, including any unintended or unforeseen consequences, and not just on whether the target has been met, as the Bill is drafted. Just stating whether a target has been met—when, for example, all we have done is export the problem or where the costs have turned out to be much higher than expected or the action has caused unexpected environmental damage in another way—is to give an incomplete and possibly misleading picture. The Bill needs amending to ensure that the full costs and implications are measured and taken into account. Without that, there is a real risk we might in some situations do more damage than good.
My Lords, I welcome the Bill and congratulate my noble friend the Minister on his personal commitment to improving the environment and to producing a world-leading environmental policy framework for the UK. His knowledge, interest and passion for the environment are admirable, as are the credentials of my honourable friend in the other place the Minister Rebecca Pow and my noble friend Lord Benyon, a Minister here. We are fortunate to have them involved in this Bill. I support much of what the Bill seeks to achieve and welcome targets on net zero, biodiversity, air and water quality and waste management, which could be world-leading and put environmental concerns at the heart of all government policy-making.
The commitment from my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to demonstrating the UK as a global leader in environmental and biodiversity protection is welcome, but it needs to extend well beyond this year in which we are chairing G7 and COP 26. Therefore, the concerns I have, like those of other noble Lords, relate more to implementation of the Bill’s measures, going beyond drawing up plans and reporting on problems and into delivering required investments and adaptations in far less than the 15 years proposed. This is one area of the Bill which I hope noble Lords might be able to strengthen in Committee. For example, I would support including legally binding interim targets, perhaps every five years. Clauses 1 and 3 would suggest a 15-year plan starting in 2022, whose targets might be missed along the way but no legal challenge would be possible before 2037.
I join other noble Lords in expressing concern about the lack of enforcement powers for the office for environmental protection, a rather toothless tiger unable to impose legally binding sanctions.
A third major concern relates to water pollution and the release of pollutants such as agricultural waste and partially treated and even raw sewage into our waters and rivers. I congratulate the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, on the First Reading today of his Private Member’s Bill on this issue. I also support the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, and my noble friend Lord Randall in their concern about the release of harmful viruses, parasites and bacteria into our waterways from such pollutants, which regulators have been unable to control, and about the risks that this poses to humans, animals, fish and plant life.
Our water infrastructure has not kept pace with population growth and housing developments. It is vital to reduce the reliance of water companies on storm overflows and to do more to divert clean water from sewers. I welcome the storm overflows taskforce and the aim for all parties to collaborate: government departments, businesses and, importantly, the general public, who need clear explanations of the damage done by items flushed into our sewers and drains. I also welcome the Government’s promise to lay their own amendments on this matter in Committee. I shall look carefully at their wording and hope they will encompass the measures pressed in the other place by my right honourable friend Philip Dunne and my honourable friend Richard Graham, which were rejected at that time but may now be accepted. I thank my noble friend the Minister and his officials for their engagement so far and their promise of future meetings to discuss the matter. The Bill requires amendments that will strengthen Clause 78, for example, with clear provisions to address and control the pollution caused by severe sewer overflow events, with formal reporting and legal requirements for year-on-year improvements.
I also call on the Government to pursue their intention to ensure that pension funds are harnessed to help in the fight against environmental damage. They have a central role in helping us reach net zero and control biodiversity. Their long-term liabilities and investment profile make them hugely vulnerable to climate change, and pension funds can be influential in aligning others with net zero. I congratulate the Government on the fact that the Pension Schemes Act 2021 aims to ensure that new regulations require large pension funds, master trusts and others to focus on climate risks, and I believe that members increasingly would want their money to fit with their values and to help address climate change. I urge my noble friend to press on Ministers that this needs to encompass defined benefit as well as defined contribution schemes.
I support the Bill. I congratulate the Government and my noble friends on the laying of it. I hope that the Government will accept some of these amendments during Committee and Report.
My Lords, I intend to confine myself to governance issues. If the Bill is left as it is, it will not take long for the public to lose confidence in the protection and enhancement of the environment. I make no apology for reminding the House of an issue that I have raised several times before, regarding the governance gap on leaving the EU. The first of the latest two times was on 7 March 2018, during a debate on the EU withdrawal Bill, when I raised the issue of the EU Commission taking the United Kingdom to the ECJ on environmental issues on 34 occasions and winning on 30 of them; the other four remained in dispute. Both Labour and Tory Governments opposed the Commission, causing it to take action. If it had been left to the Government, we would not have had the benefit of the Commission’s upgrades to the UK environment. I did the same again on 2 July 2018, during a debate on the NERC Act 2006 report. It was the threat of infraction—that is, the EU financial fine—which stimulated the UK Government to act in the interests of a better and safer environment. I pointed out, in col. 412, that Defra was in control and “loves control”; it is part of the culture. It was the same when Defra was MAFF. I was in both, several years apart, and the culture has not gone away. I could also warn that Defra, as old MAFF, wanted to have the Food Standards Agency as an executive agency of MAFF.
The threat of infraction—a fine on the UK Government—has gone; we are, therefore, left with a gap. Anyone who disputes that should look at the opinion piece by Michael Gove published on 13 November 2017 when he was the Defra Secretary of State. This is an authored article, on GOV.UK, on the new independent body for environmental standards. I will give two quotes from it. He said:
“Some of the mechanisms which have developed during our time in the EU which helpfully scrutinise the achievement of environmental targets and standards by Government will no longer exist in the same way, and principles which guide policy will have less scope and coverage than they do now. Without further action, there will be a governance gap. The environment won’t be protected as it should be from the unscrupulous, unprincipled or careless.”
He went on to forecast
“a new, world-leading body to … hold the powerful to account. It will be independent of government, able to speak its mind freely.”
This Bill, with the office for environmental protection, does not do that.
I am not a lawyer, but before I read the note from the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law on this Bill and the OEP I had worked it out. Now that I have read the detailed Bingham briefing, I can see how shoddy the proposal is. Bingham takes apart Clause 37, regarding the power of the OEP and the environmental review. On the principle of legality and remedies in breach of environmental law, the question is:
“In plain English, if a public authority breaks the law, can it be brought to a court, and can the court correct the wrong?”
The conclusion is that Clause 37(7)
“does not satisfy the Rule of Law.”
An act of a public authority can be unlawful but the act “remains valid”, so the unlawful environmental acts are “valid by default”. This is the
“‘new normal’ under clause 37(7)”.
As the Government’s Explanatory Notes to the Bill say,
“the statement of non-compliance confirms that the court has found that the public authority in question has failed to comply with environmental law, it does not in itself invalidate the decision of the public authority in question.”
According to Bingham, this means that the ruling from a court
“will have zero legal effect. What then is the point in an environmental review?”
The remedy on damages in Clause 37(8) presents a problem. The Bingham conclusion is:
“The lack of a remedy in damages combined with the inability of the OEP to impose fines weakens the ability of the OEP to provide effective sanctions for breach of environmental law.”
This introduces the novel “polluter doesn’t pay” principle.
Returning to Michael Gove’s promise of a world-leading body being independent of government, the Bingham conclusion is:
“The OEP does not have an express statutory duty to be independent of the Government or of public authorities, nor does it have institutional guarantees of independence. The language of the Bill indicates the … OEP to be impartial, but not fully independent.”
“The ability of the Secretary of State to issue guidance on enforcement policy and enforcement functions opens up the real possibility of the Secretary of State issuing guidance on how the Secretary of State is to be investigated.”
This is preposterous. As Bingham says, this is
“at odds with sound administrative practice and undermines the Rule of Law.”
The Defra Secretary of State owns the OEP lock, stock and barrel:
“This lack of independence compromises the ability of the OEP to pursue effective remedies for breaches of environmental law.”
If there is any doubt that stronger powers are needed, the fact was published last week that, of 640 bathing sites in the UK, only 110 are judged to be excellent by the Environment Agency. UK bathing water was the worst in Europe in 2020. The only reason that it has improved in past decades is due to the Commission taking the UK to the European Court of Justice, which is where I started. This Bill needs big changes.
My Lords, I declare my farming and land-owning interests as set out in the register. I welcome this ambitious Bill and congratulate all those who have done their best to encompass so much in this vast work. Like many noble Lords, I have thoughts on how this Bill could be improved but, in the time available, I will highlight two subjects that are omitted and express my concern regarding another that is covered. The problem that this Government have in producing a raft of necessary legislation on food, environment, farming, welfare and health is producing policies that are joined up and this Bill is a prime example of the importance of balancing real concerns.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, I would be most grateful if the Minister could explain why heritage is excluded from this Bill, although it features in the 25-year environment plan. Perhaps heritage might not have featured in the Garden of Eden as natural environment, as described by John Milton in Paradise Lost, but times have moved on and historic features and structures, including field systems such as ridge and furrow, stone walls and old farm buildings are often inseparable from the natural world and certainly provide habitat for many species, endangered or otherwise. Heritage is surely now a crucial part of the natural environment. Its omission means that there are no long-term targets, and with no targets funding cannot be directed towards meeting them. There is no monitoring or reporting. Surely the OEP’s objective of environmental protection and improvement of the natural environment should consider heritage and, in particular, when there is a conflict between natural environment enforcement and surrounding heritage.
I would also be grateful if the Minister could explain why the Government’s tree-planting targets are not enshrined in this Bill. The planting of trees has rightly become a huge government priority, whether it be urban planting, commercial forestry, preservation of ancient woodland, or planting in field corners or hedgerows. The carbon sequestration benefits, the health and amenity advantages, together with the greater use of domestically grown timber in our construction industry, have all been highlighted. The plan is to grow 30,000 hectares annually across the UK and we are currently woefully behind this target. Trees form a major part of the environment plan and the English tree strategy has now become the England tree action plan. New funding arrangements have been announced and I hope the long-awaited ELM schemes will include something on trees.
Surely, the importance of tree planting, a crucial part of the natural environment, should be covered on the face of the Bill rather than just in the supporting structure. Legally binding tree planting targets should be enshrined in legislation. Targets would need to encompass sustainable practices for all types of planting, as there are considerable differences between forestry and arboriculture. The industry is behind such a move, which would have the added benefit of encouraging the necessary investment.
Clause 107 cries out for more substance. Coming under the heading “Tree felling and planting”, it covers only felling. Surely, this would be an excellent location for measures to regulate tree planting, so that if the trees cannot be sourced from UK growers, every possible measure is taken to ensure that no disease can be imported.
My other major concern, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, relates to the importance of balancing environmental protection with food production. Measures in the Agriculture Act are aimed at promoting sustainable farming. No doubt, gene editing and technology will lead to some increases in productivity, but it is also clear to the farming industry that, in the short and medium term, food production in this country is likely to diminish. We therefore need to ensure there are no unintended supply consequences from measures taken to enhance the environment.
An example is in the House of Lords report Hungry for Change and the national food strategy. They correctly underline the importance of increasing demand for the consumption of fruit and vegetables but do not consider the supply side of the issue. In England, a high percentage of fruit and vegetables is grown in areas where irrigation is necessary practice. The Bill proposes increased power to revoke and vary licences for abstraction with no compensation. Who in their right mind is going to invest in this type of high-risk agriculture and horticulture without the guaranteed ability to abstract? This will lead to more imports from places without those concerns and more carbon due to transportation. There is also the devastating effect on the livelihoods and finances of those involved.
This all goes back to my initial comment about the need for joined-up policies where inevitable compromises need to be made, not just in the interest of the environment but in the interest of feeding people. This should have been brought home to us all by the announcement last week of the 40% surge in global food prices in May. No doubt, some of that increase might be temporary, and richer people who currently spend a smaller proportion of their income on food can afford a rise. But what about the poorer people in this country and around the world, whose income cannot absorb such rises? Let us make sure we get the balance right.
My Lords, I begin by declaring my interest as the owner of a smallholding with a few sheep and poultry, albeit in France and outside the purview of this Bill.
This Bill is profoundly conservative in two senses of the word. First, it is Conservative with a large “C”, because the Conservative Party is, and always has been, about conserving all that is best in our country that we have inherited from our forefathers and wish to hand on to our successors. But secondly, it is conservative with a small “c” in its desire to resist any change, which is very widespread in this country, going way beyond the Conservative Party. The Bill, to some extent, enshrines that desire to keep the environment unchanged, as it is. But the environment in this country is largely manmade. Before man set to work, it was covered with dense and impenetrable forest. No one proposes we go back to that, apart from a few extreme rewilders.
The environment has changed considerably over our lifetimes. I was brought up in the outer suburbs of London, a few hundred yards from the first farm. I used to enjoy watching the horse-drawn ploughs ploughing the small fields. The landscape at that time was a patchwork of small fields surrounded by hedges, which changed over time, partly as a result of mechanisation and partly as a result of EU subsidies encouraging farmers to dig up their hedges and have larger fields. We need to be conscious that we cannot freeze time. Had we tried to do so, food production would be lower and the cost of living higher, and we would have to import a far higher proportion of our food than we do.
There is a paradox at the heart of the Bill: the environment is largely the result of human action, not human design. It is the spontaneous creation of the actions of thousands of farmers, foresters and landowners serving millions of consumers. Yet, we assume in the Bill that it needs a centralised, guiding bureaucracy, a 25-year plan, vast apparatus of law and regulation and subsidies diverted from promoting food production to providing environmental goods. Is all this necessary? We certainly need to prevent the environment being despoiled by plastic, waste, litter, industrial waste and unregulated pollution. But, quite possibly, those problems would be better dealt with by individual measures relating to each, rather than by setting up some central, guiding, Soviet-style planning apparatus to preserve what was never the creation of human planning.
But we are where we are, and where we are is outside the European Union, so we have to decide what our own environmental rules, policies and principles should be. Fears were expressed during the referendum campaign, and subsequently, that we would set lower standards than those enshrined in the laws we have inherited from the EU. We certainly do not want to see lower standards, less clean air or less pure water. But there are many dimensions of regulations apart from higher and lower. We should aim to make our regulations simpler to comply with and outcome-based rather than process-based, creating as few barriers as possible to entry into agriculture and elsewhere and as few barriers as possible for small operators, rather than privileging the large landowners and industrial farmers.
We can now relate our regulations to our national circumstances. In doing so, we should be able to apply the precautionary principle in a more rational and pragmatic way than has been the case in the European Union. Someone described the way the European Union approaches the precautionary principle as “You should never do anything for the first time”. Of course, if there are real reasons to fear harm from some new process or innovation, we should take precautions. We should, perhaps, allow pilot projects before licensing more widely. Certainly, we should take into account experience elsewhere. But we should not rule out anything and everything from which anyone can imagine a threat, particularly when those threats are invented by those who are fundamentally anti-science, anti-industry and anti-prosperity.
I hope we will be open to using GM crops. I declare an interest here as Rothamsted was in my constituency when I was an MP. Wonderful research is done there into GM, CRISPR and conventional development of new species, always with due concern for risks. As a result, new varieties are created that require fewer pesticides and herbicides and produce more output with less fertiliser. I hope we can take advantage of the research and adopt an approach based on measuring costs against benefits in our regulations. I recall that some EU directives did not do so. We must all take a more balanced and proportionate approach. I support the Bill but with grave reservations.
My Lords, I remind the House first of my interests as declared in the register.
The Bill is broadly welcome. It says it has ambition, it aims to set its sights high, and it betokens a wish on the part of the Government to have strong environmental standards in what is, alas, a post-Brexit world—so far, so good. But it does not get everything right, and there are three things I would like to focus on.
First, it is fundamentally important that the new office for environmental protection—the OEP—is robustly independent. Many noble Lords have touched on this point. The Bill rightly makes no provision for the Government to be able to give instructions to the OEP, but they can give guidance. The problem, of course, is that guidance is pretty much the same as an instruction when it comes from the Secretary of State. When I first took on the role of chair of the Environment Agency, when Hilary Benn was Secretary of State, I remember that the agency felt not only that it had permission to speak out publicly on the state of the environment and issues affecting it but that it had a duty to do so—and we did speak out, sometimes in ways that the Government did not like. But when a new Government and Secretary of State came in in 2010, we were told that we should not speak out publicly—that we were welcome to give private advice to government but that it should remain private. The public voice was gone. The same thing must not happen to the OEP. There should be a duty on the OEP, spelled out in the Bill, to speak out publicly on issues of concern for the environment. The role of the Government should not be one of guiding or instructing but one simply of proposing. The OEP should, in other words, have its independence and voice guaranteed in the same way, for example, as the Committee on Climate Change.
The second issue I want to highlight relates to water use. In some parts of the country—Cambridgeshire is a prominent example—there is a serious danger to the levels of flow in and the survival of the wonderful chalk streams that are a unique part of the English landscape. Quite simply, we have to draw down less water. There are many answers to this hugely important problem, and in Cambridge Water, which I chair, we are exploring all of them. But one of them must lie in helping all of us to conserve more water. We waste too much. Of course, the Bill contains measures on water abstraction, but it also presents an ideal opportunity to make two important legislative changes to help water conservation: first, a mandatory water-efficiency label on water-using products in exactly the same way as energy-efficiency labelling; and secondly, a change to building regulations to promote the recycling of rainwater and improvements to water efficiency in any new home or building constructed. Both measures provide very simple ways of ensuring that we use water more wisely.
The third issue to highlight is access for the public to nature and the natural environment. Surely the past year and a half have taught us something we already knew but had too often forgotten: access to nature is essential for our well-being, our health, our ability to exercise and the welfare of our souls. One of my proudest moments as a Minister was helping to bring in the legislation that made a right to roam a reality for open country, mountain and moorland, but this need goes much further—to the fields at the edge of town, the banks of canals and rivers, the local woodlands and the green spaces that we all love. Making sure that public access to these is available should surely be part of any ambitious environmental policy, yet in the Bill at the moment the long-term environmental targets and the environmental improvement plans provide only for a permission to consider access to nature, not a requirement. This must surely change.
The Bill offers a golden opportunity to commit ourselves as a nation to the very highest values for our environment and our biodiversity. It is far too important to be a matter of party politics and I am grateful to the Minister for reaching out to many of us around the Chamber. But let us aim to be more courageous, more ambitious and more environmentally confident, for the sake of all our futures.
My Lords, I should first declare an interest in that I am the ex-president of the Arboricultural Association and currently an honorary fellow of it. I would like to talk about a blueprint for trees—or a greenprint, as I like to call it—as a contribution to the consultations on the national tree strategy, which is all part of our environmental future.
There are so many well-intentioned people and organisations currently involved with trees, and so many different and confusing proposals, that we are in danger of missing a golden opportunity simply through lack of organisation. There is no need to dwell on the beauty, environmental benefits and usefulness of trees. Thankfully, these qualities are at last generally accepted, as is the need to plant more and care for the ones we have.
My suggestions are: first, forests and forestry practice should be looked after by the Forestry Commission, with its wealth of experience, to produce timber, which is silviculture, while employing qualified and experienced foresters. This will not only produce timber but provide a continuing source of tree cover, with public access where appropriate.
Secondly, urban amenity tree planting and care—arboriculture—should be in a completely different category of its own, under the auspices of the Arboricultural Association. This would allow the trees in our towns and cities, their desperately needed green lungs, to be planted, cared for and defended properly by trained, professional arboriculturalists who really understand the subject. Local authority tree officers, who should be given more responsibility, are in the best position to identify the needs and costs in this area.
Thirdly, woodland old and new is neither silviculture nor arboriculture. It should be dealt with separately and could be supervised by an organisation such as the Woodland Trust, which would ensure that it is carefully managed, protected and regenerated while employing ecologists and foresters who understand woodland.
Last of all, tree nurseries are obviously in a category of their own and very specialised. Their trade body, the Horticultural Trades Association, is best placed to forecast the country’s tree needs, the problems involved with the importation of trees, the role of home-grown stock and the need for long-term planning and commitment by their customers and by government.
In summary, each of these four organisations should be used by government to inform the debate on the national tree strategy. This will help us to decide what to plant, where to plant it, what it will cost to plant and maintain, and who will be responsible for it. In turn, this will make a huge and vital contribution to ministerial decisions soon to be taken which are destined to have a long-lasting effect on our nation’s trees.
I am conscious that I have not mentioned a myriad of organisations that play an important role in looking after our trees and whose contribution to this great debate will be invaluable—my apologies. I have sought to suggest a simple, open, consultative framework that is clearly understood and gives the Government access to the experience and understanding needed to plan, budget for and oversee the planting and care of our trees nationally.
Finally, on an entirely separate but related matter, I would like to say a word about “urban forestry”. It is time that the use of this term in United Kingdom arboriculture be reconsidered. It is a contradiction in terms—what is called an oxymoron, I believe. Perhaps it is appropriate in America, where it originated, but it is hard for the layman to understand and unhelpful in practice. It is a large part of the reason why the public assume that our urban trees are looked after by the Forestry Commission, which clearly they are not, and why the term arboriculture has found it difficult to establish itself in the minds of tree owners and the country at large. I suggest that thought should be given to this matter by everyone involved in the tree industry and that each discipline, including arboriculture, should be clearly and correctly defined.
My Lords, first, I declare my interest in the register as a Suffolk farmer.
This Bill has had a pretty troubled history over the past two years. It reveals some confusion, not just semantic, between what can be legislated for and what, however desirable, can only remain a policy aim to be striven for. Thus the phrase “to set long-term, legally-binding environmental targets”, which was used very much in the Explanatory Notes and in the comments during the Commons period, is really an aspiration rather than a practical measure.
There are of course targets for which we can legislate. An example would be to say that all diesel vehicles will be forbidden to use Britain’s roads after 2030. However, there are other targets that we might well welcome but which the Government have only a direct influence over. For example, we might like Britain’s hedgehog population to be restored to the numbers that we would wish. Any farmer knows that virtually no production target can be legally binding; nor can a great majority of business targets. This does not mean that there is not much more scope for statutory regulation, as we have heard today. While regulations must be targeted, the targets themselves can seldom be legally binding.
I want to focus on one important and particularly fallacious part of the Bill: Clause 109 in Part 6. It deals with making commercial corporations responsible for not importing agricultural commodities that have been derived from the loss of forests from the world. It is a futile way of dealing with a most important and urgent problem, for one simple reason: it is seldom, if ever, practical to monitor and identify the international movement of commodities, especially if there is money to be made by muddying the trail.
In my few moments, I want to suggest a much more practical alternative, taking the protection of the Amazon rainforest as an example. The best way of achieving that is by financial incentives for the Governments concerned. My scheme would have to be organised and administered by the IMF and the World Bank. It would involve setting a commercial value on the areas of rainforest to be protected. That sum would then be multiplied by a factor to make its protection an offer that no Government could afford to resist. It might be a multiple of 10, 20 or even, in the crucial cases, as much as 100. Payment of these sums would not in any way involve taking over the ownership of the rainforest. Nothing would be taken from the nations or their Governments. Payments would involve taking over the debt liabilities of the countries concerned. The deal would be a simple one: provided the rainforest is not interfered with, the debt would become interest-free and not required to be repaid at term. The original lenders would be repaid by the World Bank, which would take the debt on to its own balance sheet.
The attraction for the country is that, if it could increase its own borrowing, it could then, without fear of any default, develop more rapidly itself. Also, of course, the monitoring of such an agreement would be straightforward using satellite technology. Not a single tree could be felled without it being spotted by a satellite or drone of some sort. The penalty for breaking the deal would be obvious: the debt would come back again, being obliged to be repaid with the accumulated interest. Very few Governments would feel that they could afford to risk that.
I originally put this idea forward at a Ditchley conference some 20 years ago. Its time has now come. I offer it and hope that my noble friend considers it.
My Lords, an independent review of the economics of biodiversity, produced by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge—I declare my interests—describes nature as “our most precious asset” and finds that humanity has collectively mismanaged its global portfolio. Our demands far exceed nature’s capacity to supply the goods and services that we all rely on, and the last few decades have taken a devastating ecological toll. The review highlights that recent estimates suggest that we would need 1.6 earths to maintain humanity’s current way of life. As Professor Dasgupta said:
“Truly sustainable economic growth and development means recognising that our long-term prosperity relies on rebalancing our demand of nature's goods and services with its capacity to supply them.”
Since 1970, there has been an almost 70% drop, on average, in the populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians. Some 1 million animal and plant species—almost a quarter of the global total—are believed to be threatened with extinction.
The CBI, of which I am president, has been addressing resources and waste reforms. In the wake of Covid-19, the new UK-EU relationship, rapid technological advancement and climate change, the country has a defining opportunity to set an ambitious target and course for the next decade and beyond. Protecting the environment for future generations should be at the heart of any economic vision for the UK. We have just launched our economic strategy—Seize the Moment: An Economic Strategy for the UK—for the next decade until 2030; climate change, biodiversity and the environment are key pillars of this.
Just as the CBI and our members stand with the Government on meeting the UK’s target for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, we are supportive of the ambition behind the resources and waste strategy to move towards a circular economy. The drive towards a circular economy, where resources are used efficiently and waste kept to a minimum, presents a genuine opportunity for the UK to be a world leader in sustainability. This could bring huge economic benefits, increasing our lagging productivity and improving prosperity for all. Responsible businesses know that they have a crucial part to play in protecting our environment and are acutely aware of the high consumer demand for firms to be proactive. We look forward to business continuing to work with the Government to ensure that we establish a pathway to a circular economy that enhances business competitiveness and empowers consumers to make positive choices. Does the Minister agree with this?
Some of the key points are that businesses need more visibility over how the reforms will work in practice. Taken together, the Government’s reforms are the most comprehensive overhaul of England’s waste and recycling system in a generation. Reforms on