House of Lords
Monday 21 June 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.
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 to 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 to no longer than 30 seconds and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Female Offender Strategy
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the progress towards the implementation of the Female Offender Strategy, published on 27 June 2018; and what plans they have, if any, to revise the timetable for its implementation.
My Lords, the Female Offender Strategy launched an ambitious work programme to improve the outcomes for female offenders, which will take several years to deliver. However, three years on, we are making good progress. Our achievements include a new women’s policy framework, new training for staff working with women, improvements to pre-sentence reports and the implementation of the recommendations in the review on family ties by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer. Furthermore, we have invested £7 million in funding for women’s services across England and Wales.
I thank the Minister for her Answer. The concordat published in January urged:
“Co-signatories to assist local organisations … with work to improve outcomes for women”.
First, can the Minister help to get work going by joining up these organisations, by publishing contact details for the relevant departments? Secondly, only 17 recommendations from the review for women by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, have been implemented. When will we see an update on progress?
My Lords, the concordat was between government departments and all departments have joined up to it. Locally it is more difficult, but the important part of delivering good joined-up services—both to stop women entering as offenders and to help them when they come out of prison, if they are so unlucky as to go to prison—is that work needs to be done locally, with local concordats and partnerships.
My Lords, on the issue of joined-up government, and as Rory Stewart understood, at the heart of the strategy is a recommendation for three cross-government implementation groups to address the complex needs of vulnerable prisoners. One was set up in June 2018 but quietly stood down in 2019. How many of the three recommended groups are in existence today? If none, is it any wonder that the Prison Reform Trust found that only 17 of the 65 recommendations have been fully implemented?
My Lords, I do not have the answer to the noble Lord’s question, but I can say that there are a number of groups in government working all the time on early intervention and prevention and with women in custody, and they are delivering for those women.
A key aim of the Female Offender Strategy was to reduce women’s prison places, yet there has been a government announcement recently saying that they are going to increase prison places by 500. Are the Government planning for failure?
No, my Lords, the Government are not planning for failure. We are planning to deliver part of the strategy for women offenders, which is to update the women’s estate. This investment in the estate will allow for single cells and for an estate which can deliver for women offenders, and possibly for their children to help them keep their family ties.
My Lords, the vast majority of women in prison today are held for non-violent offences and on short sentences; 60% of them have experienced domestic abuse; and many of these women go on to reoffend—a destructive and costly cycle. Does the Minister agree that we should seek to build a support structure around these vulnerable women and that investing in women’s centres is a good start? Will she inform the House on the progress made to pilot five residential women’s centres, as set out in the Government’s Female Offender Strategy, which I very much welcomed at the time?
My noble friend is absolutely right. We need to put a whole system around each of our female offenders, or women who are likely to become offenders. As far as the women’s centres are concerned, we have said that the first centre will be in south Wales and we are working closely with all our partners, including the Welsh Government, to identify a suitable site. Once we have found it, we will identify others across England. While we have been looking for the site, we have also been engaged with many voluntary and statutory agencies, so that we get the women’s lived experience and make sure that the centres are what the women need.
A key commitment in the Female Offender Strategy was to improve through-the-gate services for offenders, but the recent announcement of £6 million for these services for offenders includes just one women’s prison. These are crucial services helping to put an end to the “no job, no home, no hope” picture we often see. Having increased the women’s prison estate by 500 places, when will the Government provide the necessary funding to carry out their commitment to improving these vital services and break this terrible reoffending cycle?
Investing in the women’s custodial estate will improve conditions for female prisoners through the modern gender-specific and trauma-informed design—that is important. We hope that better conditions will support rehabilitation, ensuring that women are held in appropriate, decent and safe accommodation—but also accommodation, as I have said before, with inclusive rooms to support overnight stays for mothers and their children, which we know is important to those offenders.
My Lords, is it now government policy that the interests of a male prisoner who wishes to be housed on the female estate should, in making a decision on that request, have exactly the same weight as the interests of each individual female prisoner, with whom they will be housed?
Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service ensures that all transgender individuals are managed safely, with their rights properly respected and in accordance with the law. Decisions on where individuals are located within the prison estate are made following assessments of all the known risks posed to and by the individual. This includes consideration of their current behaviour and previous offending history, to achieve an outcome that balances risks and promotes safety.
I agree with the noble and learned Baroness. The new probation service, which is a unified service nationally and starts at the end of this week, is the way that we can look much more seriously at in-community sentences for the offenders to whom she refers.
My Lords, the recent reports of women in prison, particularly in the last year, send a message of despair and cruelty, of which this country should be ashamed. For example, in women’s prisons there has been a big increase in self-harm during the pandemic. There is a marked difference between the sexes: 3,557 incidents for every 1,000 women prisoners in a 12-month period, compared with 595 for the same number of male prisoners. Does the Minister believe that the misery and inappropriateness of incarcerating so many women will be alleviated by spending £100 million on 500 more prison places, or does she believe that that investment might be better spent keeping women out of prison and supporting vital community services, which are receiving a paltry £2 million, when they are released?
My Lords, we need to do both. We recognise that the level of self-harm in the women’s estate is too high and we are determined to reduce it. Part of doing that will be to update the women’s estate. But we also want, through the new probation service, to increase the amount of community services, working with the voluntary sector to stop women going into the system and, when they are there, to support them not to reoffend.
What steps have the Government taken to introduce gender-specific sentencing guidelines to encourage judges and magistrates to approach sentencing women from a completely different starting point from that for men? Does the Minister agree that equal sentencing guidelines for men and women do not result in equality of outcome, having regard to the specific problems that women have to deal with while incarcerated and afterwards?
Universities: Compulsory Redundancies
My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I draw attention to my association with the University of Leicester, which is currently enacting a spate of compulsory redundancies among its academic staff.
My Lords, higher education providers are independent institutions, responsible for their own staffing issues, including how they structure themselves to deliver research and teaching priorities. Where it is necessary to reshape their activities, it is important that universities carefully consider the impact of job losses on staff and students and on the overall sustainability of teaching and research in this country. The Office for Students requires English higher education providers to maintain academic quality and standards.
The Government have led universities to compete for students by embarking on capital expenditures to create attractive amenities. To address the resulting financial difficulties, they have begun to sack their academic staff at a time when large numbers of European nationals are leaving academic posts as a consequence of Brexit. The long periods of training, the job insecurities and the penurious salaries are preventing native British people joining the academic profession. This will lead to the demise of our university sector. What remedies, if any, do the Government propose?
My Lords, we are all proud of our world-leading higher education sector, which is a tribute to those who work in it and have done over many years. We have four of the world’s top 10 universities and 17 of the top 100. Many universities are able to combine academic excellence with commercial success, so I do not quite recognise the dichotomy that the noble Viscount paints. However, we recognise the challenges of the past year and a half, during the pandemic, which is why, alongside access to the business support schemes available to all businesses, we brought forward more than £2 billion of tuition fee payments, provided £280 million of grant funding for research and established a loan scheme to cover up to 80% of universities’ income losses from international students for the current academic year.
My Lords, I draw attention to my declaration of interests, particularly as a teacher at the University of Buckingham. The proximate cause of these redundancies is a fall in income. Universities depend not just on fees but on rent and income from retail, bars and so on. Will my noble friend the Minister join me in congratulating those universities that have facilitated a safe return to in-person tuition? Will he also join me in urging particularly those in the college lecturers’ union who are resisting a return to campus to drop their opposition—in their own interest if not in that of the students?
My noble friend is right: it is important for universities to meet in person, and staff and students have shown themselves to be very flexible and adaptable during the challenging circumstances of the last year and a half. All students have been eligible to return to in-person teaching since 17 May, and we have encouraged universities to bring that about. How best to manage the return of face-to-face teaching is up to universities themselves, but all students are now eligible to receive their vaccination, and we encourage them to take that up to support their return to campuses, particularly as the autumn term approaches.
My Lords, I draw attention to the scale of this problem. My noble friend mentioned the University of Leicester, where, I understand, 26 academic redundancies are planned, as is the cessation of research in pure mathematics. I understand that 47 are to be made redundant at the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at the University of Liverpool, 24 are to be made redundant at Aston University—along with the ending of courses in international business, modern languages, history and politics and English literature—and 11 are to be made redundant at the University of Hull, alongside the closure of the modern languages department. Surely the Minister ought to do more to intervene to end this unfolding cost-cutting catastrophe, which is damaging the morale and careers of students and staff, undermining research and destroying the enviable reputation of our universities?
My Lords, higher education providers are independent institutions responsible for their own decisions on staffing. Where it is necessary to reshape their activities, it is important that they carefully consider the impact of job losses on staff and students and on the overall sustainability of teaching and research. The Office for Students requires English HE providers to maintain academic quality and standards, and we have intervened by providing support to institutions during the past year and a half, in light of the Covid pandemic, as I outlined in response to the noble Viscount.
My Lords, redundancies may well be targeted at minority disciplines—yet these are very often highly critical to research, national security, well-being and knowledge. Can the Minister assure us that we shall not lose pure maths, as the noble Lord has just identified; modern languages, especially minority ones; and obscure arts and sciences, which may turn out to be vital? What assurances have universities given that they will not make redundancies in minority disciplines unless they are available at other universities?
I can only repeat that the decisions are for universities themselves, as autonomous and independent institutions. However, we have provided support: as well as that which I outlined earlier, we have provided funding through the Sustaining University Research Expertise fund, and the Government have committed to spending 2.4% of GDP on R&D by 2027—so we recognise the importance of the broad range of subjects that the noble Baroness outlined.
My Lords, is the Minister worried that the University of Leicester is closing down its research in pure maths—if only because STEM can hardly flourish without fundamental maths? More broadly, is there a risk that the combined effect of the pandemic and government cuts to research funding since Brexit might lead more universities to slash good research and pivot instead to taught courses that they think will bring in more money?
As I have just mentioned, the Government are seeking to increase R&D funding to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, and the decisions for the University of Leicester are for it to make. In light of the pandemic, we have provided the help that I have outlined to the University of Leicester and institutions across the country.
My Lords, we have a more strategic problem here: a universities business model that depends on, and is very sensitive to, overseas students, foreign research funding—not least from China—and the management of the rent rolls for the accommodation of students staying and studying away from home. Post Covid and post Brexit, all that seems to be in question. Is it not time that we had a strategic review of what our universities are capable of doing and what they are there to achieve?
My Lords, we are very proud of the attractiveness of UK higher education institutions to international students. We have an international students strategy that seeks to build on the successes of the past, informed by Sir Steve Smith, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter. The financial stability of our world-leading university base has been a key aspect considered in all recent spending reviews. Foreign tuition and research income from outside the EU account for 15% and 1% of the total income of higher education institutions overall, so, while China may be an important contributor to non-EU foreign income, it would be wrong to characterise the sector as highly dependent on that country alone.
My Lords, I am sorry to add to the litany of academic loss, but I am sure that the Minister is aware of the plans to end the undergraduate teaching of archaeology at the University of Sheffield. This was ranked 39th in the world in the 2021 QS rankings. It has received expressions of support from around the world—including, just today, from Greece. Does the Minister agree that the study of archaeology is crucial to our understanding of the present and that it is crucial for us to maintain academic centres of excellence? Will the Government reconsider their plan to slash funding for the study of archaeology?
I know that the noble Baroness’s noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, is an archaeology graduate. As a history graduate myself, I certainly recognise the importance of the study of the past. The Government have been providing help to institutions through the ways that I have outlined a number of times and through the SURE fund for research—so we are assisting universities, particularly in light of the challenging circumstances of the past few months.
My Lords, we have a dual funding system, and, while the Minister is right to say that the institutions are notionally independent, the truth is that they can do only what they are funded for, in what has effectively become a market economy. Have the Government considered one part of the dual funding system—the payments that will need to be made to support the redundancies and closures in relation to research—and has the Minister talked to UKRI about that? In respect of the AHRC, can the Minister confirm that the funding for the important creative clusters programme is secure?
During the last year, we provided support through the SURE fund to address the impact of the Covid pandemic. It will continue to be an important consideration in the next spending review and in our plans significantly to boost R&D funding. Through the Office for Students, we continue to monitor the financial stability of research in higher education, which is an important factor in the consideration of the balance of the dual funding that the noble Lord referred to.
Education: Recovery Package and Catch-up Programme
My Lords, this Government are taking steps to level up educational outcomes for all pupils, regardless of race, class or background. The support that we are providing includes £2.5 billion of pupil premium funding this year, £220 million for the holiday activities and food programme and £400 million for internet access and laptops. We have also committed over £3 billion to help children catch up on lost education.
I thank the Minister for that response, but is she aware that some headteachers feel forced to use the education recovery funds not for that purpose but to plug serious financial gaps? Given that this money is supposed to target the most vulnerable children in our society, are there ring-fenced, targeted funds for Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Gypsy and Roma children?
My Lords, the catch-up funding and the pupil premium funding are aimed at all disadvantaged children regardless of their racial or regional presence in the UK. On the overall funding package, an extra £2.6 billion last year and £2.2 billion this year went into the core schools budget. If the noble Lord wishes to give me the names of the institutions concerned which are struggling, we can direct them to the plethora of resources available from the department to ensure that schools can get the best deal available for their money, such as the free teacher vacancy service and the risk protection arrangement, which many schools are now using as their insurance policy.
My Lords, we know that all adolescents across the UK, regardless of their ethnicity, are better equipped for success and flourishing later in life when well educated, yet, prior to the pandemic, black Caribbean and white/black Caribbean students numbered double the national average for school exclusions. Recent UCAS research revealed that a third of students in schools and half of students in colleges were not told about apprenticeships. What steps are the Government taking to address disproportionate school exclusions as well as promote apprenticeships as an alternative pathway for students from ethnic minorities?
My Lords, the diversity champions network is aimed specifically at making sure that black and minority-ethnic young people are aware of apprenticeship opportunities. The Government accepted the recommendations of the Timpson review in relation to exclusions and we are looking to enact them. On the temporary exclusion rate, there is some good news in that the rate for black Caribbean students has slightly decreased.
Given that the Government seem to have rejected much of the Sewell racism report, including the one positive recommendation of extending substantially the school day—barring a paltry, 30-minute possible extension—to allow exactly the catch-up of hours that children need to advance their education, how else can the Government require that the school estate, which is a public asset, be put to maximum effect over the summer months and into the autumn? How can they ensure that the publicly funded asset of teacher knowledge is best deployed to advance children’s learning to catch up more effectively?
My Lords, there will be a short consultation on the element of the recovery package relating to extending the school day because that has an impact on the teaching workforce. In relation to those eligible for free school meals, it is white working-class children who have the lowest Progress 8 measure for their achievement, but many holiday activity and food programme initiatives take place on school premises and specific guidance is given to schools about they can best use their school estate.
My Lords, as part of the education recovery package, what work is ongoing between central government and the devolved Administrations to reduce racial inequalities, including in respect of the digital divide, thus contributing to the levelling-up agenda, enhancing educational opportunities for all our children and improving our economy and society in the long run?
My Lords, the Government will produce a White Paper later this year to outline the national plan for levelling up. There are regular meetings between the Secretary of State for Education and his counterparts, as well as at official level between the department and the devolved Administrations.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for his very relevant Question. My mentor on educational issues is Liz Wolverson OBE, chief executive of the London Diocesan Board for Schools Academies Trust. She has rescued 10 failing schools in inner London, so she speaks with vast experience. Will the Minister examine her advice? If we want to help less privileged children who have suffered during lockdown, using trained instructors after school to deliver arts, sport, drama, singing, et cetera, which more privileged children have had access to, will make a real contribution to levelling up.
I join the noble Lord in praising the activity of that multi-academy trust. We have seen hundreds of schools join multi-academy trusts and improve their performance. The development of the National Tutoring Programme— in which I believe we have invested £539 million—is now school led. It will enable schools to spend that money on existing tutors and a wider range of subjects, including arts and other subjects that are not currently available through the tuition partners stream of the National Tutoring Programme.
My Lords, are the Government valuing children in the same way as the United States and other European countries such as the Netherlands, which are investing far more in their children and young people through their Covid recovery plans—reported to be £1,600 and £2,500 a head respectively compared to the equivalent £22 per child that primary schools will receive from the Government’s education recovery plan? Are BAME children and those already historically disadvantaged bearing the brunt of the pandemic through this gross lack of investment?
My Lords, in relation to BAME children, when the statistics are broken down it is clear that one has to look very carefully within that cohort. White Irish Traveller families and Gypsy and Roma families are very much at the bottom of achievement levels, with Asian and particularly British-Chinese students outperforming every other group. One has to look carefully within that group, but that is not to say that there are not some issues there, particularly for black Caribbean children and for boys. It is not appropriate to do a per-pupil comparison, because significant parts of the Government’s recovery package are not on a per-pupil basis. For instance, £200 million has been made available to secondary schools to run summer schools only for year 6 pupils going into year 7. Those comparisons are not possible between jurisdictions.
My Lords, while recognising the Government’s commitment to addressing racial equalities, can I ask my noble friend the Minister, who has just mentioned Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, what we are doing to support youngsters from those communities, who have the poorest life chances? What are they doing to support the recruitment of members of minority communities to school governing bodies?
My Lords, there are two organisations that the Government contract with to deliver new governors, Academy Ambassadors and the National Governance Association. We have set them specific targets which they have both exceeded in relation to recruitment from those communities. The Government are announcing—or have announced; I shall double-check that—the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller strategy, but my noble friend is correct that those groups have the highest prevalence for free school meals and some of the lowest educational attainment. We need to act to help change that.
My Lords, this Wednesday is Thank a Teacher Day, an event established in 1998 by my noble friend Lord Puttnam to celebrate and recognise excellence in education. It is a chance for children and families to thank the inspirational staff who change lives through their hard work. All the evidence shows that if we want to make the most difference to children’s life chances and close the attainment gap, investing in teaching is key. The influence of a good teacher lasts a lifetime, so why have the Government said nothing about the workforce that will deliver the additional education catch-up support for children’s pandemic recovery?
My Lords, perhaps I may correct something I said earlier to save me writing a letter in that regard: we have invested £579 million in the school-led programme.
The noble Baroness is right; it is what the evidence shows, and that is why in the third tranche of the recovery package we are investing £253 million in new funding for half a million teachers. Improving the early career framework for teachers by giving them two years’ professional development is an important professionalisation of the workforce. We are aiming towards that £30,000 starting salary as well.
My Lords, the evidence base on which the recovery package is based is research, particularly from the Education Endowment Foundation, and the quality of teaching, which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, outlined, is one of the key factors. Obviously, we have evidence as well that small-group or one-on-one tutoring is a key vehicle to help children catch up and improve. That is why £1.5 billion will go into tutoring over the next two to three academic years. That is the evidence base. We are collecting the Renaissance research on lost education, but that is geographical, not by gender or racial groups.
Children: Care Homes
My Lords, we have recently announced vital reforms for the use of unregulated provision to ensure that children in care and care leavers have access to high-quality accommodation and support that meets their needs and keeps them safe. This includes banning the practice of placing under-16s in this provision from September. We are now consulting on national standards and Ofsted regulation for unregulated provision for looked-after children and care leavers aged 16 and 17.
I thank the Minister for her reply. She will know that there were 1,860 reports of abuse against children living in unregistered care homes. This included physical abuse, sexual abuse, trafficking, grooming and the exploitation of young people with learning difficulties and mental health problems. Does the Minister agree that this is a disgrace? Will she take immediate steps to ensure that every child is safeguarded? We also see that, increasingly, these children are not attending school. Will she work with local authorities to ensure that every child goes to school?
My Lords, it is clear that the local authority has the primary statutory duty to safeguard children. More than 80% of our children’s homes are good or outstanding in Ofsted terms, but the noble Lord is correct. Schools are a vital part of the system and are the second largest reporter to children’s social care, and of course they should be keeping clear attendance figures to know where those children are.
My Lords, can the Minister say a little more about the decision for the new system not to proceed with formal police liaison with local authorities for out-of-area care? There are so many people involved in care, and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, along with the College of Policing, quite clearly recommends that local authorities notify the relevant police force in an out-of-area placement. I just do not understand it. The explanation that the Government give in their document about removing the formal liaison with the police is not very satisfactory. Will she say a little more about that government decision?
My Lords, there is guidance for local authorities when they are going to place a child in out-of-area care. A placement should always be governed by what is the most appropriate provision for the young person. Many of the facilities in which children are placed, such as Centrepoint and St Basils, are high-quality provision. I will write to the noble Lord in regard to the more specific question he asked about notifying the police authority to which the young person has been moved.
My Lords, the government proposals for a new regulatory and inspection regime using national minimum standards for 16 and 17 year-olds in unregulated settings intentionally omit any guarantee of care, causing many in the sector to express concern that the proposals establish a dangerous precedent, whereby older children notionally in care receive only a lower level of support. It seems to go against other recent welcome policy developments to extend aspects of care, such as “staying put” and “staying close”. Will the Minister explain this seeming contradiction in policy?
My Lords, there is no contradiction in policy here. The local authority’s duty is to place young people of 16 and 17 in the most appropriate accommodation, obviously taking into account their best interests. There are certain individual circumstances that mean that the best placement for a young person—such as a 16 or 17 year-old unaccompanied asylum-seeking child who has perhaps been out of any home or family environment for years—might be in semi-supported accommodation. It is important that there are national standards that Ofsted will inspect against for that type of provision.
My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Independent Schools Association. What progress has been made by the excellent schemes to provide places in both state and independent boarding schools for children in care who would be suited to them and benefit from them—which not all children in care would? Should not local authorities consider this option for their children in care with a completely open mind? How does the average annual cost of a place in a children’s home compare with that in a boarding school?
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. Through the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation charity, the Government are currently running regional pilots in the south-west, the north-east and London, to try to ensure that, where it is in the best interests of the child and the most appropriate placement is in one of those boarding schools, that is the placement. That is being done with a view to, after looking at the regional pilots, making it national.
My Lords, do the Government now regret the pressure that they placed on local authorities to outsource their services, as they call it, thereby placing into the hands of independent providers the powers both to choose the children to be offered a service and to set the charges that they demand? Does the Minister accept that placements in unregulated accommodation have been just one result of this policy?
My Lords, as I have outlined, there are many excellent providers in this sector, and it is not fair to tar everybody with the same brush when there are a minority of situations in which, of course, we need to act. The noble Lord is correct: a review is currently under way by the Competition and Markets Authority to look at the market in this space, but many of those providers provide a good or outstanding service.
Is my noble friend aware that Ofsted stopped doing routine inspections in March 2020? Therefore, only 29 homes were inspected in the next nearly six months. Are discussions being held with Ofsted to ensure that all those unregulated homes are inspected regularly?
My Lords, the consultation closes on 19 July. Once we have national standards, it is envisaged that Ofsted will inspect this provision as well. As the noble Lord outlined, Ofsted has still been inspecting on a risk base, when it is alerted to problems in children’s homes—but it is getting back to all its routine inspections now.
I welcome my noble friend’s announcement that there will be no future referrals to unregulated providers. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the National Association of Child Contact Centres and the co-chair of the APPG on Child Contact Centres. Will my noble friend ensure that all child contact centres and organisations that offer child contact services are accredited in accordance with national standards for safeguarding to ensure that no child can be referred to an unregulated and unprovided-for child contact centre in future?
I appreciate my noble friend’s concern, but I will have to write to her as I believe that might be a matter for the Home Office or the MoJ, if there is any regulatory regime around child contact centres, which I believe will be for separated parents.
My Lords, it was deeply disappointing to see that the first report, published last week, of the MacAlister review of children’s social care, did not champion 16 and 17 year-olds in care, instead following the position of Ministers on unregistered homes. With the Government attempting to defend the indefensible by citing the fact that children aged 16 can marry or enter civil partnerships with parental consent, the Ministry of Justice has announced that it is going to raise the legal minimum age for marriage because, as it says, of the need to protect vulnerable children. Will the Minister finally accept the need to ensure that all under 18s receive care where they live, because all children in care are by definition extremely vulnerable?
My Lords, the Department for Education has liaised closely with the Ministry of Justice on this policy. A number of 16 and 17 year-olds are remanded with very strict bail conditions pending trial. In those circumstances, there can be difficulties in placing those 16 and 17 year-olds in a family environment. So it is very clear that in that small number of cases, for those reasons—and also taking into account the best interests of that alleged offender—they may be placed in that type of accommodation. The Government are not defending the indefensible, but in certain circumstances, particularly with the risks that those young people may, unfortunately, pose to other children if placed in a children’s home or a family, we need to make sure that that type of accommodation meets national standards and is inspected but is available for that type of situation.
European Football Championships: Travel
Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to exempt from quarantine restrictions (1) UEFA and FIFA officials, and (2) associated visitors, travelling to the United Kingdom for the final of the European football championships.
My Lords, the Government are proud that the UK is hosting 12 Euro 2020 matches, including both semi-finals and the final at Wembley. We already permit certain officials and accredited guests to enter the UK for these matches under the elite sport exemption. We will continue to keep the scope of these exemptions under review, and are working closely with the FA and UEFA to ensure that these Euro 2020 matches take place successfully. At all times in this pandemic, public health remains our priority.
My Lords, I am pleased to hear the Minister’s reassurance on that count. However, given the Government’s track record—travel from India having seeded the Delta variant and Cornwall spiking 2,400% after the G7 summit—does she accept that the public are rightly concerned that their right to life and livelihoods might again be at risk due to the possible importation of what we might call the UEFA variant if the exemptions highlighted in the media go ahead? Will the Government publish an impact assessment so that we can see on what basis this potentially risky and unfair decision has been taken?
I stress that no decision has yet been taken, and I am grateful to the noble Baroness for acknowledging that public safety remains our top priority, including the safe delivery of Euro 2020. We have testing protocols and international restrictions in place to help ensure that this tournament can take place successfully and safely.
My Lords, I know from past bids to hold major football tournaments that the organisers stipulate their requirements in detail, including all aspects of attendance. The United Kingdom could decline but we know that the tournament would simply go elsewhere, which is not attractive or generally to be recommended. While some people may be irate about these facts, I have two questions. First, on the assumption that we may yet admit UEFA guests, what specific health safety checks would be insisted on to ensure the safety of the people of the United Kingdom? Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly for national economic life and the future of jobs in this country, will the Government make specific arrangements to ensure that short-term visits from key strategic businesses and investors could also proceed where they are safe, given that vital activity is currently impeded by quarantine arrangements that are more restrictive than in any competitor nation?
I thank the noble Lord for his reflections and questions. The health restrictions that could be imposed if we reached an agreement with UEFA would build on the existing elite sport exemptions that, I think, are well understood by the public and whose rationale is well accepted, including capacity, testing, isolation and staying in bubbles. As for the wider opening up of the economy that he spoke about, he knows that we are working towards stage 4 of the road map in that regard.
I stress again that no final decisions have been taken. Our approach is to restrict any extension to the smallest possible group of people who are deemed critical for staging the tournament successfully. I am not aware that we will publish the vaccination status, but we will ensure that any visit is a safe one.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that allowing 250 VIPs to come into the country without quarantine sends the wrong message to the general public: that quarantine is not important, and that there is one rule for them and one rule for people seen as more important?
The noble Lord cites a figure that I do not recognise. The principle is that we are not exempting any VIPs or accredited guests from our restrictions. If it is agreed that they should enter the UK, they would be allowed to leave isolation only for official events and would be subject to a very strict code of conduct.
My Lords, if the Government are minded to waive quarantine restrictions to avoid the final and semi-finals being moved from the UK, are they looking at controls such as limiting the number of those exempted, where they can stay, what they can do once they are in the UK, and their departure after the final?
My Lords, many thousands of fans have tickets for the games at Wembley. Business supply chains and workers have been preparing for them for a long time. Perhaps UEFA should remember that it was the passion of fans in this country in particular that saw off the threat of the European Super League. To repay the favour by removing games would be a pretty disgraceful betrayal. Many traders will use this as a first opportunity to open up. What considerations are the Government giving to supporting traders should these games end up being relocated? Furthermore, what thoughts have the Government had about the balance between fans and organiser sponsor interests, in the light of the threat of moving the final somewhere else? Can we have an update on this work as an aspect of the fan-led review?
My Lords, on 18 June the Prime Minister said, in regard to this issue, that protecting public health was his priority. What public health data, therefore, do the Government have that indicates that up to 2,500 UEFA officials are less likely to catch and spread Covid-19 than ordinary football fans, who will have to quarantine?
My Lords, why is there such a disconnect between the Government’s rules for football and those for culture? Quite apart from the terrible problems facing travelling artists, having seen on television over the weekend the happy revellers at matches inside bars and pubs, the points that Barbara Keeley MP and I made in our letter from the APPG on Classical Music to Oliver Dowden last week are all the more germane. In other words, is it not utterly ridiculous that shouting, chanting and drinking fans can congregate and hug each other but a small, amateur, vaccinated and socially distanced choir cannot meet to rehearse?
My Lords, I reinforce what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said about communal singing and the comparisons with football. The Minister mentioned that whoever comes in will be subject to a “strict code of conduct”. Will the Government make it absolutely clear what sanctions will be imposed on those who breach any of the rules associated with that code?
I am thrown now, my Lords. Anyway, congratulations to Wales—it is the hope that kills you—and to the Scottish football fans for having a good time. On this cancelled “freedom day”, does the Minister understand that these apparent double standards and exemptions for the few, similar to those we saw at the G7 and Royal Ascot, are creating cynicism about whether policies are really based on evidence, not just among the protesters outside today but among the most lockdown-compliant citizens? Perhaps UEFA and FIFA saw the viral thread of tweets describing the risible conditions in an official quarantine hotel: for example, paltry amounts of food served at 9 pm and children and the elderly incarcerated and actually going hungry. Can the Minister assure the House that, rather than tightening up quarantine, the Government might look at lessening it for the many rather than just for the few?
Some of the wider issues to which the noble Baroness rightly alludes are part of our broader strategy for lifting lockdown progressively. Quarantining is obviously part of that. Our number one priority for these events is the public health safety of our citizens. The second is to be good hosts to the teams and VIPs coming to this country. To do this, we will build on our existing elite sport exemptions. Anyone allowed in will be subject to the same restrictions.
Common Organisation of the Markets in Agricultural Products (Fruit and Vegetable Producer Organisations, Tariff Quotas and Wine) (Amendment etc.) Regulations 2021
Motion to Approve
Committee (1st Day)
Relevant document: 3rd Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
I will call Members to speak in the order listed. During the debate on each group I invite Members, including Members in the Chamber, to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister. I will call Members to speak in the order of request. The groupings are binding. A participant who might wish to press an amendment other than the lead amendment in the group to a Division must give notice in debate or by emailing the clerk. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the question, I will collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely wants their voice accounted for if the question is put, they must make this clear when speaking in the group.
1: Before Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
(1) The purpose of Part 1 is to provide a governance framework for enabling the environmental objectives to be met. (2) Within the framework of sustainable development, the environmental objectives referred to in section 1(1) are to achieve and maintain—(a) a healthy, resilient and biodiverse natural environment,(b) an environment that supports human health and wellbeing for everyone, and(c) sustainable use of natural and physical resources.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment aims to align the core elements of the governance framework (process for setting long-term targets, Environmental Improvement Plans and the Policy Statement on Environmental Principles) to a single objective.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 1, I will speak also to Amendments 3, 54 and 74 in my name. The Environment Bill offers a unique opportunity to create a coherent long-term framework for the environment—a framework 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 seeking to address the core governance elements that will be needed for decades to come. This is a critical component. Clearly, business will have a key role to play in delivering the changes needed to meet our long-term environmental ambitions and our net-zero target. Unlocking private sector finance and investment will be essential, particularly given the pressures on the public purse.
Having engaged with business groups on how they can rise to the challenge, I have picked up a clear signal. The confidence and certainty that they need to invest in the future—our future—will depend on there being greater clarity and cohesion across the governance provisions set out in the Bill, particularly on the interplay between targets, interim targets and environmental improvement plans. The addition of guiding objectives to the setting of long-term environmental targets, and to bind the core governance elements together, along with an overarching purpose statement at the start of the Bill, would bring that greater level of clarity and cohesion to the governance provisions. That, in turn, would give businesses greater confidence to invest in achieving long-term targets; hence Amendments 1, 3, 54 and 74.
Amendment 1 proposes defining core environmental objective on the face of the Bill. Amendment 3 would ensure that the target-setting process is aligned with the core environmental objectives. Amendment 54 would align environmental improvement plans with these objectives, and Amendment 74 would, likewise, align the environmental principles with these objectives. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership, I am a trustee of the Green Purposes Company that holds the green share in the Green Investment Bank, and I am a director of Aldustria Ltd.
We have recently had the G7 in the part of the world that I live in: Cornwall. Never mind the increase in Covid-19 in those areas since—other than that, it was a very successful bringing together of global leaders. I like to think that one of the reasons our Prime Minister chose Cornwall was because of its natural environment, its beauty and, for that weekend at least, its good weather. I ask the Committee to keep this to itself but the weather is not always quite like that in Cornwall, but it was on those two to three days, I am pleased to say.
Many visitors come to Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly for their staycations because of that great environment but I have to tell the Committee that, on a local basis, biodiversity in that far south-west region is as on the brink as it is elsewhere. For instance, half our mammals are found in fewer places, three out of five of our butterflies are in decline, eight of our bumblebee species have disappeared over the last few years, and some 40% of our breeding birds are in decline. That is in an area that we think of as being beautiful in terms of its biodiversity and its natural heritage.
This is reflected nationally: in the UK we have failed to meet some 17 of our Aichi targets—the targets set 10 years ago at the Convention on Biological Diversity. Some 15% of our species are threatened with extinction; we have a reduced distribution of a quarter of our species, and four out of 10 are in decline. We saw in the Woodland Trust report that only 7% of our forests and woodlands are in good order. So, we have biodiversity as a crisis together with climate change. They are crises and they are emergencies. I think there are very few people who would dispute that at the moment.
One of the interesting things to come out recently, in fact in the last week, is a report —not just by the IPCC on the climate change side, but the IPBES on the UN biodiversity side—that says that these two crises are inextricably linked. One cannot be solved without the other; they are twin crises that are, in effect, Siamese twins as we would understand them. I will talk more about the biodiversity crisis—we are very aware of the climate change crisis. It is a crisis where we believe that we are entering the sixth extinction on the planet. The previous one was the dinosaurs, thought to be caused by an asteroid, but the sixth extinction that is happening at this time is uniquely, clearly and obviously the only one that is due to one species—homo sapiens.
Why is this important? It is not just about cuddly animals or health, welfare and being able to have access to the countryside and to nature. It is because we rely entirely on the ecosystem services that biodiversity affords us, be those pollination, healthy soil, clean water, clean seas or a whole panoply of ways that not just we as individuals but our economy survives. Again, in the south-west, this is certainly true of tourism, fisheries and agriculture, but it is true of industry generally and of our economic well-being. Because of that, I have brought this amendment forward.
It is a particularly auspicious time because this year we have not just COP 26 on climate change in Glasgow in November but COP 15 of the biodiversity convention in Kunming in October. These two important international conferences are coming together towards the end of this year, but, we hope, after this Bill squeezes through Royal Assent and becomes an Act, which we want to happen quickly. It is an ideal opportunity to illustrate to the world how the United Kingdom sees these crises as important and as inextricably combined emergencies, where we can show leadership.
Why this amendment and why in this Bill? First, if local authorities can blaze the trail in this area, our own Government and this Parliament should be able to do so as well. Some 230 local authorities have declared a climate change emergency. Around 15% have declared a biodiversity emergency. They include Bath, Bristol and Brighton, and they are across the political spectrum. A number of other local authorities have declared a combined emergency, including Cambridgeshire, Bournemouth, Windsor, Maidenhead, Brent and Ealing. I am sure all of us can point out those of our own political choice.
Another reason this is important is that, just as the Government have said, this is a landmark Bill. It is critical to how this country moves forward in terms of its environment and even broader issues. What better place is there for the Government to declare this double emergency?
Another important thing is that while there is awareness across this House of the biodiversity crisis, there is less awareness of it more broadly. Climate change is more obvious. This amendment gives an opportunity to give equality to those two issues—to give greater visibility to the biodiversity problem.
Lastly, this amendment gives us a real opportunity to give leadership in both COP 15 and COP 26. These emergencies exist. They are one and connected in so many ways. This gives the opportunity—better than any other way—to show that the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister, the Government and this Parliament give these emergencies the priority they deserve.
My Lords, I have set myself the target for Committee not to make the mistakes of other Committee stages by making mini Second Reading speeches before I get to the amendment. So I will be really brief, because I agree 100% with the points and the amendments from the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay. Business needs clarity. A single objective gives that clarity, and the Minister would be making a big mistake if he did not find a way to clean up the front of the Bill, because it is in his and all our interests that business, which is going to make this work, can be absolutely clear about the objectives. For that reason, I support the noble Earl’s amendments, and I hope the Minister will give a positive response.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendments of my noble friend Lord Lindsay and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. I will just add one or two brief points.
First, my noble friend Lord Lindsay talked about clarity and cohesion. I would add another “C”—consistency. If we are to have a landmark Bill—and this must be a landmark Bill—it is clearly important that we get it right as far as we possibly can. During this dreadful year of the pandemic, when the Government—and I am not scoring cheap points—have been fighting something literally unprecedented in the last century, a degree of confusion has been caused by a lack of clarity, consistency and cohesion. I do not want to stray from the Bill into recent events, but we have seen how people have been uncertain, often, about what the Government are really seeking to do.
It is crucial that when this landmark Bill reaches the statute books—as I, of course, hope it will—it is in a significantly better shape than it is at the moment, good as it is. Therefore, while I would like to see the Bill on the statute book by 1 November, what matters far, far more than any artificial timetable is that this Bill is right. Whether it goes on the statute books on 1 November, 1 December or 1 January matters far less than that it is right. You have only to mention the words “Irish protocol” to realise that if you negotiate to a strict and artificial timetable, you often get it wrong.
I referred to my noble friend: he chaired the Environment Sub-Committee of the EU Committee—on which I had the good fortune to sit—extremely well. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, also made some very telling points. We have to realise that we are in this sixth crisis; we have to realise that many species are on the brink of extinction. This year, in our small but quite attractive urban garden in Lincoln, we have hardly seen a butterfly. Talking to friends around, I have heard of similar experiences. I read in the Times this morning, coming up on the train, about the lack of Arctic terns in Northumbria—an extraordinary bird that commutes 14,000 miles a year. There is a very real danger to its survival as a species. There are so many things that the Bill can help to underline and combat, and it is essential that it does.
With those few words, I endorse both my noble friend Lord Lindsay and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in what they are seeking to do. Although in Committee we are mainly probing, it is essential that the Bill finishes Report in this House in as near a perfect state as it is possible for us to make it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I am speaking in support of Amendment 2 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. Clearly, the amendments in this group seek to improve the Bill’s environmental objectives by statute, and that is laudable of them all. But Amendment 2 sets a tone for the Bill, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who indicated the need for an assessment and provided a very good assessment of the current state of biodiversity in Cornwall, which could quite easily be mirrored in other parts of the UK.
The Bill needs to have the purpose and declaration of biodiversity and climate emergency specified in it on an equal basis. It is particularly pertinent to set this in legislation if the Government are serious about the need to protect and nurture our unique biodiversity and to mitigate the problems that the climate emergency is bringing to our planet, with increased levels of flooding, the warming of our planet, and the weekend warning that we now have Mediterranean UV levels in the UK. To take the example of Belfast, Department of the Environment statistics show that on 13 June last week, UV levels reached 9 on the solar UV index. This is due to a number of things, including stratospheric ozone depletion, the position of the sun in the sky at this time of year, and the lack of cloud cover. That is one reason why Amendment 2 is so important and why it must be included in statutory form in the Bill in order to give both areas of climate emergency and biodiversity equal status.
I honestly believe that the PM must take charge of the situation. This amendment provides for him—or for whoever is the postholder—to declare that there is a biodiversity and climate emergency both domestically and globally. It will strengthen the governance regime and give strength and toughness to the need for governmental action to protect our biodiversity and to protect our planet from the climate emergency. It is so important that we agree to do this with COP 15 and COP 26 taking place this year.
As the Aldersgate Group—which supplied us with a briefing—stated, the Environment Bill is a vital opportunity to establish a new, ambitious and robust governance framework that protects and enhances the natural environment. What better way to do that than to ensure that the Government accept an amendment to the Bill which provides for the Prime Minister, with statutory effect, to declare that there is a biodiversity and climate emergency both in the UK and globally and, above all, to enhance and strengthen the Bill to ensure that it becomes an even greater landmark Bill with the legislative teeth to act in such urgent circumstances.
My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lord Lindsay’s amendments. They help to clarify the purpose of the Bill—which I welcome, as I said at Second Reading. I like the drift of the Bill, but it needs to be strengthened in more than one area. At the moment, it is not going to tackle the problems that we all face.
I like subsection (2) of my noble friend Lord Lindsay’s Amendment 1, where he sets out that the aim is to achieve
“a healthy, resilient and biodiverse natural environment”.
We all want that, and we have failed in the past. There have been all sorts of attempts to get this right but, as I said at Second Reading and will stress throughout Committee, this needs management—it is the people on the land managing nature in its widest sense who will result in an increased and better performance than we have had to date. I want to focus on those people; they are basically landowners and farmers. At the moment, they have very low confidence in what the Government are doing. They are moving from one farming regime to another; they know nothing about the second farming regime through ELMS, and yet their money is being substantially cut. That might be all right for some owner-occupiers, but it is proving a very serious problem for tenant farmers.
Subsection (2)(b) of Amendment 1 goes on to say that the environment must support
“human health and wellbeing for everyone”.
Yes, and I am a great believer in a good footpath system, because I now rely on that for my exercise. But if you talk to any farmer now, they are not in a good position mentally because of the amount of rubbish and harassment they get from people who visit their land. This is a two-way street. It is all very well to encourage people to go to the countryside, but the sad thing is that there is a quite substantial minority abusing that countryside. Anybody who has read the papers or the news recently will know the problems that farmers have had to face, with blocked driveways, blocked entrances to gateways, rubbish, litter, barbecues and wildfires. How are the Government going to help farmers deliver the intentions of the Bill?
Does my noble friend agree that in order to get a good and diverse natural environment in this country, some 21% of agricultural land will need to be planted to trees or bioenergy crops? The counterbalance to that is that there must be an increase of 10% in the productivity of all other agricultural land, otherwise in 10 years’ time we will say, “Yes, we have done something for the environment, but we have done nothing for our food”; our food prices will be going up, and the poorest will be the ones who suffer.
This is a balance; it is an equation that has to be got right. Although I thoroughly support the necessity of the amendments proposed by my noble friend to set the remit of the Environment Bill, we also need to be very careful when discussing it to get the balance right, so that the people who will produce that improved environment are taken with the Government and can also make a living off the land which they farm and manage.
My Lords, I feel it is only fair to warn your Lordships that you will see quite a lot of the two wonderful Green Peers over the next few weeks. I am sure your Lordships understand that this is a particularly important Bill for us. We have waited a long time, and it is an issue that we both care very deeply about. Having said that, we care about a lot of other issues as well, as noble Lords will have seen.
Of course, a huge amount hinges on this Bill. As I so often do—surprisingly—I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who said that the Bill has to be right. To do that, it has to be amended here in your Lordships’ House. If we get this Bill right, it will mean that we can get a lot of other things right: our farming, our food production and food growing, clean air and clean water supplies, our health and well-being, and our economy. A good Bill will mean no trade deals with countries like Australia—sorry, Natalie—with its awful farming practices, which have been banned here for years, and none of the ecologically and economically illiterate long-distance swapping of lamb and beef when we can buy UK-produced meat right here from our own farmers with higher welfare standards. A good Bill will offer more tech opportunities and more jobs in sustainable industries. A good Bill would be this Bill, heavily amended by your Lordships’ House.
Moving on, this is a perfect group of amendments. I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, for such a brief introduction; his amendments are incredibly valuable and go to the heart of why the Bill exists. Personally, I think that if we get this right, it will be as big and important a piece of legislation as the Human Rights Act.
Amendment 2 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, reflects on the climate and ecological emergencies facing us. My noble friend Lady Bennett and I were very happy to sign it, and we are thrilled that all the opposition parties can unite around understanding the climate and ecological emergencies. Without the amendments in this group, the Bill risks falling far short of what it needs to achieve. Without these amendments setting out the clear purpose—the central aim—of the Bill, there will be a danger of policymakers and the courts interpreting this legislation far too narrowly and failing to give effect to the proper intention of Parliament. Without these amendments, there is very little to bind the decisions made under the Bill. The ambition of the Bill could have little real-world effect if we do not craft the right mechanisms to turn the ideas into action.
Then there is the requirement for the Prime Minister to declare a climate and ecological emergency. Why has he not done so already? Perhaps the Minister can tell us. Quite honestly, this must happen before COP 26. It is impossible for the United Kingdom to give any type of leadership at COP 26 without this declaration. It should form the very foundation of COP and be the basis for negotiations there. Without properly diagnosing the issue, we will never agree on the solutions and actions that the world must adopt. I support these amendments wholeheartedly.
I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness. I welcome this group of amendments, which are excellent as probing amendments. The voice of business is missing in the Bill, in particular the voice of farmers and landowners, and indeed water companies, which have a real role to play here. I regret also that there is a missed opportunity in the Bill, which is very ambitious on certain levels but has some spectacular omissions at other levels, in that the interaction between this Bill and the Agriculture Act and the Trade Act could have been spelled out more, both at Second Reading and as we proceed now with the more cohesive infrastructure.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lindsay and my noble friend—if I may call him that—Lord Teverson, under whose chairmanship my noble friend Lord Cormack and I have the honour to serve on the EU Environment Sub-Committee. I also congratulate Cornwall on so successfully hosting what seemed to be in its own right a successful G7 meeting. Had the meeting been held over the past few days, perhaps it would not have been quite so visually attractive. I am sure that Cornwall will go on to benefit from that, as Yorkshire has from the Tour de France and the Tour de Yorkshire that we held in previous years and which we hope to repeat this year.
I invite my noble friend the Minister, not just when he sums up today but as we go through the Bill, to rise to the challenge that has been laid down by my noble friend Lord Lindsay in particular. There are two specific areas my noble friend Lord Caithness has identified where businesses have a role to play. Farmers stand prepared to play their part in tackling climate change; you need only look at the websites of the farming organisations—the Tenant Farmers Association, the NFU and the CLA—in this regard. However, as my noble friend Lord Caithness identified, all the action the Government seem to be proposing, in planting huge numbers of trees, improving soil quality and many other factors, will be of great benefit to the landowners who own the land, but I struggle to see what the benefit will be for tenant farmers. Looking at the future of upland farming, I think that up to 48% of farms in North Yorkshire alone are tenanted farms, which is a very high proportion. It distinguishes England from other parts of Europe, which do not have this background. I am struggling to see how tenant farmers in particular will benefit under the Bill.
The Government are looking to encourage older farmers to retire, but where they will live is a separate question that needs to be addressed. Smaller houses are simply not being built; smaller properties of one or two bedrooms are not available to allow those who are retiring to either rent or own them. It is not just the starter homes but the step-down homes as well. The other area where I believe farmers, landowners and water companies have a real role to play—we will look at this in later amendments—is flood prevention. Again, this area could be explored more fully in this regard.
My noble friend Lord Lindsay and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, have done the House a great service in enabling us to debate this small group of amendments this afternoon and I look forward very much to hearing my noble friend on the Front Bench tell us more about ELMS, flood prevention and other schemes under the Bill where he expects businesses, particularly farming businesses and water companies, might benefit.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I will speak to Amendment 1 in the name of my noble friend Lord Lindsay—a subject on which I, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and other noble Lords from across the House have spoken many times in this place.
The specific context of my remarks is the proposal by my noble friend Lord Lindsay to insert a new clause specifically to achieve and maintain
“an environment that supports human health and wellbeing for everyone”.
We emerge from Covid with a nation where obesity and mental health concerns among an unfit and often inactive population, particularly among the young, are a major national concern. The decision by the Government, and the Department of Health in particular, to tackle these challenges on a cross-departmental basis, with the impending establishment of the office for health promotion, is as much about prioritising health and educational opportunities as we build back better and level up as it is about access to the countryside and to an environment that supports human health and well-being for everyone.
In days gone by, the order of priority tended to be: sport, recreation and an active lifestyle. Today, policymakers and the public at large seek to reverse that order. An active lifestyle, recreation and sport are the priorities. Such an approach focuses on well-being, both physical and mental—well-being to be supported, I suggest, by a well-being budget with responsibility for drawing all the cross-departmental strands together. This Bill, and in particular my noble friend’s amendment, sets the environmental objectives in this context, which can play a key part in establishing an important element of the legislative framework capable of delivering these objectives.
For an active lifestyle, human health and well-being and the environment are inextricably linked. They are dependent on their environmental contexts and are potentially environmentally impactful in their own right. Sport and recreational facilities, if inadequately planned—such as ski hills, golf courses and stadia, and even some pathways—can upset ecosystems and displace local residents. Here my noble friend Lord Caithness is absolutely right: there must be appropriate safeguards, with access matched by responsibility. As he said, this equation must be got right.
In this context, access to nature has never been more important. Countless studies confirm the health and well-being benefits of being active and connecting with the outdoors. The Covid-19 pandemic makes the case only more compelling. As we recover from the worst of the pandemic, the Environment Bill, with my noble friend’s amendment, establishes a strategic approach to the provision of public access so that support is targeted where it is most needed, ensuring that more people can benefit from the experience of connecting with nature.
It is with that in mind that the Ramblers, Sustrans, British Canoeing, the British Mountaineering Council and the Open Spaces Society, among many others, see that there is much to welcome in the Bill. However, it could be strengthened by my noble friend’s amendment, not least in the requirements in the Bill, which are already welcome, for the Government to set legally binding long-term targets and to develop long-term plans in relation to the key priority areas.
However, without amendments such as my noble friend’s, the Bill will fail to afford equal priority to access to and enjoyment of the natural environment. It enables, rather than requires, the Government to set targets and develop plans for improvements in this area. Therefore there is a disconnect between the Bill and the Government’s own 25 year-old environment plan—or rather the 25-year environment plan; sadly, it is not yet that old—which includes a policy aim to ensure that the natural environment can be used by everyone. Already, the consequences of the lower priority afforded to access are becoming clear; emerging policy from Defra for target-setting is silent on the way the department intends to improve access in future.
In conclusion, I believe that the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Lindsay could provide for and strengthen the framework needed for these commitments, by strengthening access to nature. As my noble friend Lord Cormack has said, this Bill will guide policy-making for years to come. I support the proposals to establish a framework of legally binding and long-term targets and plans to drive improvements in environmental quality, not least because the state of the natural environment is encouraging people to get outdoors; that is critical. However, the Bill must be strengthened so that connecting people to nature is afforded equal priority and integrated into the wider plans for environmental improvement. For that reason, above all, I support the amendment moved by my noble friend.
My Lords, I too support the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, in his amendment. I may be challenging the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, but I will be interested to see the Government’s response. Like the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on chairing the environmental sub-committee.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, got it right when he said that this is a landmark Bill and that business needs certainty. It is also about how the Bill is perceived by Europe and the COP 26—that is, the rest of the world. This is a fundamentally important Bill and we need to get it right. Perhaps I am luckier than the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in that there are quite a few butterflies in my garden and in a meadow not far away, which shows that there is a variation in what is happening in our environment.
I say to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, that I see our departure from the common agricultural policy and setting up a new approach to subsidies that would encourage farmers to look after the environment and to have a sustainable approach as a fundamentally important step forward.
There is a challenge for the Government. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, was right when she talked about the challenge of retiring farmers; I am more interested in how we are going to encourage young and new tenant farmers, who will bring a new approach. There are many good examples of this around the country; we need a lot more of those young farmers with their different approach that is much more in sympathy with the environment and sustainability.
The benefits to well-being of people using the countryside are of course well known. I apply the 2R formula: if you have a right to access the countryside, you also have a responsibility in the way you use it. You do not leave litter, and we must somehow get rid of the abominable work of flytippers.
I listened carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. As she said, no doubt that there will be many contributions from her and her colleague. However, I disagree fundamentally with her sweeping comment that there should be no trade deals, especially with Australia. Does she really think that this country can survive without any trade deals? Of course there are going to be trade deals, and I do not automatically dismiss the Australian one. There will be a period of phasing in and a requirement to ensure that we do not import products that we would regard as unsafe, but that has to be based on evidence. Quite frankly, I welcome the deal with Australia, and I will listen carefully to the arguments.
I wish the Minister every success as he deals with the range of challenging and probing amendments to what, as a number of noble Lords have said, is probably one of the most important Bills that we will address in this Parliament.
It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Young. I want to speak to and oppose Amendment 2. Using this Bill to mandate that the Prime Minister should declare that there is a biodiversity and climate emergency, both domestically and globally, strikes me as a form of virtue signalling and almost an imperial version of it by declaring on behalf of the globe. I think that that is a bit too much. I am also concerned that its consequences go beyond wordplay and may play into some anti-democratic trends. In recent years it seems that there has been a competition to up the hyperbole and the catastrophist rhetoric across all parties, perhaps to prove green credentials; I do not know that it helps, and I am not sure that this consensus is healthy either.
We are familiar with the approach on climate and biodiversity being added to the mix. The problem with Amendment 2 is that it follows a certain script, with the emphasis on “emergency”. If the Government keep calling everything an emergency, that will become, “Act now or else command”, and dangerously privileges environmental concerns as trumping all others. That rarely puts those concerns into perspective with other possible emergencies or crises. What about the housing emergency, the jobs emergency and the lack of freedom emergency? By the way, I do not think that the trade deal with Australia is a disaster because it will actually solve an emergency. We do not have enough trade deals and we want more.
I recall back in 2009 the book by James Lovelock, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, in which he wrote that surviving climate change
“may require, as in war, the suspension of democratic government for the duration of the survival period.”
At the time, I thought that that sounded extreme, marginal and farfetched, but after the past 15 months, I feel that it is less farfetched. We have just lived through a public health emergency where exactly these things have occurred. We have suspended democratic governance in many ways in order to survive. I am therefore very wary of allowing a statutory nod to ever more emergencies with similar consequences. Many are worried, for example, that lockdown measures will be used in the future under the auspices of environmentalism. I do not think that that fear is unwarranted.
I note that the independent SAGE group, led by Sir David King, has just announced the setting up of another pseudo-scientific body to be called the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, with 14 experts and10 nations. He has said that it is driven by the urgent need to stabilise climatic conditions and to
“protect vital biodiversity and ecosystem functions for the next generation.”
That is because the biggest challenge we face today are these things. I ask: are they really the biggest challenge? I think it is about the elite PR strategy rather than democracy when Sir David King draws attention to the excess of independent SAGE. He says:
“All 12 members have become media personalities. I hope we get the same level of interest on the climate group.”
I am worried about what is going on and whether it is in good faith.
It seems to me that using the language of crisis and emergency and thus presenting everything as an imminent and existential threat can play fast and loose with democratic accountability. When a state of emergency is declared, as we have seen during Covid, there is no time or space for deliberation or debate. According to Greta Thunberg, the house is on fire.
Civil liberties and democratic freedoms can be suspended, and experts, such as Sir David King, main SAGE, independent SAGE and others suddenly become more important on the centre stage than citizens. When a state of emergency is declared, as would happen in a war, we have to ask who the enemy is. When it comes to biodiversity and the environment, my concern is that the enemy is not the virus, foreign foes or whoever, but us, Homo sapiens, and our nasty overconsumption of energy and demands for decent living standards, cars, homes, industrialisation and development.
My objection to Amendment 2 is not a focus on linguistics and the use of the word “emergency”—my concern is political. Any decision this Bill makes about biodiversity or the natural environment must be concrete, specific, proportionate and avoid the pitfall of whipping up fears about imminent catastrophe. I do not think that declaring an emergency solves anything. I am interested in the details of the Bill, not virtue signalling.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to find myself at this place in the debate and to respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley. It was certainly a passionate speech, but perhaps not a cohesive one. She spoke about anti-democratic trends and then about there being a consensus. If there is a consensus and local governments are following it, that seems democratic rather than anti-democratic. To point to some figures, a survey was done by the UNDP around the world, of 1.2 million people in 50 countries, published in January this year. It was interesting that in the UK the highest proportion of people—81%—agreed that there is a climate emergency. That is a consensus and, in declaring it, we would be following a democratic path.
My noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb noted that your Lordships will be hearing from both of us a great deal. I promise that you will not be hearing from both of us on every amendment, but you will be hearing from us both on Amendment 2, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who introduced it so powerfully. On democracy, the noble Lord pointed out how many local authorities have declared a climate emergency. In fact, 74% of district, county, unitary and metropolitan councils have done that, plus eight combined authorities and city regions. Sheffield Council has just declared a biodiversity emergency, as have Eden District Council and Dorset, so it is spreading around the country.
Perhaps I can offer the Government a little political advice, thinking of the situation in which they find themselves with the blue wall. I note that Henley-on-Thames Town Council, in the heart of what is considered the blue wall, is planning to declare a biodiversity emergency this week. It is going further and plans to back the climate and ecological emergency Bill, so the Government might like to think about not just the science of this but the politics.
I will be brief, because my noble friend has already covered much of this ground, but I want to pick up a point from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering; she said that we have not heard enough from business. I refer to the consultancy firm Deloitte and its environment report a month or so back, which said that there is now, in the combination of environmental, pandemic, social and economic changes, a business emergency. It says that we need cohesive government policies and guidance to tackle this.
This group of amendments, particularly Amendment 2, provides the cohesion that is crucial for this Bill. As we have seen on so many issues, the public are leading here; 81% of the public accept the climate emergency. Local government is not far behind and it is time for the Government, as the chair of COP 26, to catch up.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, and my noble friend Lord Teverson, for their amendments. We support the intentions of the noble Earl but believe that other amendments may equally pick up the issues that he rightly raises. There are amendments later in the Bill on setting legally binding interim targets that, we believe, will give business much of the certainty that it requires. We support the important intentions to ensure that public health is addressed, at the same time as supporting the natural environment, but believe that some of the amendments put down by my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market on Clause 7 will give that certainty to reinforce the link between the natural environment and public health.
We think that the amendment of my noble friend Lord Teverson is absolutely right and are glad that it is in the first grouping, because this is a biodiversity crisis. I am happy to stand with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, in taking a different line from that of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley—“opposing” is too strong a term. My strong view is that if we do not address the two climate and biodiversity threats, we cannot address any of the other threats that society faces. They are the fundamental building blocks on which our society, as individuals and businesses, relies. Therefore, it is right and proper to use the language of crisis.
I would perhaps concede that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, has a point in how we must be careful not to catastrophise. If we want to bring a democratic society with us, catastrophising will not be enough. We have to lead from the front and tell people how we can address the two crises of biodiversity and climate. There is therefore a key issue of communication. That is why I particularly like it that my noble friend’s amendment—supported by the Labour Party and the Green Party—says that
“the Prime Minister must declare that there is a biodiversity and climate emergency”.
This is about communicating with the public. I hope to see, throughout the progress of the Bill in Committee, the Minister make it clear just how the Government are going to communicate with the public. We can stay here today, tomorrow and for the next seven or so sittings and argue about these matters but, unless we take the British public with us, we will not deliver. The Government have to lead the public, as consumers, recyclers and in all their other guises. We need strong leadership from the Government to communicate that joint climate and sustainability challenge, and I hope to hear a lot more from the Minister on that, as we go through Committee.
My Lords, we have had an excellent start to our debates and consideration of the Bill, which helpfully sets the scene for the weeks ahead and underlines the scale of the challenge before us. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that you will also hear a great deal more from the Labour Front Benches on these issues.
We have become accustomed to accepting that there is a climate emergency, but it is now clear that the decline in biodiversity is having an equally devastating impact on the planet. As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, they are inextricably linked. This is why I was pleased to add my name to his Amendment 2.
It is two years since Parliament declared a climate and ecological emergency, on 1 May 2019. Since then, the need for more urgent action on the environment has only increased. The RSPB State of Nature report records that 41% of UK species are declining and one in 10 is threatened with extinction. It documented how the UK has failed to reach 17 of the 20 UN biodiversity targets agreed 10 years ago. The WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020 shows an average 68% decline in the populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish, globally, since 1970. Yet we rely on these species to keep our planet’s complex ecological systems in balance.
Noble Lords have spoken eloquently today about the consequences of our neglect of nature both domestically and globally. This need for urgent action has been echoed by a number of noble Lords. As the Dasgupta report drives home, the message that flourishing biodiversity across the planet is crucial for our economies, as well as for our well-being and for life itself, is all too apparent. I recommend that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, reads that report, if she has not already done so, because it underlines the crisis that confronts us now and certainly justifies us calling it an emergency.
I was pleased that, in his Second Reading speech, the Minister acknowledged the importance of the Dasgupta report. He described it as
“a powerful piece of work—a call to arms”.—[Official Report, 7/6/21; col. 1301.]
However, the Government’s formal response to that report has been less than inspiring. Therein lies the problem: lots of rhetoric but a lack of clear policy decisions and hard choices to deliver the changes that we need.
Sadly, the Government’s record on delivery leaves much to be desired. Progress on implementing the 25-year environment plan is mixed, with as many targets going backwards as forwards in the last report. The Natural Capital Committee’s 2020 report warns that there is a real danger that it will
“go the way of so many bold initiatives that have punctuated the decline of England’s natural environment over the previous generations.”
Meanwhile, the Climate Change Committee reports that we will not meet our fourth or fifth carbon budgets, while the latest report of the Adaptation Committee is scathing about the Government’s lack of action in a number of key policy areas necessary to meet the sixth. So I hope the Minister will understand our scepticism about the previous promises made, and why we want to use the Bill to deliver a different sort of future. Step one would be supporting Amendment 2, which would enshrine in the Bill the emergency and the need for urgent action.
I welcome the amendments in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, which highlight the lack of coherence between the environmental principles, environmental targets and environmental improvement plans. As several noble Lords have said, including my noble friends Lord Rooker and Lord Young of Norwood Green, business and the wider community need certainty. I agree with the many noble Lords who have said that that applies to the farming community as well, which is facing massive disruption from the transition to the new ELM system. I particularly welcome the noble Earl’s intention in Amendments 54 and 74 to firm up the obligations on the Secretary of State to make a “significant contribution” and then to “achieve” the environmental objectives, rather than the more woolly aspirations in the original text in the Bill. I hope the Minister will look favourably on those proposals.
These are early days in our consideration of the Bill. We have begun to identify the principles that will underpin the legislation based on an urgency for action, a clarity about the change needed and a robust mechanism to hold the Government to account on delivery. I look forward to the many debates ahead as we pursue those objectives line by line, and hope that together we can indeed deliver a different future for our planet.
I thank my noble friend Lord Lindsay for beginning this Committee. I note the support for his amendment from my noble friends Lord Cormack, Lord Caithness and Lady McIntosh, the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Young, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. In fact, a great many other speakers supported it as well and I will not continue to list them.
The amendments that my noble friend has tabled are, in effect, a summary of the Bill in its totality—it could not be a clearer summary, in a sense. The Environment Bill, as a manifesto commitment, sets a new and ambitious domestic framework for environmental governance. A resilient environment is essential for our own health and that of our planet. We recognise that the environment, unlike many areas of law where there are more clearly defined legal and economic interests, is often unowned. Environmental harms, including climate change, are necessarily, by their nature, more diffusely spread. That is why we have designed the Bill to create a comprehensive system of environmental governance that will put the environment at the heart of our policy-making and ensure clear and strong accountability.
The overall objective of the Bill is to deliver on the goals of the 25-year environment plan, and the environmental governance framework has been designed with the plan’s key objectives of environmental protection and the improvement of the natural environment at the forefront.
First, both targets and environmental improvement plans have the objective of delivering significant improvements to the natural environment—Clauses 6 and 7 being the obvious places for that. That objective provides certainty on the direction of travel; it will also drive long-lasting significant improvement in the natural environment. Clause 7 creates an ongoing requirement for the Government to have a
“plan for significantly improving the natural environment”.
The Government will be required to review that plan regularly and set out whether further policies are needed to improve the natural environment and achieve those targets.
Secondly, Clause 16 provides an objective for the environmental principles. It requires that the policy statement on environmental principles produced by the Secretary of State must contribute to the “improvement of environmental protection”, as well as “sustainable development”. When making policy, Ministers of the Crown must have due regard to the policy statement. These objectives will be integral to policy-making across government. This is the first time that Ministers across government will be legally obliged to consider the environmental principles in policy development wherever it impacts the environment.
Lastly, the OEP has the principal objective of contributing to environmental protection and the improvement of the natural environment. The OEP is able to undertake enforcement action against a public body’s breach of an environmental law that protects the natural environment, or to provide advice on a proposed change to an environmental law that improves the natural environment.
In summary, the Bill as a whole is designed to deliver the overarching ambition of our 25-year environment plan, which in many respects is reflected in the amendments tabled by my noble friend. The measures have been designed to legally work together with common statutory objectives to deliver the improvement and protection of the natural environment and to deliver the sustainable use of resources.
Before I come to the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, I want to address some of the points made by noble Lords. My noble friends Lord Caithness and Lady McIntosh raised their concerns about the lack of clarity for the business community, particularly farmers, in relation to the big transition that is happening. There is no doubt that it is a massive and revolutionary transition. It is the first transformation of its kind and something that needs to happen all over the world if we are going to have any hope at all of closing the gap between where we are and where we need to be on biodiversity. I can say that officials in my department have been working closely, as have colleagues at ministerial level, with farmers’ organisations, from the very largest—the National Farmers’ Union—to smaller organisations, to ensure that the sector is very much walking in lockstep with us as we develop the proposals and as those proposals morph into an actual policy.
The principle is pretty clear: we are moving to a system where the things that are not currently recognised by the market but which are good will be paid for through subsidies. As noble Lords might expect, things that are paid for by the market, such as food, will therefore not be on that list. It is a straightforward principle, although of course the effects will differ from farm to farm, and that is the beauty of solutions when it comes to the natural environment.
I should add that farmers, as a whole, are among the most entrepreneurial and dynamic people in this country. They are for ever adapting to circumstance and acting in response to market signals. The discussions, exchanges and engagement that we have been having for months now with the farming community suggest, and give me a great deal of confidence, that they will respond extraordinarily well to these new signals that the Government are going to be providing.
My noble friend Lord Cormack described with great sadness the decline of butterflies in his garden, and I know that that situation is duplicated all around the country and indeed the world. I say that we can still find room for optimism; if you give nature half a chance, it comes back extraordinarily quickly. I have had the privilege of seeing for myself, in areas that have been intensively farmed not particularly carefully for decades but have then been treated in a different manner—with organic farming or even, in some cases, rewilding—that nature returns extraordinarily quickly. That is what the Bill will do: it will give nature not just half a chance but a chance.
My noble friend Lord Moynihan talked about the critical importance of access to nature. If he does not mind, I will not go into detail on that issue because we will be discussing and debating it when we come to the fifth group of amendments—that might even be today, if we make some progress.
The noble Lord, Lord Young, discussed the comparisons between where we heading with the Bill and what we are leaving with the EU. We repeat our commitment, as we have many times, that the environment will be at least as well protected after this transition as it was under EU treaties. Many noble Lords will agree that those protections greatly exceed those provided by EU treaties, and that too is reflected in the Bill in numerous ways.
Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, raised the Dasgupta review, which I am pleased about; it needs to be raised at every opportunity, because it is so important. I have had endless discussions with counterparts around the world as part of our attempts to raise ambitions for COP and the CBD, and the Dasgupta review was part of almost every one of those conversations. It is globally recognised for its importance but, despite its length and sometimes complicated language, it has a fairly straightforward message: that our economies and our livelihoods need to be reconciled with the natural world, and everything we have comes from nature. I part company with the noble Baroness on her thoughts on the Government’s response. The response is not exhaustive, but was never the end of the story; it is the beginning. We must do an enormous amount to take heed of and internalise the message of the Dasgupta review in the way we govern. That applies to this Government, and successive Governments. The response was an enthusiastic nod to the principles with examples of the kinds of things we are doing, but without going into the level of detail which a Government would find difficult at this point.
Moving to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for which I thank him, I can reassure him that the Government absolutely are taking climate change and environmental concern seriously. There is an absolute recognition, both at a domestic level and in everything we are doing internationally, that the two are inextricably linked; as he said, you cannot tackle one without the other. A good climate COP will have good implications for nature, and a good CBD will have good implications for climate. We absolutely recognise the extent of the crisis which he and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, relayed to us. There is no doubt that the facts on the ground tell us that we are in crisis territory, and perhaps we will part company here with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. We debated the issue some time ago of whether or not we face a biodiversity crisis, and I will not repeat all the arguments I used, but she is right to be alert to the risk that any crisis can be used to justify authoritarianism and poor policy. It is therefore important that we get policy right but that does not take away from the facts, which paint a bleak picture of continued decline.
We have set out concrete steps towards reaching net zero by 2050, through the PM’s 10-point plan, which brought together £12 billion of government investment. The energy White Paper and industrial decarbonisation strategy will continue to demonstrate global leadership on climate change, and we will bring forward further bold proposals, such as the net-zero strategy, which will be published before COP 26. Again, nature is at the heart—although it is clearly not the only part—of our response to the net-zero challenge here in the UK, and is a critical part of our message globally. We have successfully changed the debate on the role of nature in tackling climate change internationally, such that most countries when they talk about their response to climate change talk about nature, in a way which they simply did not a year ago. It remains the case, however, that of all international climate finance, only 2.5% to 3% is spent on nature-based solutions. That really should be closer to half. That too is something which we hope to shift through our negotiations and discussions with other countries, and through our own example, where we have not only doubled our international climate finance but committed that nearly a third of it will be spent on nature-based solutions.
Of course, the Bill itself is a clear demonstration of our action to tackle the biodiversity crisis, including biodiversity net gain, local nature recovery strategies, and due diligence for forest risk commodities. I hope that this provides reassurance that the amendments, which have provoked a very valuable debate, are nevertheless not needed. I thank noble Lords for their contributions and suggest that the amendment be withdrawn.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his thoughtful response, to which I will give careful thought. I am also grateful to other noble Lords who spoke in support of my amendments in this group, and for the wisdom, experience and expertise with which they supplemented my opening remarks.
Achieving cohesion and clarity—and my noble friend Lord Cormack was quite right to add a third C, consistency—is going to be vital. If we can achieve those three Cs, then there are two further critical Cs which we can expect to be delivered by the business community: a commitment to the future, and the confidence to invest. If we are to achieve the environmental objectives which we all want, we must achieve all those five Cs. I will reflect carefully on what has been said in this debate, and especially carefully on the Minister’s remarks. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendment 2 not moved.
Clause 1: Environmental targets
Amendment 3 not moved.
My Lords, we now come to the group consisting of Amendment 4. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in debate.
4: Clause 1, page 1, line 15, at end insert “, in particular water quality;”
Member’s explanatory statement
The purpose of the amendment is to require the Secretary of State to include the cleansing of rivers as a priority.
My Lords, this amendment in my name—and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for adding her name to it—has one simple purpose. I wish to persuade the excellent Ministers—in this House the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, and in the other place Rebecca Pow—to acknowledge as a priority the importance of cleaning the rivers of this country. The Government have repeatedly stated that this generation should be the first to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we inherited it. This vision has almost unanimous support, I am sure, in both Houses of Parliament and in the country as a whole. The main target is, of course, to reach a state of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and I understand why this is the overarching ingredient in policy-making.
There is so much in the Bill which I support. In Clause 1(2), the Secretary of State must set long-term targets in respect of air quality, water, biodiversity and waste reduction. Part 5 is devoted to water, and contains clauses on resource management, drought planning, and drainage and sewerage management. Since the Bill arrived in this House, the Government have tabled their own amendments on sewerage management, which I welcome but will attempt to strengthen through amendments later in the Bill. But Chapter 1, which we are debating today, is entitled “Improving the natural environment”, with the subheading “Environmental targets.” My proposal is that the Government set a target for improving the natural environment of our rivers.
I am grateful to the Minister for a meeting last week with a number of Peers, mainly from the Cross Benches. From that meeting, I understand that there is doubt about the appropriateness of the European standard of good ecological status, in which case I suggest to Ministers that they establish a new United Kingdom standard and have a target for progressive percentages of rivers to reach that target in five years, in 10 years, and finally for 100% of rivers to reach that target in 15 years. Ministers have stated that they want to be ambitious, to set high standards and to lead the world by example. That being the case, we must not allow untreated sewage to be discharged into our rivers over 400,000 times or for more than 3 million hours during 2020, as reported by the Environment Agency.
I read again the highlights of the 25-year environment plan published by the Government in 2018. Although “clean and plentiful water” is listed among the environmental benefits to be achieved, there is no specific reference to the elimination of the shocking level of sewage discharges. That is my point: while we strive as a nation to reduce carbon emissions to zero, improve biodiversity and clean the air we breathe, we cannot continue to accept that raw sewage is discharged into rivers, harming all aquatic wildlife and imperilling the health of human beings who swim in or enjoy the rivers.
I fear that the apparent unwillingness of the Government to make this a priority is the great cost involved in converting our drainage and sewerage infrastructure. In other parts of the Bill there will be an opportunity to debate how this could or should be paid for. I do not believe that most members of the public are aware that, in the 21st century in a developed country such as ours, raw sewage is still being discharged into rivers every day. I think most people would expect the Government, in their new Environment Bill, to make it a priority not just to reduce but to eliminate these discharges. That is the purpose of my amendment and I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted to support the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, in his amendment. On the face of it, this does seem an omission, given that clauses from Clause 83 onwards deal specifically with water quality, yet it does not appear as a specific target.
I declare my interests in the register and that I co-chair the All-Party Water Group. I worked for five years with the water regulator for Scotland—WICS, the Water Industry Commission for Scotland—and I have co-authored two reports on bricks and water which deal with water issues specifically in relation to housing. I am also vice-president of ADA, the Association of Drainage Authorities. Drainage boards have a specific role to play, being responsible for ensuring that lower-lying watercourses of below either eight metres or eight feet—I cannot remember which—flow as smoothly as they should.
Amendment 4 is commendable, and I congratulate my noble friend the Duke of Wellington on bringing it forward. Of course we should aim to have the best water quality, and to ensure that we have clean rivers, that—where possible—farmers can farm less intensively, and that we meet the highest domestic and international water quality standards, as well as seeking to improve our soils. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, said, we must have a level playing field to ensure that we are not just improving watercourses in this country but ensuring that products grown on less regulated land and soil do not have a free pass to come into this country through trade agreements.
I would like to address one issue that my noble friend the Duke of Wellington referred to—untreated raw sewage being spilled into our watercourses. I would like to pose the question: why is that happening? It is happening because water companies are being placed in an impossible position. They are obliged to connect to major and smaller developments—to provide clean water and to collect wastewater and sewage coming out. We increasingly see that water companies are obliged to connect, even when they are placed in a situation where they may not be deemed able to do so.
I draw attention to the fact that we are seeing increasing amounts of surface water. This is a relatively recent phenomenon; it was identified for the first time in any significant way in 2007. I am drawing on the experience of Sir Michael Pitt, who was asked by the then Labour Government to write a very comprehensive review of how we should adapt to this new form of surface water flooding. Many of his recommendations have been implemented but many have not.
Subsequently, I am tabling amendments which will address the specific point of raw sewage. One way of dealing with it is to end the automatic right to connect to major new developments. This was called for by Sir Michael Pitt. It will address the specific problem of sewage outflow, particularly where combined sewers overflow and cause a public health issue in many cases—where the sewage overflow goes into existing developments and those residents have to leave. I believe we have asked too much of water companies, without giving them the wherewithal to address this, either through the quinquennial price review, or by allowing them to do whatever they choose to connect—sometimes against their better judgment—to major developments.
A way of addressing that is to ensure that water companies are given the same statutory right to consultation as has now been extended to the Environment Agency. Since the Environment Agency has been granted that right, we have seen the number of houses prone to flooding that are being built significantly reduce. Similarly, I hope we can see that water companies are not placed in an impossible position when it comes to major and significant new housing developments, particularly where they may be built on functional flood plains or land prone to flooding in the shorter term.
I entirely endorse the comments and remarks of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, in moving this amendment about the importance of maintenance. We have to differentiate between the maintenance of major and minor watercourses, ensure that local authorities have the budget and resources to do the maintenance they are required to do and that the Environment Agency oversees it. I pay tribute to the work of those local drainage boards and landowners who are often responsible for doing the regular and very necessary maintenance on minor watercourses.
This might seem a small amendment but it is very significant, and I hope my noble friend the Minister will look favourably on it, and on the later amendments we will consider in due course. I support Amendment 4.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 4, so ably moved by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and congratulate him on the work he has been doing on this important issue. I do not have significant amounts to add, but I believe that, as my noble friend the Minister said, this is a chance to radically improve environmental policy. In particular, the areas outlined in the Bill, such as air quality and water per se, could be enhanced by adding the specific requirement to take account of improvements urgently needed to water quality.
The Government have already said that they proposed to publish a plan by September 2020 to reduce sewage discharges into our rivers and waterways. I am obviously supportive of that and of placing a duty on water companies to publish annual data on storm overflows and set legally binding targets for water quality. However, it is likely that those issues will be dealt with in a more long-term timeframe than one might have hoped, given this landmark Bill.
I particularly point to the issue of human health, as well as the health of aquatic life, which has been so endangered by the ongoing discharge of partially treated and untreated sewage into our waterways. I believe that every few days, if not every day, some kind of discharge could pose a threat to those who might wish to swim in or use our waterways, which are a wonderful feature of our country.
I hope that my noble friend the Minister will agree to meet groups of interested Peers from across the House, who would like to understand better how we might be able to enhance water quality more rapidly and to discuss the responsibility of water companies themselves to pay for such improvements—and not just to report or reduce such discharges but to eliminate them altogether.
We will return to these issues later in Committee, but I should be grateful if my noble friend would confirm that he would be willing, over the course of Committee and before Report, to have a detailed discussion on what progress we might make to protect those who want to enjoy swimming in our rivers and children who may wish to play in them. I would like to discuss how we can make sure that rivers are fit for human and aquatic life in the future, and, as we have an opportunity to set our own regulations, to make sure that they are strengthened in practical ways that will identify improvements in the measurement and management of the quality of our water.
My Lords, I support the sentiment of Amendment 4 in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, but water quality is not the only issue to do with water. I would not want that to be to the particular focus, because with increasing climate change and growing demand, water quantity is also important.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, is rightly exercised about sewage pollution into our rivers, as is the Minister. I look forward to saying more when we debate Amendments 161 and 162 on reducing and eliminating sewage discharges into rivers, which importantly go into detail on the programmes and actions needed to get this to happen.
I declare an interest as a former chief executive of the Environment Agency. I think it is quite clear that, although it has brought only 174 prosecutions over the last 10 years, there could have been more than 2,000 breaches in that period and a vastly greater number of legal discharges under the current regulations. That is a source of considerable public concern.
In support of the considerable work done by the Environment Agency and the water companies, I should say that river water has improved dramatically over the last 20 years. We should not relax in that, because the current situation is totally unacceptable. Nevertheless, a major amount of river water has been cleaned up. Most of our waters were completely dead and highly polluted 20 years ago and they are now in a much better state, but we still have more to do.
We had EU regulation to rely on in the past, which was needed to drive the Government to do something about exactly this problem in the River Thames, by creating the Thames super-sewer. At that stage, we had the dirtiest river of any capital city in Europe. I am delighted that action was taken, but it needed the full weight of environmental regulation coming from Europe and a considerable and hefty programme of fining of the Government to get action taken. We need to ensure through the mechanism of the Bill that we move forward and tackle this running sore—if noble Lords will pardon the phrase. I welcome the creation of the storm overflow task force and look forward to its findings. I look forward to debating the government amendment to tackle this issue and strengthening it in the appropriate place in the Bill.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, is right to talk about the Thames. I remember the Thames half a century ago, when I first came to Parliament, and what an utter disgrace it was. But that should not lead us to be in any way complacent. Although my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering referred to this as a small amendment—and it is in terms of words—it is absolutely crucial. Unless we clean up our rivers, the Environment Bill—the Act, as I am sure it will become—will fail. It is as simple as that.
Not so long ago there was a great campaign about our coastal waters, and there is still much to be done. One of my most vivid memories of the other place was an Adjournment Debate at 10 pm one night, introduced by the late Sir Reggie Bennett, about swimming off the coast. I remember he said, “Mr Speaker, you cannot swim off the coast, you can only go through the motions”. I fear that that is the case with many of our rivers today. I hope the Minister will endorse that it is crucial that we get this right, because how clean our waterways are will be a test of the success of the Environment Act.
We have some glorious rivers in this country and some wonderful chalk streams. I think one of the saddest pictures that I have seen in the last 12 months was of a stretch of perhaps the loveliest river of all, the Wye, which had been so contaminated by the effluent from intensively reared battery chickens—something else we need to tackle. We are all in debt to my noble friend the Duke of Wellington, not only for bringing this amendment forward but for introducing on the very day of Second Reading, his own Bill on cleaning up our inland waterways.
This is a vital issue, but I cannot sit down before saying what a joy it is to see my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern in the Chamber. We have seen him many times appear on the Zoom screen, and it is wonderful to have him here in person among us.
My Lords, I think we can count that as the best joke of the Environment Bill Committee so far, so I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for that. I had not intended to speak on this amendment, so all I shall say is that this is a very important issue. It is probably dealt with more specifically and better later in the Bill, but I very much support the thoughts of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington.
My Lords, my noble friend the late Lord Ridley of Liddesdale would be as disappointed as I am that, last year, no English river met the highest chemical standards and only 15% of UK rivers were rated as having good ecological status. That was not the intention when we privatised the water companies in the 1980s. But the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, was absolutely right to say, notwithstanding what I have just said, that the rivers are in a great deal better condition now than they were 30 years ago—and the water Act of the mid-1980s was responsible for that. The rivers would be of better quality now if the National Rivers Authority had continued in existence by itself and not been merged with the Environment Agency. That part of the Environment Agency has not been nearly as effective as it was when it was a single authority.
This is a hugely important issue, and we shall come to it in some more detail. I totally agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said. The issue of water is much wider than just water quality; it includes the whole water environment, abstraction and pollution. To prioritise water, as this Bill does, and then to talk particularly about water quality, defeats the object that the Government are trying to achieve, which is to raise the quality of water across the board. Therefore, although I support the principle of what the noble Duke is trying to do, I hope that it will be dealt with at a later stage rather than at this stage.
My Lords, I take everybody’s point about the fact that this amendment does not quite measure up to everything that we want from it, but it is a really good start. And I think that this is an issue that we will defeat the Government on. In all my talks with Conservative Members of your Lordships’ House, they have mentioned how concerned they are about rivers; a lot of landowners are massively concerned.
I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, about sewage and water companies. It does her credit that she is so sympathetic towards them but, quite honestly, they make a lot of money and they should be clearing up their own mess. If they cannot take on these contracts, they should not take them on—or they should dig bigger holes to bury the sewage, or whatever it takes. When it comes to cost, we should look at the businesses that make money out of our rivers and our sewage, and we should make them pay.
I shall go back to my speech now. Basically, the issue of water pollution is very much underserved by this Bill at the moment, so I urge the Government to pick this up and run with it, because it is something that they will lose on. The truth is that many of our rivers, lakes and water courses in this country are still filthy and polluted. It is something that the European Commissioner rightly took us to task on—the Government have repeatedly lost legal challenges on the issue. For that reason, it is also one of the big environmental risks of leaving the EU system of environmental laws. The Government could have a convenient opportunity to quietly end their long tradition of losing court battles on water pollution simply by ditching those rules altogether or subjecting them to the jurisdiction of a toothless regulator.
We know that water is life. We cannot do without it and, if we pollute it, many things die, including humans. Water pollution has a long-lasting and pervasive impact on our lives and the natural world around us—it is not always easy to clean up. Most people do not even know how polluted our water is. I have had gastroenteritis from swimming in the Thames; I thought that I was high enough up the Thames for it to be clean but, apparently, it was not.
The Government have to understand that it is not just about chemicals that we should not drink going in; that is only a tiny part of the picture. For example, the River Thames floods with human sewage multiple times a week and also has some of the highest recorded levels of microplastics in the world. It is long overdue for the Government to get a grip on water pollution. Quite honestly, this amendment is a good little start, and I congratulate the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, on this. I look forward to him toughening up future amendments on sewage.
My Lords, I start by declaring my interest as in the register, particularly in relation to this amendment, as the president of the Colne Valley Regional Park, where we have had a lot of issues over water quality and the streams. Over the weekend, I was asked to join the advisory board of River Action UK, to replace, I think, my noble friend Lord Benyon, who as a Defra Minister cannot hold that position. I look forward to joining that group and working on this.
This is a very useful debate on a subject close to my heart, and I congratulate the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and my noble friend Lady Altmann, on supporting him and signing the amendment with him. We have a lot of problems—and, as we have heard, they are not just around water quality, though we do have a real problem with that. We have heard about sewage discharge and run-off, and we have heard about the River Wye and the run-off from battery chicken farms. Those are all incredibly important and worrying things. But we also have problems around abstraction. The problems of abstraction and river quality have affected us locally in the Colne Valley, with the aquifer that has been compromised, seemingly, by HS2. As I said at Second Reading, that has only recently been admitted and made public—thanks, particularly, to a local campaign.
We also have an issue around Heathrow, which is not mentioned very often. I can remember many years ago, when I was the MP for the area, being asked to have a look at where the settling pools are. The run-off comes from washing aircraft with very highly toxic chemicals to de-ice the planes, and it goes into the settling pools just on the edge of Heathrow. Unfortunately, from time to time, they overflow in times of excessive rain and flow into local river courses. I understand from a recent discussion I had that that is no longer happening—but these are always risks, and things that we do not always think about.
The problem of sewage has been mentioned. We have had problems whereby a hotel or housing development has been misconnected and sewage has run, untreated, straight into our local rivers. It is also worth mentioning that before she was a Minister, the Minister in the other place, Rebecca Pow, raised with me the question of where hairdressers put all the chemicals that they use in their basins. She referred in particular to ladies’ hairdressers, I think—as noble Lords can see from my appearance, I am somewhat hirsute and not too bothered about hair; I just get a quick trim. These are all very important issues.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has just said, we are aware of the state of the water in rivers, but actually it does not matter how far up the Thames you go because any river can have these sewage discharges. What concerns me is the wild swimmers, kayakers, fishermen and, as happened locally last weekend, children in low-level water filling up their water pistols—they are more like water sub-machine guns these days—and firing them happily at each other, probably ingesting some of the water. It would be no surprise to me if some of them come down with gastroenteritis or even worse. I hope that that does not happen.
With regard to fishermen, I have to pay a tribute. In the Colne Valley, the Colne Valley Fisheries Consultative and its chairman Tony Booker, as well as Paul Jennings of the River Chess Association, have really pushed on this and made everyone aware of it.
There is a problem: the Environment Agency is vastly underfunded these days, I am afraid to say. I am sure that, when the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, was in charge, it had more funds and was more able to deal with some of these incidents. There almost seems to be a lack of interest now, or perhaps it is just a lack of resources, which means that it does not follow up some of these cases.
We have got to take these things seriously. I entirely understand that there is probably a better set of amendments, including the Government’s own later, but I wanted to put down a marker to show that I consider this to be extremely important. If we were sitting here in 1858, with the Great Stink going on, before Joseph Bazalgette came in with his plans for the sewerage of London, we would all be taking this a great deal more seriously.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, not down the road of the Great Stink but certainly on his references to his river experiences. I am delighted to support this amendment and thank the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for tabling it. He spoke eloquently at Second Reading on the issue of the cleanliness of our rivers; I was pleased to support him then and do so now with enthusiasm.
The need to keep our rivers clean, as part of environment policy, is self-evident. Persistent reports of pollution impacting on river life, killing off fish stocks, affecting surrounding lands and environments and even causing health problems to people—particularly children, as has just been mentioned—swimming in rivers are a worrying feature of our contemporary world.
Obviously, there may be implications for landowners, particularly farmers, whose land abuts our rivers—but the overwhelming majority of such people also want to secure clean rivers. If the necessary steps are properly negotiated, they can surely be agreed. The Government should not steer shy of dealing with this issue in the mistaken belief that they will face severe opposition from countryside interests.
Equally, industrial interests must not stand in the way of cleaning up our rivers. Let us reiterate without equivocation that the polluter pays principle must be applied with such force that it becomes a real deterrent. Our water companies must equally be held to account. I want to learn from the Minister what new, effective action to reduce such pollution will emanate from this Bill and who will be responsible in practice for enforcing its provisions in this regard.
As the Minister might expect, I invite him to clarify how he and his department will co-operate with the Welsh Government in relation to rivers that run across the border. Most of them run from Wales into England, but not all and, as river pollution is no respecter of political borders, we must have an agreed approach that respects the wishes of Governments on both sides of the border but also ensures that we work coherently to reduce and, we hope, eliminate the tragic pollution of our rivers.
Incidentally, I have no problem whatever with having UK, or at least GB, standards for these purposes, provided that those targets can be achieved by constructive negotiation by the three, or possibly four, Governments with responsibility for various aspects of environmental policy in Britain.
My Lords, I strongly support what the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, has said and many important points made by other Peers. I have only one point to make on top of the others: there has been no real improvement for so long now—certainly, not very much since 2016. In 2020, only 40% of waterways were classified as being in good health—meaning as close to their natural state as possible.
We all know that a major cause of this is sewage. In 2020, raw sewage was discharged more than 400,000 times over a period of 3 million hours, and this water, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has claimed, brings huge quantities of microplastics as well. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, sewage is not the only cause: some 40% comes from run-off from agricultural industries.
The point is that, since legislation was passed and the Environment Agency has been in charge and responsible for it, there has been no real improvement. This may be due to lack of proper funding, but the fact is that it has not been able to bring about any real change. We now have the worst quality in Europe, with England comparing very badly with Scotland, where 65.7% of surface water bodies are in good health. We know this—it has been repeated time and again, and the environmental Ministers acknowledge it.
The question is: how can we ensure that real change takes place soon? Including Amendment 4 is where we must start in ensuring that good quality water is a goal that we fully intend to achieve. We must use this Bill to ensure that we achieve it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to be speaking to this amendment moved by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. During the past two years, many of your Lordships have raised the issue of the quality of the water in many of our iconic rivers and given very graphic examples of where pollution has been discharged, untreated, into our waterways. We have heard about chicken manure being discharged into the River Wye, previously one of the most beautiful rivers on our island. At Second Reading, the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, reminded us about the discharge of raw sewage into rivers. As one of her first duties, the newly elected MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green MP, has visited the River Chess to hear from the local action group about the pollution of it.
During lockdown, with local authority swimming pools closed to the public, those who were able took to what has become known as wild swimming in the sea and rivers. I am assured that this is extremely invigorating and refreshing, but probably not so if you are encountering severe pollution on the scale that we have heard of from the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. Biodiversity is severely affected by the pollution in our rivers.
The treatment of sewage is the responsibility of the sewerage and water authorities. It is not sufficient for them to claim that new housing developments have overwhelmed their treatment plants and they have no choice but to discharge sewage into our rivers and sea. We have heard recently of the public disquiet about the Government’s proposals to change the planning laws. Often, statutory consultees respond to local authorities with “no comment”, but often they do not respond at all. Perhaps this is an issue of resources, with Defra cuts to the Environment Agency filtering down to the front line. The water authorities should be obliged to respond to consultation on proposed housing developments, especially where there is insufficient capacity in existing treatment plants to cope with the current, never mind the future, demand.
All noble Lords taking part in this debate have expressed concern on the issue of water quality. The Government must take it seriously if we are to restore the quality of the water in our rivers to enable biodiversity to increase, even if it is unlikely ever to reach its former levels. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and others have flagged, we will return to this in later amendments. This is a very serious matter, as my noble friend Lord Teverson and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, and we fully support the comments of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, in moving this amendment and look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for his amendment and his speech today. I will speak briefly on the amendment. We will come on to a separate debate about whether the environmental targets as a whole are adequate when we consider that matter later in the Bill. We will argue that the targets should be more comprehensive, and combined with legally binding interim targets, to ensure that real progress is made in the time agreed.
In addition to this amendment, the noble Duke has tabled others later in the Bill to address the issue of water quality and the pollution of rivers. We absolutely share his objective to clean up water and prevent sewage flowing into our rivers; he has been a great champion of this. We have tabled similar amendments which would also prevent the discharge of sewage into rivers. We believe that the Government’s proposals on this issue so far are inadequate and we look forward to the debate on this.
In the meantime, I have some concerns about the wording of this amendment. First, it narrows the scope of the long-term water targets to concentrate on water quality when there are much wider concerns to be addressed, for example about the role of water companies, the supply of water, drought and flooding safeguards, and sustainable urban development protection and maintenance. These points have all been made by other noble Lords in this debate and a number have given vivid examples of the challenges we face in these areas. Narrowing it down to water quality perhaps does not achieve what the noble Duke is aiming to do. Secondly, we do not accept that the issue of water quality should be a long-term target: it requires action more urgently, specifically with regard to sewage discharge. This is the subject of our later amendments, and those in the name of the noble Duke, and we look forward to returning to it.
Despite these reservations about this amendment, I agree with the noble Duke’s overall intention and will be supportive when we get to the more substantive debate, when we will have a great deal more to say on the issue.
I thank the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for tabling Amendment 4. I note the support that it has received from a number of noble Lords, including my noble friends Lady McIntosh, Lord Cormack and Lord Randall and the noble Lords, Lord Teverson and Lord Wigley.
The Bill will require the Government to set at least one legally binding long-term water target. I reassure the noble Duke that this of course covers water quality. The Government are currently considering water target objectives in relation to reducing pollution from agriculture, wastewater and abandoned metal mines, as well as in relation to reducing water demand. This approach encompasses water quality, but also allows the inclusion of broader objectives, such as reducing the impact of water demand on the water environment, which I know is of great interest to numerous Members of this House, including the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. This point was echoed and made well by the noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb.
I will address some of the individual points that have been made. The amendment essentially relates to the outrage over raw sewage entering our waterways as a consequence of storm overflows. The noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, has pursued this issue relentlessly, and rightly so. To reiterate, the amendment that the Government have tabled does three things. It requires the Government to deliver a plan for tackling sewage discharge, and to report on progress, and it requires the water companies and the Environment Agency to be transparent with their data. In addition, my colleague in the other place, Rebecca Pow, said only last week that if water companies do not step up then we will use the drainage and wastewater management plans to force them to. I am happy to reiterate that commitment now. I hope that goes some way towards reassuring the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, Lady Bakewell and Lady Jones of Whitchurch.
In addition, the Government are already pursuing various measures to improve water quality over and above what has been mentioned. For example, the 2015 river basin management plans confirmed £3 billion of investment over the period to 2021 in England. This has led to over 11,000 kilometres of surface water being enhanced and a further 2,349 kilometres protected since the 2015 plans were published. We are encouraging best agricultural practice to prevent and reduce pollution through regulation, financial incentives and educational schemes for farmers. The shift to ELM, which has already been mentioned, is going to have a radical and profound impact on water pollution. A task force comprising the Government, the water industry, regulators and environmental NGOs is currently working to achieve the long-term goal of eliminating the harm from sewage discharge into our rivers and other waterways from storm overflows. We will, of course, take the recommendations of that task force very seriously. I hope that that also somewhat reassures noble Lords.
The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, asked whether I would be willing to commit to a meeting with a number of noble Lords to discuss this issue further. The answer is yes, of course. I am very happy to do so and will make contact after today’s debate. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, also raised the fact that a mere 15% of our rivers enjoy good ecological status. He is right, but I want to put this in context. This is not to diminish the issue, because water pollution is clearly unacceptable, and we need to get to grips with it. However, it is worth pointing out that, to qualify for good ecological status, the waterway has to be close to a natural form. That means that waterways that have been canalised, straightened or modified—for example, for flood defences, transport or something similar—will be regarded as having been heavily modified. Those waterways cannot achieve good ecological status, no matter how clean the water is or how much biodiversity they have. It is worth putting that in context; while 16% of our waters do have good ecological status, that does not mean that 84% are in poor condition. I hope that we can get to grips with this and develop our own metrics at some point so that we can avoid confusion and have a clearer understanding of the actual situation in our waters.
The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, asked about enforcement. Defra works closely with the devolved Administrations on environmental issues across the board, particularly with the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales, covering water quality in their respective areas.
By setting a water target that focuses on the biggest pressures on the water environment, the Government will, we hope, make faster progress towards improving water quality. Although we appreciate the noble Duke’s aims, we do not think that focusing the water target priority area on water quality alone, as his amendment proposes, will be the best way of achieving those aims. I therefore respectfully ask him to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to those noble Lords who have participated in this short debate. Of course, I understand the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that it is not just water quality that matters but water quantity as well. A number of noble Lords made reference to the River Thames. However, anybody who watched the BBC “Panorama” programme about two months ago would surely be left in no doubt that there is still much to do to clean up that river, which is in an embarrassingly poor state. Nevertheless, I understand that the quality of our rivers generally is much better than it was 20 years ago. I was very impressed by the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Randall, who clearly understands the problem well. He referred to an event in 1858, when there was general recognition of the appalling state of our rivers and the amount of sewage going into them. It is surprising that, in 2021, there is still quite the quantity of raw, or insufficiently treated, sewage flowing into our rivers.
I very much appreciated the support of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and quite understand his point that it is necessary to have co-operation between England and Wales over the rivers that flow between the two countries, and his acceptance that it would be entirely in order to establish a UK standard. I thank the Minister for his comments, and I was pleased to hear that, in the other place, Rebecca Pow has made a further commitment that the existing regulations will be enforced where required. But I again ask the Minister to consider whether it would be appropriate to establish a UK standard. He did sort of refer to that when talking about metrics, but if he has doubts about the existing European standard then we should surely try to devise our own.
I would be grateful if the Minister would be prepared to discuss with me a way of making targets for water quality a higher priority. There are many aspects of water that need to be improved, nevertheless I am surprised that improving water quality is not yet considered a higher priority than it currently is. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
We come now to the group of amendments headed by Amendment 5. Anyone wishing to press that amendment or any other amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear during the debate.
5: Clause 1, page 1, line 16, leave out paragraph (c) and insert—
“(c) nature;”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment seeks to change the word ‘biodiversity’ to ‘nature’ and is designed to have a debate in principle on changing the term throughout the bill.
My Lords, I declare my environmental interests as on the register. This afternoon I will, if I may, speak from a seated position—I had a long train journey and the old legs are a bit ropier than normal.
My amendments in this group all seek to change the word “biodiversity” in the Bill to the word “nature”. The only two amendments in the group for proper consideration in this debate are Amendment 5, which changes the wording in Clause 1, and Amendment 261, which attempts to give a definition of nature, so that my noble friend the Minister cannot say that nature is a completely different concept from biodiversity and that it would totally destabilise the Bill if we made this change. In this Bill we can define nature any way we like, just as we can define biodiversity, and it need not create any legal lacuna or new obligation.
The other amendments numbered in the 200s are merely examples in the Bill of where “nature” could be used instead of “biodiversity”. I counted over 140 uses of the word “biodiversity”, most of them—more than 100—in Schedule 14, but I have picked just a few examples so that we can have this debate in principle. Therefore, I do not want my noble friend the Minister to waste his time in the wind-up going through all those other examples and explaining why they are technically wrong.
Why change “nature” to “biodiversity”? What am I getting at? It really is quite simple: everyone talks about nature and not about biodiversity. All recent polls and studies show that the vast majority of people want to get closer to nature, to relate to it, and to get out and about and into it more. If you asked them if they wanted to relate to biodiversity, they would think that you were talking about zoo animals. “Biodiversity” has the flavour of a technical, scientific term, more applicable to wild animals than flowers, trees, butterflies and the landscape—at least in the minds of the majority of ordinary people.
The authoritative People and Nature Survey undertaken each month by Natural England found that 61% of people said that they felt that they were part of nature and 87% said that being in nature made them happy. A recent survey quoted by the BBC reveals that most people think that biodiversity is something to do with washing powder. We might scoff at that, and of course colleagues in Parliament, Defra, Natural England, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and all wildlife organisations know what biodiversity is—but we do not count. We need to appeal to the tens of millions of people who are not officials, scientists or policymakers and who have a much more vague idea of what nature is—but know it when they see it, and want more of it.
The Government themselves constantly use the word “nature”, not “biodiversity”, in communications and policy documents. We talk about nature-based solutions and local nature recovery strategies. Two weeks ago the Secretary of State for the Environment went to Delamere Forest, at an event billed as a “nature moment”, to announce a new nature recovery target and a Nature for Climate Peatland Grant Scheme. Furthermore, on Sunday 13 June, the Secretary of State wrote in the Sunday Telegraph:
“And as Environment Secretary, I am determined that we move beyond simply stemming the loss of biodiversity and take action to help nature recover—at home and around the world.”
And so say I—that is what my amendment is all about. We all use the word “nature” because ordinary people, councils, media and companies can relate to it. Would there be public support and understanding if these things were called biodiversity-based solutions and local biodiversity recovery strategies? Of course not. We have all selected the word “nature” in public utterances because it has more public traction and appeal. I suggest that using a different word in our law could undermine that appeal.
Politicians, the Government and NGOs all know that they get media, public and stakeholder engagement when they talk about nature rather than biodiversity, and we need to reinforce that by ensuring that this landmark legislation—legislation that we have been waiting so many years for and which is now in front of us—brings about nature recovery and sets targets for nature, and uses the same language as tens of millions of ordinary people in this country.
I submit that that are overwhelming presentational reasons to use the word “nature”, though I accept that there are potential downsides. I think everyone agrees that “nature” is not a narrower term than “biodiversity”, and therefore there would be no legal gaps. But my noble friend and others may say that it is a wider power that might impose greater burdens on public authorities if they have to report on nature rather than just biodiversity. I suggest that we can protect against that possible legal danger with the suggested definition of nature in my Amendment 261. It may not be perfect but we can tweak it, so that it does no more and no less than we would want from the word “biodiversity”. If the Government can define the two words “natural environment” in Clause 43, they cannot say that it is impossible to define the one word “nature”. Indeed, I would like someone in this debate to tell me the difference between “nature” and “natural environment”.
I acknowledge that my proposal has its limitations. I do not seek to change the word “biodiversity” in international agreements to which we are signed up, or in any other existing laws, or at CBD 15 this October, so I hope that the Minister will not rubbish the proposal on the grounds that we would have to change every bit of law that uses the word “biodiversity”. I am not suggesting that.
The Government would also need to reassure developers that changing the terminology to “nature net gain”, rather than “biodiversity net gain”, is not environmental net gain by the back door: the wording would change but not the policy.
For me, a key issue is the Section 40 obligation under the NERC Act 2006. I welcome the excellent change that the Minister has brought forward in this Bill—from the old duty to “have regard to” to the new clause, which says:
“For the purposes of this section ‘the general biodiversity objective’ is the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity in England through the exercise of functions in relation to England … A public authority which has any functions exercisable in relation to England must”—
I emphasise “must”—
“from time to time consider what action the authority can properly take, consistently with the proper exercise of its functions, to further the general biodiversity objective.”
That is the proposed new wording for Section 40, which I welcome as far as it goes, but I am suggesting that we can improve upon it further. We should change the “general biodiversity objective” to the “general nature objective.” This objective is currently defined in Clause 95(3); proposed new subsection (A1) refers to
“the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity in England”.
I suggest that we should change that to “the conservation and enhancement of nature in England.” I therefore submit that there are no legal adverse consequences to using the word nature instead of biodiversity in the example I have just given in the crucially important Section 40 of NERCA. There is no legal downside if we use the word “nature” as we can define it in the Bill.
Finally, I hope the Minister will join with me to find a compromise. I am certain that he cannot argue that biodiversity is a sexier word than nature, with more public traction, since it clearly is not; nor can I argue that “biodiversity” can be changed to “nature” in all 141 places in which it appears in the Bill. However, I will not accept that it cannot be changed anywhere in the Bill. Therefore, let us work with Defra officials between now and Report to find those places in the Bill where we can substitute “nature” for “biodiversity”, where it will have the most public appeal and traction and where it would not cause any legal or technical difficulties. I am willing to move on this, so I beg to move.
My Lords, we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, with whom I agree in every respect on this subject, that legislation should be precise and intelligible. That is what this is about. If I may give a short history lesson—only a couple of minutes—I will describe my first encounter with the phrase “precise and intelligible” in 1975 in the House of Commons, when a report headed Preparation of Legislation was presented by Sir David Renton, then the MP for Huntingdonshire. He never stopped talking about that report, and when I arrived in your Lordships’ House exactly 20 years ago, he was on the Benches opposite, still talking about the report Preparation of Legislation. He took Bills and amendments apart, and the number of times we had changes because of his scrutiny was enormous. I have also looked at the 2013 Parliamentary Counsel report, When Laws Become Too Complex. This is what this amendment is about: making legislation precise and intelligible. Most of what we have passed is not. This is a chance to actually make sure that it is.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. Words matter; so too does the meaning that we give to them. That is especially so where targets are being set that will influence policy in a matter as far-reaching as the environment. That is why the noble Lords, Lord Blencathra and Lord Randall of Uxbridge, were right to bring forward these amendments so that we can consider whether the choice of the word “biodiversity” to identify one of the priority areas in Clause 1(3) was well made, or whether it should be replaced by the word “nature”, as is being suggested.
I wish to concentrate on the use of words in this clause. I say nothing about the wording of Clauses 95 and 96 and others, except that it seems to make sense to follow whatever the choice is for Clause 1 when deciding what is right for those other clauses too. For me, the choice in Clause 1(3) should be guided by two things: the context, and the meaning of the word “biodiversity” itself.
The context for the choice of words in Clause 1(3) is created by the wording of Clause 1(1). We are told there that the long-term targets that the Secretary of State must have in mind relate to “the natural environment”. That suggests to me that when we come to Clause 1(3), we should expect to find, if I can put it this way, a list of subspecies within the natural environment rather than a repetition of the parent concept itself, embraced by the word “nature”. The word “nature”—the parent concept—embraces everything that comprises the phenomena of the natural world or, as Clause 1(1) puts it, of “the natural environment”. That suggests that we need something more specific and precise to serve the purpose of Clause 1(3), which is to identify the priority areas within that environment. The question then, therefore, is whether “biodiversity” achieves something for the identification of a priority area that “nature” would not achieve.
I was surprised to find, when I was consulting my dictionaries, how recent the word “biodiversity” is in the English language. Everyone talks about nature, said the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, and he is absolutely right: it is so much in common use, and “biodiversity”, as the dictionaries indicated to me, is not in common use in that way. It is not even mentioned, let alone defined, in the editions of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary that I have, which were published in the 1990s. It is a mark of our increasing awareness of the importance of the variety and variability of life on earth and its preservation that we have created this portmanteau word to describe it. “Diversity” is what we are talking about when we use this word. The prefix “bio” makes it clear that we are using that word in the context of the natural environment in all its aspects which, of course, is the context in which we are using it here. In that context, it is no exaggeration to say that diversity is what keeps the environment alive. It is absolutely right to concentrate on diversity as a priority area.
I suggest, therefore, that the word “biodiversity”, although not so widely used as “nature”, is the one to use because it is more precisely targeted on that aspect of our environment. It achieves that much more than “nature”. It reaches out across the entirety of the ecosystem, on which the natural environment depends, and the diversity that gives it its life. With great respect to the two noble Lords, I believe that it is the right word to use here in this Bill.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and also the noble Lord, Lord Rooker; I well remember the late Sir David Renton, as he was in the other place, or Lord Renton, as he became in this one. He was an absolute terrier and was determined to try to ensure that all legislation was intelligible to those to whom it applied.
That really is the underlying reason why my noble friend Lord Blencathra has introduced this very interesting and probing amendment. We say again and again during this debate that this is a landmark Bill. It is indeed, and it has to bear the test of time: it has to be an Act of Parliament that becomes familiar to all those to whom it applies, which is virtually every citizen in our land. It must be an Act of Parliament that is understood. It is entirely right that my noble friend Lord Blencathra introduced this amendment so that we can debate, at an early stage of the Bill, what we are really talking about.
I am bound to say that, having reflected on what my noble friend Lord Blencathra and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, said, I wonder whether the answer does not lie in a phrase such as “nature in all its diversity”. It is absolutely right, as my noble friend pointed out graphically and persistently, that “biodiversity” does not come as trippingly off the tongue as “nature”, yet we are dealing, as the noble and learned Lord indicated, with nature in all its aspects—with flora, fauna et cetera. We have to be able to relate to people, and people have to be able to understand that this all-embracing Environment Bill—Environment Act as it will become—applies to everything around them: the birds in the air, the insects in the ground and all flora and fauna. As we go through the Bill, I hope that we can take most seriously on board my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s point. He indicated that he had not necessarily come up with an all-embracing answer; he suggested a compromise, and we should work on it so that the Act of Parliament is fully intelligible to all to whom it applies.
If I have one criticism of legislation in our country, it is that it is very difficult for most people to take down a Bill or an Act and understand it. We know the reasons, but we have to aim to be more intelligible. I have said before in other contexts in your Lordships’ House that I am a great devotee of Sir Ernest Gowers’ book, Plain Words, and I only wish, as used to be the case, that a copy could be on the shelves of every parliamentarian and, more important, every civil servant in every department in the land. If we cannot make what we are bringing into law understandable, we are failing. Here is the landmark Bill, here is a challenge, let us try to rise to it.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and my noble friend Lord Cormack that legislation has to be precise and intelligible. If we are to take the public with us, which we need to on a Bill as complicated and as detailed as this one, it has to resonate with them, so there is a lot to be said for what my noble friend Lord Blencathra has suggested in his amendment.
However, I am slightly troubled on a couple of fronts. In answering the debate at Second Reading, my noble friend the Minister said:
“As for my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s proposal to change ‘biodiversity’ to ‘nature’, he makes an important point, but the trouble is that those two terms are not exactly the same”.—[Official Report, 7/6/21; col. 1308.]
He then gave an example about the dreaded Sitka spruce, but he did not tell us why they were not the same and what the implications were for the Bill if we were to go down the route suggested by noble friend Lord Blencathra of half the time using “nature” and half the time using “biodiversity” depending on where it is in the Bill. When he said that, I was immediately sceptical, thinking, “Here comes a lawyers’ charter. If we’re using ‘biodiversity’ in one part of the Bill and ‘nature’ in another, the lawyers are going to have a field day”. I wish my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern were joining in this debate, because he would help us.
I go instead to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, who analysed this matter in some detail and came down in favour of “biodiversity”. I am sitting back on the fence where I started, because I was persuaded one way and the legal opinion has pushed me back in the other. I want to hear from my noble friend the Minister what the difference is between biodiversity and nature. If we could get that difference, perhaps we could reconcile it so that we got a Bill that was intelligible.
My Lords, I am delighted to participate in this debate. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Blencathra on being so industrious in coming up with such an imaginative way to put forward something that he obviously feels very passionate about. However, I support my noble friend the Minister, who I hope will go on to explain why we have settled on “biodiversity”. I support everything said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, about why “biodiversity” has a specific meaning. We should also look at the history of “biodiversity”. There are a number of international conventions with which I am sure my noble friend Lord Blencathra, particularly wearing his hat with Natural England, will be familiar. Is he proposing that we now try to change all the international conventions which originally referred, even more confusingly, to “biological diversity”? I would put forward “biodiversity” as a compromise between “biological diversity” and “nature” or “the natural environment”, because it has a specific meaning and we have subscribed to a number of international conventions. For those who will have to follow what is asked of them, “biodiversity” has that specific meaning, which I am sure my noble friend will explain.
I support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, in saying that we need a list of species or a better understanding of what is being asked. I am sure my noble friend will explain that when he moves the series of government amendments later today. I accept “biodiversity” as a compromise, but we need greater clarification of the list of species—flora and fauna—which are to be protected.
My Lords, I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, with a degree of sympathy for what he is trying to achieve. We all want to make legislation more simple and able to be understood by members of the public, but in this instance, I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. To change the name in the legislation at this stage would cause a level of disruption, because we already have international agreements that refer to “biodiversity”. The Dasgupta report also referred to it.
There is a simple difference between nature and biodiversity. According to my dictionary definition, nature covers all existing systems created at the same time as the earth, whereas biodiversity is the part of nature that is alive, born on a mineral substrate in an earlier geodiversity. Biodiversity provides numerous ecosystem services that are crucial to human well-being at present and in the future. Longer-term changes in climate affect the viability and health of ecosystems, influencing shifts in the distribution of plants, pathogens, animals and even human settlements. Biodiversity loss has negative effects on several aspects of human well-being, such as food security, vulnerability to natural disasters, energy security and access to clean water and raw materials. It also affects human health, social relations and freedom of choice.
Quite simply, through this legislation, we need to protect our living biodiversity. The inclusion of a target-setting framework is a welcome part of the Bill, and something that has already been referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. The long-term nature of environmental matters makes this all particularly important. Environmental improvement cannot be achieved over the short timeframe of a political cycle. We need to ensure that this Environment Bill provides an opportunity for the UK to become a world leader in the fight against all forms of pollution and biodiversity loss and in mitigating the impact of the climate emergency. The litmus test for all of us in the Lords is does changing “biodiversity” to “nature” in this Bill strengthen and toughen its provisions, does it weaken existing legal protections or does it make any difference?
I believe this Bill must turn the tide on nature’s decline, biodiversity decline and the climate emergency. It must transform the way we manage waste, protect our precious water resources and all the other aspects. So, I think at this late stage, it is best to keep to the term “biodiversity”, while I fully understand and appreciate the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra.
My Lords, I was much elated to read my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s amendments. I completely agree with him that “biodiversity” is one of the worst examples of a pseudointellectual word that most people do not understand and would never use in speech. I think my noble friend is right that, in the main, it would be much better if we used the easily comprehensible word “nature”, on which there is universal agreement on its meaning. I completely agree that it is highly desirable that the Bill should use language with which the public identifies.
It is interesting that, in their response to The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review the Government refer to
“nature, and the biodiversity that underpins it”.
This suggests that biodiversity and nature are not quite the same thing because one underpins the other, but even in a note to the preface to the review, Professor Dasgupta writes that
“the terms Nature, natural capital, the natural environment, the biosphere, and the natural world are used interchangeably.”
The Cambridge Dictionary website informs me that biodiversity means:
“the number and types of plants and animals that exist in a particular area or in the world generally, or the problem of protecting this”.
The first part of this definition sounds to me to be the same as nature, but then I am confused by the notion of protecting it. The “bio” of biodiversity is derived from the Greek bios, meaning life, and all the varieties of animal and plant life on the planet are indeed diverse.
So, although academics may disagree that the simple word “nature” is inadequate, I am not convinced that there is any material difference in meaning. I agree with my noble friend that we should change the word “biodiversity” to “nature” wherever possible. My noble friend’s Amendment 203 changes the “general biodiversity objective” of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 to the “general nature objective”. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether that Act was the first in which the term “biodiversity” was used and whether he agrees that it would be much better if our law was written in language that people can understand.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, suggested that “biodiversity” is the correct word because it is broader, but I am not sure that the noble and learned Lord persuaded me that “nature” is narrower than the whole diversity of life. I also worry for the future of the word “diversity” which increasingly carries connotations of gender and race. For all these reasons I support what my noble friend Lord Blencathra is trying to do.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to take part in this debate, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for initiating it. I think it has been very useful and I truly appreciate the passion with which he desires to see public engagement with, and understanding of, this Bill. I very much appreciate that. A number of noble Lords have said we need this Bill to be both precise and intelligible, and when we draw on the legal side of things I am very much influenced, as I often am, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, who suggested that in legal terms “nature” would not achieve what “biodiversity” would.
I am going to bring a biological consideration, that being my intellectual foundation to this, and may complicate this debate further by pointing out that where we sit right now at this very moment is, in one definition, a part of nature—we are human animals and the rest of the animal species on this planet are non-human animals—as it is something we created. It is an ecosystem we have created. However, I am not going to go too far down that road, as I fear that may be a debate more fit for the Bishops’ Bar when it re-opens than this Chamber today.
I want to raise the issue that the noble Lord’s amendment brings to the fore, which is the definition of “biodiversity” and, specifically, to explore further what the Government’s understanding of biodiversity is. I can address some questions that have been raised about where this term come from. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, suggested that some things are called “biological diversity” and some things are called “biodiversity”. The term “biodiversity” was coined in 1985, and it is a contraction of “biological diversity”. Without being a lawyer, I do not think there is a legal contradiction between using those two terms interchangeably.
What is not always sufficiently understood is that biodiversity is not just having lots of species. There is sometimes a feeling that we are protecting diversity when there is this really rare moth, and there are three reserves where we are saving it, so that is all right because we are saving biodiversity. If we look at what biodiversity is in a much broader sense, it starts at the level of genes. If you look at a magnificent, enormous murmuration of starlings, should you still be lucky enough to have such a thing, or a wonderful flock of sparrows—ditto—then, although it cannot be seen, in the depths there is great genetic diversity. It is something that keeps that species healthy, and if you get population numbers down to a tiny level a very important part of biodiversity is lost. The interchange of genes is lost if you have a series of isolated populations.
It is really important to have the species to have the genes, but biodiversity is also complete ecosystems. These are systems, such as savannah and woodland, that have developed over billions of years, have complex interrelationships and interrelate to their physical environment. That is all biodiversity as well. This is what has made the earth habitable over billions of years and is what some people call Gaia. To look at this in a way that those of a more literary bent in your Lordships’ House might find familiar, this is a library of life. It a library of ideas and a library of ways of interrelating. It has been said that what we are doing by destroying biodiversity is burning through the library of life. So, I would really like to see, perhaps in the Minister’s answer, or perhaps later in writing, a lot more from the Government about their understanding of what protecting biodiversity means. They must make sure that the target for biodiversity—assuming the Bill goes through in its current form—really addresses the different levels and ways in which we need to understand biodiversity, and does not boil down to “Well, we have three reserves for this rare moth and that will do.”
My Lords, I support my noble friend’s Amendment 5, to which I added my name. It is always good to follow my noble friend in his wise words. I have to say, though, that I rather feel out of my depth in this debate. I thought that it was going to be quite a simple subject, but I should have thought that we have such experts in your Lordships' House. I have been listening to the legal side of things, which I have little understanding of, while making law, and the excellent speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, on a much more scientific, biological aspect.
I come at this with a view that we want to make things simple. We are going to come, in the group following the next, on to a connection with nature. That is my biggest concern. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said that the word “biodiversity” arrived in 1985. I was not a young man, necessarily, when it first appeared, and I had been used to using other words. I have been involved in this environmental field as an amateur for all my life, and I accept “biodiversity”—I use it myself—but I am not sure that the people we want to connect more with nature do understand it. I would say to those noble Lords who have mentioned international things that the European Union introduced Natura 2000; it did not call it “Biodiversitas 2000” or anything else. “Natura” and “nature” have their place. I would regard myself as an amateur naturalist; I do not know how you would say I am an “amateur biodiversity person”.
I think this has been a very useful debate. I end up more confused, though that is a position I often find myself in, listening to debates. But I have to say that there is a real need for us to make sure that our fellow citizens understand that the environment is about what they hold dear—and that is nature. When I was at school, we had nature study; we did not have biodiversity study. But I admit that I am not in the first flush of youth.
My Lords, one could argue that what is good enough for Sir David Attenborough is good enough for this Bill. Sir David’s 2020 TV programme “Extinction”, in which he talked about biodiversity, was watched by 4.5 million viewers on its premier. Those people, and the millions more who have watched it subsequently, will have some idea of what biodiversity is.
Although I do not support this amendment for the reasons that my noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead so clearly articulated, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for tabling the amendment, because it provides me with an opportunity, following the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, to ask the Minister to clarify precisely what the Government mean when they talk about biodiversity. As my noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead said, words do matter. If the Government are to maintain the term “biodiversity” in this Bill, which I hope they will, please could they explain what it actually means?
I am now going to get a little bit technical. Ecologists recognise a number of different, but interrelated, meanings of the word “biodiversity”. At its simplest, it refers to what is called “species richness”—simply the number of species inhabiting a defined geographical area, such as England. A more sophisticated variant of species richness takes into account the relative abundance of different species. On this measure, an area populated by one extremely common species and, say, five very rare ones will be less biodiverse than if all six species were roughly equally abundant.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, has already said, biodiversity can also include genetic diversity within a species. For instance, one might be particularly interested in preserving subspecies that are unique to this island, such as the native pied wagtail, motacilla alba Yarrelli. Furthermore, biodiversity might encompass the genetic distinctiveness of species, by placing a premium on species with no close living relatives on the planet, or on endemic species, such as eudarcia Richardsoni, a micro-moth found only in Dorset.
Finally, biodiversity might encompass the diversity of habitats, such as woodland, heath, peatbog and intertidal marshes, found within a geographical area. Many ecologists distinguish between what they call alpha diversity—species richness within a habitat—and beta diversity, which is diversity between habitats.
I hope that the Minister, in his response, or afterwards in writing, will explain what the Government mean when they talk about biodiversity. At the same time, it would be helpful if he could explain the difference between biodiversity and species abundance, as introduced in Amendment 22, which we will debate later.
My Lords, this has certainly been an interesting discussion around the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, to change the wording of the Bill to use the term “nature” instead of “biodiversity”. I can understand why he would want to propose this change, as it is an easier concept for many people to grasp and understand, as many noble Lords have said during our discussion. However, the Minister did explain in his winding-up speech on Second Reading that the two terms are not exactly the same. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, referenced the example that the Minister gave:
“Planting a Sitka spruce monoculture might give us more nature, but it would not give us more biodiversity”—[Official Report, 7/6/21; col. 1308].
A number of noble Lords have talked about definitions and the definition of “biodiversity” as opposed to the definition of “nature”. I would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for providing us so much information. I have learned an awful lot more in this debate than I was expecting. A number of noble Lords have looked at dictionary definitions, so I thought I would add to this by having a look at what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say. It describes “nature” as
“The phenomena of the physical world collectively; esp. plants, animals, and other features and products of the earth itself, as opposed to humans and human creations”
whereas—I would be interested to discuss this further with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, at some point—the dictionary describes “biodiversity” as
“the variety of plant and animal life”.
So these things are different, and my thinking is that the Oxford definition seems to show that “nature” is a broader concept and “biodiversity” fits within that. Therefore, I am not quite sure how helpful Amendment 261 will be.
This is a really important Bill, and, as my noble friend Lord Rooker said, clarity as to exactly what is meant by the wording and terminology in this Bill—and in all legislation—is essential to avoid confusion and potential legal challenge. I am sure that the Minister will be able to provide us with more detail on the wording used and the way that the decisions have come, but noble Lords have requested more explanation of exactly what is meant in the Bill by “biodiversity” and what is going to be demanded of improvements to biodiversity as we go through implementing what the Environment Bill is looking to do.
In short, I have enjoyed listening to the debate, but we are happy to retain the use of “biodiversity” in the wording of the Bill.
I thank my noble friend Lord Blencathra for his amendments. It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful speech on them by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. Like my noble friend, we want people to understand and engage in nature, but it is also important to increase recognition of and engagement with the term “biodiversity”. It is an internationally recognised term that is gaining popularity with the public, parliamentarians and beyond, not least as a consequence of the extraordinary work of Sir David Attenborough, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, pointed out. It confers a direction of travel toward greater diversity, which we want everyone to fully support and engage with.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, pointed out, and this point was echoed extremely interestingly and thoughtfully by the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Ritchie, “nature” is a more expansive term than biodiversity, often taken to include non-living elements, and is potentially more open to interpretation. It is perfectly possible to enhance nature with limited or no value for biodiversity. Many monocultures—for example, a green grass valley; I am using a different example from the one that I used last time—are considered beautiful examples of a natural landscape, and “nature” can have a high amenity value. If we are to boost biodiversity, sometimes it will mean moving away from simplistic ideas of what nature should be, and thinking scientifically about how to improve the diversity of living things.
In response to my noble friend Lady McIntosh, I confirm on my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s behalf—if I may—that he is not proposing to renegotiate or replace the international conventions, as I understand it from his introductory speech. However, I want to provide a more detailed interpretation of what we mean by “biodiversity” and why it is important. I do this in response to a number of noble Lords, including my noble friends Lady McIntosh of Pickering, Lord Caithness and Lord Trenchard, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Hayman. The Convention on Biological Diversity, which is being hosted in China at the end of this year and is a massively important moment for biodiversity, defines biodiversity as
“the variability amongst living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.”
It is important that variability and diversity should be conserved and the benefits for people secured. The UK is playing a leading role in negotiating an ambitious global framework for biodiversity under that convention, and setting targets and policies for biodiversity helps to demonstrate and further that alignment.
From a more technical perspective, the Bill applies the terms “nature” and “biodiversity” for specific purposes. Associated guidance and regulations will make that clear. We certainly want these measures to benefit all aspects of nature for wildlife and other environmental objectives. Substituting “nature” for “biodiversity” in the Bill would risk creating confusion about the purposes of the measures, especially where “biodiversity” is already a well-established term. Measures such as the biodiversity duty or biodiversity net gain are already established and understood policies, being strengthened through the Bill, and our aim should be to improve their functioning, not create confusion with new terminology.
I hope this does not sound facetious but there is an implied assumption within the amendment that people en masse are going to devour the Bill and base their understanding on the Act that we hope it will become. It feels to me that what really matters is delivering the measures in the Bill and the wider communications that will support it. I say to my noble friend Lord Caithness that I am not convinced it is the Act itself that will take people with us; rather, it will be the delivery of good policy, good solutions and the wider comms that we all—not just the Government—are going to have to engage in to advance this agenda.
I reassure my local friend Lord Blencathra that I share and understand his vision and the motivation behind his amendment, as I think does every noble Lord, but nevertheless I ask him to withdraw it.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, has indicated that he wishes to speak.
My apologies, Lord Deputy Chairman; I did not realise you would be calling the noble Earl, Lord Caithness.
I am grateful to all noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have spoken—those who have supported me, those who are sitting on the fence and those who are opposed. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that if he goes further and looks at the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel guidelines in detail, he will find that there is an instruction there to government departments to write in simple language, and what I am suggesting here follows that OPC instruction.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, made an important contribution that swayed a number of noble Lords. I looked at changing the word “nature” at the start of Clause 1 but then opted to change it in Clause 1(3). I was in two minds about that but then I thought that I wanted the debate on principle, so we should have it early on in the Bill. I accept what he said about the list in Clause 1(3) containing more specific examples of nature. He said that “biodiversity” was the right word to be used in the Bill but I am suggesting, and I have said so all along, that we can define “nature” to be the right word in the Bill and we can make it as specific or general as we wish.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Cormack for his attempt at a definition, “nature in all its diversity”. I am not sure it is right but he is simply making the point that it is possible to define this.
My noble friend Lord Caithness said that he was back to sitting on the fence. I am too; I have a leg on either side of it. I am not suggesting that we have “nature” only or “biodiversity” only; I am suggesting that in some parts of the Bill, where it is safe and sensible to do so, we have “nature” and in other bits we have “biodiversity”.
My noble friend the Minister has already pointed out to my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering that I was not proposing to change our international conventions, not even the one that I negotiated myself. As a new Minister I was sent to Rio in 1992 with strict instructions: “You’ll be there for 16 days, Mr Maclean MP. You will not agree to anything until John Major comes out and signs up for everything that you’ve got to resist.” I had to sign, or was party to negotiating, the first Convention on Biological Diversity.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, that there is no need for confusion. It depends on how we define this, and I say to her that the word “nature” would strengthen the Bill.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Trenchard for his strong support. If Dasgupta sees the terms as interchangeable, we should change “biodiversity” in the Bill wherever possible.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge. He also said that we should make things simple. The next group of amendments but one is about connecting people with nature. The word “nature” does that but “biodiversity” does not.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, says that the Government need to define biodiversity. If the Government cannot define biodiversity in the Bill, how are the public to understand or relate to it? The Government are capable of defining “natural environment” in the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, quoted dictionary definitions. What does that dictionary say about “natural environment”? The phrase “natural environment” is not defined in the Bill according to the Oxford English Dictionary; it is defined in a way that the Government have decided. If the Government can define “natural environment”, they can define “nature”.
My noble friend the Minister said that “nature” can be a more expansive term. It can, and if it is not defined it will be much more expansive. The phrase “natural environment” could be a highly expansive term—indeed, some of us have suggestions to expand it a bit more—but the Government have defined it in the Bill and, if you can define “natural environment”, you can define “nature”.
As far as “biodiversity net gain” is concerned, my noble friend picked one example which might confuse business and industry, and developers may worry that “nature net gain” is not the same as “biodiversity net gain”. If that is the case and we cannot explain it, let us not change that bit. I have resiled from my initial position when I wrote to my noble friend two weeks ago that we can change every word. I know that we cannot; it would not be sensible. It could cause legal problems and confusion. Let us not try to change the word where it is not sensible to do so but change it everywhere else.
My noble friend seemed to conclude by saying, “Let’s use biodiversity in the Bill, but out there we will be talking about nature; it’s how we relate to it and how we deliver it”. It seems a bit odd to say, “Well, let’s just keep this among ourselves. We experts who know all about it and we boffins will use biodiversity in the Bill, but we won’t use it out there among the public. For that, we will use ‘nature’”.
I think there is still some merit in what I say, although it has not commanded the majority support of the noble Lords who have spoken today. I would like my noble friend to consider with me whether we can change the word in some instances where it is safe to do so. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 6. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
6: Clause 1, page 1, line 16, leave out paragraph (c) and insert—
“(c) terrestrial biodiversity;(ca) marine biodiversity;”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that there is a long-term biodiversity target both on-shore and off-shore.
My Lords, I welcome the fact that in this Bill the Government are committed to targets on biodiversity and the areas that the Bill covers, including waste. There are only four areas listed, which makes choosing targets a pretty challenging task. I look forward to the debate on this group of amendments, where many different options have been put forward. I recognise that this is not straightforward. Unlike climate change, where we can have a couple of metrics—for example, the proportion of grams of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or look at emissions as a whole in metric tonnes—biodiversity is far more difficult, and I recognise that. It is not necessarily easy for anybody, let alone the Government, to choose the right targets.
However, within the Bill there is a distinct lack of recognition of the maritime area—the seas around our island nation. Not to put emphasis on the seas and oceans, our EEZ and our territorial seas, is a major weakness in the Bill. I have talked to the Minister about this, and I thank him for his conversations. He will point out that “water” is used very generally in the Bill, but it is usually in a context that does not really include oceans and the sea around us. I congratulate the Government on their blue belt initiative for our overseas territories, but I sometimes wish that the focus on our overseas territories was equal to the focus we have on our own seas in the United Kingdom.
I recognise that this is primarily an English Bill, but let me talk in terms of the UK at the moment Not only are we an island nation, but the territorial area of the United Kingdom is just under a quarter of a million square kilometres. If you look at the seas over which we have some jurisdiction, it is three to four times that level—almost a million square kilometres. That is the EEZ plus our territorial seas. Under UNCLOS we have responsibility for those seas beyond just the 12-mile limit, and I think those are important. I will come back to some of these issues later in our proceedings.
Some might say that we have already had the Fisheries Bill—now an Act—which a number of us here spent a lot of time on. But the Government made it very clear that it was not an environmental Bill. Climate change and the environment were part of the Bill’s objectives, but it was about fisheries, not about the broader maritime ecosystem. That ecosystem is much broader than just fish. It includes marine mammals, crustaceans, cold-sea corals, which we have off Cornwall, seagrass and what is on the bottom of the sea. It is not just about biodiversity for its own sake in that maritime area, important though that is. Seagrass, for instance, is a major absorber of carbon—even more so than peatlands, amazingly, according to recent scientific evidence. Oceans absorb something like half of mankind’s excess CO2 emissions above what is reabsorbed by the natural environment through carbon sequestration in forests and other areas. So this is key.
It would be incredible if the biodiversity targets within this clause did not include a terrestrial target. I cannot imagine that the Government would just have a maritime biodiversity target and ignore the whole of terrestrial England. The amendment is quite straightforward: let us not make the choice here between two critical biospheres—ecological systems—that are different but equally important. Quite simply, let us make sure that we have a maritime biodiversity indicator as well as that terrestrial one, which I welcome and is bound to come forward as part of the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment 10. I am grateful to my noble friends Lord Carrington and Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, for signing it.
It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. We spent quite a long time on the Fisheries Act, as it now is. I think I would say “marine” rather than “maritime” as a concept—“maritime” has more connotations to do with ships and so forth. But “marine” and “terrestrial” also join together, and of course, there are the shores. This issue could be solved, quite frankly, by my noble friend the Minister making it quite clear exactly what is covered by this.
Amendment 10 deals with light pollution, which has increased from a variety of sources, including domestic residences, public infrastructure—particularly lighting along roads and motorways—and industrial activity, such as energy infrastructure. Much of the earth’s population is affected by light pollution. Some 80% of the world’s population now live under sky glow and nearly every European cannot experience a natural night sky from where they live. I have not seen the night sky properly where I live—except possibly in a power cut—but when I occasionally go up to Norfolk, along the coast I am blessed to be able to see the night sky in all its glory.
In recent years, evidence of the impact of light pollution on species and ecosystems has grown and consolidated. Increased artificial light at night is directly linked to measurable negative impacts on energy consumption, obviously, human health and wildlife such as bats, birds, insects and plants. Unnecessary artificial light increases financial costs and contributes to greenhouse emissions. Light pollution should be treated with the same disdain with which we treat all other forms of pollution.
Among other organisations that I belong to, I am a member of Buglife, a charity devoted to the protection of insects. I am pleased to say that this week is National Insect Week. Studies from Germany suggest that a third of insects attracted to street lights and other fixed light sources will die. This results in the death of an estimated 100 billion insects in Germany every summer. Light pollution is reducing nocturnal pollinator visits to flowers by 62%, in some areas. Again, to show my slightly nerdy side, from time to time I put out a moth trap, but mine is not as successful as those of some of my friends elsewhere, who do not have the same light amount of light coming in from other sources. We know that moths are attracted to light, but that it confuses some.
Glow-worms use luminescence to attract prey and mates. Artificial light can affect their ability to do both. Evidence shows a decline in the abundance of glow-worm populations with increased proximity to artificial light.
Birds that migrate or hunt at night navigate by moonlight and starlight. Artificial light can cause them to fly towards lit areas. Recent research shows more birds migrating over urban, rather than rural, areas. This deviation from traditional routes can have a significant impact on energy levels during migration and lead them to stop in suboptimal habitats.
The US recognises bird strikes against high-rise buildings as a real problem. In Texas, the former First Lady Laura Bush heads a lights-out campaign, twice a year, to encourage high-rise buildings to switch off their lights, so that they do not kill all these migratory birds. Some of the photographs you see of the carnage caused underneath these high-rise buildings are disturbing.
Artificial lighting can cause many problems for bats, including disrupting roosting and feeding behaviour and their movement through the landscape. In the worst cases, it can directly harm these protected species. As all bats in the UK feed on insects, loss of food sources is also a considerable threat.
For us humans, light pollution is negatively impacting astronomy and our ability to observe the stars. To look up on a cloudless night and see the stars is one of the more uplifting pleasures that we can have from childhood onwards.
Many marine species such as crabs and zooplankton are attracted to artificial lights near the shore, from ports or gas facilities, which can disrupt feeding and life cycles. Many noble Lords will have seen, in one of the more recent David Attenborough programmes, the disturbing sight of turtles coming to shore when they are hatched instead of going out to the sea. They are designed to be attracted to moonlight, but are going towards cafes and restaurants, with all their lights, crossing roads and perishing. This is a real problem.
The British Astronomical Association estimates that 90% of the population of the UK are unable to see the Milky Way from where they live. Evidence shows that light exposure at the wrong time has profound impacts on human circadian rhythm, affecting physical and mental functions. Artificial lighting has been linked to trees bursting their buds more than a week early, a magnitude similar to that predicted for 2 degrees centigrade of global warming.
My amendment aims to set a commitment to act on matters that relate to light pollution currently omitted from the Environment Bill. I hope it ensures that the Government produce targets to reduce levels of light pollution in England. The evidence is clear that light pollution has a significant impact on the normal activity of invertebrates, birds, bats and plants, and that these impacts are more than sufficient to require action. It would be a failure not to address this before we have long-term data and doing so would go against the Government’s draft environmental principles, in particular the precautionary principle, but also the prevention and rectification-at-source principles.
The UK does not yet report on light pollution levels. However, measuring light pollution is simple. Satellite images can be used to establish pollution levels and the CPRE has developed a nine-band classification system that could form the basis for monitoring change. Existing policy on light pollution does not provide sufficient guidance and is not strong enough to tackle its increasing impact. Several countries have introduced national policies on light pollution, such as Germany, France, Mexico, South Korea, Croatia and Slovenia. When I was last in France, I noticed that some villages have the designation “village étoile”, which they relish, because people go to them specifically to see the night sky.
The UK’s Environmental Protection Act 1990, as amended, provides local authorities with statutory nuisance powers to address light pollution, but only when harmful to humans or if it “unreasonably and substantially” interferes with the use or enjoyment of a home or other premises. I am afraid this has not resulted in a reduction in general light pollution. The National Planning Policy Framework offers little consideration of light pollution. The only reference states:
“Planning policies and decisions should … limit the impact of light pollution from artificial light on local amenity, intrinsically dark landscapes and nature conservation.”
The last comprehensive consideration of the issue by the Government was the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s 2009 report, Artificial Light in the Environment. However, I am afraid that almost none of its recommendations has been implemented.
On national targets, Clause 1 of the Environment Bill provides power for the Secretary of State to “set long-term targets” by regulation, in relation to
“(a) the natural environment, or (b) people’s enjoyment of the natural environment.”
Subsection (2) requires the Secretary of State to set long-term targets in the four priority areas of air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction.
I strongly believe that light pollution should be considered a priority area too, so that the Government are required to set a long-term target to reduce its impact on nature and people’s enjoyment of it. This amendment is designed to achieve that outcome. A national plan intended to prevent, limit and reduce light pollution must include a series of targets and a programme of monitoring. National targets should be set to include no net increase in light pollution and an ambition to increase the number of dark sky reserves.
Finally, I support Amendment 11 in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. I have my own amendment later in the Bill, Amendment 112, on soil quality, which is as fundamental as anything in the Bill.
My Lords, I have two amendments in this group. The later one, Amendment 31, concerns the health of our trees and the first, Amendment 12, planting new trees. It requires the Government to put before Parliament an annual report on the progress made towards achieving the initial target of planting new trees.
The extent and health of what is left of our forests, woodland and trees is a matter of deep concern. We all know the essential role trees play in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby making a vital contribution to slowing down climate change. A mature tree absorbs carbon dioxide at the rate of 48 pounds per year. In one year, an acre of forest can absorb twice the CO2 produced by the average car’s annual mileage. We know in our personal lives how fundamental our trees are for physical health, aesthetic satisfaction and our spiritual well-being.
The Committee on Climate Change has said that we need to raise our current 13% forest cover to 17% by 2050 if we are to have any chance of meeting our climate goals. At the moment, the Government are missing their tree-planting targets by 40 years. If we continue at the current slow rate of tree planting, the Government’s own 2050 targets will not be met until 2091. As those figures show, the number of trees planted each year needs to be very significantly increased.
The good news is that tree planting, like other areas to be covered in the Bill, is now monitored by a range of independent and official bodies. We have the indicators; what we lack are effective systems of accountability and enforceability. This amendment will at least provide a target. Later on, we will need other amendments to ensure that that target is reported on with a year-by-year assessment to Parliament on how far we have gone towards achieving it.
Amendment 31 concerns the health of trees. Sadly, the trees in our country are not in a good way. A few years ago, as we know, the magnificent English elm, which was such a feature of our landscape, was completely wiped out. Most recently, ash dieback has swept across the whole country from the east coast to the west in just a few years, leaving a trail of thin, leafless, lifeless branches. Our oaks are suffering from a blight, and so are our chestnuts. The health of our trees must be a fundamental consideration in assessing the overall health of our environment. Amendment 31 requires targets for the overall health of the tree population, particularly in relation to native species, with research into disease-resistant varieties and progress in planting disease-resistant varieties. These targets are for 31 December 2030.
We know that research is going on into disease-resistant strains, and it is important that this is kept under review by Parliament. We know in relation to ash, for example, that there is some evidence that a disease-resistant strain can be developed, and Parliament needs to know what progress is being made in planting such strains. I therefore very much hope that the Minister will be able to accept both these amendments about trees, one on the progress towards achieving real targets of tree planting and the other to do with the health of our trees, woodlands and forests.
My Lords, this group of amendments is like some sort of dream list that any environment Bill worthy of its name should contain, so I very much hope that the Government will listen to all noble Lords on this. I will speak on only two amendments. First, I signed the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on marine, which he explained extremely well. All I can say, in less parliamentary language, is that it is plain daft not to include it. How can you not include another biosphere that is so important, not only for fishing and other things but generally for the well-being of anybody who ever goes down to the seaside?
I will speak specifically to my Amendment 32, which is about the controversial issue of reducing meat and dairy consumption. I eat both, so I am well aware of how difficult it is, but I have tailored my diet to reduce substantially my intake. I have also tabled this amendment because it was a clear recommendation from the Climate Change Committee to make a significant reduction in our carbon footprint. Sadly, and proving yet again the inadequacy of the scrutiny bodies in having any binding power over the Government, the recommendations have been ignored. Farming accounts for 12% of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and, as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said in publishing the committee’s report:
“Changing the way we use our land is critical to delivering the UK’s Net Zero target.”
Looking globally, the UN predicts that global red meat consumption will double by 2050, which will be a disaster for the climate and ecology. Animal husbandry can be part of the solution to climate change, as good-practice grass-fed livestock can be an important part of building soil health and sequestering carbon. However, the levels of meat currently demanded in our western diets are simply incompatible with these sustainable practices. It is time for the Government to be quite brave and bold and start facing up to this reality. The Prime Minister should use his political capital—however much he has left—to begin this conversation and start this road to a more sustainable diet. It will be a test: is he really the skilled communicator that he and his allies believe? If so, I would like to set him a challenge: persuading the public that modifying our diets is an important step towards net zero.
My Lords, it is difficult to speak to an amendment that has not yet been spoken to by its proposer. I therefore ask my noble friend on the Front Bench whether she could make a note of this; we had exactly the same problem during the passage of the Agriculture Bill, which we finally got sorted out. The speakers’ lists should start off with all those who have amendments consequential to the first amendment. I want to speak to Amendment 11, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, but she will speak after me. This is nonsense and it does not help the Committee—I am very glad to see some nods around the Chamber from all sides. I therefore hope that my noble friend will make certain that we get a decent speakers’ list in future.
I support what I believe the noble Baroness will say on Amendment 11, just as she supported me on my Amendment 111, which also refers to soil, so we are as one. Soil is critical to the environment. You cannot get good habitats without proper soil. Unless soil is one of the priorities, we will never get there in the first place. There is a lot more to be said about soil later, but at this stage I just want to support the noble Baroness in her amendment.
On the amendments spoken to by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, he raises some very important points but this also shows the difficulty of having targets, particularly where you have plants and species that can be affected by disease and climate change. It will be very difficult to set a target for tree health, because it can change in a matter of years, as the noble and right reverend Lord said about the ash disease. If you set a target and then have to change it, targets become increasingly meaningless. If we are to have targets, they should have a meaning. I am therefore sceptical. I understand what he is trying to do and part of me supports it, but part of me says that it has to work on the ground—we cannot just tick a box and say that we have done targets, and then keep on changing them. We changed the biodiversity 2020 targets because nobody was going to meet them. It brings the whole concept of targets into disrepute.
The noble and right reverend Lord also mentioned the tree-planting target. I have said before that it is not just tree planting that matters but the maintenance of trees. It is terribly easy to plant trees; I planted lots of trees in the year before I went to agricultural college and I hope that some of them have been clear felled by now—they should have been. However, it is disease and animal destruction of trees, and the planting up after the planting and the support for those trees to grow into mature trees, that really matter. I would rather plant fewer trees and get them all up to maturity than plant x plus 10% when 20% will die, as we end up with a minus quantity. The thrust of the noble and right reverend Lord’s amendment is in the right direction, but again, it is about how it will work in practice; it is the practicalities of the Bill that will make it a success or not.
I welcome this small group of amendments. I will speak in particular to Amendment 6 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. He has been very kind in supporting my later amendment along the same lines, Amendment 113. I say to my noble friend the Minister that I find it extraordinary that we have this omission whereby the marine environment, marine mammals, marine flora and marine fauna are excluded from the remit of the Bill. In responding to a question at Oral Questions last week, my noble friend the Minister accepted:
“In relation to the sustainability of inshore fisheries, there is undoubtedly a tension between those activities and new wind farms”.—[Official Report, 16/6/21; col. 1886.]
If we are not going to embrace and try to resolve those tensions in the context of this Bill, what mechanism will we use?
I commend the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on the evidence we took in the EU Environment Sub-Committee on the ecology of the North Sea. It enabled us to look in some depth at the cumulative impact, as I think it is called, of these rather regrettable tendencies that are building up. It was referred to as the “urbanisation” of the seas, particularly the North Sea, with this plethora of new offshore wind farms growing up in a very short period of time without any concept or research being done—we will debate that later—on what the impact will be on the other uses of that part of the North Sea, such as inshore fisheries, which I just referred to, and shipping.
Nor has research been done on the impact on marine mammals both in the construction phase, with the noise and pollution that will inevitably be caused by a major event such as the construction of an offshore wind farm, and in its operation. I find it overwhelming that there has been no research as to why we are seeing dolphins, whales and other marine mammals banking on our shores with increased regularity—even in the River Thames most recently. I am sure that it has something to do with the sonic boom sent out by these offshore wind farms. It is a constant murmur on the seabed, which must be a distraction and cause some pain to marine mammals. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will look favourably on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and that it will be added to—or else some very good reasons must be given as to why there is no recognition in the Bill of the maritime area and the contents of marine ecology.
Like other noble Lords, I support a number of other amendments in this group. Soil quality is extremely important; we will hear about that in a moment. I always offer a word of caution to those like the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, who is looking to increase the planting of new trees. We must be extremely careful and approach where these trees are going to be planted very cautiously. I personally would like to see the creation of more peat bogs. It gives us a sense of the concept of time when we appreciate that it takes 200 years to create a peat bog, but I understand that the effects can also be replicated through the building of mini-dams and bunds, which should also be looked favourably upon.
For the reasons I have rehearsed before, my hesitation about encouraging the planting of new trees—they do have a role to play, as we have seen with the Slowing the Flow at Pickering pilot project on flood prevention and alleviation—is that, if grown in the wrong places, trees can actually contribute to flooding. That is a reason to be cautious. Also, only landowners and not tenant farmers can benefit from the planting of trees in any commercial way; they will therefore not benefit from this.
I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, realises that I hold her in the greatest respect and affection, but I part company with her on this attack on livestock farmers who face all sorts of onslaughts at the moment, including from the Government’s live transport provisions both domestically in this country and externally. I am sure that she and I can have a little private chat offline and reach some agreement on her amendment. This is an interesting group of amendments looking at all sorts of ways in which we can benefit, but I particularly lend my support to Amendment 6.
My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 11 in this group, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. I will endorse the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness; I apologise for speaking in advance of them. I will also comment on Amendment 32, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb.
I declare my interests as recorded on the register. Specifically, I chair the Cawood Group, which has a large soil-testing facility, so I have a commercial interest in the subject; I am a former chair of the Meat and Livestock Commission; and I was a beef and sheep farmer until two years ago.
On Amendment 11, I endorse the importance of soil health and that soil quality should be included on the face of the Bill as a priority area. As I am sure the Minister will agree, the quality of our soil is a matter of deep concern. The degrading of soil is a worldwide problem with huge consequences for the natural environment. As a soil scientist at Rothamsted Research told me many years ago, once soil has been completely degraded, it cannot be recreated. Its loss can be permanent, with all the consequences that might lead to. We often use “fundamental” rather loosely but, as far as soil is concerned, its quality is of fundamental importance. Without healthy soil, our ability to sustain ourselves, have healthy ecosystems and biodiversity and sustain the entire natural world will be impossible, so it is rather odd that it is not included as a priority in the Bill—especially as it was given significant importance in the Government’s 25-year environment plan. Understanding the health of our soil is crucial if we are to continue on the journey towards more sustainable agricultural production and to capture its carbon sequestration potential, since the organic matter content of soil varies enormously. I hope that the Minister will accept this hugely important small amendment.
On Amendment 32, which is also included in this group, I am sorry but, rather like the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, I must inform the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that I cannot support this amendment. Perhaps we should all join and have a drink afterwards when we can. First, let me say that the idea that the Government will control what we are allowed to eat by regulation would take the nanny state into new territory entirely. So far, successive Governments have failed to compel consumers to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, so their record of managing consumer diets is not a great success story. Obesity continues to spiral out of control; the Government have a huge enough challenge trying to get to grips with that without trying to intrude on the eating of meat and dairy products. I cannot believe that any Government, particularly a Conservative one, would dare to impose such a policy.
Secondly, the amendment bases the regulation of meat and dairy products solely on the emission of methane when we now know that its impact on the environment is nothing like as long-lasting as carbon and without taking into account the huge benefit that the grazing ruminants sector delivers in supporting a vast range of ecosystems and biodiversity, together with vital carbon sequestration capability—not to mention the visual appeal of the British countryside, in which grazing livestock are a big part of the attraction so are important to tourism and the rural economy. Of course, we must continue to reduce the emission of methane and carbon as well as the environmental impact of ruminants, but I am confident that we will achieve that by building on scientific knowledge, which is very encouraging and developing all the time through protogenetics, better management, influence on ruminant diets and the choice of grassland species.
I just add in conclusion that I fully support the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on his Amendment 6, which he presented very confidently. I also have a lot of sympathy with Amendment 31 and the comments of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. Tree health is a huge challenge and we need clear action by government; the Bill is an opportunity to try to improve tree health and reduce disease. I shall listen with interest to the Minister’s response on these issues.
My Lords, I rise with a very long list of amendments to speak to, and I shall begin by very briefly addressing the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, in response to my noble friend’s Amendment 32. I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, for offering his support for my Amendment 11 on soils. I agree with him that it is rather odd that it is not initially in the Bill.
On Amendment 32, I first point out that this amendment does not seek to impose a diet on anyone; it sets a target to head the national diet in a certain direction. On what the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, said about methan