House of Lords
Wednesday 23 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 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.
My Lords, the administration of folic acid to the bread of the nation to avoid around 500 neural tube defects a year is exactly the sort of preventative health intervention that we are putting at the heart of our health strategy. I am pleased to say that progress is being made, and I thank the devolved Administrations for their engagement in this measure to ensure that we have alignment between the four nations. I reassure noble Lords that this remains a priority for the Government.
My Lords, surely the Government have run out of time and must now announce that they will follow the science and finally act to help to prevent the entirely avoidable numbers of babies born with neural tube defects? Recommendations were to be announced as soon as the recent elections were over, and if we are serious about preventative medicine and health, surely on this issue, where UK research has led the way to many other countries taking action long before now, there really can be no further delay or excuses.
My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord that we are committed to following the science and are totally persuaded by it. However, I cannot avoid the fact that there were elections in devolved nations, which have meant that politicians and Secretaries of State in some of those countries were not available to engage with. I am pleased to report to the House that we have made a lot of progress in engaging with the devolved nations. We could not possibly do this policy without their support, buy-in and alignment. Progress is continuing at great pace, and I look forward to returning to the House and updating it at a future date.
My Lords, in March this year, the noble Lord said that the Government were taking time to create a
“solution that is endorsed by mill owners, paediatricians and all the relevant stakeholders.”—[Official Report, 23/3/21; col. 720.]
Given that the position of UK flour millers is acceptance if the Government decide to introduce mandatory fortification, and given that there is overwhelming support from the medical community, why are the Government dragging their feet and not introducing this measure, when it is proven to reduce neural tube defects in babies? Next month is the 30-year anniversary of when this link was proven. Why are we taking so long to put this measure in place?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is entirely right: medical opinion on this matter has absolutely consolidated around support for it, and the consultation in September 2019 was extremely positive indeed. I am extremely grateful to mill owners, both the large industrial ones, which make a lot of the white flour, and the artisanal mill owners, which had complexities of their own. The engagement with them has been enormously positive, and I cannot see any obstacle on that front. However, there is a machinery of government point that needs to be addressed: we have to work it through the devolved nations and other arm’s-length bodies, and we are doing that at pace.
My Lords, from my noble friend’s responses, the House will be clear that this decision is under way. Could my noble friend give some idea of whether we might expect an announcement before the Summer Recess? We know that hundreds of children being born with spina bifida and anencephaly, which can be so damaging to themselves and their families, could be avoided. The sooner we do this, the sooner we can stop such problems occurring.
I agree with my noble friend; she is right that this is a priority. However, it is not within my gift to simply grant a decision on it; it needs to be worked through both industry and government. We are making progress on this. It is a huge national undertaking for us to put substances literally in the bread of the nation. The public deserve to feel confident that that decision has been made thoughtfully and responsibly, and it is entirely right that we take care to dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s.
My Lords, the Government have had an awfully long time to dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s. When the MRC research first came out, my children were the age that my grandchildren are now. Some 80 other countries have moved more speedily than the UK on the evidence provided by the UK-funded MRC research. As well as the noble Lord making progress on this before the Summer Recess, will the Government look at what the barriers were that made us as a country so slow to come to the decision to fortify flour?
My Lords, this Government’s progress on this really came to a head in the consultation in September 2019, and we have been on course to implement these measures since then. It is unfortunate that the Covid pandemic intervened at that point and we had to put work on this project on hold until April of this year. Since April, we have had to deal with the elections in the devolved Administrations. That, unfortunately, creates an insuperable barrier to taking the measures through all the necessary checks and alignments. I reassure the noble Baroness that we are totally committed to this policy, we are moving at pace and I look forward to further progress shortly.
I very politely remind the Minister—and it is on the record—that the three devolved Governments were in favour of this policy before the English Government were, so there cannot really be any substance of any delay from the devolved Governments. I know this because, with scientists, I discussed it with some of the Ministers. My other point is that, given that we already fortify with three substances, there cannot be any technical difficulties whatever in the flour mills in adding folic. There should not be any long-term delay of a technical nature, should there?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. Can I just take a moment to bear testimony to his patient and determined campaigning on this issue? He has held the Government’s feet to the fire on it, and I am grateful for his focus. He is right that we are hopeful that there should not be any substantive delay with the industry. A huge amount of work has gone on in the consultations and the dialogue we have had, and I am grateful for that. However, the Senedd and Scottish parliamentary elections in May meant that new personnel were at the top of government. We hope that they are as supportive as the noble Lord so rightly pointed out, but there is a process to get the official endorsement that we need to take this forward and we are waiting for that paperwork to come through.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that 50% of pregnancies are not planned? Therefore, while the Government consult and procrastinate, what communication is being planned with women of childbearing age to tell them that they need to take a folic acid supplement before they start a pregnancy to avoid NTDs in their babies?
My Lords, this Minister is very aware—personally extremely aware—of the fact that 50% of pregnancies are not necessarily planned. As the noble Baroness knows very well, that is one of the reasons for this policy and that is why we are so supportive of it. The education that goes to new mums and dads on folic acid is done through GPs, and we are always looking at ways to enhance that. But I think there is no better of way of ensuring that folic acid gets to the right people at the right time than through this measure, and that is why we are supporting it as energetically as we are.
My Lords, can the Minister comment on whether the Government have been working with the health authorities in other countries to review the evidence from the more than 80 other countries where folic acid has been mandatorily added to food products?
My Lords, I listened to the Minister’s answer where he referred to delays as a result of the Covid pandemic and the elections in the devolved Administrations. While they may be recent issues, this delay well precedes both those important events. As my noble friend Lord Rooker and others have so eloquently expressed, patience on this is long exhausted and parents-to-be cannot be expected to continue to carry such risk. Can the Minister tell the House exactly when babies will be protected? Is the delay that we have seen over decades due to any change in the Government’s position?
I absolutely reassure both the noble Baroness and all noble Lords in the Chamber that there is absolutely no equivocation on behalf of the Government in this matter. It is a huge undertaking to put a substance in the food of the nation. It is therefore something that has to be endorsed by all the relevant bodies, including the four nations and other arm’s-length bodies. We have to ensure that we have all the public health sign off and the industry support that we need, and we need to take the public with us. There will be a moment when we need to sell this to the public, and they will have questions and we will need to have a dialogue. When that happens, I would like to have crossed all the “t”s and dotted all the “i”s so that we are in great shape. That is why we are being as thorough as we can. I reassure all noble Lords that there is no question of us going backwards on this.
Electric Vehicles: Impact on Household Energy Bills
My Lords, under their green recovery scheme, electricity distribution network operators will accelerate £300 million of investment into network reinforcement to support low-carbon projects, including electric vehicle charge points. About half of this will be sourced from efficiencies delivered by network companies, with the rest from new funding. Ofgem estimates that this will translate to an additional 65 pence on consumer bills for the next two years. This will decrease to around 15 pence from 2023.
I thank my noble friend for the Answer. Many will welcome this investment, but why are households, many with no car, electric or otherwise, picking up the lion’s share of the bills for not only the rewiring of electric vehicles but the cost of renewables and meeting net-zero commitments? I urge my noble friend and the Government to be more transparent, so that consumers know exactly who is paying for what.
The noble Baroness makes a very good point, but the transition to net zero will affect everyone, and everyone will benefit from avoided climate change impacts and cleaner air. Ofgem publish on its website a breakdown of the costs that make up a consumer’s energy bill. These include the costs of maintaining and upgrading the electricity network, typically about 20%, and social and environmental obligations, also around 20%. The Government are very conscious of trying to deliver transparency.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if people will be spending 30 minutes charging their car, we would like them to do that where we would like them to be spending 30 minutes—that is, next to the high street? Will the Government look at what obstacles there are to provision in that sort of location and set about removing them?
My noble friend makes a very good point about trying to increase footfall on the high street at the same time as increasing the use of electric vehicles. The on-street residential charge-point scheme is available to all local authorities to provide public charge points for their residents who do not have access to private parking. To date, the scheme has supported over 105 local authorities to fund over 3,900 charge points, and this year another £20 million is available to ensure that more local authorities can benefit. Additionally, I am aware that Ofgem are talking to people such as Costa Coffee and Marks & Spencer to see whether we can put more charge points at their out-of-town sites.
My Lords, if home electricity prices apply, the cost per mile to propel a typical electric car will be very much lower than that needed to propel a fossil-fuel car. However, two-thirds of the cost of petrol and diesel is duty and VAT. Do the Government plan to tax electricity for electric cars in a similar way, or will they retrieve the approximately £30 billion lost to the Exchequer by other means, such as the long-rumoured road pricing, and how would such changes be phased in?
The noble Lord will appreciate that matters of taxation are for the Chancellor, but the Government have set out that, as we move forward with this transition away from petrol and diesel cars and vans, we will need to ensure that the tax system continues to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles. Revenues from motoring taxes must keep pace with this change to ensure that we can continue to fund the first-class public services and infrastructure that people and families across the UK expect. I am sure that the Treasury will be looking at other ways of taxing electric vehicles in the future.
My Lords, I declare that I am an owner of an electric vehicle. Will the Minister accept that the Government’s determination to push forward with electric vehicles is not keeping pace—or anything like—with in particular the extent of off-street charging points at home, and that it is not sufficient to say that this is the responsibility of local authorities? They need much more generous subsidy support from the Treasury to match anything like what Oslo had when I witnessed it five years ago: extensive stanchions for electric charging outside people’s homes. That is where we need to be.
I agree with the noble Lord. The Government are determined to increase charging points, on-street and near homes, but also at motorway service stations and on the road system. We have announced a £1.3 billion fund to accelerate the rollout of charging infrastructure, targeting support on rapid charge points on motorways and major A roads, to dash any range anxiety around long journeys. We are installing more on-street charge points near homes and workplaces to make charging easier—as easy as refuelling a petrol or diesel car. We will publish an infrastructure strategy later this year. I do not agree with the noble Lord: on international comparisons, we are doing pretty well on charge points. I think the only country that has overtaken us is Holland.
What plans do the Government have to address the substantial differences in costs for electric-vehicle owners between those who have off-street parking and can charge from their domestic electricity supply and those who do not and consequently have to pay fees to charging companies, which can be up to six times as high as domestic electricity prices?
I am aware of some of the much higher charges for on-street charging, but the Government want to ensure that lack of access to off-street parking is not a barrier to realising the benefits of owning a plug-in electric vehicle. The on-street residential charge scheme is feeding through to local residents via their local authorities, to enable them to charge outside their homes and on the high street, as I have previously mentioned. The A-road system and the motorway system are also gaining a huge amount of investment to install at least six very rapid charging points in service stations.
With the Government already reducing the grant for new electric vehicles, and around half of the £300 million of Ofgem’s additional support coming from savings from other projects, the remainder will need to be met by consumers. How do the Government propose to make the transfer to electric vehicles affordable and to distribute new charging points effectively and equably across all regions of the UK?
We pledged a further £582 million in grants for those purchasing zero-emission or ultra-low-emission vehicles to make them cheaper to buy, alongside generous tax incentives. We are also working with industry to deliver a market-led countrywide rollout of charging infrastructure. Our infrastructure strategy, which will be published later this year, will set out how we intend to measure progress in charging infrastructure provision and to ensure that there are enough in the right locations to support the phasing out of petrol and diesel vehicles.
My Lords, I know that my noble friend is very aware that the move to electric vehicles will introduce significant new challenges to the grid, but can she provide an assurance that Her Majesty’s Government are also taking into account the requirements on the electricity grid to enable 600,000 new heat pumps each year? Can she share with the House what estimates exist for the cost of upgrading the grid to support the mass introduction of both electric vehicles and heat pumps?
My noble friend is absolutely right: we do expect the transition to electric vehicles and heat pumps to create significant new demands for electricity. Ensuring that local electricity networks are prepared for current and future demand is the responsibility of the distribution network operators—the DNOs—who are incentivised to do this through the regulatory framework known as price control, set by Ofgem. This includes making additional funding available via uncertainty mechanisms, which allow DNOs to access funding for net-zero-related projects that were uncertain at the start of price control but become more certain later on. As electricity becomes a common fuel, it will bring certain challenges, which the Government are endeavouring to address.
My Lords, I have just bought my first EV, and it has been a salutary experience. A cable of the length that we require to charge direct from our home is out of stock. We also planned to have a charge point in our garden, but our installer, one of the major players, did not have the standard model in stock. It has had to be imported from the Netherlands and has been delivered late. From order to installation will have taken nearly seven weeks. Does the Minister agree that, if public confidence in EVs is to grow, the EV industry must radically improve and foreshorten its processes?
It is very unfortunate that the noble Lord’s home charge-point installation took so long. I do sympathise. There are over 5,000 installers. There are 50 charge-point manufacturers registered with the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles to install charge points under the electric vehicle home-charge scheme. This should provide a range of options for drivers to get a charge point installed. The infrastructure strategy will set out how we intend to measure the progress of these charging infrastructures being delivered to the home as well as to the high street.
Defence: Continuous At-sea Deterrence
My Lords, the nuclear deterrent will remain essential for as long as the global security climate demands. No alternative system is as capable, resilient or cost effective as a continuous at-sea deterrent capability based in four nuclear-armed submarines. As stated in the Government’s integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, we will maintain our four submarines so that at least one will always be on a continuous at-sea deterrent patrol.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for that reassuring Answer. Is she aware that such knowledge as I have in these matters was learned a very long time ago at the feet of the then Mr George Younger, whose son now sits on the Government Front Bench in your Lordships’ House? Can my noble friend confirm that the number of warheads necessary to maintain this deterrent in an effective form are definitely to hand?
Yes, I can confirm to my noble friend that, to maintain the credibility of the deterrent and the minimum destructive power needed to guarantee that it does remain credible and effective against a whole range of state nuclear threats from any direction, an assessment has been made. The UK will move to an overall nuclear weapons stockpile of no more than 260 warheads—an increase of 15% from the previous ceiling of 225. I make it clear this is neither a target nor the current number of warheads, but it represents the upper limit of what we think we might need to maintain the credibility of the deterrent.
My Lords, for over 50 years, the submarine-based nuclear deterrent has ensured peace and acted as the ultimate guarantor of our nation’s security against nuclear blackmail. Those involved in this complex, difficult and continuous enterprise deserve our thanks. Does the decision to run the Vulcan Naval Reactor Test Establishment at Dounreay in Scotland for three years longer than planned, to meet
“the need to support the extended scope of the operational work”,—[Official Report, Commons, 17/6/21; col. 101WS.]
mean that it is related to the life extension of the Vanguard class? As the PWR2 reactor will be running innumerable submarines for many more years, has there been any reassessment of the Royal Navy reactor prototype review of 2015 to see whether Vulcan should remain operating even longer?
As the noble Lord will be aware, we are conscious of the obligations of seeing through the transition from the existing class of nuclear-armed submarines to the new Dreadnought class. That Dreadnought submarine programme remains on track to enter service in the early 2030s. There will be no compromise to the UK’s continuous at-sea deterrent. On the specific points he raises, he will understand I am unable to release specific information about supply, support and logistics. But we are satisfied that our continuous at-sea deterrent is operating effectively now and discharging all its tasks and, in the transition and beyond, will continue to do that.
My Lords, arms control experts have, for years, been advocating that the P5 states—the legally recognised nuclear powers, which include the UK—reaffirm the statement made by Gorbachev and Reagan in 1985 that
“a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
I am sure the Minister is aware that just last week, the current US and Russian Presidents issued that very statement. Will the UK endorse and repeat that statement?
The noble Baroness raises an important point. Most of us in this Chamber can recall the conviction of President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that a nuclear war cannot be won and can recall the contribution that statement made to stability at that time. The avoidance of war between nuclear weapons states and the reduction of nuclear risk is one of our foremost responsibilities. We welcome the US and Russia’s joint statement on 16 June and their commitment to a bilateral strategic stability dialogue. We regard this as a serious signal of intent to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict and enhance mutual trust and security by the two countries, which hold almost 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons.
My Lords, given that a single nuclear submarine could deliver nuclear weapons with more than 100 times the destructive yield of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which incinerated over 200,000 people, mostly civilians, does my noble friend agree that while the possession of such weapons of mass destruction may be justified as a necessary evil at present, it remains the firm policy of Her Majesty’s Government to work towards the complete elimination of nuclear weapons? If so, how do they intend to advance that agenda?
I refer my noble friend to the non-proliferation treaty, which the UK regards as a cornerstone of the international multilateral architecture on nuclear issues. Over 50 years on, that treaty continues to be a success. It has created the framework to reduce tensions and arms stockpiles. The UK will continue to work for a successful NPT review conference later this year. Our core objective is to demonstrate international unity behind the treaty and strengthen its implementation.
My Lords, clearly, the nuclear deterrent contributes to the defence of the realm, and its cost to the MoD makes sense. What does the Minister make of the proposals to have a new royal yacht, which, whatever benefits it might bring to trade or global Britain, would appear to bring very little to defence? Why should the MoD be funding it?
It is not a new royal yacht; it is a new national flagship. I think that is a very good thing, if I must make my opinion clear. The noble Baroness is correct that the MoD will be responsible for the initial cost of taking the flagship through the procurement process, but the source of government funding for the rest of the project is still to be determined. To the cynics I would say: this ship will have an important national security and foreign policy function. It is not a warship, and its primary role will be to promote trade and protect the nation’s economic security.
My Lords, if our nuclear deterrent is to be credible, it must also be viable. My noble friend mentioned two aspects of that viability—the continuous at-sea deterrent and having a suitable number of warheads—but is not a third aspect that we must not hand the advantage to our adversaries by being overly prescriptive about the circumstances in which we would use that nuclear deterrent?
As my noble friend is aware, the UK has neither a first-use nor a no-first-use policy, and to avoid simplifying the calculations of our potential adversaries, we will remain deliberately ambiguous about when, how and at what scale we will contemplate use of our nuclear weapons.
My Lords, I declare my interest as patron of the Submariners Association. The Minister’s Answer was welcome. Will she pay tribute to the crews of the current Vanguard class, who are having to work extraordinarily and unbelievably hard, with significant sacrifice for themselves and their families, to keep their ageing submarines going to ensure that the continuous at-sea deterrent is sustained? They will have to continue to do so for another 10 years until the Dreadnought class comes into operational service.
Yes, I certainly echo the noble and gallant Lord’s respect and admiration for the crews on the Vanguard submarines. Every minute of every day of every week of every year, they safeguard the interests of this country and contribute to our alliance within NATO to protect our global friends and partners. We absolutely should put on record our profound appreciation of the crews of these submarines. They are deserving of our highest respect and admiration.
On behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I reiterate our support for the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent as part of our UK defence policy and the contributions it makes to our alliances and the protection of democracy across the world. However, the recent integrated review announced an increase, as the Minister said, in the cap on the number of nuclear warheads to 260. Notwithstanding her earlier replies, can the Minister elaborate further on why this was thought necessary? What has changed to justify the increase? What consultations took place? What is the timescale for the increase to take place?
I can add little to what I said to my noble friend earlier, but I confirm to the noble Lord that we make a continuous assessment of threat—where it is emerging and what its character is. We are clear, as he will understand, that the critical adjective in relation to our deterrent is “credible”; for it to remain credible, our judgment was that we had to increase the number of warheads.
National Science and Technology Council
My Lords, the national science and technology council is to be a new Cabinet committee which will provide strategic direction on the use of science and technology as the tools to tackle great societal changes, level up across the country and boost prosperity around the world. Membership of Cabinet committees does not typically include members of the devolved Administrations, but we will continue to engage with them as work goes forward.
My Lords, as a former mathematics teacher, I welcome any new initiative that boosts science and technology. In another former job, as First Minister of Scotland, I created the role of Chief Scientific Adviser to the First Minister of the Scottish Government in 2006. There is a considerable opportunity here for the Governments across the UK to work together for maximum benefit in this new initiative. I therefore urge the Government to include on the agenda of the next economic recovery summit—if the Prime Minister’s recent summit was not just a one-off gimmick—this initiative for a new science and technology council, maximising co-operation across the UK with universities, government advisers and other scientists.
My Lords, I am very grateful for what the noble Lord has said and the general welcome he has given. I pay tribute to him for his own work. I can certainly assure him that, for example, the role of the new technology adviser covers a breadth of issues that necessarily make it a UK role, but the office for science and technology strategy is expected to engage regularly with chief scientific advisers and officials on how science and technology are being deployed across the United Kingdom. This will and does include the chief scientific advisers and officials in the devolved Administrations.
My Lords, prime ministerial initiatives of this kind usually reflect unhappiness with the status quo. In this context, what relationship will the new council have with UKRI, our largest public funder of research and innovation, which has widespread support from academia and industry and whose mission statement states that it exists
“to build a thriving, inclusive research and innovation system that connects discovery to prosperity and public good”?
As a scientist, I welcome more investment in science and technology, as my noble friend did, and I note that announcements such as this can generate good headlines, but can the Minister explain why it is in the public interest for the Cabinet Office to set up a similar, parallel operation to existing BEIS structures?
My Lords, there are a whole range of bodies and organisations—the academic world, business, the scientific community, universities—and a whole range of people contributing to our effort in harnessing and developing science and technology. This new initiative is not intended to supplant the work of anybody but to signify at the very highest level—a new Cabinet committee—the determination of the Government to move forward and exploit these opportunities in a fully co-operative manner.
My Lords, following on from that question, when this new body was announced, it was linked to the research and development budget. As the Minister knows, until a few years ago, research councils independently directed the flow of R&D support. Just two years ago, UK Research and Innovation absorbed those research councils with the idea of focusing the effort in science. Now, with ARIA, the national science and technology council and the office for science and technology strategy, the Government have announced three new research bodies this year alone. There is no shortage of complexity, as the Minister pointed out, but where is the money? Either the Prime Minister’s new committees are making a budget grab, taking over from UKRI, or they have no money and therefore no way of implementing these strategies. Which will it be?
My Lords, I consider that a less than enthusiastic response to an initiative in respect of which I have welcomed the support of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. The Prime Minister is tasking the whole of government, working with the new council and office, to take the success of the United Kingdom’s approach to vaccines and apply it to other priorities. We are setting bold visions, acting with speed and taking risks which can bring high rewards and benefits to the UK, including developing technology to reach net zero and cure cancer, not only treat it. A broad range of work will take place. Funding for specific programmes of research is obviously a matter for the normal process of the consideration of public finance.
My Lords, in principle I welcome the creation of this new body, and in particular the Government’s commitment to operate on a UK-wide basis. What additional assurances can the Minister offer me to persuade the people of Northern Ireland that something positive will come out of this high-profile announcement and that they will stand to benefit? Further, I am a little alarmed that the intention is that the Prime Minister will chair it and that Sir Patrick Vallance, who already serves as the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and head of the Government Office for Science, will take on this new responsibility as national technology adviser. If this body is to work, would it not be better for it to be headed by individuals whose time is not currently dominated by tackling a global pandemic?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first question, I reiterate what I said in response to the initial Question: the intention is absolutely to work co-operatively. I believe, despite comments made in certain quarters, that most will welcome the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to lead and support this. Sir Patrick Vallance has extensive experience in the academic world, in industry and in working with Ministers in his role as Chief Scientific Adviser. We believe that provides a strong foundation for the role, along with the leadership qualities Sir Patrick clearly demonstrates. It is a considerable new role, but we have full confidence that he can perform both roles. He will of course be fully supported by the new office for science and technology strategy in the Cabinet Office.
My Lords, the creation of a science and technology council enhancing the United Kingdom’s reputation as a science power—a field in which we have undoubted skill sets—is essential, but so too is the important point raised by the Question of the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, about United Kingdom inclusiveness. Can the Minister confirm that supporting multilateral objectives, through its bilateral trade negotiations on IP commitments, has been critical to R&D? Is it recognised that the United Kingdom has often failed to ensure maximum benefits for our country by not having the requisite long-term financing to capitalise on innovation that originated in this country?
My Lords, there is some truth in what the noble Lord has said, which is widely acknowledged; it is one of the many reasons why the Prime Minister has given such a strong personal commitment to lead this new Cabinet committee. The purpose of the council is to set the overarching strategy on how to use science and technology to boost the United Kingdom’s prosperity, security and well-being. Specific policy levers still fall under the purview of relevant departments; thus, Trade covers international trade, and BEIS the R&D ecosystem, including innovation and access to finance. On the second strand of the question, as demonstrated at the G7, our international partners recognise the need for collaboration across science and technology. The office for science and technology strategy will establish centre-to-centre dialogues to ensure that our decisions are both realistic and load-bearing. Existing engagement through wider fora will continue, to enable the UK to spot opportunities for mutually reinforcing partnerships internationally.
My Lords, some years ago, when I was a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee in another place, we held an inquiry into why it was that we invented things here but the Americans made money out of them. How will this new council solve that problem?
Solving that problem is a total challenge for every part of the broad science and investment infrastructure. It is far more likely that those problems can be resolved if the entire resource at the highest level of Her Majesty’s Government is put behind achieving that objective.
Events Research Programme
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 22 June.
“The world-leading events research programme has conducted 14 pilot events across two phases since April. The findings from these events will inform decisions around the safe removal of social distancing at step 4 of the road map. We committed to publishing the final report ahead of step 4 of the road map, and that is what we will do. The report will cover key findings and the operational approach of the research programme. The events research programme has studied some highly complex questions. The guidance for the sector that comes out of this work will, however, be practical, clear and simply set out.
Following the delay to step 4, the Government will now run a third phase of the events research programme. This phase will gather more data, consolidating our evidence base and helping in our aim of getting spectators back to live events in greater numbers. Phase 3 will include trialling the practical use of Covid certification at a range of events, alongside other mitigations. Some of these pilot events will be permitted at full capacity, providing visitors demonstrate their Covid status. The men’s and women’s finals at Wimbledon, for example, will be played with Centre Court at full capacity, and those matches will be the first major outdoor sporting events held at full capacity in the UK since the start of the pandemic. The events research programme is continuing live discussions with a number of theatres and cultural and business event organisers about their inclusion in the programme, which would see events taking place with larger capacities.
I am sure that the House recognises how vital this research is in supporting the reopening of venues and sectors that we and our constituents are so passionate about. However, it is important to recognise that public safety is the main priority. Although we are not yet in a position to publish the full report, I assure the House that post-event data is closely monitored and has not shown any evidence of the events causing outbreaks. If the events had, we would have communicated that information urgently. As the Prime Minister has stressed, the road map is driven by the data, not target dates.
Like everybody present, I know how important it is for spectators to return to live events in greater numbers. We are hopeful that the events research programme will enable us to work with the experts and the events sectors to allow reopening as planned in step 4 of the road map.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Answer on the events research programme, which shows the devastating impact that Covid restrictions are having on events programmes and the hospitality sector. Public health and personal security must remain as priorities, but this is not helped by the lack of transparency surrounding the publication of the ERP findings. Will the Minister commit to the full disclosure of the report and what it means for the road map? Will she also commit to tackling some of the current ridiculous inconsistencies applied to events that enable Wimbledon, race meetings and Euro 2020 matches to have spectators but prevent Brighton Consort choir even holding rehearsals?
The Government have always said that we will publish the findings of the events research programme ahead of step 4 of the road map, and we are committed to that. I assure the noble Lord that the results will be published very soon. In relation to inconsistency, I think that we can all understand the difference between rigorously set up and implemented pilots to test the impact of larger crowds coming together and the wider lifting of lockdown, and how one will inform the other.
My Lords, will the Minister undertake to look at how information is disseminated on this? The fact that there have been leaks before it has come out officially does not help anything. Also, can the Minister comment on the position of the Government underwriting insurance for future events? At the moment, if it is thought that things might be extended, or possibly that there might be another lockdown, how can we plan for the future? This is totally strangling the events industry.
I share the noble Lord’s concern about leaks in this area. In relation to insurance, the Government are of course aware of wider concerns about securing indemnity insurance for live events. We are continuing to assess a range of options to provide further support to the sector in the public health context.
My Lords, I urge my noble friend to take back to the department the concerns I hear expressed time and again about the lack of transparency around data from the events research programme, which we are led to believe suggests that there are no serious risks of Covid during events. Even before the delta variant—I recognise that—events were not superspreaders in the way they would have been last year. These draconian restrictions on our everyday lives seem to most people to be difficult to justify in light of the current low levels of infection and, in particular, deaths, as well as the extensive success of our vaccine programme, on which I hugely congratulate the Government.
I hear my noble friend’s frustration on this, but there really is no lack of transparency. This is a very rigorous set of pilots. The complex data needs to be analysed, and I am sure my noble friend agrees with me that it would be really unhelpful to put it in the public domain until that has been completed.
My Lords, following repeated requests to see the full ERP 1 research protocols, a brief science statement was finally issued on 4 June. It says the ERP 1 will provide evidence on effectiveness of ventilation, organisation, venue design and attendee behaviour but will not
“generate any direct evidence based on transmission data on how … events might be done to mitigate risks of transmission”.
Does the Minister agree that this falls far short of sector expectations and the original aim, which GOV.UK still says is examination of the “risk of transmission”? Can she explain why the Government have not followed best-practice open science and released full protocols and findings to allow the valuable scrutiny of the wider research community?
I cannot judge other people’s opinion on this, but we have certainly been transparent, as the noble Baroness sets out clearly, in what is possible and achievable in these trials. We have been very clear that the purpose of these pilots is to release the data when it has been fully analysed, which I hope will be very shortly, so that organisations working in the live events area can plan and reopen as quickly and safely as possible.
My Lords, the Church of England has adopted a clear policy on encouraging people to be vaccinated. However, at the same time, like many organisations, we cater for a variety of people, some with strongly held ethical convictions and objections to the vaccine, covering issues from animal testing to the use of aborted foetal cells. What plans do Her Majesty’s Government have to uphold freedom of religion and belief and offer an alternative to vaccine certification for religious events?
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the parliamentary choir. Research into disease transmission is obviously very important, and I am sure that the results will be helpful for future planning. However, common sense should not be ignored. Can the noble Baroness now answer the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley:
“is it not utterly ridiculous that shouting, chanting and drinking fans can congregate and hug each other”—
and be seen on television doing that—
“but a small, amateur, vaccinated and socially distanced choir cannot meet to rehearse?”—[Official Report, 21/6/21; col. 18.]
My Lords, thanks to Politico this morning, we now know that the events research programme has internal polling which shows that, if face masks were to continue after 19 July, 28% of people will be less likely to attend an event; a ban on food and drink would mean that 43% of people would be less likely to attend an event; and only with mandatory Covid testing would 15% would be more likely to attend. In light of that data, what are the long-term implications for testing at such events?
I thank the noble Lord for his question. One of the things that we are seeking to understand better in the third phase of the events research pilots will be the use of testing and certification and how that may or may not be applied in future, although I stress that no decision has been taken on that.
My Lords, given the importance of the wedding industry in this country, which employs 400,000 people and accounting for £15 billion in annual revenue, why did the Government not see it necessary to have a wedding-specific ERP? Can the Minister give an assurance that the Government will embrace the wedding industry’s offer to use its unique experience and expertise in providing a reliable database of evidence that shows that it operates in a Covid-safe environment?
The events that were chosen for the events research programme were very carefully selected based on scientific advice for the data and the insights that they can provide. As the noble Lord is aware, we are limited in the number of events that can be included in the programme, but all learning will be shared with the all-important wedding sector, as he suggests.
My Lords, the events industry has been decimated by Covid and is now facing its second lost summer, which will prove terminal to many small local events providers and the independent contractors that serve them. I note my interest as proprietor of an open-air venue that hosts a variety of small events, including one that tried but failed to become an ERP pilot. It appears that only large events companies were granted pilots, while small ones—those least able to survive another fallow summer—were not. Will the Government be providing specific support and/or skills training to the many independent contractors facing a very bleak future? Otherwise, we will lose vital skills for good.
My Lords, the time allocated for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, we now come to the Committee on the Environment Bill, day two. I will call Members to speak in the order listed. During the debate on each group I will 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 order of request. The groupings are binding. A participant who might wish to press an amendment other than the lead amendment in a group to a Division must give notice in the 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 when the Question is put, they must make that clear when speaking on the group. We will now begin.
Committee (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 3rd Report from the Delegated Powers Committee and 4th Report from the Constitution Committee
Clause 1: Environmental targets
13: Clause 1, page 2, line 1, at end insert—
“(e) a reduction in the use of conventional plastic packaging.(3A) In this section “conventional plastic packaging” means plastic products that are defined as packaging under EU Directive 94/62/EC, or its successor legislation, and which are not— (a) reusable;(b) recyclable; or(c) compostable as specified within the standard BS EN 13432 or BS EN 14995.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment specifies a reduction in the use of conventional plastic packaging as a priority area in which the Secretary of State must set a long-term target, which must be achieved over 15 or more years.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 13 I will speak to Amendment 30, standing in my name, and wish to support Amendment 28, whose objectives we share.
The pioneering Breaking the Plastic Wave report by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, published last year, made for stark reading. Without concerted action to hold back the ever-increasing tide of plastic production and consequent plastic waste, we will see the annual flow of plastic into the world’s oceans triple by 2040. My amendments provide two opportunities to place in the Bill the necessity of clear UK targets for reducing the import and production of conventional plastic packaging in this country.
The Government, I know, want to use the Bill, once passed into law, to embed their world-leading environmental credentials at COP 26 in November. Agreeing to clear, enforced targets on the production of plastic packaging would genuinely be world-leading. I know that the Minister is likely to say that he shares our ambition to reduce plastic waste. If that is the case, it follows that we must reduce plastic production, which is the source of the waste. The Government must address both ends of the spectrum.
To be clear, in Amendment 30 we are seeking an immediate target on plastic production and imports, coupled with Amendment 13, which seeks to set a long-term target of the kind envisaged under Clause 1. The immediate target is the more important, since we must see a reduction in the production of conventional plastic as a short-term and long-term issue. This must not be a can to kick down the road.
I want to turn to the issue that marks out my amendments from the other in this group—recognition of the role of independently certified compostable materials in addressing part of the plastics crisis. The Breaking the Plastic Wave report was clear that there is no single solution to ending ocean plastic pollution. As I have said previously, a mix of approaches is needed, starting with producing less plastic, which is at the core of the amendments, and involving more re-use of the plastic that is produced and more recycling where possible. But recycling, like composting, is not a silver bullet.
The current discourse around plastics recycling implies that a plastic bottle or food tray might become another bottle or food tray, but that is seldom the case. Plastics recycling is rarely, if ever, genuinely circular, but we should strive to recycle. When I was a leader in local government, I was proud to increase recycling in my area significantly. But we should not fool ourselves that recycling is a universal escape hatch from the planet’s plastic problem.
What the industry calls flexible films—the sort used in bags containing fruit and vegetables, or in pouches to keep dried fruit preserved—are very hard to recycle, not least because they are frequently contaminated with food. According to 2020 figures from WRAP, flexible plastic represents a quarter of all UK consumer plastic packaging but only 4% is currently recycled. We must attempt to improve on this. We have all found ourselves with a bag of salad in the fridge that has turned to mulch, or a microwave meal film covered in food. This kind of food contact packaging can seldom be recycled because of that contamination. Conversely, recycled plastics cannot be used in food packaging because of food hygiene laws.
It is right to conclude that a measure of substitution of conventional plastics with compostable materials is an essential part of the mix. Such materials must be certified as complying with stringent international standards, referenced in the amendment. The certification is undertaken by an organisation independent from the manufacturer, which assesses technical information about the product and produces an independent laboratory report on how samples of the product performed when tested, as specified in the standard. So long as it makes the grade, the product can then be recycled within the food waste stream.
There are around 45 composting sites in the UK that can handle compostable films, and there is good evidence from Europe to show that using them has three effects. First, the compostable films break down in industrial composting conditions without leaving microplastics behind. Secondly, deploying such films reduces the amount of conventional, polluting plastic that gets into the soil through food waste and achieves a reduction of conventional plastic in circulation. Thirdly, by deploying compostable films as packaging for food waste, we end up with less food contamination in the dry recycling streams, such as plastic bottles and trays.
Compostables can therefore play a key role in capturing biowaste and ensuring that food contact packaging biodegrades with its contents. Instead of being incinerated or sent to landfill, it is converted into high-quality compost and, in turn, used to regenerate our rapidly depleting agricultural soils. This is a win-win, and one that the Government should grasp. The recent Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging consultation paper took a dismissive tone, rather than look at how an EPR scheme could and should be applied to compostables, so that the industry pays, as it is willing to, for the expansion in composting infrastructure.
All the while, global flexible plastic packaging is set to reach 33.5 million metric tonnes in 2022, with no viable end-of-life solution to dispose of it safely. That is only next year. Perhaps the Minister can say whether it is this waste that he is proposing to be the subject of trans-frontier shipments of waste. This is deeply frustrating to those represented by the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association, including companies such as TIPA, which is investing in the UK market. It has come together with the association for renewable energy and clean technology, REA, and with anti-plastic campaigners A Plastic Planet to draw attention to the missed opportunities in the UK.
The intentions behind Amendments 13 and 30 are therefore twofold: to emphasise the commitment on these Benches to reducing the production of plastic packaging, and to make clear the need for a variety of solutions to reduce plastic pollution, here at home and globally. Compostable materials are part of the mix, and one the Government should recognise. Everyone has a responsibility to both reduce the use of plastic packaging and for its sustainable disposal. I hope that the Minister can provide a positive response and perhaps agree to meet me and the campaigners on this issue to find common ground and to strengthen the Bill on plastics. I beg to move.
We have two withdrawals from this group: the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra.
My Lords, I take the opportunity given by my noble friend’s amendments to probe the Minister on government thinking about the relationship between the principles of polluter pays and extended producer responsibility. I do so by using an example that we touched on in the closing remarks in Committee on Monday.
About two years ago, not far from where I live, a well-known fast-food company opened a drive-through restaurant. Since then, the brightly coloured packaging from this company has festooned our lanes. The National Association of Local Councils says that this sort of littering and pollution, much of which is plastic, is a growing problem in rural areas.
Clearly the litterers are the polluters here; they are winding down their car windows and throwing the stuff out. Do the Government therefore think that this is an enforcement or educational matter, or that there is some extended producer responsibility here, given that the originator of the packaging being littered is the one profiting? I wanted to use this example to try to get some clarity from the Government about where they see the relative balance of responsibilities.
My Lords, I start by repeating something I said in the first day of Committee. This is a hangover from Monday, but the batting order is not satisfactory, because I want to speak to Amendment 28 and none of its proposers has spoken yet, so I cannot follow them. However, I am delighted to see the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, in her place and hope she can come in after the Minister, because few in this House know as much about the problem as she does.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, covered the problem comprehensively. I was going to raise the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, which is that we must take this opportunity not only to reduce the amount of plastic, but to curb the problem of plastic litter, which is spoiling the countryside in a way it never has before. This is particularly apparent with Covid and the pressures now on farmers, landowners and councils, because of the total disregard that a lot of people have for the countryside. They are happy just to dump their rubbish anywhere. This Bill must be used for that.
I would like to say a lot more about Amendment 28. I like that it does not attack all plastics, as they can be the right solution for the right good in the right place, but they are not great overall. We must find a way to reduce and recycle them better.
I am delighted to follow my noble friend. Like him, I think it unfortunate that we have not heard from those who have tabled Amendment 28. These three amendments have much to commend them. I also pay tribute to the work of the Government and, in particular, my noble friend Lord Goldsmith, who first took an interest in this in the Quality of Life group’s report, Blueprint for a Green Economy, which he co-authored with my noble friend Lord Deben. I am pleased to see that his messianic zeal continues to this day.
I just press both the Minister and the authors of the amendments on what exactly the proposals to reduce single-use plastic involve. I have personally taken great interest in how we can reduce the use of wipes. I fear that women are the worst offenders; we use cosmetic wipes, baby wipes and now these antibacterial cleaning wipes, which we have all been purchasing and using during Covid. Perhaps the packets should say how to dispose of them. I know that water and sewerage companies are driven to distraction by wipes and ear buds being placed down toilets. This leads to blockages and untold difficulties. I am minded to table an amendment myself later if this is not covered, but could we have confirmation of whether single-use plastics will cover the use of wipes and plastic ear buds? I recall that the Government were going to ban the use of plastic ear buds. We managed perfectly well without them before and I am sure we can manage without them again in the future.
I echo some of the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, in calling for substitutes to plastic. We imported the use of brown paper bags from America, but they drive me to distraction because, no sooner have you filled them than you go out in the rain and they disintegrate, if you are not going by car. The contents go on the pavement and you struggle to pick them up and use them again. I do not think brown paper bags will ever work, but what is wrong with the good old-fashioned shopping bag of my mother’s generation? I echo the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, who, in moving her amendment, said that we need to look seriously at long-term viable substitutes. I would like confirmation of the Government’s precise proposals, as well as the full extent of the amendments before us, regarding what is covered by single-use plastic.
My Lords, I speak to Amendments 28 and 30, and express my support for all amendments in this group. This is my first contribution on this ground-breaking Bill and I too welcome it. It is wonderful, in many ways, but there is also an opportunity for some tweaks here and there, which could make it a great deal more significant. I speak briefly in the hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, will indeed be able to speak; she has more knowledge in this area than I ever will, so my comments are limited.
I am sure that all Members of your Lordships’ House agree that plastic pollution in general is one of the greatest threats to our precious planet. I know that, between them, the four signatories will make this case very powerfully in general terms; my purpose is only to support their arguments strongly.
Amendment 28 is modest in the context of the enormity of the plastics problem. To take the example of just one plastic product, it is hard to get my head around the notion that, globally, personal care companies alone produce some 120 billion plastic sachets each year. Others have talked about putting them end to end, back and forth, to the moon 27 times. It is beyond one’s comprehension, but terrifying. These items are totally non-recyclable and, as the organisation A Plastic Planet tells us, there are many reusable and more environmentally friendly alternatives available. Surely the Bill needs to inject a degree of urgency into preventing the continuation of this situation. If there are alternatives, it is difficult for a simple-minded person like me to understand why we are being so careful or modest about this. Why cannot Ministers set a date by which no plastic sachets should be produced, for example? The same sort of eye-watering statistics apply to many other plastic products, including all forms of plastic packaging. They simply need to be replaced.
Yes, the amendment requires Ministers to set a target for the reduction of plastic use by 2030—and this is indeed most welcome—but it says nothing about the level of plastics use at which the target should be set. There could be a target of reducing use by 1%. I really hope that, before Report, we can work with Ministers to achieve an amendment that really would require the end of the use of single-use plastics by a specific date—or, at least, the end of the use of specified single-use plastic products by specific dates. Obviously, this has to be realistic—producers have to make plans—but, unless we make a very clear target for producing complete alternatives, they will not really know where they are. I have a feeling we can do a lot better. In the meantime, I do wholeheartedly support Amendment 28 for putting this crucial issue on Ministers’ agenda. I hope Ministers will, as I have said, be able to come up with something more robust—stronger—in time for Report.
Amendment 30 focuses on single-use plastic packaging. Again, the amendment is hugely important, although, in my view, modest. It requires Ministers, by regulations, to
“set a target for reduction in the production and import of conventional single use plastic packaging”.
But, again, it does not require a specific target to achieve a specified rate of reduction in the use of these products. Again, I wholeheartedly support the amendment for raising the vital issue and cannot see any reason at all why the Government would not accept this amendment—although, as I have said, I hope we can go further.
The Government have made a good start in this field and I want to applaud them—for the ban on plastics straws, stirrers and plastic-stem cotton buds, as well as the ban on microbeads. These are important steps forward, saving literally billions of these items finishing up in the oceans. But, of course, there are many other single-use plastic products. We now have face masks to add to the problem, which we find all over the pavements. What plans are afoot to deal with those?
Amendment 30 takes a more ambitious line indeed on plastic packaging than the Government’s planned tax on items that do not meet a minimum threshold of at least 30% recycled content from April 2022. Surely we should not accept 70% non-recyclable content in the future. Surely, again, we have to be more ambitious. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to these modest proposals. I was impressed by the Minister in our recent briefing meeting; it seems that he has a clear commitment to move forward on these agendas. I would like to think that he will want to work with noble Lords in developing stronger amendments before Report.
My Lords, this is my first amendment, too, in the Environment Bill, and I also welcome it.
I was glad to hear the Minister state on the first day of Committee:
“The Government will periodically review targets and can set more, especially if that is what is required to deliver significant improvement to the natural environment in England.”—[Official Report, 21/6/21; cols. 93-94.]
I would ask the Minister to examine Amendment 28, to which I put my name, because it seeks a target for plastics pollution which would do just what he says: namely,
“deliver significant improvement to the natural environment”.
I echo the concerns of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, about litter. I am especially concerned about microplastic pollution. It is a blight found in the highest mountains and the deepest oceans; it is choking our wildlife, creating gut obstructions in seabirds that cause them poor health and even death, and it is present in the food we eat and the air we breathe, posing a potential danger to human health from ingesting microplastics. There are fears that microplastics might inhibit the ability of our lungs to repair damage caused by Covid-19. I also support Amendment 30 from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell.
The Bill, as it stands, focuses very well on the end-of-life solutions to plastics pollution. These are, of course, very welcome, but this amendment adds to the Bill’s provision by targeting the problem of plastics pollution holistically. The Clause 1 target for resource efficiency and waste reduction is also welcome, but it will make only a partial contribution to reducing plastic pollution.
The problem is that products can be efficiently designed but and still create plastic pollution. Lightweight polystyrene packaging, polythene packaging and lightweight plastic bottles do achieve a reduction in resource but, when they are discarded, they create microplastic pollution. Litter from plastic bottles is estimated to contribute 33% of plastic pollution entering our oceans. Likewise, fishing nets are seen as resource efficient when made of plastic, as they last longer and use fewer materials. However, when they break and are discarded, they become floating traps for marine wildlife. Microbeads in plastics make the product work better but constitute 8.8% of Europe’s microplastic pollution. The Government have described this country’s microbead ban as world beating, but it covers only rinse-off products such as shampoo and toothpaste, and it still allows microbeads in the majority of cosmetics.
A plastic pollution reduction target on the face of the Bill will ensure the enforcement of measures such as a ban on maritime waste. Subsection (1) introduces a target to reduce plastic pollution that will ensure that major types of plastic pollution are not overlooked. The inclusion of the wording about reducing
“the volume of all non-essential single-use products”
avoids incentivising substitutions of plastics for other single-use materials, which the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, talked about. It works in tandem with my Amendment 139 to Schedule 9.
I hope that the Minister will see this amendment as a response to the Defra Minister’s reply to a similar amendment in the other place, in which she said that
“we actually want to see a more ambitious resources and waste target … which applies holistically to all materials, not just plastic.”—[Official Report, Commons, 21/1/21; col. 261.]
This amendment will realise this ambition by mitigating against the resource efficiency target when it does not deal adequately with the scale of the present plastics crisis. Proposed new subsection (2) sets outs a specific date for the new target—by 31 December—to align with the Government’s own target in Amendment 22. However, the Government have pushed back twice on long-term targets during this Bill’s stages in the other place. So this date seems like a compromise leaving room for further negotiations during the target-setting process. Proposed new subsection (4) reinforces the objective that a reduction in single-use plastics should not incentivise substitutions with other single-use materials that would create an adverse impact on the environment.
I understand that Ministers are concerned that it would be difficult to measure and monitor plastic pollution. Surely the OEP will be able to work with experts to devise the best way to measure, monitor and enforce a target. After all, such targets have been generated for such complex issues as carbon emissions. The Government are also concerned about the international nature of plastics pollution. Rebecca Pow has said that plastic pollution is a “highly transboundary issue” which needs to be tackled at an international level as part of a UN global plastics treaty. This is, of course, right. However, if this Bill is to be world beating, I hope the Minister will agree that this country must show the way by setting up its own domestic targets for plastic pollution. I hope the Minister will look favourably on this amendment.
My Lords, as this is my first intervention at this stage in the Bill, I draw attention to my vice-presidency of the LGA and my professional interests, particularly in the construction sector, as well as my membership of the Country Land & Business Association. I warmly welcome all the amendments in this group, for the reasons that have already been given. I could not help a bit of a smile when I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, refer to a well-known roadside fast food operator because, following the lockdown, I knew within about 24 hours that it had reopened by the nature of what was in the roadside verges near my home.
We can all recognise the utility of plastics, as referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. For many automotive, construction and household products, they perform a valuable, life-extending and efficiency function in many things that we use on a daily basis. But I wish to add my voice to those who have a fundamental concern about single-use plastics in general, their clear pathways into discards as litter and microplastics, and the fact that many are not recyclable at all or not generally recyclable in this country.
As other noble Lords have referred to, this is made worse by the contamination caused by the contents of packaging and the juxtaposition of different plastic types, with recyclable and non-recyclable elements being used together. Worse, some of the recyclable items that conscientious households might wish to put in their recycling bin have either illegible plastic coding stamps on them or unremovable labels stuck over them. This makes it much more difficult to comply even with the dictates of one’s conscience when it comes to putting things in the right container. We really need to cease the use of non-recyclable and not commonly recyclable plastics, and the sooner the better.
A few years ago, when I farmed, we used some stuff that was known as bale wrap: a thin, flexible, very often black plastic film that, I am afraid to say, frequently ended up in hedgerows, impaled on fences or sometimes in the stomachs of livestock. A collection was organised—I believe it was applicable nationally—where farmers collected this material together, and it was picked up and safely disposed of. I believe that made a huge difference to the unsightly material appearing all over the place, particularly in windy places such as Exmoor, where I used to farm. We now need the same focus from, for example, disposable nappy manufacturers, food packaging and distribution companies, and construction companies. The former two fill household waste bins with huge quantities of unrecyclable material, and the latter fills enormous numbers of rubbish skips with unsorted plastic mixed with timber, cardboard and other waste. I would welcome a comprehensive approach to dealing with plastics and making sure that there is a thoroughgoing policy that deals with all these things at every stage.
If these amendments do anything, they should remind us that many non-recyclable plastics have recyclable substitutes, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, referred to in introducing this group. In so far as there is not the possibility of composting these—maybe many of them are not compostable—they should at least be gathered up and, if necessary, incinerated so that the huge amounts of embedded energy in these plastics can be recovered. I am not a great fan of incineration and I understand the voices that constantly campaign against it but, if there is no other way, it is better than plastic going to landfill and microplastics ending up in the environment. Measures to ban and limit the use of the worst types of plastic cannot come a moment too soon.
I conclude by paying tribute to the valiant work of those people who pick up litter on our coastal areas and foreshores; I think the Marine Conservation Society is among those that do this. I pay tribute to what it does, and to all the voluntary organisations such as the Scouts, who do regular litter picks on our roadsides. This helps to stop litter being added to by people who come along and think, “Well, there’s lots of litter there, maybe a little bit more won’t matter.” If there is no litter there, it tends not to attract litter bugs.
We need to be vigilant on the whole matter of plastic and discards becoming a social norm—a bit like putting on a seatbelt or not smoking in a public place—and it needs to be backed by law, so I am very strongly in support of the amendments in this group.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and I identify very much with his last comments on the litter all over our countryside, particularly after lockdown, and the way in which communities came together to use their spare time to at least ameliorate a certain amount of this problem.
I worry that some of our plastic litter is being exported. We think it may be reused but, in fact, it is just going into dumps overseas. We must avoid that in every way we can.
I speak in support of Amendment 13, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, on this vexed issue. I support her in everything she said, and I also support Amendments 28 and 30. I take the point that we should be more ambitious, but we need to start somewhere. We need to get this issue on the face of the Bill; if it is in at this stage, it triggers certain actions that could follow at later stages.
Of all the issues coming before us today in this massively important Bill, I suspect that there is greater public support for drastically cutting back the use of plastic in all its guises than for most of the other, very worthy aims in the Bill. Of course, one aim should not compete with another in terms of priority.
We accept the use of plastic in many unnecessary ways. We do so without considering how that material is to be disposed of in a manner that is harmless to wildlife on land and in the oceans. We have been totally profligate in our mindless use of plastic, and we now see animals, fish and birds suffering from plastic entering their digestive systems. Surely we must systematically reduce the use of plastic and move in a coherent manner to lessen its impact. To the extent that plastics of certain types are compostable, well, all the better—but that is ameliorating the problem rather than necessarily solving it. We must have a radical root-and-branch approach.
This amendment makes a modest proposal for dealing with this issue by making the reduction in the use of unnecessary plastic a priority area in the establishment of environmental targets in the Bill. This provision could trigger another proposed clause which requires a measurable standard to be achieved and a target date for reaching such an objective. Is that not exactly what we need for a coherent plastic reduction programme? Even if it is not on the face of the Bill, should that not be our aim? If that is the case, what possible argument can there be against putting it on the face of the Bill? I urge the Minister not just to pay lip service to the need for a reduction in the use of plastic but to do something about it. I await his response with interest.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, on her amendments, which I am afraid I did not sign. That was a complete oversight on my part. I think her introduction was excellent.
I suspect that not very far in the future, we will think of plastic as the new asbestos. When we first had asbestos, it was hailed as a wonder material. It is highly heat resistant and an excellent electrical insulator, and it has been used in construction, for fireproofing, and even for making clothing and furniture. In fact, archaeological evidence suggests that asbestos was used by humans quite a long time ago to strengthen ceramic pots, so it has been understood as a very valuable resource. Since the end of the 19th century, asbestos has been used in all sorts of buildings; any building constructed before the 1980s is likely to contain asbestos. Now, of course, the word “asbestos” is enough to stop people buying a property because it is so dangerous to human health when disturbed. I think we are going to see plastic as a dangerous material in the same way—probably more dangerous and more pervasive than asbestos.
Obviously, as other noble Lords have said, plastic has a lot of almost miracle properties, and the things that we can produce from plastic are integral to our way of life. However, its versatility and availability have led to exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, said: we have used it mindlessly. We have made so much plastic that we are now in danger of being polluted by it ourselves. We have known for a long time that plastic takes hundreds of thousands of years to break down, but only recently we have understood how bad that is. Plastic only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces; it does not actually ever go away. It just gets tiny and it gets everywhere, with quite damaging consequences.
We now see that microplastics are present almost everywhere, including in our own bodies. Plastics accumulate in the food that we eat, moving up the food chain until it reaches its highest concentration in our bodies and, most concerningly, in mothers’ breast milk. When microplastics get very small, they are referred to as nanoplastics. They are so small that they can cross cellular membranes and actually work their way into our individual cells. We are currently clueless about what that means for our health and the environment, but if it is anything like asbestos then a tiny amount can be incredibly damaging for our health.
The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, talked about disposal. The noble Baroness said that it should be disposed of well and the noble Earl talked about safe disposal. There is no safe disposal. There is no way to make sure that it is well disposed of; that just does not happen. It is still there. We know that we have produced far too much plastic, and it is within our control to reduce the amount that is made.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, mentioned masks. I am going to make my regular comment about the fact that—and I am going to try not to look at any noble Lords wearing them—the blue masks that some noble Lords are wearing today in your Lordships’ House are actually highly polluting. They are not paper but plasticised paper; they cannot be recycled; they end up in our seas and rivers; they kill animals; and obviously they are extremely ugly to see. I know it is not easy to replace them, and I would say that at least those noble Lords are wearing masks in the first place, but I have offered to replace such masks with material masks made in my little haberdasher’s down in Dorset rather than still seeing them as I look around the House.
The Bill absolutely has to set targets for reducing plastics because we have to start now to reduce the future burden. The problem is just going to get worse, and if we do not get it into the Bill then we probably will not deal with it.
As always, it is a great pleasure to follow my friend the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. I do not always agree with her, but she speaks a great deal of common sense—as well as a few other things. I am delighted to see her putting on a mask. She will be glad to know that I took my blue mask off—I am waiting for the one from the haberdasher’s.
The noble Baroness made a very good point about asbestos, but of course that is a specific substance. “Plastic” is a bit of a generic term that covers a great deal. We have to recognise that in its beginning it often brought hygiene where there was squalor and safe packaging where there was danger, but it has now got completely out of hand. No one could have watched programmes like “The Blue Planet” without being completely nauseated by some of the scenes we saw on our screens of animals choked or strangled to death. It causes an enormous problem even in our own countryside and in our towns and cities.
My noble friend Lord Caithness referred to litter. In many ways, litter is the curse of the age. I have been horrified when I have watched “Look North” on our local television station and seen that after the end of various phases of the lockdown people have gone out in their hundreds and thousands and desecrated, and defecated in, our countryside. I say to the Minister that it is crucial, as others have referred to, that we have targets and deadlines. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, made a particular point of that and she is right. We keep coming back to the phrase “a landmark Bill” but if this is indeed going to be a landmark Bill then there have to be deadlines for elimination. Of course one has to give manufacturers a degree of notice but we cannot carry on as we are or we will smother ourselves in our own detritus—it is as simple and alarming as that.
This debate has also brought out one of the deficiencies in our current parliamentary practice as a Hybrid House. The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, is sitting here. She has been referred to several times in complimentary terms, and deservedly so, but in a normal Committee in your Lordships’ House any one of your Lordships is able to get up and make a contribution during the debate. I make no specific criticism of anyone in particular because these methods of working were evolved with great skill, but to have to work to a prescribed list rules out both spontaneity and the opportunity for people to contribute who may well be sitting here with a real contribution to make, but cannot do so. I hope that when we come back on 6 September and we are debating properly, the normal Committee procedures will return so that people can get up as and when they please, or as and when they are challenged to do so. I cannot ask the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, a question now because if I did then I would be out of order and if she answered it then she would be out of order. Frankly, that is farcical.
I have one other point. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, who introduced this debate extremely well, refers in her amendment to EU directive 94/62/EC. I ask my noble friend for confirmation that none of the standards applying in this country after the enactment of the Bill will be in any way inferior to the EU directives under which we have been operating hitherto. If we are going to be global Britain with high standards, those standards must be in no way inferior to what we have been applying hitherto. We have to improve, and we cannot do so by going backwards.
My Lords, I will be brief, particularly as I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, will be able to come in after the Minister, so let us leave it to the experts.
I add my thanks to my noble friend Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville for her eloquent and comprehensive introduction of her amendment and the issue of plastics and single-use items. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, I think that while there are many issues that we in this House will be touching on in the next few weeks that the public may not be quite so familiar with, plastics and single-use items is one that they understand and on which they will expect fast action. They will therefore, rightly or wrongly, judge the Government on how they address the issue, so we on these Benches welcome the amendments from my noble friend Lady Bakewell and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on the Labour Front Bench.
Other noble Peers have touched on the implications and impacts of plastics, so I will be brief and say only that I echo the comments of my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, on the impacts of plastics on litter, and the comments by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, on the appalling impacts on wildlife. I am not sure that I caught anyone saying—if I did not catch it and have not mentioned them, I apologise—that we need to reflect on the greenhouse gas emissions from the disposal of plastics, which are such a major contribution and which we have to tackle if we are going to meet our greenhouse gas obligations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, rightly identified a number of the steps that the Government have taken on the plastics issue—she referred to straws and microbeads—and no one would deny that they are welcome, but they are very low-hanging fruit. Given the scale of the challenge and the need for fast action, I thank that all of us in this Committee, from all sides, would agree that we need faster action from the Government.
These three amendments all share the same sentiments; they tackle the issue in slightly different ways. I hope that, from the debate, the Government have realised that the Committee wants them to set targets for plastics pollution and for addressing the scourge of single-use plastic items. If the Minister is not prepared to accept the amendment today, I hope that he will listen carefully to the suggestion from my noble friend Lady Bakewell that he meets her and others, before we get to Report, to look at how we can come to a realistic amendment to address this issue, which is rightly of huge significance to the public and absolutely critical if we are to get the environment that we need in future.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 13 and 30 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and to Amendment 28 in my name and those of other noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott—I am very pleased to hear that she will make a contribution shortly.
A number of your Lordships have spoken with passion about the scourge of plastic in our environment and the damage it causes to our wildlife and marine environment. That all results in huge waste mountains created in landfill. The environmental scarring that occurs happens at all sorts of levels: the plastic clogs our oceans and rivers; it blights our landscape; and it is in the food that we eat and the air that we breathe. We are yet to discover the full impact that living with plastic is having on our long-term health. I completely understand the analogy with asbestos that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, made; because it is a relatively new product, we do not yet know exactly what it is doing to our health.
The public are increasingly aware of the environmental damage that plastic is causing, with 81% of British people now wanting the Government to introduce refillable products to end the plastic crisis, and more than two-thirds saying that the plastic crisis is getting worse. From this debate, I think we would all concur with that. And yet, we know that just 10 plastic products—including plastic bags, bottles, food containers and fishing gear—account for three-quarters of global ocean litter. So the problem is intense, but it is also very specific in terms of what we have to tackle.
Plastic bottles and beverage litter alone contribute 33% of plastic pollution in our oceans, yet we know that alternative drinks containers already exist. I agree with the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Scott, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and others, that plastic litter is the scourge of our urban and rural landscapes. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, made an important point that extended producer responsibility really should ensure that manufacturers take responsibility for the litter that results from their products. I echo what the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, said in praise of litter pickers: we have all done our bit, and we all have great admiration for the people who do it on a more regular basis, including those in my own locality who regularly on a Sunday go picking litter up from the beach.
Several years ago, Coca-Cola sent to my office here a large sack and some plastic gloves, and I was encouraged to go and do some beach-picking. I thought that it had rather missed the point really, because it should be the company’s responsibility to clean up the litter in the first place rather than expect me to do it. I still have the gloves, and they are very useful on the allotment, although they are not being used for quite what they were intended. My point is that extended producer responsibility is important. Companies such as Coca-Cola—I know that it has got better, and I hope that it would not still do something like that—and other drinks manufacturers are trying to cut down on the amount of plastic, but we still have a long way to go.
Incidentally, I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that the blue plastic masks are just adding a new layer and source of pollution. We all understand why it was expedient to introduce them at very short notice, but the Government have now had time to come up with a better solution than the regular use of plastic masks, which we are all still encouraged to wear.
We believe that the solution is within our grasp, if only we had the determination to restrict the production of new plastics, to capture all that waste plastic for reuse and to charge manufacturers the full disposal cost of any discarded plastic. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, that we already have the experts who can measure and monitor our plastic output; it is not that difficult. We are in a position to capture the statistics and properly report on progress.
We need a concerted effort from the top to drive down the use of plastic and replace it with reusable alternatives. As a number of noble Lords have said, the Government have known this for some time, and they have engaged in the debate and taken some action. I am sure that the Minister will remind us of the steps already taken, for example on banning microbeads and increasing plastic bag charges. All of this is of course welcome, but it is dealing with a fraction of the problem. As the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said, it is in effect picking the low-hanging fruit. Meanwhile, the Minister himself in the debate on single-use plastics on 19 April said:
“action is needed to curtail the use of single-use plastics and their release into the environment.”
He went on to say that it is
“the Government’s intention to clamp down on single-use plastic pollution and protect our environment for future generations.”—[Official Report, 19/4/21; col. GC 245.]
I do not doubt his commitment, but the real challenge is action, which seems to be lacking.
We were provoked to table our amendment by the endless delays in tackling the more fundamental challenges that remain. I have lost track of the number of consultations that have taken place or are in progress without a credible ultimate deadline for action. Our Amendment 28 addresses this need for a deadline. It follows the same format as the Government’s own wording in their “abundance of species” amendment, so we know that it meets the criteria of being acceptable to Government, flexible, legal and politically deliverable. It also mirrors the wording in Clause 2 on the setting of air quality targets, emphasising that it should be a short-term, rather than long-term, target.
Our plastic reduction targets cover plastics and other “non-essential single-use products”. The amendment is worded in that way to ensure that a ban on plastic does not incentivise the use of other single-use materials. This is at the heart of the problem, because these can also be damaging to the environment. One noble Lord mentioned paper bags, and there are other things which are a substitute, but not a sufficient one, when we can just use the same product again and again if we turn our minds to it. I can confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, that our proposal is also intended to cover wet wipes and ear buds.
Our amendment works in tandem with Amendment 139—which seeks to amend Schedule 9—in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, to which I have also added my name, and which we will debate later.
Subsection (2) of the new clause proposed in Amendment 28 sets the plastic reduction target of 31 December 2030, which, again, aligns with the Government’s own “abundance of species” target. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, that this is a very modest proposal, and if the Minister is able to tell us today that the Government have an earlier deadline in mind, we would very much welcome hearing it. We believe that this is a credible deadline that would enable production and retail businesses to adapt to the new recyclable or biodegradable materials that they would have to use as substitutes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said that plastic bottles are rarely recycled into new plastic bottles, and she is absolutely right on that. But the annoying thing is that we have had the technology to do that for years—it already exists; it does not have to be created. Manufacturers just have to find that the cost of using virgin plastic is prohibitive compared to recycled plastics, and then they would switch. But at the moment, it is easier for them to use new oil and chemicals, rather than use the materials that are already in circulation. We can change that only if the Government use market interventions to make this happen, at least in the short term.
In my days with WRAP, I went to visit a factory at one stage that was taking plastic bottles and converting them into new plastic bottles. It was a commercial factory, but it could not make ends meet. It can be done, and it is being done, but we have got to make sure that the sums add up.
I also agree on a separate issue with the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and others, that we have to deal with the scourge of exporting our plastic waste to other developing nations which are unable to process it effectively. We have all seen the photographs of our plastic waste clogging up the streets and waterways of other countries. I hope we can have another debate about that later on during this Bill.
We will come to other aspects of waste and recycling policy later in this Bill, but we hope that noble Lords will support this amendment, which we intend to pursue. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, we would welcome further discussions with the Minister about how those short-term plastic reduction targets could be achieved and how the Government intend to deliver on them. I look forward to his response.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions, and I hope they were reassured by my comments on Monday regarding the Government’s ability to set targets on a wide range of areas through this Bill. I will elaborate further on their specific amendments, although I echo what the noble Baroness has just said: we will be discussing issues around plastic and waste on numerous occasions through the course of this Bill.
I would like to reiterate that the Bill gives us the power to set legally binding, long-term targets on any aspect of the natural environment. That includes waste reduction and resource efficiency. The Government share the concerns raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, in their amendments on the proliferation of single-use plastic items and the need for urgent action. The effect on the environment, particularly the marine environment as we heard in the very powerful opening speech, is both heart-breaking and, frankly, sickening.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, also talked about the issue of what we refer to as consumer waste. If we want to get to a point where we have designed waste out of the system, on many levels we should stop referring to it as consumer waste and regard it as producer waste. Most people, when they go to a shop and buy something with excess packaging, do not want it. It is a producer decision, not a consumer decision. As a number of noble Lords have said, that is precisely why extended producer responsibility is so important. Extended logically to its natural conclusion, it will place the onus on the producer, and we will see less waste.
As we know, the Government committed in the resources and waste strategy to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. Measures in this Bill, such as extended producer responsibility—including for packaging—deposit return schemes and charges for single-use plastics et cetera, will help us to achieve this. Work on implementing these measures has already begun.
I acknowledge the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and agree with her comments about asbestos. I think our plastic wastefulness will, I hope one day soon, come to define our throwaway, short-termist, dysfunctional and disrespectful approach to the natural world. She is also right about masks—a conversation we have had many times. I share her bugbear; these things are completely avoidable. We have had a year of needing them, and surely by now people have had an opportunity to sort out a longer-term solution of a reusable mask.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, also listed a number of single-use items. Again, I emphasise that we can extend the ban on single-use items to other products, and I am committed to doing so. There is also an argument for personal responsibility, a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. We have taken steps to increase the disincentives when it comes to littering. Fines are now up to £2,500 if conducted through a magistrates’ court. We have raised the maximum fixed penalty from £80 to £150 and have raised the minimum as well. We have given new powers to local authorities regarding litter thrown out of vehicle windows.
In the meantime, there is a role for consumers. Notwithstanding the comments that I made about producer responsibility, it is worth bearing in mind that we have an ability to send a message to producers. Companies selling tea bags that are plastic ought to feel the fury of the consumer. We should not be buying that stuff; I certainly do not buy tea bags made of plastic, and I will never do that, although I have to say that until a few months ago I was not aware it happened. I cannot believe that companies thought it was okay to create plastic tea bags; it is just astonishing.
There is an international dimension that noble Lords mentioned as well. Although this is not directly relevant to these amendments, we are showing international leadership. We have committed £80 million to a whole range of international programmes to tackle pollution. We co-founded the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance, which is all about helping Commonwealth counties to develop policies to reduce things like single-use plastics and improve their treatment and management of plastic. More than half of Commonwealth countries have signed up and therefore made the commitment.
There is one last thing on the international point—although it is not the last thing we are doing. It is worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of waste in the ocean is ghost gear: discarded fishing gear. There is a staggering amount. That, too, is where the principle of extended producer responsibility will really come into its own, creating a situation where it is simply a bad financial decision for vessels to just discard their fishing gear overboard.
We have already made important progress in tackling plastics. We have introduced one of the world’s toughest bans on microbeads in rinse-off personal care products and we have brought in measures to restrict the supply of plastic straws, plastic drink stirrers, and plastic stemmed cotton buds. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked when the latter was going to happen. It has already happened; the ban was introduced in October 2020. She heaped praise on the noble Lord, Lord Deben, particularly for his work on the quality of life review. I agree with her, partly because I co-chaired that review with him and I am very pleased with most of what was in it, although it is a gigantic document.
For the long-term legally binding target on waste reduction and resource efficiency, we want to take a more holistic approach to reduce consumption, not just of plastic, but of all materials. This would increase resource productivity and reduce the volume of waste we generate overall, including plastic waste. Setting a legally binding target on plastic waste in isolation, as proposed by the amendment, may lead to unexpected or undesirable substitutions. For example, we could see more materials whose environmental performance is, in the round, no better than plastic which could, for example, lead to higher carbon emissions.
I look forward to discussing specific measures in the Bill throughout the process that we embarked on on Monday—this Committee. We will be talking about plastic and other waste issues a great deal, but for now I hope that what I have said has reassured noble Lords somewhat and I beg them not to press their amendments.
My Lords, I have requests to speak after the Minister from three noble Lords, the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.
I thank noble Lords who made kind comments about my knowledge of plastic. I do not in any sense pretend to be an expert on this subject, but I do know quite a bit about food and where it connects with plastics.
I am very pleased to support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and I am sorry I did not get onto the speakers’ list. I assumed that I would be on it as my name was on the Marshalled List, but even when I rang up yesterday to ask to come on it, they said I was not allowed because those lists were fixed. I realise I am still a newcomer. I thank the Minister for his response, which is extremely encouraging, and I thank all noble Lords who have made so many incredibly good points. I am only going to try to make some points which I think can still be made.
I feel our targets are still too low and we could outlaw single-use plastic. Some 69 countries currently have either partially or totally banned its use, particularly in Africa. Single-use plastic is very bound up with the way that food is sold by supermarkets, and in a lot of cases with fruit and vegetables you end up buying more than you want. There is a very direct line—say, when you have a large amount of grapes in a box with a single-use lid, when you actually wanted half the amount of grapes because you happen to be a single person, so some of those grapes are wasted. This suits the supermarket, but it does not suit the consumer and, obviously, it does not suit the planet.
It seems to me that supermarkets are getting away with murder at the moment. They are selling us single-use bags for 10p and also bags for life. Frankly, I am embarrassed by how many bags for life I have because I hate buying the 10p ones, which seem worse—I probably have about 15 bags for life now, which is way too many. This means that the supermarkets made at least £100 out of me on bags because of my laziness—but at least I reuse them.
The Minister and several other noble Lords raised a point about how we export plastic for recycling. Turkey is big on this list: 40% of our plastic now goes there—Greenpeace has been running a campaign on this—and it ends up incinerated or in landfill. I was very interested to hear the Minister say that it is the Government who are taking action, because it is my understanding that, from 1 July, Turkey is banning our waste. I would be interested to find out what the truth is, in this debate or at some point in the next few days.
I will mention the one group of people that of course wants using plastic to go on. There are different types of plastic—I have good plastic, such as plastic cups and picnic plates that I have had for 20 years—and there needs to be really good public education to make us understand that one type of plastic is okay and another is not. We could look at a complete ban such plastic. I am sorry—I have completely lost my train of thought.
Masks have shown that, a year and a half in, the Government are not taking the plastic issue completely seriously. They are allowing these things to be made, and we could have stopped this.
My final point is that plastic is obviously made from oil. The oil companies have one last throw of the dice, and that is in making more plastic. ClientEarth is fighting a huge case at the moment over the big new petrochemical company that is being set up on the Belgian border, which is primarily there to make plastic and flood the world with more of it, as we move towards banning fossil fuels. Please do not let us let this happen. I think we should move to a total ban on single-use plastic. As the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, wisely said, this is an issue where the public are really on side with the Government and will be urging them on for measures that are as tough as they can manage.
I thank the noble Baroness for her comments, and I echo those of many others. She is a person of great knowledge and expertise on this issue. I have a note on my phone to contact her tomorrow to talk about something that I assume is connected to what she was just saying—I very much look forward to that. I completely agree with her that we can go further on single-use plastics. We have the power to do so, and I am absolutely committed that we will. This is not a niche concern on my part, or even one that is limited to me; it is shared by all of my colleagues in Defra, without exception.
The noble Baroness said that supermarkets are “getting away with murder”, and that is certainly true of some of them. But it is worth acknowledging when they get it right; it is important that people recognise best practice. Since I am not constrained by BBC rules on impartiality, I can say that Iceland has done extraordinary things on plastic. So far, I have seen that it is delivering on its commitments—for example, getting rid of every single one of those plastic trays beneath its frozen food, and so much more besides. It is worth celebrating that—it shows us what can be done. If its best practice today becomes the norm for everyone tomorrow, we will see real progress.
On the issue of the OECD, Turkey is bringing in restrictions, but I am not sure that it is a full ban—that may be wrong, but it is my understanding. Nevertheless, we are committed to banning the export of waste to non-OECD countries, and obviously Turkey is an OECD country. We have the power within the legislation to extend that ban, should the case be made. Of course, we are looking very closely at the information that Greenpeace has collected in relation to very bad waste treatment in Turkey, but this is not something that I am able to comment on in detail at the moment because I do not know enough about it—I do not think that any of us do.
My Lords, in his initial answer to the various amendments, the Minister said that it was the Government’s intention to set targets on a wide range of areas through this Bill. Therefore, by way of elucidation, could the Minister indicate whether it would be the intention of the Government, by way of the Bill or by accepting an amendment, to request the banning of sachets for cosmetic items and non-food products, such as household cleaning products? Many of these types of sachets end up clogging up our landfill sites.
My Lords, one of our priority areas for targets is waste, so we are committed to introducing at least one target, but, as I said, we can introduce targets on other issues as well. We are looking very closely at where targets are likely to have the best and biggest impact, and Defra is currently looking very closely at the issue that the noble Baroness has raised. I am not sure whether it was in the noble Baroness’s speech, but we heard from a few people, including in the opening speech, about the negative impacts of throw-away face wipes that contain plastic. We in the department are looking very closely at this as well; we are gathering information to see where we can have the biggest impact. I do not want to prejudge that process, but we are clearly committed to moving to a zero-waste economy, which will be reflected in the targets and is reflected in the Bill.
My Lords, in his answer to the debate on this group of amendments, the Minister said that the Government are relying on extended producer responsibility to see a reduction in waste, particularly plastic waste; indeed, he said, “We will see less waste”. I was thinking about a company that produces some of our most expensive electronic goods and which does not have a particularly good environmental record—everyone will know which company I am talking about. If it produces a telephone or device that is worth £1,000 or more, the packaging cost would have to be very large to discourage it from making it look as fancy and as flash as you could possibly want.
Then there is the other end of the market—supermarkets, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, just mentioned. They are saving a lot of money by selling plastic-wrapped vegetables, which forces people to buy more. I did a little price comparison in Lidl in Sheffield, and the loose vegetables were roughly twice the price of the plastic-wrapped ones. That is certainly a reflection in part of the fact that they are cheaper for supermarkets to handle: they need fewer staff and plastic-packed goods can be more roughly handled. You would have to put a very major cost on that plastic to ensure that there is a truly significant deterrent effect. I ask the Minister to respond on his claim that “We will see less waste”—how can he be certain about that?
To pick up the other point, the Minister said that the plastic ban has a risk of encouraging the use of other equally, or similarly, damaging materials. I come back to our debate on day 1, when we talked about the need for a limit on, or reduction to, our resource use in total, and a target to see a total resource-use loss.
Finally, my noble friend has asked me to tell noble Lords—she has been having conversations on Twitter—that if you are now wearing a blue plastic face mask, you can wash these several times and they will survive several washes. Having given that important information, I will sit down.
I thank the noble Baroness for that final comment. As I have said many times, extended producer responsibility provides us with the apparatus that would, if used correctly, lead to a dramatic reduction in waste. But of course there is an “if”: we have to set the incentives, or disincentives, at a level that will have the desired impact. This is not an exact science, so there will no doubt be trial and error.
The fundamental point is that, whatever the cost, it has to reflect at least the cost to society of the generation of that waste in the first place. The problem at the moment is that there are companies generating waste but leaving the cost of dealing with it to society. In effect, this is an indirect subsidy. In answer to the noble Baroness’s question, this very much hinges upon getting those incentives right—of course, it is my intention, and the Government’s, that we will get those incentives right.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I am grateful to the Minister for his encouraging response but I remain convinced, as are other noble Lords, that some form of plastics reduction target must be in the Bill if the Government are to show that they are serious about this subject.
The Minister said that 2042 was the target deadline, which is far too far away. The noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lady Meacher, referred to the scourge of wet wipes and other personal products containing plastics. We have moved some way on this, but there is still a great deal to be done.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, especially about extending producer responsibility. I would welcome the opportunity to work with the movers of Amendment 28 to see if we can reach an accommodation on the way forward on this vital aspect of plastic pollution.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, raised the issue of the disintegration of brown paper bags. The supermarket that I frequent sells substantial paper carriers. They are compostable and can withstand rainstorms—I have been caught in one with them. They can be used several times before being put to good use in the composter.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, referred to plastic litter, especially from fast-food outlets. This is a prime example of where producer responsibility could make a real difference.
It is important that the role of compostable materials be recognised in any target. The Government have a way to go in their thinking on this. I share the Minister’s disquiet at the use of plastic tea bags. We switched several years ago to using loose tea—along with our coffee grounds, we spread it on the garden. I recommend doing this. It is a very good dissuader of slugs.
The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, spoke eloquently about food waste generated by consumers having to buy more than they really need because of the packaging. I support her comments and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. We must make certain that we have a total ban on plastics, especially those used for food wrapping.
I reiterate my request to meet the Minister, along with the movers of this amendment; I do not think I heard him agree to do so. I hope his office will contact me with a date. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, could come along as well. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 13 withdrawn.
Amendment 14 not moved.
My Lords, we come now to the group beginning with Amendment 15. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
15: Clause 1, page 2, line 5, at end insert—
“(c) the reasons why that particular target and that particular date have been chosen, and the evidence on which those choices have been based.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is to enable people affected by the targets to understand how they have been arrived at.
My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 15. The targets the Government intend to set will impose substantial costs and obligations on us, one way or another. Any costs imposed on a business ends up with the consumer. These may well require substantial changes in our behaviour. I would like the Government to commit to empowering us, to taking us along with the process they have followed in arriving at those targets, and to telling us why they have chosen those targets and accompanying dates. I would also like them to set out in full and make accessible to us the evidence on which those targets are based.
If we empower people in this way, they become fellows—people who are with us in setting out to tackle the problem, rather than being compelled, often unwillingly, to go along with government diktats. The more we can persuade people, the more we can take them with us, the easier it will be and the further we can go. I would like a system which would clearly incentivise the production of evidence. Where it is weak—regarding the harm done by microplastics, for example—there should be a clear incentive for the Government to sponsor research and investigation to underpin any target they may wish to put in place.
We have a history of legislating in this area based on inadequate evidence. For instance, the original decision to ban tungsten lightbulbs in favour of other systems was based on the idea that the heat they create is wasted. In this country, this is only true during four months of the year; during the other eight months, the heat is extremely useful. The decision to allow only low-powered vacuum cleaners was based on extremely thin evidence and may well have resulted in people expending a lot more energy and time than would have been necessary, had they had higher-powered vacuum cleaners. If we are to use resources effectively in dealing with pollution and other problems, we absolutely must base it on evidence. This evidence, and our thinking, must be shared with the people we want to take along with that decision.
My Lords I shall speak chiefly to Amendments 16 and 18 in my name. I also want briefly to support the sentiments behind Amendment 15 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. However, generally speaking, history shows us that, as more evidence is collected, regulations and restrictions are far too weak at the outset and need to be strengthened further. I question the two examples he gave but I will not disappear into the weeds of those details.
I also support Amendment 43 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, to which my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb has added her name. This partly relates to my amendments. Amendment 43 talks about a statutory duty to meet interim targets. My two amendments—particularly Amendment 16—say that there should be
“at least one interim target”.
We are talking about targets of 15 years or more.
I asked the House of Lords Library—it is an invaluable resource, and I thank it—to find out how many Secretaries of State in the last 100 years held that single post for more than 10 years. It came up with a list of two: Gordon Brown, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, both of whom were Chancellors. No other Secretary of State held that post for longer than 10 years.
This is a question of responsibility and of people taking action, and being able to demonstrate that they are taking action, over a relatively short period of time. I will not reopen Monday’s debate about our being in a climate, biodiversity and environmental crisis. We are in a crisis, and we need action quickly. Fifteen years is a very long time. If the target is that far away—a minimum of three Governments away and, based on current case studies, perhaps considerably more—it is very easy for it not to be addressed and for no real progress to be made. That is why I am suggesting at least one interim target in those 15 years.
That brings me to my second amendment, Amendment 18, which states that these long-term targets should be no longer than 20 years. In my reading of the Bill—I should be very interested if anyone can tell me I am wrong; I do not claim to be a lawyer—it says that targets will be at least 15 years away; there is no maximum target. The Bill—we are talking about what is written in it—could allow the Government to set a 50-year target for water pollution or biodiversity, which, of course, is no kind of target at all.
These amendments are small and modest, and I am not necessarily wedded to the numbers in them. They are an attempt to open up the debate about the fact that we cannot just say, “Right, here’s a 15-year target, and we can all sit back and worry in 12 years’ time where we have got to.” We need targets set with appropriate reporting towards them. I point out a situation where we have interim targets set. This is by the Committee on Climate Change. In its most recent reports, it has set out the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, which run from 2023 to 2027 and 2028 to 2032 respectively. We are not on track to meet either of those. That demonstrates the importance of setting statutory interim targets and committing to their delivery.
My Lords, I am speaking to Amendment 43 in the name of my noble friend Lady Jones, which is also supported by the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. I am also pleased to be speaking ahead of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, in case he wants to comment on this amendment.
We support the principles of Amendments 15, 16 and 18. It is important that we understand how and why decisions have been taken and are able to ensure that actions and remedies are in place when required. Amendment 43 may be small, but it makes an important point in this legislation. By inserting the phrase “interim targets are met”, in effect it places a duty on the Secretary of State to meet those targets.
As we have heard, the Bill requires interim targets to be set on a five-yearly basis. In the environmental improvement plans, the Government are required to set out the steps they will take over that 15-year period to improve the natural environment. However, environmental improvement plans are not legally binding; they are simply policy documents. This is concerning, because targets are most effective when binding, making it more likely that early action is taken and is sustained by successive Governments.
Indeed, voluntary environmental targets have been badly missed on a number of occasions. I shall give some examples. The target set in 2010 to end the inclusion of peat in amateur garden products by 2020 was badly missed. The target set in 2011 for Defra to conserve 50% by area of England’s sites of special scientific interest by 2020 has been abandoned and replaced with a new target: to ensure that 38.7% of SSSIs are in favourable condition, which is only just higher than the current level.
In the Bill as it stands, an environmental improvement plan, which sets out the steps the Government intend to take to improve the natural environment, needs to be reviewed and, potentially, updated every five years and reported on every year by the Secretary of State. The OEP will also prepare an annual report on progress made towards improving the natural environment and meeting targets, including the interim targets, to which the Secretary of State must respond, addressing any recommendations.
The Government claim that this triple-lock mechanism will be sufficient to drive short-term progress, but this is not the same as legal accountability. Interim targets should be legally binding to guarantee that they will be delivered, and it is vital to have a robust legal framework in place to hold the Government and public authorities to account, not just in the long term but in the short term. As things stand, the Government could, in theory, set a long-term legally binding target for 2037, as suggested in the legislation, but then avoid having to actually do anything about meeting it until 2036.
It is important that the Secretary of State is given a duty to meet the targets, because that then means the Government will have to introduce mechanisms to ensure that they are met. I am sure the Minister will agree that we need to take interim targets seriously, so we must ensure that they are credible, achievable, workable and play a full part in the process of meeting the long-term targets that are set. But there is a lack of focus, drive and certainty. Legally binding interim targets in the Bill would give a sense of direction and be something against which the Government could be held to account.
It is also worth pointing out that environmental targets are interdependent. Because of the complex interdependencies in the natural world, missing a target in one priority area may make it harder to meet one in another. A target to improve freshwater biodiversity relies on meeting water quality targets. Early and sustained action is needed across all priority areas to ensure that long-term targets are met, so interim targets need to be strengthened to avoid the risk of failure.
Politics and government have a notorious reputation for looking only to the short term, yet real environmental improvement requires a long-term focus. The Climate Change Act has demonstrated the difference the existence of statutory requirements can make, strengthening the hand of civil servants, who can tell reluctant Ministers that it is the law to meet emissions targets in the near term.
This is not an issue just for Defra. If we are to meet environmental targets, other departments have to play their part. For example, meeting targets on air quality requires action from the DfT, BEIS, local government and others. Other departments will have their own priorities, so may well need the encouragement of legally binding targets to actually take any necessary action.
To finish, we must not forget about business. The Aldersgate Group, which is a business alliance championing a competitive and environmentally sustainable economy, has said:
“To deliver much needed investment in nature restoration, businesses require legally binding interim targets in the Environment Bill to drive rapid policy action”.
It goes on to say that an amendment calling for legally binding interim targets
“will reinforce the credibility of the Bill’s long-term targets and deliver a much clearer policy and regulatory framework which businesses can invest against.”
Our amendment would hugely strengthen the outcomes of the Bill, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, that it has been extremely useful that she has spoken to her amendment before we all comment on it. I congratulate her on the way she did it and support a lot of what she said.
I thank my noble friend the Minister for sparing the time to have a meeting with me before we started Committee. At that meeting, I said to him that one of my main focuses was going to be how this works in practice on the ground—how it will be implemented in reality, rather than in theory. That is what I want to start to explore with this amendment, in support of my noble friend Lord Lucas. He rightly asked why the targets have been set and how.
We all want better biodiversity—it is on that area that I shall focus in the short time for which I shall speak—but we must have a sensible and practical target for it. If my noble friend issues a target that he wants lapwing and curlew numbers to be increased by 50%, we must look at some hard evidence and facts. Here, I call in aid the work of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. It has been researching this area for more than 20 years, combining a productive farm at Loddington in Leicestershire with benefits for wildlife. I urge my noble friend the Minister to visit that farm as soon as practicable, and certainly before Report, because he will be fascinated by the research that the trust has done.
The trust has done research into lapwing. It did a pilot study with Peak District farmers. It was backed up by Natural England. The farmers did all the right things: the grass was the right length, the vegetation was absolutely right. They got full marks, they got a lot of funding, but there was absolutely no increase in lapwing; in fact, there was a decrease. That was because other factors, in particular, predation by animals, had not been taken into account. An awful lot of money has been wasted on projects similar to this.
I back that up with the curlew project in Shropshire that it was involved with. For two years, it monitored and looked after sites, but no chicks survived. Mostly, that was due to egg predation by badgers and foxes, which has caused real problems; indeed, it got to the stage where nests were electric-fenced off to protect them. Three nests hatched but, once the chicks had got out from under the electric fence, there was no stopping the predation. Therefore, I thoroughly support the aims of my noble friend Lord Lucas’s proposal and ask my noble friend the Minister: how will these targets work in practice regarding biodiversity? Given the examples I have just mentioned—and I have a lot more to come out during later amendments—how will this work on the ground for the benefit of wildlife?
My Lords, I wish briefly to speak on the two principal targets of these amendments—first about reasons and secondly the targets themselves. I warmly support Amendment 15. First, experience throughout my life has shown that if you are required to give reasons, you make better decisions. I do not believe that this will be burdensome because the civil servants advising the Minister will have to set out why particular targets are chosen. Secondly, I support the view that evidence should be provided, because that enables the cogency of the reasons to be examined and their transparency becomes obvious to all. Thirdly, setting out reasons and the evidence will provide a firm basis for certainty about the targets themselves. This is a small but very important amendment and I do not believe that it will add to the burdens of our very hard-pressed Civil Service because this is the kind of thing that it does internally. Why not follow transparency and make it public?
As regards targets, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, may well be right in her view in Amendment 18 that there should be a restriction on the length of the long-term target because there does not appear to be one in the Bill at the moment. That is why interim targets are so important. As is accepted, it is the interim target that the current Government are likely to concentrate on, not the more distant target—if it is more distant than 15 or 20 years away, no one will concentrate on it at all. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, has so eloquently explained, there is so much evidence that targets are missed. In dealing with targets in ordinary day-to-day life, it is accepted that unless there is something behind a target to give teeth to it and impose a clear duty, then it can easily be ignored.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has explained, the Government say that the triple lock will work. I do not accept that that is tough enough. Why not acknowledge a duty? The Government accept that there is a duty in respect of long-term targets, why not therefore a duty in respect of the interim targets? We all know that if you are under a duty—both legally and morally—you will seek to discharge that duty. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s explanation as to why the Government simply will not accept a duty.
My Lords, I support Amendment 43, which places a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to meet any interim targets. I am merely a pale shadow compared to the previous speaker who put it very eloquently. I share exactly the same position as him and, indeed, the position of the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Parminter, my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch and the noble Lord, Lord Randall, in putting forward this amendment. It is important that interim targets are just as legally binding on the Government as any other targets.
Interim targets have a huge benefit. They keep up the momentum. They give certainty to businesses and, indeed, several business groups have already called for legally binding interim targets. They would also give certainty to local government and the public. The process of setting interim targets under Clause 3(2) means that they can be met, so there is no impediment to the Government accepting that meeting interim targets should be a legal requirement if they have already determined that the targets are able to be met in the process of setting them. It will also have an added benefit that the office for environmental protection will be able to take enforcement action if the Government do not meet interim targets, which I believe it could not do if the targets are not legally binding.
We only have to look at climate change efforts in the past to see how statutory interim targets can really drive change. The Climate Change Act introduced statutory interim targets and they do drive change, as opposed to the non-statutory early programmes which, quite frankly, wallowed and did not get cross-government buy-in in any way. Ministers and Governments come and go, but legally binding interim targets march on and will provide certainty for all. I hope the Minister can accept this amendment.
My Lords, I wish to speak in support of Amendment 43 on the need for binding interim targets. I also support Amendments 16 and 18 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and, in many ways, support Amendment 15 about the need for evidence, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. The Government’s position on interim targets, as presented by the Minister in another place, Rebecca Pow, appears to be that legally binding targets would not be appropriate because of the unpredictability of the environment. In other words, events may make the targets hard to achieve. However, by this logic, the Government should not set themselves any targets at all, as unpredictable events will surely intervene.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, Lady Hayman of Ullock and Lady Young of Old Scone, all referred to the Climate Change Act as showing us the value of legally binding interim targets. As we have already heard, the Climate Change Committee advises on the five-year carbon budgets that are—I underline this—the cost-effective road map to net zero. One important point that the Climate Change Committee makes is that you cannot back-end all the actions because it will cost you more. You have to take early steps to save later on. So far, the Government have accepted the first six carbon budgets, taking us through to the mid-2030s, so they are legally binding commitments. These budgets not only provide us with transparency about whether the Government are on track but also a clear indication of where progress has been good and where it has not. That is why we know that the Government, in spite of good progress in some areas, are not currently on track to meet their longer-term target of net zero by 2050.
I see no compelling reason why we should not do the same for nature’s recovery. I admit that in some ways it is more complicated than cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The path to net-zero emissions by 2050 can be measured in a single, common currency—carbon dioxide equivalents—and we have clearly defined ways of decarbonising our economy, whether it is through renewable energy, better insulation of homes or electric vehicles and so on. For nature’s recovery, there is as yet no single, common currency nor are there the well-defined building blocks for achieving long-term targets.
However, the Government will have to work out the answers to these questions if they are to meet their longer-term targets, so why not start right away and meet legally binding interim targets? Statutory interim targets would enable all of us to see how the targets are being calculated—which relates back to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas—what progress is being made and what needs to change. You can see what happens without binding interim targets by looking at progress on climate adaptation. In contrast to the Climate Change Committee’s advice on mitigation—cutting our greenhouse gas footprint—its advice through the Adaptation Committee on building resilience for the inevitable future climate change that we will experience is not translated into binding targets. I should note in parentheses that I served for eight years as the first chair of the Adaptation Committee, as a member of the Climate Change Committee itself.
Last week, the Adaptation Committee reported on its latest climate change risk assessment. It said:
“Alarmingly, this new evidence shows that the gap between the level of risk that we face and the level of adaptation underway has widened. Adaptation action has failed to keep pace with the worsening reality of climate risk.”
That is what happens if you do not have binding interim targets, and I fear that without legally binding interim targets we will find exactly the same failures by the Government with regard to the commitments in this Bill.
My Lords, I always feel rather humbled when I follow such eminent noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Krebs.
I added my name to Amendment 43 and support the general thrust of these amendments with regard to targets and interim targets. If we are not careful, targets just become aspirations. Without being too flippant, I have a target to lose a number of pounds—perhaps stones—in weight, but, without a statutory requirement to do so within a particular period, I am afraid that the time slips by and I find a good excuse, whether it is lockdown, the weather, all sorts, not to do it now but to do it next month. If we are serious about this, it is important to have interim targets that are statutory. I will not go on, except to echo the sentiments of my noble friend Lord Caithness in very highly recommending to my noble friend the Minister a visit the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton project in Loddington, which has done a lot of research.
My noble friend is absolutely right that you cannot just magic-up these things without detailed research. There are some uncomfortable truths. He mentioned curlews, for example, and he is talking about predation. There is a possible problem that by increasing woodland we are providing more cover for predators, so, where that is near habitat that might be good for curlews and redshanks, we are actually providing more refuge. These things are complicated, but we must have the interim targets on a statutory basis, otherwise they can just get lost in the sands of time.
My Lords, I thank those who have participated so far in this short debate on targets. Like other noble Lords, on these Benches we support the principle of evidence-based targets that was made powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in his opening remarks, and we also support the principle of the two amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.
As other noble Lords have already indicated, I have put my name to Amendment 43, which would put a duty on the Secretary of State to meet legally binding interim targets. We think that this is an important step forward. I do not intend to say much on the arguments, given that they have been set out so powerfully by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, who made the case particularly coherently, reminding us that there are businesses out there which are asking for this. I know that the Government do not always want to listen to those of us who come from other parts of civil society, or from other groups, but they do tend to wish to listen to businesses. Therefore, the noble Baroness’s argument about responsible businesses asking for a duty for the Minister to meet legally binding interim targets was a powerful one.
Equally, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, made the case well that this step will be important to help the OEP do its job. We will come on to a lot of debates about the OEP, including on its overarching remit and function, but, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said, we must always be thinking about how this will be translated on the ground, not just in terms of how it will affect the biodiversity of species but in how it is being delivered on the ground by this new organisation that will be set up to be the government watchdog. Obviously we only have an interim OEP at the moment, but I would have thought that this is something that the Government would really want, to help it to do the job that the Government have said that they want it to do and which all of us in this Chamber want to help it to do when hopefully it is set up permanently, later this year.
I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, dismantled the arguments put by the Minister in the other place as to why the Government were not prepared to accept this proposal. Other Peers have made clear and convincing arguments about why this is an important step and that there is a parallel that we know already works: the Climate Change Act. So, in supporting these amendments, I say to the Minister that he will have to do rather better than he did in his remarks at Second Reading, where he seemed merely to echo the comments of the Minister down the other end. The contentions from people around this Chamber is that this is an important step which is absolutely critical to help the OEP do its job and which businesses want. If we want to deliver on the ground, this needs to go ahead. Therefore, I look forward to his remarks and hope that they will be, to put it delicately, a little more convincing than they were at Second Reading.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions and welcome their engagement with this area of the Bill.
Turning first to Amendment 43, I respectfully ask the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and other noble Lords, to consider the potential effect of this amendment and how it could undermine the long-term nature of the targets framework, which we have purposely designed to look beyond the political cycle of any one Government. No one disputes that there is a logic in having long-term targets. Long-term targets will provide much-needed certainty to businesses and society, enabling us to invest confidently in the innovation required to achieve our ambitions. However, at the same time, we need some flexibility to adapt the interim targets, while keeping the long-term fixed targets, so that we can reflect on what is and what is not working.
With huge respect, I am not sure that the characterisation by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, of the arguments of my colleague, Rebecca Pow, is completely fair. It is not so much about the unpredictability of nature. There may be times when we will want to take actions that are more ambitious but which might not bear fruit in a few years. We must be able to avoid rushed policy-making just to score a quick win, which we would have to do if there were shorter-term legal targets.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, I say that there is always a natural temptation for any Government on a five-yearly target-setting process to set eye-catching short-term measures in their manifesto, but everything that we know about the complexity of these environmental targets shows that they transcend any one Administration, or five-year period. We are, after all, talking about living, non-linear systems, and there will be plenty of measures the effects of which will take many years to bear out. For example, in response to my noble friend Lord Caithness, for certain habitats, such as peat bog, native woodland and elements of the marine environment, significant change is unlikely to occur within a five-year period. We would not want to deprioritise key areas of the environment with longer recovery times in order to meet those five-year targets.
There are actions we can take on air quality, particularly those requiring new infrastructure, which may temporarily increase PM2.5 concentrations but nevertheless have significant long-term benefits. For example, building significant cycling and walking infrastructure would deliver long-term benefits through the modal shift from polluting modes of transport such as motor cars, but the construction work to deliver that infrastructure would increase PM2.5 concentrations in the short term, as well as congestion while people get used to a different flow of traffic. All the evidence backs both those contentions.
Requiring the Government to achieve complex targets in five years would discourage these types of large-scale changes, and instead focus action on simple, quick wins. We need some flexibility if we are to innovate to tackle the greatest environmental challenges of our time. I believe that this amendment risks curtailing that necessary flexibility, inadvertently reducing overall ambition and detracting from our critical long-term targets.
However, I reassure noble Lords that every year we will be required to report on progress in meeting the interim and long-term targets in our annual progress reports, covered in Clause 8. This will be a visible, transparent and accountable process. The Government will be held to account on those reports and progress by the OEP. I know that the noble Baroness has put forward this amendment because she wants, unsurprisingly, to be confident that we will deliver results, but with transparency, regular reporting and scrutiny by the OEP, I assure her that we will unlock significant environmental improvement.
Moving on to Amendment 18, from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, I stress that 15 years is just a minimum. Given the scale of the challenges, our targets need to be ambitious and able to deliver long-term sustainable results. We also need to give businesses and the public sufficient time to make whatever changes are necessary to help us get there. Limiting target duration to 20 years would provide an arbitrary cap that would constrain our ability to set the most appropriate and impactful targets. We want to develop targets that are driven by taking action in areas that matter most and which drive environmental outcomes that benefit future generations. There could be valid reasons for delivering environmental outcomes in a period that spanned longer than 20 years—for example, for habitats which require a longer period to recover, such as native woodland and so on.
Moreover, regarding her Amendment 16, I reassure the noble Baroness that setting interim targets for up to five years’ duration will provide a sufficiently regular check on progress and allow for alignment with the five-yearly environmental improvement plan review cycle, where necessary and appropriate.
Regarding my noble friend Lord Lucas’s Amendment 15, I hope that he and my noble friend Lord Caithness will be reassured to know that we expect to publish a public consultation in early 2022 on the proposed targets. This will include a rationale for the proposed targets, proposals for their deadlines and a summary of the evidence used to inform them. An impact assessment will accompany the consultation and consider the environmental and socioeconomic considerations associated with each target.
I hope that I have at least gone some way towards reassuring noble Lords, and I ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am very grateful for the support that I have received from my noble friend Lord Caithness and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd.
I am also mostly happy with what my noble friend the Minister has said. It sounds like a good standard Civil Service practice, but I very much hope that, when the time comes, he will go beyond just publishing a summary of the evidence. This ought to be something people can engage with in detail. They ought to be able to see exactly what has been said, to read the underlying research papers, to go in depth into the evidence that has been collected and, with the help of organisations with expertise in these matters, be able to criticise on a level basis the targets that have been set and suggest improvements, with good reasons. That will come if the Government are fully open about the basis on which they have reached their targets. However, my noble friend will not be surprised that I am greatly encouraged by what he has said, and I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 15 withdrawn.
Amendment 16 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 17. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
17: Clause 1, page 2, line 7, at end insert—
“(5A) Regulations under this section must make provision about undertaking research into the reasons why a target is not being met, regionally or nationally.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is to make sure that the reasons why targets are not being met is understood and evidenced so that remedies can be accurately and efficiently targeted.
When the Government come to review the performance against targets, I very much hope that they will commit to undertake detailed research into the reasons why the targets have not been met, not only nationally but regionally, because for most of them the underlying reasons will be significant at a local level but perhaps not so nationally.
To take the example of air pollution in Eastbourne, where I live, we often record quite high figures, but no one has the slightest idea why. There does not seem to be that much traffic; we do not seem to be in a place where you would expect fumes to be trapped; there is not a lot of wood-burning going on. We end up ascribing things to container ships in the channel. However, all this is soluble if we do a bit of research. Every bit of this pollution has a chemical signature. With some money put into it, we would know quite rapidly what lay at the root of the problems we experienced and could therefore accurately understand what we should be doing over the next planned period to reduce it.
Without that sort of research, we are operating blind. We are operating on a set of national suppositions as to where this pollution comes from—diesel engines, wood-burning stoves, whatever—none of which has any obvious application locally. However, it is locally that the efforts must be made to reduce it. In this amendment, I ask the Minister to put us in a position to take effective action locally to drive through the achievement of his targets. I beg to move.
My Lords, the amendment in my name suggests that the Government should be talking to other bits of government when creating policy. Its wording might go back to some earlier bits of this clause—nearly one and half days into this, we are not half way through the first clause, but that is quite normal for the start of a Bill. I am thinking here about some of the targets on recreation and enjoyment of the countryside. If I do not like it, I should have stood up earlier and said, “Move it”, but we are where we are.
The Department of Health has a considerable investment in, and has spent a lot of time, making sure that people take exercise. The countryside is an incredibly good potential facility for getting more people to take exercise in a pleasant manner. They will not do it if the environment they are in is unpleasant, dangerous or difficult to reach. We can go on in this way for quite a long time. Will these two departments work together coherently? We may discover from the Minister that “They should possibly consult, that is definitely a good idea”, but in reality they will not, because we have two people defending their own little bailiwicks—“This is where we have authority; this is where you have authority—get your tanks off my lawn.” They might throw a few expletives in there as well, because that is the normal relationship. People like to be in control of what they are doing.
This is an attempt to make sure that two bits of government that should be working together are doing so. It might be the case that we go back and put in a couple more amendments about the new office for health promotion—by naming it I might be expanding this slightly—but if we are to make sure that activity can take place outside, we must know what is going on.
On the other hand, if you are suggesting that everybody should go out and march up and down hills, you have to know how much damage you will do to the environment in certain circumstances and whether that should not happen for environmental reasons. We have talked about mountain bikes ripping up paths, and will talk about it again. We will talk about where walkers are and where they should not be. All these things should be discussed sensibly in government, with somebody having some duty to make sure there is some form of coherent whole coming out of this.
I could expand at considerable length about certain well-meaning groups in the countryside finding themselves totally at the throats of other well-meaning groups in the countryside. They all want similar things but none are prepared to compromise—“And, by the way, we normally fight, don’t we?”. Okay, I will say it: the canoeists and the anglers. If we are going through this, we need some form of guidance from government to make sure they will work together. I suggest that giving some idea of how this will happen in future would not hurt the Bill in any way.
My Lords, I have one amendment in this grouping, Amendment 34. I am grateful for the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and my noble friend Lord Teverson. It is quite a tightly worded, small amendment in some regards and aims to require the Secretary of State to seek the advice of the OEP on whom to consult before setting targets. As it stands at the moment, the Secretary of State gets to set the targets and choose the advisers the Government consult on what those targets might be. That seems to be not a very rational approach and not a very solid process.
I suspect that in summing up, the Minister will say, “Well, under Clause 29 of the Bill, we can ask the office for environmental protection for advice on such matters”, and of course that is reasonable—but it is only that they can ask. If we look at the parallel body, the Climate Change Committee, although I know it is not an exact parallel, we see that the Government have to seek the advice at the start of the target-setting process.
It seems to me that the OEP should be involved right at the beginning of the process of setting the targets for the future of our environment and should therefore be asked to have a say in who the Government should consult—the best experts who can provide the best current advice, from which the Government can then cull a view on what those targets might be. If it does not do that, it seems to me that the Government have undue discretion. I therefore urge the Government to accept this small but important point of process.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer with forestry and renewable energy interests, chairman of the Fleet District Salmon Fishery Board and a director of the Galloway Fisheries Trust.
I will speak to Amendments 36, 38, 45 and 50 in my name in this rather wide group. They all relate to the same issue: that the Bill does not take account of any negative impacts, risks or costs that may arise, inadvertently or otherwise, as a result of the environmental targets set under Clause 1. I noted what the Minister, who is not in his place at the moment, said on the last group about impact assessments for targets, which was very welcome, but there is nothing in the Bill with respect to that. This is important, because we do not always get it right. Most environmental actions involve some form of trade-off or cost, whether environmental, social or economic. That is not to say that we should not take the actions, but surely it cannot be controversial to say that we should ensure that the costs or damage that might result are not disproportionate to the benefits achieved.
On 10 June, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services—not renowned for being unenvironmental in their outlook—jointly sponsored a workshop report, Biodiversity and Climate Change. I believe that the Minister was at that workshop. The report points out that actions taken to deal with climate change can have negative impacts on biodiversity—and the other way around, although that is less common.
The report gives examples of such negative trade-offs. For example, it says:
“Afforestation, which involves planting trees in ecosystems that have not historically been forests, and reforestation with monocultures, especially with exotic tree species, can contribute to climate change mitigation but are often detrimental to biodiversity”.
That is a subject very close to my heart. Living in south-west Scotland, as I do, I see every day the damage that can be done. I am a member of the Fleet catchment steering group, which is working to try to reverse the damage to watercourses and peat-land caused by Sitka spruce plantations from the 1960s.
In another example, the report says:
“Technology-based measures that are effective for climate change … can pose serious threats to biodiversity. They should be evaluated in terms of their overall benefits and risks.”
It refers to the impacts of rare-earth mineral mining on land or in the ocean for use in
“wind turbines, electric car motors and batteries”
and the lack of clean methods of disposal or reuse. Despite the IPCC and IPBES saying that measures
“should be evaluated in terms of their overall benefits and risks”,
there is nothing in the Bill, as currently drafted, to do that.
A real-life example of a target that had disproportionate negative consequences was the promotion of diesel cars to reduce CO2 emissions. As we now know, the policy directly led to an increase in emissions of harmful nitrogen oxide and particulates, leading to health problems, including deaths. We simply got it wrong. The environmental, social and economic costs turned out to be disproportionate to the CO2 reduction benefits.
Other noble Lords have given other examples of trade-offs as we have gone through the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, referred to the possible impacts on marine life from offshore wind farms. The noble Lord, Lord Randall, raised the possibility that biomass may be contributing to global deforestation. The same could be said of biofuels. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, pointed out that there can be negative impacts from greater public access. I read in the papers only yesterday how work to save the Tasmanian devil in Australia has resulted in the destruction of important sea-bird populations. There are trade-offs throughout the systems.
Of course, the potential costs are not just environmental. For example, it is not difficult to imagine a poorly designed target that has the effect of making a UK industry uncompetitive. That might simply result in the export of the environmentally damaging activity to a less well-regulated country, creating unemployment and economic damage here with no global environmental benefit at all. Surely, we must ensure that those kinds of social and economic impacts are not disproportionate to the benefits. We must look at it globally, not just locally.
Amendment 36 makes it a requirement that, when setting a target, the Secretary of State must be satisfied
“that the environmental, social, economic or other costs”
will not be “disproportionate to the benefits” that will arise from meeting the target. I hope that is not a controversial idea.
Amendments 45 and 50 require that, when reviewing and reporting on whether a target has been met and whether the significant improvement test has been met, the Secretary of State must also report whether
“the environmental, social, economic or other costs”
have in fact been
“proportionate or disproportionate to the benefits.”
As the Bill is currently drafted, those costs do not have to be reported on at all. In the example I gave of the dash for diesel, if that had been a target under this Bill it would have been reported as a success, because the target of encouraging diesel cars was met. The disproportionate air pollution would not have been considered in the review of the target, which cannot be right.
Clause 3(3)(b) gives a power to the Secretary of State to
“revoke or lower a target”
“the environmental, social, economic or other costs of meeting it would be disproportionate to the benefits”,
but only if that is because of a change in circumstances. Again, in the example of the diesel cars, the Secretary of State would not have been able to use this clause to revoke the target, because there was no change in circumstances. The polluting impact of diesel vehicles was not new; we got it wrong. As Clause 3 is currently drafted, the target could not have been revoked or reduced—and that cannot be sensible.
Amendment 38 removes the “changes in circumstances” wording and enables the Secretary of State to revoke or reduce the target in any situation where the environmental, social, economic or other costs turn out to be disproportionate to the benefits. I know that by drawing attention to costs and risks, I am in danger of being seen as a kind of environmental sceptic. I hope that what I have said has clarified that this is not the case; it is certainly not the intention behind these amendments.
On Monday, the Minister said:
“There are enormous cost savings in doing right by the environment.”—[Official Report, 21/6/21; col. 97.]
He was quite right. But that does not change the fact that there are often trade-offs with environmental, social or economic consequences, and we do not have a great track record of getting it right every time. Hopefully, we have learned from the mistakes of the past, but it would be naive, even arrogant, to believe we will not make similar mistakes as we do our best to try and improve the environment.
I hope the Minister can accept the concept behind these four amendments, or at least explain how the Bill will ensure that we properly evaluate not only the benefits but the environmental, social and economic costs of our targets, wherever in the world those costs arise, and ensure that they are not disproportionate.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow that last contribution, because important points arise in the context of having to balance one risk against another. There will be trade-offs, and we have to establish the priorities. Clearly, some of the global priorities must take precedence, but that may not be the view in every country. Therefore, it is an immensely difficult challenge to legislate in a meaningful way to meet these issues.
I will address Amendments 41A and 41B, standing in my name, shortly, but first I wish to speak to Amendment 17. I support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in moving this amendment. As someone who, prior to entering Parliament, was a financial controller in the manufacturing industry, I know full well how easy it is to establish targets and then, with 1,001 plausible excuses, find ways of explaining away any failure to meet them. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, given his background in accountancy, may well share my view.
A target is of no earthly use to man or beast, or to the environment or government, unless there is a means of assessing whether it has been met and, if not, a systematic and detailed analysis of the reasons why and a pinpointing of personal responsibility for allowing that failure to occur. If there is reason to believe that there may be different levels of performance from region to region, and if responsibility is likewise distributed on a regional basis, then a regional review of performance against target is absolutely appropriate. Hopefully, such a systematic approach will lead to identifying the factors that led to failure; determination of the necessary remedies, as rightly stated in the explanatory statement to Amendment 17; a reallocation of resources if necessary; and a better performance in future, with a higher likelihood of hitting targets.
This is all fundamental to any system of management by objectives and is basic in the world of industry. But I sometimes wonder whether the necessary culture and discipline exist in governmental sectors to apply such an approach systematically and rigorously to their responsibilities. It is to the Government’s credit that they are willing to apply a target-driven approach to these issues in the Bill, but that approach will not deliver unless there is a commitment to follow through with remedial action. Amendment 17 tests the seriousness of the Government’s intention to see their targets lead to real change, and I therefore support it.
Amendment 41A seeks to clarify the applicability or otherwise of regulations made under Clauses 1 and 2 to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The amendment states quite simply that any of these regulations shall not apply to the three devolved nations without the prior consent of their respective Parliaments. Environmental matters are overwhelmingly devolved, and if aspects of Westminster policy apply in any of the devolved territories, it is both sensible and courteous to solicit the agreement of the devolved Governments. If the Government wish to legislate in any of the three territories under the umbrella of this Bill, will the Minister give examples of such topics? Surely, he accepts that it would be both sensible and courteous to secure prior agreement, rather than foisting policies on them without agreement.
I realise that Clause 138, the “Extent” Clause, states that Chapter 1 applies to England and Wales but not Scotland and Northern Ireland—that this goes beyond the normal issue of England and Wales jurisdiction. Indeed, Clause 1(9) implies that regulations may be introduced through this clause that will apply to Wales. Can the Minister explain why there is this difference in approach to the Bill’s applicability to the three devolved nations? Can he give an example of where he foresees legislating for Wales under the provisions of Chapter 1? If so, what steps does he foresee being taken to avoid acrimonious disputes arising in relation to the devolved powers?
Amendment 41B relates specifically to the vexed question of the control of water resources in Wales. I will not rehearse the difficult history relating to water abstraction and the drowning of valleys, of which the Minister and the Committee will be well aware. For the avoidance of doubt, will the Minister please accept this amendment or bring forward his own to the same end, so there will be no doubt that control over water resources and attendant water policies in Wales lies firmly and unambiguously with Senedd Cymru? I shall be grateful for his response.
My Lords, I support the comments of my noble friend Lord Lucas in moving the amendment. I also listened with great care to the noble Lord, Lord Vaux of Harrowden. I hope the Minister will read his speech with care, because what he said was hugely important to the proper functioning of our aims.
I turn Amendment 48, in my name, which would amend Clause 6, entitled “Environmental targets: review. I wish to amend subsection (3), which relates to the “significant improvement test.” The clause says the test ticks the boxes if it
“would significantly improve the natural environment in England.”
I do not think “improvement” is good enough. It is not sufficient, as it provides no condition or basis by which to judge the improvement. I take it for granted that my noble friend does not want to encourage a “trash and improve” system, but that is what is going to happen unless this amendment is accepted. An approach like that would be detrimental to biodiversity and the natural environment. Therefore, I have proposed what I think is a much more sensible and appropriate wording. Instead of “improve the natural environment,” I want to insert
“improve the maintenance, restoration or enhancement of the natural environment.”
There are many places where the natural environment is in very good condition at the moment. No significant improvement test will be met when it is in good condition now. But if it is maintained in an excellent and pristine condition, it should meet the significant improvement test.
I hope my noble friend will give more consideration to this amendment than he gave to my comments on the last amendment.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who is dedicated to these issues. I want to speak to Amendment 34, which I put my name to. First, I offer my support to my noble friend Lord Addington, who constantly fights against silo management within government and makes sure that the health aspect is always included in these debates. I also want to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, whose comments I found particularly interesting. As he so eloquently said, the recent meeting between the secretariats of the United Nations climate change organisation and the biodiversity secretariats was a landmark one from which very important lessons can be learned.
However, to be honest, my answer to that is that we have the wrong architecture in the Bill altogether, as I said at Second Reading. If I was writing it myself, I would—given the great reputation of the Climate Change Committee and its work—give all the advisory side of biodiversity to that body and increase its remit, while making sure that the OEP remains and concentrates on environmental protection and enforcement, with regard to biodiversity as well as climate change. That is clearly the right way to go forward but I accept that that is impossible at this stage. I was very interested in the noble Lord’s parallel thoughts around carbon leakage in the climate change area and the threat to British industry and how we might have biodiversity leakage. That is probably the strongest argument I have heard so far against the UK-Australia trade deal, so it is an interesting way to put that.
For me, Amendment 34 states the obvious: that the Government must under these circumstances consult the office for environmental protection. What else is it there for? It specifically has this role as part of its remit. The Government might say, “We have the ability to consult the OEP, therefore we are most likely to do that.” However, that is not good enough. The OEP needs to be independent, and at times it will be in conflict with the Government. If it is not, it will not be doing its job properly. For that reason, I believe it is very important that that consultation is mandatory.
There are a couple in. Indeed, one of the reasons why so many millions voted to leave the EU—not Europe—inspired by the democratic spirit, was to escape top-down, immovable regulations imposed from on high. What grated was that any challenge to subsequent policies was met with a shrug: “There is no alternative—they are the EU rules”, given an extra moral force when associated with international agreements. In that context I support the very sensible amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Vaux of Harrowden, maybe with a different reasoning, but I thought he put forward an excellent explanation of his thoughts.
These amendments all contain the spirit of flexibility and call for us to consider, as well as environmental concerns, what the social and economic costs of meeting targets in the Bill might be, to ensure that they are not disproportionate to the alleged benefits. The amendments ask us to take into consideration the possibility not just that circumstances might change but that evidence might mean a rethink, and that would mean a different cost-benefit analysis. Cost-benefit analyses are essential in a democracy to give both politicians and, more importantly, voters a choice of priorities—a sense that there is always an alternative. I therefore want to address targets, not so much missing them or whether they should be long-term or interim, but rather the dangers of making them overbinding.
It is important to ensure that citizens know what is being legislated for in their name, that the social and economic costs and trade-offs of environmental targets are not removed from public debate with a “There is no alternative; it’s binding and in the law” dismissal. Make no mistake: targets in one area regularly have a cost elsewhere. For example, the net-zero target is regularly bandied about as an aspiration we all agree on reaching at any costs, but when Andrew Neil asked the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on GB News last week to break down those costs and put figures on them, that was not so comfortable, and there is no transparency when there are no figures. What is clear is that net zero as a target will have a cost, not only for the Treasury—potentially at the expense of other spending priorities such as social care or job creation—but it will land exorbitant costs on householders in terms of making their homes net-zero compliant, such as the compulsory demand to replace gas boilers. I have noticed when I have raised this issue in the House that the regular reply is: “We need to take the public with us. We need to educate the public so that they understand why they need to change their behaviour and why we need to reach net zero”; in other words, reaching the target is treated as a given—a fait accompli. I note that this means the target usurps choice, so I want to reflect a little on choice.
If you say to the public, “You should support this net-zero target because it’s necessary to save the planet from climate catastrophe”, of course it is a no-brainer. However, if you say, “Do you support the net-zero target with its trade-offs, which could mean reducing living standards?”, or if you say, “We’ll abolish every petrol or diesel car and discourage driving in general, but if you insist on driving we’ll make it an expensive electric car”—and, by the way, yesterday I googled electric cars and the cheapest I could find was £18,500, and the most popular UK electric, Tesla, is an eye-watering £42,000, which for most people would be quite a challenge—or if you describe in detail the impacts on individual lives of decarbonising the economy, there may be less enthusiasm for the target once the trade-offs are known. People have a right to know.
With this Environment Bill, if we tell the public that it is about reducing fly-tipping and toxic pollution, stopping sewage being dumped in rivers, reducing flooding or protecting wildlife in the country, I am sure there will be lots of nods of approval, including from me. But if you explain that legal targets throughout the Bill could mean regulatory barriers to economic bounce-back, holding back industrialisation, and creating material limits to much-needed housebuilding and economic development, there might be a different response.
I said at Second Reading that a tension is already being posited between this Bill and the planning Bill, or planning reforms. I fear that the result of the Chesham and Amersham by-election may fuel this, with an unholy alliance of shire nimbyism and green activism. I am very much on the side of relaxing planning regulations and releasing land for new building, infrastructure and housing and, yes, even some building on the green belt. That is not because I want to concrete over the countryside or because I am opposed to protection of green spaces per se but because the green belt is being treated as sacrosanct or untouchable, yet is 13% of England’s total land and is much larger than the 7% of developed land. So it at least needs to be looked at again.
For me, the social priorities are solving homelessness, tackling the problem of young people excluded from the housing ladder, and the distorted and ever-growing costs for renters. But that is all just my opinion. Many people here do not support it, and that may not be a popular set of opinions outside of here. However, it is precisely these sorts of arguments, weighing up the costs and benefits and the trade-offs of policies, that we need to have in the public sphere. I fear that immovable and overbinding targets in law can only obscure transparency and rule debate on the implications of this Environment Bill off limits.
My final thought is that targets can too easily become the end, not the means to an end. During the 15 months of the pandemic we have seen targets taking an almost Soviet-style command and control form, with daily reports of numbers tested and Nightingale hospitals built—even if not used. Too easily, targets can be bean-counting exercises: the impression of activity but often a cover for the lack of transparency over detail.
I therefore hope that these amendments are adopted and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, does not mind me backing him. I am sure we will not agree on many things but I thought they were very important. These amendments could at least remind the Government to conduct cost-benefit analyses of actions associated with the legislation, and they are an important acknowledgement of the importance of social and economic challenges, as well as solving the practical problems in relation to the environment. It is also an antidote to the ubiquitous demand here, in every amendment that I have heard, that there should be ever more binding targets, because I fear that these could undermine democratic accountability.
My Lords, in following the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, I should briefly offer a defence of targets—particularly the target of ensuring that everyone in the UK has a warm, comfortable and affordable-to-heat home. I hope that no one would disagree with the target of ending our utterly disgraceful excess winter deaths that come largely as a result of the poor quality of our housing stock. I also wish to defend the targets that we are talking about here in terms of our natural environment, on which our entire economy and lives depend.
I will be fairly brief. I want to speak in favour of Amendment 34 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, that would seem to be an easy, obvious amendment for the Government to accept. As the noble Baroness said, their ability to ask the office for environmental protection for guidance on the targets is simply not good enough and does not reflect the provisions of the Climate Change Act. We are very much creating a parallel here between action on climate and action on biodiversity. To mirror those two things would seem to be an obvious, simple and not difficult step.
On Amendment 19 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, I would go broader than consulting the Department of Health and Social Care. The noble Lord in his introduction spoke particularly about recreation and the value of the natural environment to recreation. When we think about the health of human beings, the health of the natural environment is related in much deeper ways. I should point noble Lords to an interesting United Nations scheme called HUMI—the Healthy Urban Microbiome Initiative—which addresses a fast-growing and developing area of science: understanding the human microbiome and how it is related to our physical and mental health, and how what is happening around us in the natural world is utterly integral to a healthy microbiome.
I also wish to speak in favour of Amendments 41A and 41B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. Again, we are in what could be described as no-brainer territory. We surely should not be imposing anything in terms of environmental regulation on the devolved nations without their “prior consent”—words that are important. This matter also raises a subject that we have not broadly discussed and might like to think about further. As the noble Lord said, rivers and waters do not suddenly get to a national border, stop and turn around, saying “Oh, I’m Welsh water and am staying in Wales”. That is also true of birds, insects, mammals and the whole ecosystem. A question to the Minister, either for today or a future date, is on how the Bill, this Act-to-be, will fit within the common framework and co-ordinating efforts of the nations of these islands. How will that work? I think also of many of our debates on the internal market Bill, now an Act.
My Lords, I will be brief. It is a delight to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.
When I first read this series of amendments, I wondered whether they were really necessary. However, the more I reflect, the more I have become concerned and I now believe that these amendments, or something like them, are required. The Government will set targets as permitted within the Bill and we will debate that matter again later. However, it will be difficult to determine the unintended consequences of setting targets, which can distort behaviour, as we know. We have seen this in the NHS and other sectors in which the Government have intervened and set targets.
I understand the need to have a clear sense of direction and the discipline of knowing what we are driving to achieve within a given period. However, let us be clear, as far as possible, on the need to be aware of the costs involved and the consequences of fixing targets. Even the best-researched impact assessments with a range of assumptions can be wrong. I therefore encourage the Minister to take this issue seriously and establish systems with which to monitor the potential negative consequences as well as the benefits.
My Lords, I wish to speak in support of the amendment, Amendment 17, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. As he explained, it aims to ensure that the Government commission the relevant research so that they understand what they are doing when they aim to meet environmental targets.
If we take biodiversity targets as an example, it is one thing to set a target of halting the reduction in biodiversity but it is quite another to figure out how to achieve the target. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, entertained us a few minutes ago with stories of lapwings and curlews, and the research carried out by what used to be called the Game Conservancy Trust but, I believe, now operates under a different name. If noble Lords will forgive me for a short digression, I will complement the noble Earl’s story about lapwings and curlews with the narrative of the large blue butterfly.
That butterfly was extinct in this country by 1979, despite over 50 years of effort to halt its decline. Today it thrives in 33 different sites in south-west England. This is one of the classic cases of how restoring a species and increasing its abundance depended on detailed research. The secrets of success lay in the complex life history of this species, the caterpillars of which are taken into ants’ nests and tended and protected by a particular species of red ant, called Myrmica sabuleti. In return, the caterpillars secrete a nutritious liquid for the ants to feed on—an example of a mutualistic relationship. Professor Jeremy Thomas, then at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, discovered that the ant species is sensitive to temperature, which, in turn, depends on the length of the grass in the ants’ habitats. Changes in agricultural practice, combined with the decline in rabbit populations due to myxomatosis, had resulted in a small increase in grass length sufficient to cause the ants to disappear and, hence, the butterflies to die out. As a result of his research, slight changes in agricultural practice allowed us to maintain the grass at the right height and successfully restore butterfly populations.
Unfortunately, that conservation success story is the exception rather than the rule. As Professor Bill Sutherland of Cambridge University has documented, many, if not most, government-led initiatives to enhance biodiversity and restore nature have failed because they were based on hunch rather than proper scientific evidence. This includes the CAP Pillar 2 environment schemes. I know that from my own experience. My research group at Oxford was funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, as it was in those days, for many years to work out how to alter arable farming practice to support winter populations of farmland bird species. Although we discovered simple and effective remedies, they were never implemented.
Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of evidence on which to base the targets. However, in closing, my question for the Minister is: who will commission and pay for the necessary research to underpin the ambitions of the Bill and ensure that we do not blunder blindly, as we have done all too often in the past? The major research funding body in this country is UK Research and Innovation, whose website I checked this morning. Although the environment is one of eight priority themes, if one looks within that theme, no mention is made of biodiversity, habitats or conservation. Furthermore, UKRI is facing a £539 million cut in its funding this coming year, which will mean that all its research programmes are likely to be reduced. If not UKRI, who is going to fund the research that we will need if the Bill is to achieve its high ambitions?
It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I loved that story about the blue butterfly, because I have been to one of those sites, beside a railway line, outside Somerton, so I know about that brilliant ant. The noble Lord is absolutely right and I would also like to know the answer to the question he asks the Minister: who is going to fund this? After all, we all know that the Aichi targets have been more or less a total failure and nobody knows quite why. I also support the proposals on health from the noble Lord, Lord Addington; it could not be more important.
Primarily, I want to support the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and her Amendment 34. The Secretary of State has to seek advice from the OEP. Over the years, we have seen how advice can be handed in by cronies or the local person you know on the end of the telephone. Think of some of the really bad things that have happened: advice about how particulates in the air do not matter to health, advice that smoking is fine, or advice that fossil fuels will not cause damage. We have to make sure that when, say, you want to put an endless chicken farm on the bank of the River Wye, you get advice from someone who has been passed and guaranteed by a body such as the OEP. Of course the Minister does not have to take this advice but, if this amendment is passed, he will at least have to explain why he took the advice that he did and, if it is found wanting, he can be challenged.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. I am going to speak about something a bit different and refer back to Amendment 41A, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, with which I am very much in sympathy.
As the noble Lord pointed out, the amendment has to be read in the light of Clause 138, which defines the extent of the Bill. We are told in that clause that Chapter 1 of the Bill, of which Clauses 1 and 2 form part, applies to England and Wales only, except for Clause 19, which deals with statements about Bills. At first sight, therefore, the Secretary of State would not have power under these clauses to make regulations that would be applicable to Scotland or Northern Ireland, to which the amendment refers. That must be so, in so far as regulations might seek to make directions as to what may or may not be done there. So it might be said that the amendment is directed to something that in those parts of the United Kingdom could not happen.
However, these targets relate to the natural environment itself, which is not capable of being divided up or contained in that way. Its effect, for good or ill, spreads across borders. Rivers flow, winds blow, and birds and animals move about, irrespective of whether national borders are being crossed. Measures taken in one part of the country may affect what happens in another, because that is the way the environment works. Just as no man is an island, because we all depend on each other in one way or another, so it is too with the environment which we enjoy in the various parts of the United Kingdom.
In its report on this Bill, which has just been published, the Constitution Committee, of which I am a member, stated that
“Close co-operation between the UK Government and the devolved administrations … will be important in improving environmental protection across the UK.”
That makes obvious sense, for the reasons I have just been giving, and, it could be said, is really what this amendment is about.
I would prefer it if the words
“if they are, or may be, applicable in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland”
were expanded, so that they said “if they have effects which are, or may be, applicable” to them. That is what this amendment is really talking about. The message it conveys to the Secretary of State is that targets that he may set for the natural environment in England and Wales may affect other parts of the UK too. That is something to which he should have regard; it is not just sensible, but a matter of courtesy. I also agree with the suggestion in the noble Lord’s amendment that, where appropriate, consents should be obtained.
My Lords, this is an important group of amendments about targets. Without ambitious targets being set in the Environment Bill, the Government will not achieve their goal of increasing biodiversity, tackling pollution and climate change, and moving the country forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is right to want to ensure that we fully understand and evidence the reasons why we are taking targets and why they are not being met, so that remedial action can be taken. The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and others have supported this. However, unless targets are set and strategies set to reach them, we will not move forward in the way the Minister hopes for from this Bill, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will be missed.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, gave us an excellent example of conservation success based on scientific evidence. My noble friend Lord Addington is right that the health of the population, taking exercise and the state of the environment are inextricably linked. Improving the environment improves the sense of well-being of each of us, and therefore improves our health, both mental and physical.
My noble friends Lady Parminter and Lord Teverson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, supported by other Lords, made a very strong case for the Secretary of State to obtain the advice of the OEP about consultation on the regulations in Clause 1—although my noble friend Lord Teverson would prefer that the advice come from the Climate Change Committee. The OEP is a vital body that will need considerable strengthening to be effective and deliver. It has expertise provided by the excellent chair, Dame Glenys Stacey, and her newly appointed non-executive members, but it needs legal independence and authority to operative effectively.
The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, quite rightly reminds the Minister that the Government should not make decisions that are applicable in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland without the consent of the devolved Administrations. This is particularly important when it comes to water.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, pressed for the inclusion of the maintenance, restoration or enhancement of the natural environment in the targets. Again, this is vital if we are to return to our biodiversity of former years. Some areas are in very good condition, but many others are not.
The noble Lord, Lord Vaux of Harrowden, made a powerful argument, especially around trade-offs, but I regret that I remain to be convinced. Setting ambitious targets and having realistic strategies to meet them is what the Environment Bill is all about. While the cost of meeting targets may appear high, in some cases the economic cost to the planet of not meeting our biodiversity and environmental protection targets is incalculable. The diversity of species in plant, animal and insect life has for too long been a question of cost. The cost of the loss of that diversity has now reached epic proportions and must be halted and reversed, otherwise the cost to humanity as a whole, as David Attenborough has reminded us, will be utterly devastating. To my mind, the case for a cost-benefit analysis has been made but, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, demonstrated, there is no indication of how the measures in the Bill will be funded. I look forward to the Minister’s response to these comments and the questions posed.
My Lords, I am speaking to Amendment 34, to which I have added my name, and all the other amendments that were so ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, explained, Amendment 34 addresses the specific question of where the Secretary of State will get his advice from before setting any environmental targets. As the wording stands, it is for the Secretary of State to determine who is independent and who has relevant expertise. As we have already begun to identify, this concentrates considerable power in the hands of the Secretary of State, who will, under this wording, effectively determine not only what targets are set but who will advise him on what targets are appropriate. Our amendment would make the simple but important change to require the Secretary of State to seek advice from the OEP on who these experts might be. It seeks to add an extra layer of independence into the target-framing process.
It is also worth noting that there is no requirement in the Bill, at the moment, to seek any independent advice on the setting of interim targets. Compare this with the requirements for the Climate Change Committee; it sets the targets and it decides which independent experts to draw upon. It is a much more robust and independent process, which is why there is considerable confidence and respect for its final recommendations.
I turn to the other amendments in this group. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, makes a good point about the evidence and research and the fact that, if targets are not being met, we need to be sensitive about the remedies that can be introduced. I welcome that approach, but I was concerned to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, that UKRI does not even have any details of funding for biodiversity activities on its website, which again raises the rather urgent question of where that research is going to come from. We agree that the target-setting and evaluation process should have enough flexibility over the course of the term to be adapted and amended if the details of the research change.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, makes the good point that these targets should be not just for Defra but for the whole Government. There are particularly acute health implications to be factored in, whether it is the positive impact of social prescribing through activities in the countryside or the negative impact of air pollution contributing to around 40,000 deaths a year.
The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, raised the important point about carrying out a cost-benefit analysis. I was pleased to hear that he described himself as not an environmental sceptic. I thought he was making good points, but I was rather wary about the exact wording of his amendments. Unless we could be confident of the true cost of not carrying out the targets, there would be a concern about whether or not we were measuring like for like and measuring in full. Both the Natural Capital Committee and the Dasgupta report made it clear that we are nowhere near having a nature accounting system that could adequately measure the human and economic cost of biodiversity decline. As Professor Dasgupta has said, we face extreme risks and uncertainty for our economies if we continue down the current path, where demand on nature far exceeds its capacity to supply. Until we can put a proper price on that, I would be reluctant to adopt the noble Lord’s wording, which might instead lead to short-term expedient cuts in work programmes on the basis of what might be inadequate calculations of the true cost.
We support what I would describe as the probing amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, about the devolution aspects of these clauses. I hope the Minister is able to provide some assurances on that. I also thought the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, made important points about nature not respecting borders. Whatever the outcome, we need close co-operation, but that has to be mixed with full respect for our devolution settlement.
Finally, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, has sought to amend the significant improvement test of environmental targets in Clause 6. I very much welcome his contribution. Again, I take only slight issue with his wording: I would have hoped that we could have been more ambitious than simply measuring whether the natural environment had been maintained. Apart from that, I very much endorse what he said.
I welcome the debate and look forward to the Minister’s response. I hope he will look particularly favourably on our Amendment 34 as a helpful extra guarantee of independence in the target-setting process, and perhaps, in due course, come back with a government amendment to encompass that proposal.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I hope it will reassure them to know that targets will be set through a robust and evidence-led process. I have already spoken about our published targets policy paper, which provides an overview of how we intend to develop and bring forward targets by October 2022. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, the process will seek independent expert advice and provide a role for stakeholders, other government departments and the public, and it includes scrutiny from Parliament and the OEP.
In relation to Amendment 19 in particular, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, the process also involves regular discussions with other government departments, including the Department of Health and Social Care. For example, we are working closely with Public Health England and the DHSC and its expert committee to ensure that our process of developing air quality targets is informed by the latest health evidence. Defra also intends to work closely with the new UK Health Security Agency and the office for health promotion, as soon as they assume their full functions.
On Amendment 34 from the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, there is a concern that it could be difficult for the OEP to act impartially when investigating complaints regarding target-setting if the OEP advised on the experts used to set those targets. I want to provide assurance on the substantial role of the OEP in relation to long-term targets. Each year, the OEP will comment on the progress reported in the EIP annual report. That provides the opportunity for the OEP to flag up early on where it believes there is a risk that the Government may not meet their legally binding long-term targets. It may make recommendations as to how progress could be improved, to which the Government would then have to respond.
If the Government have missed a target, they must, within 12 months of confirming that they missed it, publish and lay before Parliament a remedial plan, which is covered in Clause 5. The OEP could highlight in a report on the implementation of environmental law whether the steps set out in the remedial plan would be sufficient to ensure that the target was then achieved. I hope that will also reassure my noble friend Lord Lucas that his Amendment 17 is not needed. The OEP will also have the power to bring legal proceedings if the Government breach their environmental law duties, including their duty to achieve long-term targets.
With respect to Amendments 36, 45 and 50 from the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, while the Bill does not specify particular matters that must be considered when setting targets, as part of sound policy-making the Government will look to identify and consider a wide range of matters. These are likely to include environmental, economic, social and fiscal factors, as well as international commitments. When we consult on the proposed targets in early 2022, we will provide an impact assessment that will consider the environmental and socioeconomic considerations associated with each target. We think the target-setting stage is the most appropriate time to consider the costs and benefits of individual targets, rather than when conducting the significant improvement tests. That is because the significant improvement test considers targets collectively, which allows for a more holistic assessment of improvements across the natural environment.
The Government are developing their plans for implementing the significant improvement test. My noble friend Lord Caithness has provided some useful ideas for how improvement might be understood for the purposes of that test. However, his proposed Amendment 48 would take away important flexibility, and I therefore cannot accept it.
In response to one of the points that my noble friend made, I shall briefly explain how the significant improvement test works. At least every five years a Government will look to assess whether meeting the legally binding targets set under the Bill’s framework, alongside any other statutory environmental targets, would significantly improve the natural environment in England. The Government will then be required to report to Parliament on their conclusions and, if they consider that the test is not met, set out how they plan to use their new target-setting powers to subsequently close that gap. In practice, that will most likely involve plans either to modify existing targets or to make them more ambitious, or even set new ones.
It seems appropriate to provide the Secretary of State with the flexibility to consider how significant improvement should be understood in relation to the natural environment, because the natural environment is complex and interconnected and requires a considerably more complicated approach than would be expected, for example, simply in relation to carbon. Aspects of the natural environment such as water quality could respond slowly, even to ambitious interventions. Furthermore, our understanding of environmental change will likely evolve over time, as new data sets become available and the evidence base improves. I add that we take “significantly” to mean that only a marginal or fractional improvement of the whole natural environment, or on the other hand dramatic improvement in only a few narrow areas of the environment, would not be acceptable.
My noble friend mentioned at the end of his speech that he felt he had asked a question, presumably on interim targets, that I had not addressed, in which case I apologise. I have gone through the notes and cannot see any gaps, so I am afraid I am going to have to rely on him. If he wants me to follow up on that, I am happy do so by telephone or in writing, but I might need a bit of guidance from him, so that I know that I am responding to the appropriate point that he made. I apologise for missing that question.
Moving on to Amendment 38 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Vaux of Harrowden, government can only lower or revoke a target if satisfied either that meeting the existing target does not result in a significant benefit compared to not meeting it or meeting a lower target, or that the costs of meeting the existing target would be disproportionate to the benefits due to a change in circumstance. I also note the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, on that point. She made the perfectly valid point that, if we are to embark on something as profound as achieving net zero by 2050, it is important that people are aware of what the consequences and implications are. But that is not just about the costs of meeting net zero; it would need to include the opportunities as well. It is hard to imagine an economic transition of the sort and scale we are talking about without numerous opportunities arising at the same time. For example, we are already seeing that investment in new renewables globally greatly exceeds investment in fossil fuel infrastructure in terms of new capacity. That has been true year on year for quite a few years.
In truth, the market for low-carbon technologies greatly exceeds any of the predictions we have had in recent years. For example, solar prices have dropped by 80% since the banking crisis, which I do not think anyone predicted. We would also need to factor in the costs of not achieving net zero by 2050 into any such analysis, although this is much more complicated. If any of the predictions on climate change are accurate, the costs of not achieving net zero by 2050 at the latest are severe, to put it mildly. But I do not dispute the central argument that the noble Baroness makes, which is that we need to have that discussion and that it needs to be an honest one—warts and all.
To go back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, the long-term targets may be amended or revoked only by secondary legislation subject to affirmative procedure, which means that Parliament would, of course, have a vote. This opens up the process to parliamentary approval and creates a strong check on any future Government, while still providing for some flexibility for government to respond to changing circumstances and evidence.
On Amendments 41A and 41B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, I reassure him that the Bill’s environmental targets clauses extend to England and Wales only, and this is set out in Clause 138. I will write to him to provide more assurances, and I will copy in the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, both of whom also raised this issue. But, in addition, Clause 1(9) prevents the Secretary of State making any provision in any targets regulations, relating to water or otherwise, which would be within the legislative competence of the Senedd Cymru. We are committed to ongoing co-operation with the devolved Administrations on environmental matters, and the dialogue and exchange between my department and theirs has been thorough and will continue to be so.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, asked about funding for research, and his question was supported—or perhaps repeated—by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. I shall answer it in two ways. The first is to talk about the expert panel we are creating to advise on target setting. There are already a number of well-established advisory groups in place for things such as air quality target development—for instance, the Air Quality Expert Group and the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants. But we have set up new groups of independent experts, where they did not previously exist, for priority policy areas we have outlined in the Bill to advise on developing evidence for the targets we are obliged to introduce.
These expert groups are providing guidance on evidence processes bespoke to individual targets, and their advice might include appropriate analytical methods, datasets, the evidence to be used, et cetera. They are advising Defra on how to produce the best available evidence, and the terms of reference for these groups are available on GOV.UK. In addition to that, as with any department embarking on important initiatives and projects, we will be bidding greedily at the next spending review to help secure the funds we will need to deliver these ambitious targets. We need to make the case and the Treasury will then respond. It is very hard to predict how that will go, but we will of course do our best.
I now broaden this out to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, about funding, in relation to having missed things such as the Aichi targets. She is right: every country in the world missed the Aichi targets. Again, I am going to answer this in two ways, but more briefly this time. First, the central message of the CBD is that we should not have specific pots for biodiversity—not that we should not have investment, but our focus should be on having a biodiversity thread running through all decisions of government. We need to mainstream nature so that every decision we make—political, economic, investment-wise, et cetera—takes nature into account. That is clearly right. This was the central theme of the Dasgupta review, which was mentioned again in this debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and will no doubt be mentioned again many times.
Having said that, we are stepping up; we have doubled our international climate finance to £11.6 billion. As of next year, we are spending nearly a third of that, £3 billion, on nature-based solutions, which will have big implications for biodiversity. Here in the UK we do not quite know how much money will enter the system as a consequence of biodiversity net gain, but it will be a significant sum. We know that shifting from the common agriculture policy to the new environmental land management system means billions of pounds entering a market which basically did not exist before. In addition, we have the Nature for Climate Fund of £640 million, which will help us to restore our peatlands and plant a lot of trees. So there is a lot of new money there for biodiversity, but the fundamental challenge is to mainstream nature so that we do not have to pay with one pot in order to correct mistakes made by the rest of the pot. I apologise; that was a much more long-winded answer than I was expecting to give.
I think I have reached the end of the amendments, so I will end by simply saying, as I have before, that I hope this reassures all noble Lords, and I ask them to withdraw or not press their amendments.
I have received requests to speak after the Minister from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff. I call the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.
My Lords, may I press the Minister a bit further on the local nature of pollution, particularly air and water? To pick another example, phosphate in rivers can be a problem, but in the southern Hampshire rivers it is a particular problem because of the sensitivity of the estuarine ecologies to excess phosphate, whereas it might not be such a problem in another ecology. In that circumstance, it becomes crucial to know where the phosphate is coming from; how much comes from agriculture and sewage; which particular bits of land it comes off; and what practices are available to reduce it and are effective in reducing it in those circumstances. That needs a local level of focus and research, and I did not hear anything in his answer—and indeed there was a good deal to worry about in what the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said—which gave me a clue about where that evidence can come from.
I thank the noble Lord for his question. In addition to the answer I gave the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, where new skills are needed—and, as the noble Lord says, new skills will be needed—we are committing, and we have committed throughout the Bill, to support local authorities, delivery partners and other relevant stakeholders in properly developing or, if necessary, acquiring those skills. There is no doubt that there is a gap, but our commitment is that, with government support, we will ensure that it is filled.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for the assurance that he is working well with Ministers in the devolved nations. Indeed, in Wales we now have a climate change Minister. Could he clarify, in the event that one of the devolved nations sets a target or policy which does not align completely with one coming from central government—I expect that the local one for Wales may be more stringent than the one coming from Westminster, given the concerns over the environment in Wales—which legislature will take precedence? In the event of legal action being brought against, for example, the Welsh Government for having tighter controls which someone in industry perhaps does not wish to comply with, what will be the position on compensation for legal fees for the Welsh Government?
I thank the noble Baroness for her question. This is relevant where the contaminant or the issue that we are talking about crosses the border. Sorry, that is a clumsy answer. Where the issue crosses the border—and an example was put to us by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead—that is where the complication arises. So, if the problem, if there is a problem, is contained one country or another, or one region or another, I think the question that the noble Baroness has asked would be moot. Where the pollution or the problem crosses the border, my understanding is that the targets that are set in this Bill, by this Parliament, are the targets that would prevail. I will have to write to her to confirm that. She raises an important point and I want to make sure that the answer I give is correct, so I will get back to her and I will publish the answer in the Library.
My Lords, I am very grateful for the support I have received from my noble friend Lord Caithness, and the noble Lords, Lord Wigley and Lord Krebs. I remain concerned. Perhaps it is inevitable, in the structure of government, that it can find the funds to create a target and do that well, but to promise money for a few years down the road to see if that has actually turned out well, and why it has not, is a much harder thing for Governments to do. However, I accept my noble friend’s assurances.
I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, on costs and how we need to look at them and not just the benefits—again, not just initially, but on how it works out. What is happening? What effects are the target having? What costs actually turn out to be real? It can be really difficult to predict what negative effects a policy will have, because people find all sorts of interesting ways of adapting to it. A lot of the things one fears do not, in the event, happen, and other things do happen that one had not expected. It is very important to have a process where you revisit initial assumptions and really question how the process is going.
I have a lot of sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, was saying. It really echoes an amendment I was chasing yesterday, on connecting people with nature. If you do not give, in the structure of what you are doing, a real incentive—a focus on being connected, one department to another, together with the people—those things get neglected because we have set out other priorities. I hope this is a general area that we will return to on Report, but for now I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 17 withdrawn.
Amendments 18 and 19 not moved.
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2: Environmental targets: particulate matter
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 20. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
20: Clause 2, page 2, line 21, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
“(2) The PM2.5 air quality target must—(a) be less than or equal to 10µg/m3,(b) so far as practicable, follow World Health Organisation guidelines, and(c) have an attainment deadline on or before 1 January 2030.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment sets parameters on the face of the Bill to ensure that the PM2.5 target will be at least as strict as the 2005 WHO guidelines, with an attainment deadline of 2030 at the latest.
My Lords, In moving Amendment 20 I shall also speak to Amendment 49, both in the name of my noble friend Baroness Jones of Whitchurch and in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Finlay of Llandaff, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. I express support for my noble friend Lord Whitty’s Amendment 21, and Amendment 29 from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. I shall also speak briefly to Amendment 156 in the name of my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark.
Amendment 20 sets parameters in the Bill to ensure that the PM2.5 target will be at least as strict as the 2005 WHO guidelines, with an attainment deadline of 2030 at the latest. Amendment 49
“strengthens the significant improvement test outlined … in Clause 6 by requiring explicit consideration of the extent to which air quality targets under section 1 and the PM2.5 air quality target under section 2 are compatible with WHO guidelines.”
It also requires the Secretary of State to outline,
“in the event of divergence … why they believe this is in the public interest.”
Air pollution has been breaching legal limits across the UK since 2010 and is recognised by the Government to be the single largest environmental risk to health in the UK. It is linked to cancer, asthma, strokes and heart disease and, in the UK, contributes to the early deaths of an estimated 40,000 people. Toxic air also drives health inequalities. Government analysis confirms air quality tends to be poorest in the poorest communities, and that those communities are also more likely to have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the effects of polluted air. This Bill gives us the opportunity to address this crisis of pollution and set the UK on the pathway to become a global leader in environmental protection, but without ensuring the PM2.5 targets as in our amendment we will waste this opportunity.
The Government should be ambitious in what they set out to achieve, as it is possible to make sufficient improvements in urban areas to achieve the WHO target. The Mayor of London, for example, has produced evidence to show that London can achieve WHO guidelines, even in the hardest areas to tackle. Recent monitoring data shows that parts of the city are already meeting this standard, demonstrating that it could be achieved across London, and in cities across the country by 2030. Without this vital provision, not only will action be unacceptably delayed but it will be possible to remove or even to water down targets should they prove challenging to meet, which would fundamentally undermine the whole purpose of target setting. Due to the Government’s constant delay in action to meet existing legal limits for air quality—I remind noble Lords that this led to the Government losing a number of court cases—greater urgency and ambition is now needed for the protection of human health.
Amendment 156, in the name of my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark, addresses air pollution and public health and we strongly support this amendment. The coroner’s conclusion that exposure to excessive air pollution contributed to the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in 2013 has underlined the need for all levels of government to do much more to tackle the deadly scourge of air pollution. In April this year, the need for legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines was raised by the coroner as an area of concern in his Prevention of Future Deaths report and is even more urgent given the emerging evidence linking air pollution with the most severe impacts of Covid-19. In response to this report the Government have said they will launch a consultation on new targets for PM2.5 and other pollutants next year, with the aim—I repeat: the aim—of setting new targets in legislation by October 2022, and will also develop a more sophisticated population exposure reduction target.
Only this week, medical leaders are urging the Government to cut levels of air pollution to below WHO limits in response to Ella’s death. Leaders of the BMA, more than 20 nursing colleges, the Lancet and the British Medical Journal have written to the Prime Minister to urge the Government
“to use this bill to make a legally binding commitment to reducing fine particulate pollution … in the UK to below the maximum level recommended by the WHO by 2030.”
This Bill clearly provides the Government with the opportunity to implement the coroner’s recommendations through our amendments, and through those in the name of other noble Lords. What response have the Government made to this letter?
As the UK moves to a post-pandemic, green recovery, action taken through the Environment Bill to tackle air pollution is crucial to ensure a healthy, resilient population. I beg to move Amendment 20.
My Lords, I very much welcome the appearance of Clause 2 in this Bill, but it would be seriously sharpened up and given impact by the adoption of Amendment 20 by my noble friend Lady Hayman. I support that amendment and Amendment 156 in the name of my noble friend Lord Kennedy.
My Amendment 21 is slightly different. It is, in essence, a probing amendment. It starts to deal not with the setting of targets, but the way in which those targets could be delivered. It is arguable that the amendment should come somewhat later in the Bill, but Clause 2 specifically deals with PM2.5 and I thought it was relevant here. I will not press the amendment with its current wording, but it is intended to provoke a discussion and, hopefully at later stage, a form of words to address the practicalities of delivering an effective air quality strategy for the targets to be set under Clause 2, particularly in relation to PM2.5. Indeed, it should extend to ultrafine particles, which were not previously covered by EU regulations.
The focus on PM2.5 as the cause of the most harmful lung and pulmonary diseases is important. My noble friend has underlined the implications of the recent coroner’s recommendations following the tragic death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in south London. The target needs to be ambitious, much more challenging than current standards in the EU and elsewhere, and to reflect the WHO targets, as my noble friend said. For it to be delivered, we need to focus on the key role of local authorities and others and ensure that they are fully effective. That requires resources, in terms of both money and powers. It also requires their efforts to be brought within a coherent national strategy, as well as a system of parliamentary reporting on progress all the time—particularly on the interim targets.
However, the targets will not work unless we have a proper system of monitoring toxic and noxious emissions and very small particulates. We also need a strategy for the specification of increased quality of air quality monitoring. Currently, most monitors measure nitrous oxides and derive from those measurements an estimate of particulate exposure, mainly from road traffic. Ideally, we need to be able to measure the particulates directly and it is important that we have a clear quality specification of the technical parameters of those monitors. We also need a clearer strategy for the placement of monitors: by the roadside, away from the roadside, at schools—since children are the most susceptible to lifelong lung malfunction from diseases induced by particulate ingestion—around construction sites, around self-standing generators and on some industrial premises.
Most importantly, we need a system of communication. There is no use in even extensive monitoring unless we both inform the public and follow up with analysis where the targets are not going to be met and where there are exceedances or near exceedances by location and with particular forms of action that are needed. Communication to the public is therefore key; we need to link the monitoring system to automatic warnings to the population in the streets, at bus stops, outside schools and colleges and so on. We also need to ensure that local authorities, particularly highways authorities including Highways England and Transport for London, have the legal responsibility for establishing the network of monitors, collating information from them and informing the public of the levels of poison gas and particulates including, in particular, PM2.5.
I recognise that Amendment 21 as worded envisages a regulation on local authorities, but it also requires regulations elsewhere in terms of transport vehicles and machinery specifications. I accept that there must be a better way to reflect the need for those specifics in the Bill. I am looking to the Minister to come forward before the completion of this Bill with a way of ensuring that local authorities and others are both required and resourced to set up a comprehensive system of monitoring and communication to the public, and that there is a clear follow up where limits are exceeded and targets not met. That is what the amendment is about.
I should declare my interests as president of Environmental Protection UK, once known as the National Society for Clean Air, which has focused for decades on this issue. I ask the Minister to come forward before the end of this Bill with a better version of this.
My Lords, I am delighted to see all these amendments and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lords, Lord Whitty and Lord Kennedy, for bringing them forward.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, gave an excellent introduction. I just have one slight problem with it: while the current Mayor of London is doing a lot on air pollution, he is also building a road that will negate virtually everything he is doing and has done. The Silvertown tunnel should be stopped immediately with not another penny spent on it. We all have to understand that building new roads is a mistake anywhere in the country, but especially here in London, when we should be concentrating on better, cleaner methods of transport.
I have worked the issue of air pollution on since 2001. The mayor at the time, Ken Livingstone, made a very good stab from a standing start at reducing air pollution, even though at the time it was just a warning flag that we were about to break EU limits. He did what he could in terms of the congestion charge and encouraging cycling, even though he was not a cyclist himself. Sadly, as soon as the mayoralty was taken over by the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, things went a little bit skew-whiff. He did not get the whole issue of air pollution and that is a big problem because we know that, if you do not have targets for reducing something, it is likely to not get done. If we are going to clean up our toxic air, this Bill has to set binding targets.
The sources of air pollution are widespread: industry, transport, buildings and agriculture are all major contributors. We have to understand how each of those can be cleaned up and improved, not just for all of us who breathe it in in the cities, but for farmers who also experience a huge amount of pollution in their daily lives.
Air pollution has been found to cause death after a coroner ruled it was a cause of death for Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. I pay tribute to Ella’s mother Rosamund, who campaigned and fought for so many years to reach this verdict. Ella is the first person to ever have air pollution as a cause of death and it is now official that Ella’s painfully cruel death was unnecessary, preventable and should never happen again to any child or adult. If the Minister is in any doubt about putting targets on air pollution into this Bill, I urge him to meet Rosamund, who fought a fantastic campaign virtually alone when she was suffering immeasurable grief from losing her eldest child. I think he would be convinced and would take it back to the department to insist that we put targets on air pollution into this Bill.
The coroner in Ella’s case said that
“there is no safe level for Particulate Matter”
in air and recommended a reduction in the national pollution limits to bring them into line with World Health Organization guidelines, which is exactly what my Amendment 29 would do. It would hook air pollution targets to the latest WHO guidelines and require the targets to be updated as the science develops. I believe this is the only safe way to proceed and the only way to be true to Ella’s legacy, so that no more children will die from choking on toxic air.
My Lords, I support the intention behind all the amendments in this group today. I agree with the contributions of my noble friends Lady Hayman and Lord Whitty, and with virtually everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, said. However, I will restrict my remarks to Amendment 156 in my name in this group.
The amendment seeks to put Ella’s law into the Bill. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, mentioned, on 16 December last year, the coroner in the case found that the death in 2013 of nine year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who had a severe case of asthma, was caused by “excessive air pollution”. Ella lived in Lewisham, in south London, very near to where I live. The fact that this poor child suffered a terrible death from breathing in toxic particles should be a matter of concern for us all. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, did, I want to pay tribute to Rosamund, Ella’s mother, for her tireless campaigning over seven years to get the verdict on 16 December last year. Ella is the first person in the UK to have had air pollution listed as a cause of death. We all know that thousands of people die every year due to respiratory failure, but Ella’s doctors, and others, were clear that the filthy air she was breathing was suffocating her and contributed to her death, and that is now recorded on the death certificate.
Amendment 156 in my name seeks to place duties on the Secretary of State in the Bill to ensure that the health of members of the public is put centre stage. I hope that the Minister and all Members of the House will support that. The amendment may not be perfect, but it sets out clear targets for the Secretary of State for particulate matter, at WHO levels, and a plan to achieve compliance, along with the monitoring of air quality, the publishing of live data and providing information to the public. It also seeks to ensure proper education, training and guidance for healthcare professionals.
I am hoping for a very positive response from the Minister today. I want to hear him say very clearly to the House that he is prepared to meet me, my noble friend Lady Hayman, Ella’s mother Rosamund and members of the Ella’s law campaign to see if we can get an agreement to put this in the Bill before we come back to this issue on Report. I assure the Minister that we will come back to this issue on Report, and I hope to be able to do that on the basis of co-operation and agreement. I look forward to the Minister confirming, at the end of this debate, that he is prepared to meet me and the other people I have listed.
My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to support this group of amendments, because this is the point where general environmental and climate change benefits directly coincide with health benefits. It is therefore plain common sense to give them total priority.
Reducing emissions of NOx, CO2 and PM2.5 are vital targets. I read this week that research by Imperial College London has revealed that, in London and other cities, there is still lead in our atmosphere—in the air. Lead was banned from petrol 20 years ago, so we need to bear in mind how long it takes to produce a long-term solution to these problems.
The problem with the Bill as it stands is that, although it commits to targets, they are too vague and much too far in the future. The Environmental Audit Committee drew attention to what it called the “needlessly long timeframe”. The details of the target will not be in place until the end of next year, when it could be in place as soon as the Bill passes through both Houses, and there will be no requirement to meet the target until at least 2037. That is so distant as to absolve the current Government, and the one after that, of any sense of responsibility and incentive to take the difficult decisions required. Even the aviation industry, which has the greatest technical challenges in dealing with emissions, is urging the Government to set shorter-term interim targets. It argues that only shorter-term targets will incentivise investment in nascent clean technologies.
We can be forgiven for being sceptical about the Government’s long-term commitment to improving air quality. A couple of months ago, the Government gained good publicity by announcing that they would include shipping and aviation emissions in their sixth carbon budget. This legislation came to the other place this week, with no mention of those commitments. This matters: both shipping and aviation are highly polluting and must be taken into account. This is a prime example of the Government caring more about the press than the planet.
Clause 3 allows the Secretary of State to lower or revoke any long-term air quality target set. Amendment 20, to which my noble friend Lady Walmsley has put her name, would ensure that the PM2.5 target will be at least as strict as the 2005 World Health Organization guidelines and will have to be attained by 2030 at the latest. This future-proofs the Bill much more effectively and avoids providing the temptation for a future Government in danger of failing to meet targets to decide to water them down. It also provides the sense of urgency that our climate and health crises deserve.
Emissions from transport—road, rail, air and shipping—make up around one-third of the total, and much more in certain hotspots. Unlike other sources of pollution, transport emissions have not fallen in recent decades, despite new technologies. This is largely down to two factors. First, there are more vehicles on our roads and more planes in our skies, and although very many of them produce less or no roadside CO2, they still emit PM2.5. Worse than that, CO2 and NOx emissions are bolstered by the popularity of SUVs, many of which are highly polluting. This is an example of the difficult choices that the Government need to make to change the structure of vehicle and fuel taxation to reward the least polluting vehicles and penalise the worst, thereby incentivising change. I remind noble Lords that only 0.5% of vehicles on our roads are ultra-low emission vehicles. That demonstrates the massive task ahead.
I want specifically to support the intention behind Amendment 21 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, made clear, the tragic case of Ella Kissi-Debrah highlighted for us that average levels of air pollution are pretty meaningless as a statistic, because concentrations occur, particularly near busy roads. These unseen concentrations are lethal. They affect us whatever age we are, from the womb to the point of death—our brains, hearts, lungs, bloodstreams and much more. This is an equality issue, likely to affect the poorest and the most physically vulnerable. There is a clear and straightforward role for local authorities and highway authorities generally to monitor roadside pollution on a systematic basis and, very importantly, to report and advertise the results of their monitoring to warn residents.
Rapid government action is even more important following the pandemic because we are experiencing a car-led recovery. Car use is back at around 90% of pre-pandemic levels, while, outside London, buses are carrying only 60% of their normal number of passengers; trains are at 37%. Many of us are still working from home, yet road traffic is as bad as ever in many places, and the decline in numbers using public transport threatens future investment. If the Government are truly committed to improvement, they first need to take a scythe to their £27 billion road investment strategy.
The Government say that they want to leave the environment in a better state than they found it in. I regret that the Bill fails to do this in respect of air pollution. It needs improvement, and these amendments are a good start.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, will not be taking part in the debate, so I will move straight on to the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green.
My Lords, I have found this a fascinating debate. I put my name to Amendment 49, but I support the general approach of all these amendments. Clearly, air pollution is a key issue for the Government. I hope that, when we look at this, we do so in the round.
I cannot agree with the some of the statements, I am afraid. I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, say that we have to ban all roads and we must not build any more. That assumes that those towns and cities that are being heavily polluted because the roads go through the town centre should have to put up with that. Similarly, she referred to the Silvertown tunnel. The argument for that is that the current Blackwall tunnel constantly gets blocked and the traffic queues cause more air pollution. There have been many occasions during this debate when people have said that we need to look at the evidence—we do.
More generally, I regard the investment that the Government are making in more cycle lanes as fundamentally important, as is encouraging young people to cycle or walk to school. The irony of it is that those children who think—or whose parents think—that they are safely protected in their SUVs are actually breathing in more pollution than if they were out walking or cycling. Of course, if they were doing those activities, they would also be getting the benefit of exercise. I welcome the targets; they are important. How we achieve them, through monitoring, et cetera, is important.
I too read that article on leaded petrol, which remains in the city 20 years on. Above that article, and perhaps even more interesting in some ways, was one on smart traffic lights smoothing the way to reducing emissions by a quarter. It said:
“A new generation of smart traffic lights could be introduced after a government-backed trial showed that eliminating unnecessary stops at junctions can cut emissions by a quarter.”
That stresses the importance of ensuring that we do not forget that innovation will play an important part in reducing these emissions. I hope that, when the Minister responds, he will take into account—I am sure that he will—a holistic analysis, if you like, of what the Government are doing.
There may well be more cars on the road because people are a bit reluctant to travel on public transport at the moment. As someone who cycles every day and has had an electric car for a few years—I am lucky to be able to afford one—I like to think that I play my part. We are seeing changes in attitude. There are many young people these days who are not bothering to learn to drive or do not own their own car—they hire or share—so we should not be too pessimistic about the situation. It is serious, which is why I put my name down—I felt that this was a necessary probing amendment.
I hope that, when the Minister responds, he will give us that holistic analysis of how the Government intend to meet these targets and how they feel that they can respond to the very real and present impact of particle pollution, whether it is nitrous oxide or carbon emissions.
My Lords, I added my name to Amendments 20 and 49, but I support the general thrust of all the amendments in this group. I am old enough to remember that, when I was a very young boy in 1962, my father had to wear a mask—we have got used to them these days—because of the smog in London. It was not the Great Smog, which was a few years earlier, but it was a serious incident of air pollution that killed a significant number of people. At that time, it showed up that, although the Clean Air Act had been brought in in 1956, there were serious gaps in it: it dealt with emissions of smoke but not sulphur dioxide. If we are not careful, there is a danger that we will think that we have solved this problem and things are getting better—there are indications of that, but we are far from perfect.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, I have been raising this for a long time: I remember having an Adjournment Debate in the other place in 2003 on air quality in London. That was based not just on my concern for the welfare of my fellow Uxbridge citizens but on my own experience of how I could feel the ill effects of increased pollution. Where we live in west London, there is Heathrow and the major roads, and we often seem to exceed the legal limits.
We have already mentioned one thing that convinced me that we have to go further: Ella’s campaign. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Rosamund, Ella’s mother, and I have not met a more courageous and forceful advocate for this. Despite the obviously terrible tragedy that she endured, she was able to be extremely convincing in all the arguments; she did not have to rely on the personal issue. We owe it not just to Ella but to all the other young people. As has been mentioned, it is very often those who live in less well-off areas.
There are difficult decisions. Of course, sometimes, as the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, has just said, there are occasions when traffic congestion could be eased, and smart traffic lights could provide one of those. The only trouble that I have with building more roads is that they inevitably get filled up. I remember that, when the M25 was first built—little sections of it—it was a joy because no one was on it, but it filled up quite quickly and sometimes is the largest car park in London, as I think many noble Lords will agree.
This is a really serious issue, and the Government must take forward the view that we must have ambitious targets. We should accept the WHO targets. This is something that I feel very strongly about.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. I think the last time I spoke after him was to congratulate him on his maiden speech. He brings, of course, great focus and authority to this debate. I welcome this group of amendments generally and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and the other noble Lords who have tabled the amendments on bringing forward the issue of targets and particularly the PM2.5 measure.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, I accept the importance of these targets while pointing to other types of air pollutant of possibly equal toxicity and potential for harm. I am informed about this because over the years I have had many emails in my parliamentary mailbox with personal accounts from those whose health is significantly and adversely affected by air pollution, particularly by being near to major road systems.
Fundamentally, all these targets have to drive a culture change. I think of my three London-resident children who during the pandemic reported how air quality in the metropolis had improved and, sadly, how it has once again deteriorated as things return to what we might call normal. While I commend municipalities bringing in ultra-low emission zones for urban centres, I think that permitting owners of polluting vehicles to pay for the privilege gives the wrong message.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred to a range of non-vehicular polluting activities, including those from construction with which I am familiar. Not so many months ago I witnessed a group of contractors engaged with public pavement repairs using a petrol disc cutter to trim concrete slabs. This was taking place in a busy London shopping street. I will not bore noble Lords with a detailed description of the noise, uncontained dust and odours that were released into the air, but it could just have easily have been welding, sanding, atomising sprays, evaporating solvents or material handling that was releasing pollution into urban air. I also observe that far too many food premises emit odours and fumes at unacceptable levels. One I know well in a major Surrey town blasts motorists as they wait at traffic lights with the outpourings of its extractor system. I suppose one might say that that was a form of poetic justice.
Only recently I learned that the metropolitan Clean Air Act, to which the noble Lord, Lord Randall, referred, permits the burning of firewood in homes. I thought that had been banned a long time ago. The Prime Minister’s comments about insisting on seasoned firewood are very welcome, but the wood also needs to be dry, kept dry and not be full of resins, as are some softwoods. As somebody who uses a wood burning appliance—but not in an urban area, noble Lords will be glad to hear—I question how good the understanding is of these factors concerning supplies of firewood and the knowledge of consumers. Urban atmosphere is, after all, a vital common good for health and well-being, tourism, productivity and, in turn, commerce.
The noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, is right that we cannot simply all take a hairshirt approach and that the laws of unintended consequences beset us as we try to move from one mode of transport, perhaps, to the other. He rightly referred to the role of innovation. However, to repeat my earlier comment, most of all we need collective cultural change, better information and regulation that drives such responses as we wish to see come out of this Bill.