The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 1 February.
“I would like to update the House on the next steps that the Government are taking to help nature recover through our new environmental improvement plan. It is a delivery plan setting out how we will achieve our ambitious, stretching environmental targets, the most critical of which is to halt the decline of nature by the end of this decade. We can and must achieve that, both here in the UK and globally.
We are already under way. In this Government’s first 100 days, we have already delivered: legally binding targets to halt nature’s decline, clean up our air and rivers and support a circular economy; playing an instrumental role in a new global agreement for nature at the UN nature summit, COP 15; enacting the legal duty on government, national and local, to consider biodiversity; publishing our environment principles policy statement; setting out in detail our transformational farming schemes with the full range of actions we will pay farmers and land managers to do to restore nature; announcing that we will ban the most commonly littered single-use plastic items from October 2023; agreeing to enact mandatory sustainable urban drainage systems for new development, which will reduce the risk of surface water flooding and pollution; putting in place the plant biosecurity strategy for Great Britain, a five-year vision for plant health to protect native species, with plants providing an annual value of £15.7 billion to the UK; and agreeing with the devolved Administrations our approach to managing fisheries. There is much more I could add.
Nature is a crucial part of our islands’ story and our shared future. We know what is special with our rare habitats and our iconic species, and we also know the pressures it is under. We rely on our natural capital for a secure supply of food, for clean air, and for clean water, as well as for leisure and genuine joy. However, nature has been taken for granted for too long and used freely as a resource with little thought for the consequences. We have to reverse that and respect nature.
Seventy years ago, people were waking up to the devastation of the great flood of 1953, in which more than 300 people died, reminding us that the full force of nature can bring us challenges. We took action then and it is why we have continued to invest billions of pounds in protecting people’s homes and in better protecting more than 100,000 local businesses to safeguard around 100,000 jobs. However, nature can also help us to tackle some of our great challenges, so we need to help protect nature too. Undoubtedly and understandably, the pandemic set us back in some areas, as we responded to the emergency at hand. A silver lining to that experience, if any is to be had, was the opportunity for us to reconnect with nature, and I am particularly pleased by our pledge in this plan to bring access to a green or blue space within a 15-minute walk of everyone’s home, be that parks, canals, rivers, countryside or coast.
Our focus is on picking up the pace and scaling up at home, and around the world, and that is why we are putting nature top of the international agenda as well. We brought nature into the heart of our collective response to climate change under our presidency of COP 26 in Glasgow. At COP 27 the Prime Minister said that
‘there is no solution to climate change without protecting and restoring nature’.
The House may have heard me extol the marvel of mangroves as the ultimate example of how investing in nature is an essential, effective and cost-effective way to take on a multitude of challenges. The key achievement of 2022 was the agreement reached at the UN nature summit, the Convention on Biological Diversity, COP 15, in Montreal.
I will level with the House: there is much, much more to do to restore the natural world. Some of the challenges are not always so easy or so quick to fix as we might all hope, yet I assure honourable Members that with our new legal duty to consider biodiversity, guided by our environmental principles policy, we are embedding nature in the heart of every decision that government will take for the long haul. We have a plan for the whole of government to support this national endeavour and we have already started the journey with a great many improvements.
We are replacing the EU’s bureaucratic common agricultural policy, which did so little for farmers or nature, and rewarding our farmers for taking action to help nature retain and regain good health, reduce emissions and produce food sustainably. Those things are absolutely symbiotic and we are leading the way in making this essential transition. We have cleaner air, with major decreases in all five major pollutants. Emissions of fine particulate matter, PM2.5, the most damaging pollutant to human health, decreased by 18% between 2010 and 2020. I want our air to be even cleaner. That is why we are working with farmers to tackle ammonia emissions.
Councils ask for a lot of powers, but I need them to use the powers they already have, including on tackling litter and fly-tipping, rather than just asking for more. I will be publishing what they are doing and seeking to share best practice across the country.
We are accelerating the rate of tree planting. The Forestry Commission will start growing its estate and increase planting, fulfilling its original statutory obligation to help to rejuvenate the forestry and timber industry. We have strengthened the financial support through our environmental land management schemes, and we will continue to promote urban tree planting so that children everywhere can enjoy their local woods.
On the chemical status of our water bodies, the science and modelling are clear that it will take decades to recover and heal completely, but we are keeping a spotlight on water quality and getting industry to clean up its act. We are restoring 400 miles of river through the first round of landscape recovery projects and establishing 3,000 hectares of new woodlands along England’s rivers, as well as doubling funding available for the catchment-sensitive farming programme to £30 million in each of the next three years, to cover all farmland in England. We have already seen a huge improvement in our bathing waters. Last year, nearly three in four beaches were deemed excellent—only about half of them were back in 2010—but I share people’s concern about sewage in our waters. That is why we, a Conservative Government, turned on the monitoring, and why we are holding industry to account on fixing this issue. Through our storm overflows discharge reduction plan, we are requiring water companies to deliver their largest ever environmental infrastructure investment: an estimated £56 billion of capital investment over 25 years. We have set clear expectations on improvements, on which we will track performance. The next formal review will be in 2027, so if we can go further and faster, that is exactly what we will do.
This issue remains an international endeavour as well. We have a globally recognised track record of action, helping communities protect and restore their national treasures. Reinforced by our science expertise and financial support, we are helping nature around the world. That is the right thing to do and it is absolutely in our interests as well. Having committed to doubling UK international climate finance to £11.6 billion, and to spending at least £3 billion of that on nature, we are building on decades of action, backing efforts to take on the whole host of threats that now face the world’s flora and fauna well beyond climate change alone. We are doing that through the Blue Belt programme, protecting an area of ocean larger than India around our biodiverse overseas territories; through our world-renowned £39 million Darwin Initiative; and through the illegal wildlife trade challenge fund. We are ploughing all that expertise and experience into our newly established £500 million blue planet fund, and our £100 million biodiverse landscapes fund, to help some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities restore, protect and connect globally important but fragile habitats.
I am so proud that the UK is leading, co-leading and actively supporting the global coalitions that are committed to securing the maximum possible ambition and achieving the greatest possible impact on everything from taking on the scourge of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, to persuading countries to agree a new, legally binding global treaty to end plastic pollution by 2040, to supporting efforts to establish a global gold standard for taking nature into account across our economies.
I could spend hours talking about nature, about our mission, about what we have already achieved. As the Member of Parliament for Suffolk Coastal, I am blessed to represent a very special part of our country, with many precious habitats and protected sites, on land and offshore. I always said it felt like I had had six years of a perfect apprenticeship before I became the Environment Minister in 2016. There are many more parts to the plan that we published yesterday. I recognise that we have work to do, and our aim is to catalyse action across government, across the economy and across the country, with the whole Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs family—our agencies, including Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Animal and Plant Health Agency, our delivery partners and our regulators—the whole of government, and individuals, communities and businesses, from farms to finance, all working together to bring this to life.
Nature needs us to accelerate and scale up our help if we want to enjoy nature and have its help for generations to come. Together, we can achieve it. Whether someone lives in a city or town, in the countryside or on the coast, we all have a part to play in the truly national endeavour and the decade of global action that we need now to see this through. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, last month the Office for Environmental Protection warned of a serious failure to deliver on every one of the goals set out in the Government’s own 25-year environment plan. The body said:
“The situation is poor across the board, with adverse trends across marine, freshwater and terrestrial environments.”
It added that progress towards 14 of the 23 targets was “off track”, while a lack of available evidence meant that progress could not even be measured for the remaining nine.
Against this backdrop, we welcome Defra publishing its environmental improvement plan, and actually managing to publish it on time. There are some promising-looking targets in the document. However, the Government have generally been pretty good at setting themselves targets; for example, at COP 26. The problem is that Ministers have not been so good at taking the action needed to actually achieve them.
Dame Glenys Stacey, chair of the OEP, has welcomed the environmental improvement plan but also warned that:
“It’s all about delivery now.”
So I ask the Minister: what are the Government going to do differently this time around to actually deliver on their commitments? Members of this House have expressed concern regarding the long-term environmental targets contained in recent SIs we have debated, and we are concerned that some of the interim targets may not be ambitious enough.
I ask the Minister: does Defra accept the observation of Philip Dunne MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee in another place, that
“the targets are only worthwhile if they are met and have the backing of all departments across Government”?
This has also been stressed by the Office for Environmental Protection in its recent report, where it stressed the need for better
“alignment and co-ordination at all levels—
“local and national, and actions that extend beyond Defra”.
I have a number of other questions for the Minister and am happy for him to write, if he is unable to address some of them this afternoon. What did the Secretary of State, Thérèse Coffey, mean when she said in a recent letter to Mr Dunne that, after publication of the EIP, she intends
“to undertake a series of deep dives on priority issues so we can get on and deliver”?
Can the Minister outline the areas that she will be focusing on and what form these “deep dives” will take? Will they just be reviews of the current situation or are they likely to lead to policy change and/or actual legislation? How does Defra intend to work with local government and other departments across government to ensure a commitment to deliver?
The Secretary of State’s letter also says that Defra is on track to legislate for an alternative transition registration model for UK REACH in 2024. Can the Minister provide any information on what that will look like? Is it likely to be primary or secondary legislation, for example? If primary, is there not a case for bringing forward a broader piece of environmental legislation?
Concerns have also been raised about the lack of new money to assist with delivery of the EIP. The Secretary of State herself confirmed that there will be no major new funding, beyond a dedicated pot to protect some species including hedgehogs and red squirrels. Although, of course, we welcome this increased protection, some farming leaders have said that new sources of funds are needed to encourage farmers to take up environmental land management schemes.
The Public Accounts Committee made a series of recommendations to Defra in its report on ELMS, which said:
“The Department is over-optimistic about what it will be able to achieve by when”.
The report went so far as to question the Government’s readiness to deliver their policies—sadly, not a new occurrence for Defra. So what action is the department taking in response to these concerns? Has Defra made any bids for extra funds from the Treasury in advance of March’s Spring Budget?
As well as considering what is in the plan, we must also acknowledge what is missing. For example, although it contains stipulations for fitting dual-flush toilets, it does little to force water companies to deal with other issues, such as stopping pouring sewage into our rivers. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, recently asked what happened to the dedicated soil health strategy, which was a promise made by the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, during the progress of the Environment Act. Despite that pledge, it appears that soil-related issues have simply been wrapped up into the EIP. Can the Minister explain why the target of bringing 40% of agricultural soil into sustainable management by 2028, and 60% by 2030, is now tied into “new farming schemes” and nothing else?
Finally, with the Second Reading of the retained EU law Bill later today, what guarantees can the Minister give that Defra’s existing environmental regulations will be maintained and not ditched or watered down? I hope he can understand our scepticism about this, when he says that the Government will keep green regulations by default and yet there is no final figure for how many actually exist.
My Lords, the nine actions listed in the Government’s statement of achievements and implementations in the first 100 days of this Government appear to be impressive on paper, but a little digging into the reality reveals a very different picture. Much is made of the ban on single-use plastics from October 2023. Two years have passed since the statutory instrument to bring this into effect was agreed in this Chamber. At the time, those of us involved in the debate pressed for a much earlier implementation date but were unsuccessful. Even now, with so much notice, industry is complaining about the cost. It was widely publicised at the time, so there was plenty of time to plan and even to implement before the cut-off date this year. However, I welcome the Government’s co-operation in persuading other countries to agree a new legally binding global treaty to end plastic pollution by 2040. Does this apply to all plastic in consumer items only, or will it include plastics used in manufacturing industries as well?
I read with interest the environmental principles policy statement when it was first released, but I fear I found the principles underwhelming in the extreme. If government departments choose to ignore them, there appears to be absolutely no redress to bring them into line to consider and protect our dwindling biodiversity. How will Defra ensure that all government departments fully embrace the environmental principles?
Of course, it is important that children and adults have access to green spaces and coastal areas for leisure activities. I look forward to the implementation plan for ensuring that everyone in the country can be within 15 minutes’ walking distance of blue or green spaces for relaxation and enjoyment. How will this be achieved? What is the exact timeframe for the delivery? In what form are the Government engaging with landowners, local authorities and other agencies to ensure that this happens in the most built-up areas?
I turn to the thorny issue of fly-tipping. I see from the Statement that the intention is to ask local authorities to deal with the problem. During the passage of the Agriculture Act, the debate demonstrated across the Chamber that fly-tipping on agricultural land costs the farming community dearly. Affected farms have to pay to clear up the waste tipped, regardless of what it is—garden waste, retail and industrial waste, building waste—costing farmers thousands of pounds. However, the then Minister rejected the suggestion that CCTV on farms would be extremely helpful, despite much of the support for CCTV coming from his own Benches. Can the Minister say when the Government will publish what they intend to do to tackle that scourge and what they consider to be best practice?
I turn briefly to the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund. The Statement indicates that £39 million has been invested in the project. Can the Minister say exactly when the £39 million was released and how much of it has been allocated so far? Does the fund have a time limit for applications? As the fund is focused on the illegal trade in wildlife, can the Minister also say whether any of that money is allocated to tackling and imposing heavy sanctions on the importation of ivory? It is illegal to import ivory products into this country, but that has not made a significant difference to the African elephant. Can the Minister please give an update on the effect of the Ivory Act?
I agree with the Statement from the Minister in the other place that Defra will have to work across the whole of government, Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Animal and Plant Health Agency, communities and businesses to achieve the measures set out in the Statement. Given the huge loss in biodiversity and the levels of plastic and chemical pollution in our landscapes, coastal areas and waterways, does the Minister believe that this is achievable in a realistic timeframe?
My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. I am very grateful to the two noble Baronesses for their questions on the environmental improvement plan. As they know, it was published last Tuesday 31 January and sets out the action we are taking to implement the 25-year environment plan, leading on from the work your Lordships did in this House to make that ground-breaking legislation law. Each chapter of the EIP describes the progress we have made in realising the 10 goals of the 25-year environment plan. It also sets out our plans to continue to deliver those goals and to achieve legally binding targets that support them.
Our most critical goal is to achieve thriving plants and wildlife by halting the decline of nature by the end of this decade. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, rightly asked whether there is any real prospect of achieving that, and we think that it is achievable. It is difficult, but we can achieve it if we work really hard. We said that we will create and restore habitats the size of Dorset, we will invest more than £750 million in tree planting and peatland restoration, and we will protect 30% of our land and sea for nature by 2030. The EIP sets out how we will achieve clean air by cutting emissions from domestic burning appliances and by reducing ammonia emissions through farming incentives and investments in slurry storage. Our goal of clean and plentiful water is vital for a healthy natural environment, and we will deliver that by upgrading 160 wastewater treatment plants by 2027 and promoting sustainable agriculture, restoring 400 miles of rivers and reducing water company leakages by 50% by 2050.
Addressing one of the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, we will continue to manage exposure to chemicals and pesticides. We will develop a chemical strategy and prioritise the sustainable use of chemicals through UK REACH legislation. We will achieve the goal of minimising waste by implementing the extended producer responsibility, introducing a deposit return scheme for plastic and metal drinks containers, and banning single-use plastics; similar schemes have been extremely successful in other countries. The EIP sets out how we will achieve the goal of using natural resources more sustainably and efficiently by growing the long-term UK timber supply, bringing 40% of our soils into sustainable management by 2028, and tackling illegal deforestation in our supply chains.
In delivering our goal to mitigate and adapt to climate change, we recognise the two-way relationship between climate and nature, and we will prioritise the use of nature-based solutions. This embeds changes that were made at COP 26, and underpinned at COP 27 and CBD 15 in Montreal just before Christmas, which have hard-wired nature into the whole climate piece. It is absolutely vital that we reflect that in the United Kingdom as much as we are globally.
This approach is at the forefront of our goal to reduce the risk of harm from environmental hazards by investing in flood defences, rewarding our farmers for actions to reduce the risk of floods, droughts and wildfires. To restore our biodiversity, we will continue to deliver the goal of enhanced biosecurity. We will implement the five-year action plan of the 2023 Plant Biosecurity Strategy for Great Britain and seize the opportunity of Brexit to tailor our border import controls with a new risk-based target operating model.
Our final goal, woven through all the others, is to enhance the beauty and heritage of, and engagement with, the natural environment. The key point that everyone should live within 15 minutes of green or blue space is really important to Ministers. To address the point made by the noble Baroness, an enormous amount of data is held by Natural England and others. We are using it to identify the communities that are most economically challenged with the highest levels of deprivation, which are often the hardest ones to connect to nature. There are good examples right across the country of how that is being achieved, and we want to see that rolled out nationally.
To address the other points that have been made, I think the targets are achievable. I entirely agree with my colleague in the other place, Philip Dunne, that they must be met and that nature underpins everything right across government, be it the NHS, our defence forces, how we educate our children, heal our sick or support our vulnerable. Nature is at the heart of it, whether in the provision of drugs, through the health and well-being that can be created, how we can divert people away from our health service—nature is the deliverer of that. If we are not supporting nature, nothing else fits in.
The Secretary of State is determined on delivery. We spend a lot of time holding ourselves to account, but also those delivery agencies that we need to work properly to make sure that this plan is delivered. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that this is not a matter only for Defra; it is a matter for all aspects of government, including local government. We are putting huge burdens on a variety of different agencies, professions and individuals to make sure that this is successful, and we are determined to work with them to make sure that that is achievable.
On environmental land management schemes, we have ring-fenced the £2.4 billion a year that goes into supporting farmers in England, and that is a commitment up to the end of this Parliament. Of course, parties will be discussing among themselves how we take that forward, but every major economy in the world supports agriculture in different ways. What we have done in recent decades has caused huge problems for our environment and for the well-being of precisely those businesses we want to see flourish. Now there is an opportunity to pivot and to make sure that we are supporting farmers who are doing the right things for the environment—investing in soils and in the natural capital for which they are responsible, and which will underpin the long-term benefit of their businesses.
The noble Baroness asked about soils. This is absolutely fundamental to turning round our environment so that we can reverse the decline of species by 2030 and increase the potential of the farmed environment. So yes, tied into the targets is improving and protecting soil health. It is a key part of this document. By 2028, we will bring at least 40% of England’s agricultural soil into sustainable management through our new farming schemes, increasing this to 60% by 2030. We will do this in a variety of ways, which I probably do not have time to go through today. However, I am happy to take the noble Baroness through it, along with my noble friend the Earl of Caithness, who is rightly concerned about this.
I will make just one further point to the noble Baroness: there is no way we could achieve what we have tied into law, and into our targets through the Environment Act, if we were to somehow, as has been suggested, be about to trash our environmental protections. We cannot do it. It is absolutely vital that we use the sensible ones that are relevant to our natural environment, that we can discard ones that have nothing to do with these islands at all, and that we can work with people to do that. I implore the noble Baroness to join me, if she wants to, in the process part, but it is the outcomes that matter, and the outcomes are set out very clearly in this document. We have to achieve them, and we will not do that by somehow getting rid, as has been suggested, of all these protections.
On the key point to the noble Baroness made on fly tipping, I would add litter. I live the distance away from a McDonald’s drive-thru that it takes to eat a McDonald’s drive-thru, and what people then do with the rest of their McDonald’s drive-thru causes me to fulminate in a way that alarms those around me. I think the state of some of our highways and roads is absolutely disgraceful. We can talk about government and their responsibility for this, but we still have to talk about a culture, where people have so little regard for the natural environment and where they seem to have lost a sense of place, that allows this to happen.
We have given powers; powers are available to local authorities to deal with this. We want to make sure that they are using them, that we are encouraging people not to throw litter and that we are able to support those authorities that need to clear it up. Yes, CCTV is absolutely available. The Environment Agency has the means to record what is happening at key hotspots and it has taken forward prosecutions; but we, as Ministers in Defra, really want to get behind those efforts of society and those who share our views that the state of some of our countryside through litter is unacceptable.
On the illegal wildlife trade, the Ivory Act is an exemplary piece of legislation. It became law in all its measures relatively recently, and of course we are not a range state. We have to accept that we can only do our bit to stop the importation of ivory, but we are putting huge resources into assisting range-state countries to make sure they have the means to prevent poaching—with some success, I have to say. I agree with the noble Baronesses that it does require a whole-government approach to implement these targets, and that determination exists very clearly within Defra.
I can assure my noble friend that it does remain a priority for this Government. If he looks at the very first few lines of the Agriculture Act, he will see that it is beholden on the Secretary of State of the day to make sure that farmers are able to produce food sustainably. That remains an absolutely determined view right across government, but we also want to make sure that we are accepting that, if you deplete your natural capital, you are destroying the life chances of farmers of the future and you are not allowing the industry to produce the kind of food that the public want to eat. So we want to assist farmers, where they need it, to go on that journey to produce food sustainably; it is absolutely at the heart of our agricultural policy.
My Lords, the Statement refers to the fact that, 70 years ago, people were waking up to the great flood of 1953, which caused great loss of life and great damage in Millbank, outside this House. One of the consequences of that great flood was to begin the planning that eventually led to the Thames Barrier. Will the Minister share with the House the current thinking about the need to look ahead for an additional protection for London with a second barrier? Given the time involved in planning such a thing, can he give us any indication of what the department’s thinking is about the need for it and how long it might take to bring about?
The noble Viscount is absolutely right to raise this. That storm flood, which was a perfect storm in every sense of the word, combined a tidal surge with very high water levels. It led to some visionary thinking right across government and saw that measure put in. There is work going on to factor in long-term rises in sea levels, as have been predicted by a number of different organisations. I am not up to date on where those are, but they are very real and we want to make sure that we protect one of the great cities of the world from all future risks. If I can get back to the noble Viscount with more details on precisely where the Environment Agency, Defra and other parts of government are working on that, I will.
My Lords, I urge my noble friend to look at outcomes in the water efficiency of new developments. Undoubtedly, building 300,000 houses a year is contributing to sewage outfall from inadequate pipes. Can I instil in my noble friend a degree of urgency in ensuring that the very welcome mandatory requirement to fit all new developments to sustainable sewage systems is brought forward, so that we can have a consultation and implementation before December?
I share my noble friend’s delight that we are taking forward this part of the Flood and Water Management Act. I know that it has been a long time coming. There are a lot of different players in this and we want to get it right, but we are now on the home run. I will be able to give her more details on timings in the very near future.
My Lords, can the Minister explain why the Government have decided to relicense neonicotinoids for this year? They were banned here and are banned across other countries that have similar soil structures to ours. As I understand it, this was brought in a few years ago only as an emergency, yet now they have been relicensed again. That slightly goes in the face of what the Minister was saying about banning chemicals.
We have certainly not gone back on the commitment to ban neonicotinoids. As has happened in the last two years, we have given an indication that we might be in favour of the application of something called Cruiser SB, a plant protection product containing the active substance thiamethoxam, for the sugar beet industry. It will be allowed to be applied only if winter data shows that there will be a considerable loss of crop. If there is a considerable loss of crop, the sugar that would have been produced would have to come from other parts of the world at a higher carbon cost, and probably grown in circumstances where neonicotinoids are allowed. We will not allow spraying when the plant is in flower, so it will not be as damaging as the seed dressing that caused such a problem. It is a very rare circumstance; in the years in which this derogation has been allowed, on many occasions it has not actually been used because the threshold of potential crop loss was not reached.
I make my regular plea to the Minister—I think he took this point once before—that the term “storm overflows” of raw sewage should be discouraged. It does not happen in storm conditions or even in heavy rainfall; moderate rainfall causes these overflows, which exist because of a lack of investment in sewage treatment capacity. I learned that from a tip-off from someone in the Environment Agency 18 years ago when I was campaigning for what became the Tideway Tunnel.
The noble Baroness is absolutely right. It takes just a few millimetres of rain to fall on London for sewage outflows to start pushing sewage straight into the Thames. That is why, two decades ago, we were taken to court by the European Union for failure to comply with the urban wastewater treatment directive. That led to the investment of £1.4 billion in the sewer currently under construction. There are other storm overflows—or whatever they should be called; perhaps just “overflows”—where it takes a similarly small amount of rainfall to cause a problem. That is the low-hanging fruit that we want to see targeted, where we would see the quickest results from the £56 billion investment we will see made in our sewerage network—the largest since privatisation.
My Lords, in responding to the Front Benches, the Minister said that soil is absolutely fundamental to the Government’s environment plans. It is therefore a bit of a pity that the word “soil” does not appear anywhere in the Statement to the other place introducing the environmental improvement plans. None the less, I refer—as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, did—to the Government’s former promise and quote a Defra blog from 9 September 2021, which announced:
“Soil Health Action Plan to be launched”.
We are told that the soil health action plan has been rolled into this plan. There is, as the Minister said, a target of 40% of soils being in sustainable management by 2028. The only action I can see in the plan is to create a baseline map of soil health by 2028. Do the Government not plan to take any actual action on soil health until after that map has been created?
As the noble Baroness will know, the Government—whether Ministers or civil servants—do not save soil; farmers do. We want, first, to incentivise them to do the right thing where possible. Secondly, we want to mandate doing the right thing. In our 300-page document on improving and protecting soil—it is not possible to mention everything in it in a Statement—we say that we will
“monitor soil health as part of the Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment”
“on top of this Defra will … Establish a soil health indicator under the 25 Year Environment Plan Outcome Indicator Framework … Publish a baseline map of soil health for England by 2028 … Support farmers and land managers to establish their own soil health baseline, so they can best manage the health of their soil … Provide a methodology and tools to collect consistent information about the health of the soil under all land uses … Share current guidance and best practice with farmers and land managers to improve their knowledge and work with them on how to improve soil health.”
We will also prevent
“valuable soil resources from being sent to landfill”
“the integrity of future soil carbon codes”
so that we can unlock the trillions of dollars of ESG money sloshing about in investment in the City and other investment centres to make sure that we are focusing it on our natural environment. Soil health will be fundamental to that. We want to increase organic matter to make soil function as an ecosystem, so that it does not leach what we do not want to see going into our rivers, along with soil itself. Soil is finite natural capital and, after a heavy rain storm, you can often see plumes of soil going into our seas. We want to stop that happening.
My Lords, the Minister will be pleased that I am not going to ask a question about sewage. One of the targets in this lengthy document—which strikes me as remarkably unambitious—is for water companies to cut leaks by 50% by 2050. Surely we can do better than that.
I refute the idea from the noble Duke that this is not ambitious. I urge him to read all 250 to 300 pages of the document and see the lengths that it goes to to put our natural environment first in a way that we have not done for decades. This really is a moment when we can do this. The noble Duke will remember from the debate on the Environment Act that a crucial part of it says that the targets we have must be achievable. The Secretary of State of the day must believe that they are possible. To an extent, we cannot do more than what the scientists say is achievable and we have set out how we can do this.
On the data on leakage, I assure the noble Duke that it is not just this target that is pushing that goal. We are giving direction and encouragement to Ofwat and our water companies to invest more in preventing leakage. Of course, it is not a single line going to 2050; there will be a dramatic increase in improvements from the investment we are putting in—in the easier-to-target areas first. We will then see that target of 2050 being met, we hope, before that date.
Will the Minister commit to providing continuing assistance to South West Water? In the south-west, we have a disproportionate amount of the country’s beaches and there has been support from the Government in the past. Will they continue that support?
I was the Minister responsible for delivering on the coalition Government’s clear commitment to reduce bills for water charge payers in the south-west because of the extra effort they had to make to protect their bathing waters and waterways. I do not know what plans there are for the future but it has certainly been extremely successful, particularly for those on low incomes. We still have measures to provide for those who are very challenged economically, so that they can have a social tariff. We will continue to work with South West Water and all MPs in that area, who are lobbying hard on this issue.
My Lords, given the importance of putting the environment right across government thinking, it is welcome that the environmental principles policy statement was published. But the Minister said “defence” and, as I am sure he well knows, the MoD is exempt from the provisions of the EPPS and it is unclear how it will take forward the environment in its future provisions. Why, if the Government have produced the EPPS now, will it not come into force for another ten months? If the Minister is going to say it is about process, I have two further questions. First, the Office for Environmental Protection offered to advise the Government on creating the processes for the training of Ministers and civil servants. Have they asked the OEP for advice? Secondly, following the question that got no reply for the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, there seem to be no means for this to be anything other than a box-ticking exercise, because we will not be able to see how these EPPSs are delivered. What is the process for Parliament and other people to see that these EPPSs are doing what they need to do?
The noble Baroness is right: the Ministry of Defence was carved out of the provisions in large areas. However, I urge her to look at what it is doing by way of tree-planting and moving to net zero where it can on its very large estate. We want to make sure that we assist the MoD in doing that.
On the noble Baroness’s other point, about measurement, I hope that throughout this the ideal work of Select Committees and more informed groups of your Lordships will be to delve into this and hold Ministers to account in future years. I entirely believe that these targets show where the Government can explain how it wants to hit those targets and achieve them in a way that holds them accountable throughout. The end date is not necessarily the date that will be of particular interest to the noble Baroness; she wants to know about progress towards it. That is why there are interim target dates throughout, some coming up very soon, which will show the path towards achieving what we set out in the provisions.
My Lords, goal 9 of the plan is “Enhancing biosecurity”. It mentions the grey squirrel action plan, which is as yet unpublished. Of course, grey squirrels are the number one threat to tree health in our country and the number one threat to our great desire to increase afforestation for sound, green reasons. Is the new grey squirrel action plan in final form, and when will it be published?
I am not sure of the exact date, but the noble Earl, who is very close to these issues, will be the first to know. He and others have taken forward so much work by producing this contraceptive and, further down the track, the possibility of a gene driver, which may or may not be a solution. That and a range of other issues will go to the eradication of this pest, which is damaging for biodiversity and tree health. You see people virtue signalling about what they are planting, but it will grow to have no effect on carbon sequestration or the delivery of biodiversity unless we deal with this pest. It is of massive concern to the Secretary of State and her Ministers.
My Lords, as part of the commitment to clean up our rivers, what checks will be undertaken on the levels of industrial toxins in silt in rivers in industrial areas, which can be disturbed in dredging and enter the sea in coastal areas? Is the Minister confident that there are enough regular checks on industrial toxins in silt in some of our older industrial areas?
The noble Lord raises an important point. First, it surprised a number of people that one of our targets on water quality was based around the release of toxic substances from old mine workings, but it had emerged that this is a serious problem in certain parts of the country. That is why we have a very clear target to deal with that difficult issue. I think the point the noble Lord is really raising is around port developments, possibly in the Tees area. This is a matter of great concern to us, and to everyone, because of the horrendous deaths of crustaceans on 70 miles of coastline in the north-east. As he knows, we have carried out a panel inquiry under the auspices of the chief scientific adviser at Defra, Professor Gideon Henderson, so some of the best people in the business are looking into this. It is of great regret that we have yet to pin down what caused this tragic occurrence in the ecosystem of the North Sea, but I assure him that all dredgings in that area—and indeed anywhere else—will be subject to the most rigorous inspections. We will do all we can to get to the bottom of what caused this, but the information we have is that there was not enough possibility of pyridine being released into the sea to cause deaths on this scale. We remain determined to find out what happened.
My Lords, the Government have ambitious and admirable targets for tree planting, but what assessment has Defra made of our nursery capacity here in the UK to provide all the native saplings we will need in order to avoid importing trees, with the risk of importing tree pathogens? Past experience has shown us that this can negate all the benefits of reforestation.
The noble Lord is entirely right. We are doing all we can to increase the capacity of our native tree nursery sector to produce what is needed for the very ambitious plans we have for tree planting. Our reliance on imports in past decades has contributed to some of the diseases we have seen come our way, with tragic consequences. We are doing a lot through a variety of different grant schemes, but we are also showing that the market is there for the sector to expand. Our requirement that trees planted on public estates through public procurement have to be from Plant Healthy-registered nurseries only will encourage a great many more nurseries to go into that scheme. That will ensure that only those plants we can guarantee the health of will be sold in those public procurement contracts.