Before I call the shadow Minister, let me reiterate that this debate must finish at 4.36 pm. There are a number of speakers, and I urge brevity so that we can get everyone in. I cannot impose a time limit, because we are debating Lords amendments, so it will be up to all Members to help each other out if they want to speak.
I want to start by marking the wicked and senseless murder of Sir David Amess. I was not able to speak in the tributes on Monday, but I do want to place on record my sorrow and send my prayers and thoughts to Sir David’s family, to his staff in the House and in Southend, and to his constituents. I also want to extend condolences to the family, staff and constituents of the late James Brokenshire, whose passing was untimely and very sad indeed. Both colleagues will be much missed throughout the House.
On a happier note, I want to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Jo Churchill, to her position as Minister for Air, but, sadly, she seems to have disappeared into thin air! That is a bit of a worry.
Here we are, back in the House and back discussing the Environment Bill, 629 days after it received its First Reading. I am grateful to the Lords for their careful consideration of the Bill, and for succeeding where this House was unable to do so and making it fit for purpose. As we approach COP26 in Glasgow, a Bill fit for purpose has never been more needed. The world is watching, and the world is waiting for leadership from the British Government. The Bill could and should be stronger, it could have passed through the House much sooner, and it had the scope for real cross-party involvement; but alas, thanks to this Secretary of State and this Prime Minister, it was not to be.
Lords amendment 3, tabled by my noble friend Baroness Hayman, is about tackling toxic air, and it is so, so important. I am grateful to her for taking up the baton of Labour’s focus on cleaning our air and our lungs. Nearly 60% of people in England now live in areas where levels of toxic air pollution exceeded legal limits in 2019-20. We cannot go on as we are; we require real leadership, which is why Labour will be supporting Lords amendment 3 and voting to ensure that it remains in the Bill.
This Conservative Government’s approach to air quality has been ruled unlawful multiple times. Following Labour’s best efforts to amend the Bill in this place, the Lords succeeded in writing into it enforceable targets to bring air pollution below the harmful levels set by the World Health Organisation. The time for hot air from the Government Benches is over, and I encourage all colleagues—I am thinking particularly of the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Neil Parish—to realise that now is the time to adopt a proper and comprehensive approach to cleaning our air in this Bill. Please come and join us, and let us get this done.
In raising the important topic of air quality, I want to pay warm tribute to Rosamund Kissi-Debrah for all her campaigning work in the wake of the avoidable, tragic and devastating death of her daughter Ella. I read the letter that Rosamund wrote to the Prime Minister today, and I agree with every single word that she said.
I had the pleasure of meeting Rosamund, and I can only say that my heart goes out to the family and that it is the most awful situation.
My hon. Friend is making excellent points about the importance of air quality and the need for a much tougher approach from the Government, and I hope that, even at this late stage, the Minister will listen. Does my hon. Friend agree that a dramatic improvement in the Government’s approach to water quality is also important? There is a serious problem with sewage being swept into our rivers, notably in my area in Berkshire, which is downstream from a number of effluent works.
I want to share some of Rosamund’s letter to the Prime Minister, from which I quote:
“Ella was hospitalised 28 times in 28 months and admitted to ICU five times, fighting back from the brink of death. Her condition meant her lungs frequently filled with mucus, which made her feel as if she was constantly suffocating.”
I was disappointed to hear the Minister say today that she is delaying the consultation about air quality until next October, because that means that an additional 36,000 to 40,000 people in the UK could die prematurely every year owing to exposure to air pollution. Among them are between 22 and 24 children and young people who die from asthma every year, eight to 12 of whom live in London. The UK has one of the highest death rates from asthma in Europe, whereas in Finland, a country with better air quality, not a single child dies of asthma in a year.
As Rosamund goes on to say, the Environment Bill is our once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that children born now—including our own children—can grow up breathing safe, healthy air. Those are powerful words from a mother determined to ensure that no other parent experiences the loss of a child and no other child loses its life because the Government refused to act. Labour will not stop in the fight for cleaner air, and if this Tory Government will not act, Labour will. Let me make clear again that we will deliver a stand-alone clean air Act when we win the next general election.
As we have heard, this Bill creates the Office for Environmental Protection, but fails to give it the powers that it needs. A strong, effective and trusted OEP is, in the words of my noble friend Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, essential to underpin all the other measures contained in the Bill. As the OEP will be scrutinising and holding Ministers to account in respect of their compliance with environmental laws, rules and regulations, it is vital for the OEP to be strong and independent, and to engage properly with all devolved nations in our United Kingdom.
It is also beyond comprehension that since the Bill worked its way through both Houses, Ministers have actually weakened their own proposals for this new office. If that approach continues, the OEP will become a lapdog rather than a watchdog, and this will be simply another missed opportunity for the Secretary of State. It is because of that missed opportunity that Lords amendment 31 in the name of Lord Krebs, Lords amendment 33 in the name of Lord Anderson, and Lords amendment 75 in the name of our former colleague from South Down, my noble Friend Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick, are so important. They strengthen the powers, reach and scope of the OEP, and they have our full support.
I thank Lord Teverson for Lords amendment 1, which requires the Government to declare a biodiversity and climate emergency. How can anyone disagree with that? I also thank Baroness Bennett for Lords amendment 2, which seeks to ensure that soil health and quality remains a priority area for environmental improvement; and, of course, I welcome Lords amendment 28 from Baroness Parminter. This amendment removes the exceptions in the Bill for policy making on defence and security, tax, spending and resource allocation from the requirement to have due regard to the policy statement on environmental principles. If the Bill is going to mean anything and if Ministers are serious about tackling the climate emergency, they will support those amendments today.
Lords amendment 12, in the name of Baroness Brown of Cambridge, is an important component of the fight to make this Bill fit for purpose. It seeks, very simply, to place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to meet any interim targets that he or she sets. It is obvious why targets are required, and it is obvious why we need to be able to track our progress, monitor our focus and honour our promises. The amendment received cross-party support in the other place, and I hope that it will do so in the House today.
At every stage of this Bill, Labour has proposed fair, balanced and objective amendments that seek to make the Bill fit for purpose and, moreover, actually help us tackle the climate emergency and set out a real place to protect our environment and preserve our planet. I have said to the House before that we do not have time to waste: the climate crisis worsens each day, and real action is necessary. But that requires a strong Bill, not a half-hearted attempt that does not recognise, or match, the seriousness of the challenge in front of us.
Disappointingly for many in the sector and for the future of our planet, nothing in the Bill will stop the UK falling behind the EU on the environment and environmental standards. Over the past year, as well as dealing with the coronavirus pandemic we have seen fires raging across Australia, the US and the Amazon, at the same time as glaciers are melting away in the Arctic and Antarctic. We are seeing increasingly erratic and life-threatening weather patterns in our cities and rural areas alike.
This Bill needs energy and dynamism, and the amendments before the House today make a bad Bill better. I hope that Ministers will simply and finally do the right thing. They should accept these fair and balanced amendments from their lordships’ House, and I urge them to work with Labour to deliver a real plan to protect our environment and preserve our planet.
It is a pleasure to speak to Lords amendment 1 and to this first group of amendments. I very much agree with the comments of Ruth Jones on David Amess and James Brokenshire. They were great colleagues in the House and we miss them very much. I send my condolences to their families.
I wanted to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Jo Churchill, but I cannot do so at the moment because she is not here. She will be a great asset to the environmental team. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow does a great job, but I am sure that some help will be needed with this huge subject and I look forward to my hon. Friend helping her with it.
I welcome the progress of the Bill, and I appreciate the fact that the Government have been open and willing to engage on some of the issues raised. I have no doubt that the amendments put forward by the other place have shaped the Government’s thinking and will make the Bill stronger. The Government might not support the Lords’ amendments, but I urge them to take notice of them as the Bill is finally brought to fruition.
On another positive note, I commend the Government for setting up the interim Office for Environmental Protection. I also welcome the appointment of Dame Glenys Stacey as its chair, because I believe that she will do a very good job. I hope that the OEP will be able to improve the environment by ensuring that some cases can be settled before they even get to court. That will be a really strong role for the OEP. I also want to ensure that the independence of the chair and the OEP is maintained. I have confidence in the present Secretary of State, but we need to ensure that those offices are independent for all time. Soil health, including organic matter and soil erosion, are also important issues for the way forward, and we need to ensure that we get them absolutely right.
Lords amendment 3 would set out a stringent target for cutting PM2.5 and I completely agree with the intention behind the amendment. I want us to commit to matching the World Health Organisation limits by 2030, and as I said in a question to the Minister, the WHO is reducing those levels. However, the Bill as it stands includes a legally binding duty on the Government to set an air quality target by this time next year, October 2022. We have had a lot of consultation on this, and I urge the Minister and the Government to get on with it. I look forward to their setting that target, and if they do not have to wait until October 2022, please will they not do so?
I would welcome some detail from the Minister on the timetable for the public consultation next year. When will it be launched, how long will it run and when will the results be published? This really is a pressing issue, so we cannot let that target date slip further. I would also be grateful to know whom the Government plans to consult on the targets. How will they engage with non-governmental organisations, businesses and the wider public? Will the consultation include the option to express support for matching WHO guidelines on PM2.5? Current UK limits are 25 micrograms per cubic metre. The WHO’s recommended limit is 10, and that was set in 2005. It has spent the last five years reviewing its guidelines and it has just updated them. This new limit is half its current limit, at 5 micrograms, which is five times lower than our current UK limit. I hope that the Government will consider any new WHO guidelines that have come out by the time of the consultation next year. I do not want to see us consulting on matching a target that the WHO set in 2005 and that is no longer relevant.
The WHO also confirmed last year that the guidelines should be the minimum goal. I would like that number to be as low as possible. These particulates are among the most dangerous pollutants. They are small enough to pass through the lungs into the bloodstream and into our organs, so ideally the legal limit should be zero, because there is no safe level of PM2.5. I know that this would be almost impossible, but bringing that number as low as possible would still mean saving thousands of lives. As we drive to achieve much lower carbon emissions in this country and across the world, we must remember that air quality affects our day-to-day lives. It affects people’s health every day and is potentially killing people as we speak.
We have to ensure that this is one of our great priorities. It is so important, because poor air quality is directly affecting people’s health and lifespan in some hotspots in this country. My hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill made the point that we need to concentrate on those hotspots by working with local authorities across the piece to deliver better air quality. When our Joint Committee comprising four Committees of this House looked into air quality, we saw that it was not just DEFRA, Transport and Local Government but virtually every part of Government that would help to deliver better air quality.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Does he agree that constituencies such as mine would be more reassured if the Government were to set up some sort of taskforce to pull together these various agencies? Funding is available to local authorities, but there is a lack of strategic focus to enable everything to be pulled together. That is something sensible that we could do to reassure people that the can is not simply being kicked down the road until next October or beyond.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about a taskforce. Whether it is a taskforce or an individual, somebody needs to pull all this together to make sure that it actually happens. That is absolutely key as we move forward.
This is a very quick one. The hon. Gentleman and I share this passion, and he knows that a number of our towns are trying to make themselves sustainable under the United Nations sustainable development goals. Many councils now have a climate change emergency resolution and climate change commissions, but they do not quite know what to do. Does he agree that, given that we have all these groups in these towns and cities, we should go for 500 towns and cities in this country, such as Huddersfield, that are committed to becoming truly sustainable under the UN sustainable development goals?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that short intervention! We have taken evidence from the Mayor of Bristol. He talked about air quality, and he told us that the M32 comes right into the centre of Bristol, but the trouble is that the Mayor has little control over what happens on that motorway. That is why I very much agree with joining up what the Government and local authorities are doing across the country. We can do more, and there needs to be more urgency about it.
We must remember nine-year-old Ella, whose death was caused by exposure to air pollution. Her primary source of exposure was traffic emissions. We cannot have our children growing up in a world in which the air they breathe could potentially kill them.
On that note I stress that, although a broad reduction target could help drive improvements across the country, we also need strong limits on concentrations in particular hotspots. We need action on that quickly, as it would ensure that everyone benefits from a minimum level of protection. Without such action, people living in pollution hotspots could be left behind and existing health inequalities could be widened, so this is something we need to address.
The US and the EU are considering tightening their own limits. If we want to be world leading, we need an ambitious target and we need it quickly. However, I know this is a complex issue and the solution cannot be delivered overnight. It is one thing to set a target, but it is another thing to meet and deliver that target. Reducing overall air pollution needs a dramatic reduction in emissions from transport, homes and farming. I have no doubt that it will be difficult to do and that a proper, well-thought-out strategy is needed, but I know the Government are not afraid of setting ambitious targets.
Setting an ambitious air pollution target can also help to drive action to meet the Government’s commitment to net zero by 2050. Pollution from road transport, as well as from domestic and industrial burning, is also a cause of greenhouse gas emissions. We have an opportunity to tackle both climate change and air pollution at the same time, and we can help the planet and protect people’s health. I support a binding commitment to publishing a target after a full consultation, but I make it clear that this is an urgent issue and I will continue to hold the Government to account. October 2022 must be the absolute last point at which we set a proper target on reducing PM2.5 in law.
I rise principally to speak to Lords amendment 29, but first I would like to associate myself with the shadow Minister’s remarks about James Brokenshire and Sir David Amess. I always very much enjoyed their contributions in the House, which I am certain we will all miss. I also add my deepest condolences to the family, friends and staff of those two much-loved and missed Members of this House.
The urgent drumbeats accompanying the global crisis that faces us have become near deafening. We all pin our hopes on COP26 and the possibility, even now, of real commitments and agreements on the dramatic actions that we all, as politicians and as people, have to face up to, but increasingly the mood music is not as positive as we would all like to see. Sadly I hae ma doots, as they say.
Consequently, although I will mainly be speaking to Lords amendment 29, I must highlight once again my disappointment at the sheer length of time this Bill has taken to get near the statute book. It is pretty shameful that it likely will not receive Royal Assent before COP26, the largest and most important conference of its kind in the world, and the largest and most important conference that the UK has ever hosted. There are still too many areas in which the Government continue to drag their heels. Here we are, scrambling to get this Bill through Parliament a few days before hosting the most important climate conference to date. What a way to show the rest of the world that the UK Government have their priorities in order.
I am disappointed that the Government continue to consider that the Ministry of Defence and the activities of the armed forces, of national security and of tax and spending are exempt from proper scrutiny, particularly when so much of our land and sea are affected by those activities. My own research, for example, found a pretty shameful safety record on the nuclear sites located in Scotland. That could well have impacted on the local environment, but it will clearly continue to be difficult to measure how effective the MOD is with regard to its environmental responsibilities.
I am also disappointed that England has not yet followed Scotland’s lead on a deposit return scheme and is so far behind on implementing one. Litter knows no borders, particularly on our shared coastline, as we know. This really matters.
The Government have taken a very relaxed attitude to the extensive number of munitions dumps scattered around our shores, which apparently do not need to be regularly checked. I point hon. Members to the decades it took to get the MOD to accept responsibility for the clean up of radioactive particles from the beach at Dalgety Bay in Fife for a further understanding of why we in Scotland do not think those exemptions should continue. As I understand it, exemptions were not part of the Climate Change Act 2008, so why are they part of this legislation?
I have made those points before, so I will leave it there. As I have said many times, this Bill is principally concerned with English environmental issues. I am heartened by many of the amendments made in the other place, many of which we already observe in Scotland, including Lords amendment 3 requiring air quality measurements to be in accordance with WHO guidance. Although this Bill is properly a matter for English MPs to decide, I wish Opposition Members well in their efforts to retain many of the Lords amendments within this legislation.
Although those few aspects of the Bill that affect Scotland had previously received legislative consent from the Scottish Government, we now see that the UK Government have inserted Lords amendment 29 into the Bill without seeking consent from the Scottish Government. They were not even consulted on that change. Despite the grave concerns and objections expressed from Scotland since then about this move, the UK Government have clearly simply doubled down on pushing it through. So this Bill, like many post-Brexit Bills, which at first sight might appear to be centred on English-only areas, must be partly looked at through the lens of devolution.
In this Lords amendment, we see the UK Government simply not being able to help themselves. Instead of Ministers doing their jobs, focusing on the climate crisis and getting this Bill through in an appropriately urgent fashion, they have taken time out to undermine the powers of the Scottish Parliament. The UK Government could have simply included Scottish Ministers in decision making, but we are forced to go through this rigmarole instead, because, it appears, of nothing more than petty point scoring.
Surely effective environmental policy requires all of us to be working cohesively across these isles, which is why clear and consistent underlying principles are so important. They guide the actions of law makers and let the public know where we are going. The Scottish Government’s environmental guiding principles in the continuity Act, passed last year, underpin the environmental actions of the Scottish Government in a UK outside the EU. They are also meant to apply to UK Ministers in their reserve strategy. Lords amendment 29 contradicts the continuity Act by disapplying Scottish environmental principles and, yet again, undermining devolution. I have to say I cannot help but view the interference from this place in a devolved area, inserting an amendment to alter an Act already agreed to by the Scottish Parliament, as a hostile action. Reaching legislative fingers into legislation already passed by the Scottish Parliament, agreed to by the Scottish Labour party at the time, among others in that Parliament, and retrospectively altering that intention seems a deliberate, provocative and aggressive act. It clearly negates a decision made by our Scottish Parliament in a devolved area that should apply in all circumstances where actions impact on Scotland, whether they relate to a reserved area or not. I will be pressing Lords amendment 29 to a vote, and I hope others can support us against this infringement on devolved powers. I call on the UK Government to do all they can to deliver this Environment Bill in a way that is fit for purpose while also respecting devolution and the democratically elected Government in Scotland. It really is not as difficult as they imagine.
If this UK Government’s post-Brexit leadership hints at what is to come, I do not feel positive about environmental protections. I cannot put it better than the Institute for Public Policy Research report, which called the UK Government’s commitments to environmental standards “considerably weaker than expected”. The EU is one of the world’s leading bodies in the fight against climate change and our departure from it leaves us open to backsliding on environmental policy. As a member of the EU, the UK Government were being held to account and forced to match the EU’s high standards. Brexit threatens that. This Bill, unlike the Scottish Government’s EU continuity Act, does not include a non-regression clause.
The Bill states:
“The Secretary of State must report on developments in international environmental protection legislation which appear to the Secretary of State to be significant.”
That is not good enough. The climate crisis is too critical an issue for us to rely on the whims of one parliamentarian alone and keep our fingers crossed that they do the right thing. One Minister’s idea of a significant development may well not be another’s. It is also worth reminding ourselves that if the UK Government fail to match EU environmental standards and this affects trade or investment, the EU would legally be well within its rights to introduce proportionate measures, including tariffs, in response. The UK Government claim that they do not need to formally maintain EU rules because they will going even bigger and better, but can they be trusted to maintain EU standards now that no one is looking over their shoulder? When I was reading through the record of the debates in the other place, I was struck by what seemed a pretty obvious mistrust of Government assurances that extensive parliamentary scrutiny in itself would be sufficient to address the clear misgivings on the Government’s intentions in regard to this Bill. We all have bitter experience of the promises made by this Government about, for example, the scrutiny of trade deals, with the promised permanent Trade and Agriculture Commission still to be formed, despite trade deals apparently being under discussion around the world. It was therefore interesting to note the suspicion expressed by their lords and ladyships, which led them to vote on and agree the large number of amendments we are considering.
Scotland has the strongest climate targets in the UK and we lead the way in tree planting, the decarbonisation of public transport and, as I mentioned, matching WHO standards on air pollution. Environmental policy is all-encompassing and must be a chief consideration when we make energy, transport, investment and planning policies. It cannot be treated as an afterthought, with us working out merely how to implement the bare minimum of standards. The Scottish Government lead the way in environmental action in the UK and are truly committed to fighting climate change and environmental damage. I urge the House to consider this matter and vote for the removal of Lords amendment 29 from the Bill.
I wish to concentrate, briefly, on Lords amendment 3. I very much agree with the speech by the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Neil Parish, and I am grateful for what he said. I appreciate the intentions of the Minister and the Government, but I must confess that I have a nagging concern about the removal of an amendment without putting something firmer, by way of action, in its place.
Let me explain my reasons. First, I can see that if we are to have a target, it must be achievable, and I can well believe that for targets as ambitious as those in the amendment to be achievable we must take the public with us, which implies not just consultation but a much greater degree of transparency on the data, as my hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin indicated, along with an honest conversation with the public about the sort of choices and changes that may be involved. I fear that if we do not do that, we will not take the public with us in the way that we ought to. The sooner that process starts, the better—frankly, it should be starting now.
Some of us are aware of the scientific data and modelling on these matters, and that presents important issues with which we must grapple, but it is not good enough that we know; we also have to be frank with the British public about what is involved. I hope that Ministers will use the time available to do that in a—I am tempted to say aggressive—vigorous and focused fashion. We should not just have a nice conversation about it but get it out there and make sure that all the available means of making the public aware are used to the full.
Secondly, I accept that for legal obligations to be any use, they ought to be realistically enforceable. I can see some difficulties with what might be achieved and why the Government might have some qualms about writing some of the specifics into the Bill, but it is already a long time since the coroner’s report on the tragic case of Ella Kissi-Debrah, or Ella’s case, as it is often known. That case happened not a million miles away from my constituency. The south London coroner who heard that inquest deals with inquests in my constituency as well. It happened in the neighbouring borough. My constituents use the South Circular Road, which the coroner found—I have no reason to dispute the finding—was the key cause of the pollution that caused Ella’s death. Indeed, it is almost within a stone’s throw of some parts of my constituency, so the issues are absolutely real for us as well. I can think of schools in my constituency, such as Valley Primary School in Bromley, that are right by a heavily-trafficked road, so I can understand the concerns of the parents there just as much as the parents in Lewisham and elsewhere.
A hotspots policy is important, then. Of course, the Minister is right that local authorities have the means to implement policies, and the London Borough of Bromley has done so—it has brought in local policies in both Bromley town and the Shortlands area—but there are issues. The level of pollution in urban areas such as Greater London, which after all runs across and does not acknowledge borough boundaries—never mind London borough and country boundaries—requires more funding and certainly more targeted funding. I come back to the point that I made in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. We need to have, if not a taskforce, a mechanism to pull together and drive greater co-ordination and focus of the various agencies and pots of funding that are currently available. If I had a sense that that was going to be tackled without waiting till October—if that was going to be put in place while we do the consultation—I would be happier about removing the amendment, which is not perfect in itself, but does at least have the benefit of holding Ministers’ feet to the fire. It is what Ministers do when this goes back to the other place that matters—what assurances we can be given that we will tackle this as a matter of urgency.
When a coroner issues a prevention of further deaths letter, it is not done lightly. I would have hoped, as both a Minister and a Back Bencher, that there would be prompt and urgent action when a letter is issued. The consultation is fine. I do not doubt the Minister’s intentions, but I urge her to put a bit more flesh on the bones as to what we will do while the consultation is taking place to deal with areas that are of genuine concern to my constituents. People recognise that we cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, but, equally, they want things to happen sooner rather than later because their children and families are still breathing in a degree of air which, as the Minister says, is unacceptable. As she rightly says, no level of PM2.5 pollution is actually safe. It is a real problem not just in the inner cities, but in many other suburban and urban areas—smaller towns as well as the larger cities—and I hope that we will have a little more on that from the Government.
I join colleagues in sending our love, prayers and thoughts to the families of David Amess and James Brokenshire on their terrible loss.
I want briefly to talk about the office for environmental protection and say why I hope the House will support Lords amendment 31. The OEP is the answer to the question. It is at the heart of the Bill. Having left the European Union, everyone asked themselves, “Who is going to oversee the enforcement of environmental law?” and the Government have come up with the OEP, which we all support. On many occasions, in answer to the question, “Who will ensure that these targets are met?”—for example, that on halting species’ decline—the reply from Ministers has been, “The office for environmental protection”.
Ministers have repeatedly said, as the Minister has again today, that they support the independence of the OEP, including in enforcement, yet they want the power to issue guidance to it about the way in which it enforces its responsibilities. I simply say that the great still unanswered question in this particular debate about the Bill is; why do the Government want this power?
When Lord Goldsmith was debating this in the other place, he said that
“a guidance power is necessary to help ensure that the OEP continues to carry out its functions as intended.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
That sentence is laden with meaning. We could say that it contains a touch of gentle warning. We could argue that it suggests that the Government are not wholly confident that the OEP will go about its work in the way that Ministers intended, because they want to be able to issue guidance about the way in which it does its job. I simply say that, having looked at the debates in the Lords and heard what the Minister had to say today, I still have not heard an answer as to why this guidance power is required. In practice, could the OEP ignore such guidance? We do not actually know what the guidance would contain, and I am not aware that Ministers have given a single example of what they would try to say in such guidance.
Other public bodies have very important functions. For example, as far as I am aware, the Equality and Human Rights Commission is not subject to similar guidance from Ministers about the way in which it carries out its work. Ministers have said that it is not about direction, but it is about accountability. Could someone explain to me exactly what the difference is between the two things? I am not sure that I see a difference and nor did the Lords in the other place. That is why I think we should stick with what is contained in Lords amendment 31.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt this debate, but colleagues may or may not be aware that, this week of all weeks, there is now a demonstration in Parliament Square involving Piers Corbyn. The people there have erected a gallows—gallows to be used against Members of Parliament. I would suggest that at the very least it is not only crass and unthinking, but that it must also be a breach of public order. I simply rise to ask whether there is anything that can be done about it.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am very glad that Michael Fabricant has raised this matter, because I saw that set of gallows as I was coming into the House today and I spoke to the police outside the gates. I said, “I don’t know who the protestors are; I couldn’t see. If they are protesting against capital punishment in other countries, good luck to them, but if they have put that gallows and that noose there, directed at us, especially given the events of the last week, it is not only crass—that is a very gentle description of what they have done—but scandalous.” The police officer to whom I spoke said, “Well, we could go over and have a word with them.” It is not acceptable, because it is a threat. We should be able to carry out our job without being threatened by people out in Parliament Square. I hope that the House authorities might be able to follow up the point, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it.
I thank Michael Fabricant and Hilary Benn for their points of order, and completely understand the concerns that have been expressed. I also understand that the authorities have been informed by the Speaker’s Office about the situation. Mr Speaker has also informed me that there may be a statement later if necessary and that these issues would be covered in it. I suggest that we leave it at that. Thank you.
I associate myself with the points of order from my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant and Hilary Benn. May I also briefly pay tribute to Sir David Amess and James Brokenshire for all their many decades of combined public service? I think it is fair to say that in both cases, it was always service with a smile.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leeds Central. I rise to speak to Lords amendment 3, as did the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Neil Parish. A number of my constituents have understandably raised this amendment with me, given the terrible experience that we are still having in Newcastle-under-Lyme with the emissions from Walley’s Quarry. It is clear from the experience of my constituents, particularly those nearest to the quarry in Silverdale, Knutton and Poolfields, that poorer air quality has a profound effect on the physical and mental health of a community. The predominant concern with landfill gas is obviously hydrogen sulphide, but there is also methane, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter, which is the source of the amendment.
I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow—the previous waste Minister—for her engagement on this issue throughout. I also thank the shadow Minister, Ruth Jones, for her engagement and for coming to Newcastle-under-Lyme. This is not a party political matter and it has not been treated as such in the community; it is a matter of justice for the residents who are suffering so terribly. I welcome the new waste Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Jo Churchill, to her place, and thank her for her promised visit to Newcastle-under-Lyme, which I am sure will be arranged shortly through her diary.
Lords amendment 3 would require the PM2.5 air quality target to be less than 10 micrograms per cubic metre before
“so far as practicable, follow World Health Organization guidelines”.
I firmly believe that we must improve air quality in all its senses as soon as possible, but I thank the Department for its engagement on the issue. Like the Chair of the Select Committee, I accept the Government’s view on the amendment—that is, that rushing to put targets in Bills in unwise and consultation is needed. I think that consultation is needed for two reasons. First, any target needs to be fully evidenced and deliverable, because, as we have already seen experienced elsewhere, there is not much point putting targets into law that we do not think can be delivered. Secondly, the target has to be widely accepted by the public and business. We have to take our constituents with us on all elements of this agenda. We saw yesterday with the heat and buildings strategy that a number of people are not that willing to make the sacrifices that might need to be made. That is why the Government have to take into account the sacrifices and changes that we are going to ask people to make if we are to make our lives greener and better.
As DEFRA’s own report after a workshop on modelling PM2.5 concentrations says, there is quite a lot of difficulty in accurately modelling where we are going to be five or 10 years from now on a range of different policy scenarios in relation to emissions reductions. It is clear that the vast majority of the country will be well below the 10 microgram per cubic metre limit, but the report also identifies that primary emissions of fine particulate matters in urban areas such as that of my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill will remain an important factor. There is considerable uncertainty on the future trajectory, but it might mean removing up to half of all cars from roads, including electric vehicles, as well as potentially a ban on solid fuel burning. This may be what some Opposition Members think is necessary, but it would be a very significant change to our way of life. It would necessitate action from all parts of society—individuals, businesses and public bodies—to manage that transition. It is not something that should be taken lightly and without due consideration. We have to take our constituents with us on these things, rather than putting impressive-sounding but unachievable targets into law.
All that said, I do welcome the Government’s commitment, as the Minister said, to a swift and thorough consultation on these matters. I hope that as part of the target-setting process she promised will take place in the coming months, sufficient consideration will be given not only to health in the literal sense but to mental health and a wider sense of wellbeing in terms of air quality. The experience we have had in Newcastle-under-Lyme is not just that there has been an effect on people’s physical health, particularly on those with pre-existing conditions, but that living with the odour has definitely impacted my residents’ mental health, and again it has been worse for those with pre-existing conditions.
I was going to speak on the targets issue but in the face of the time available I am not. On the question of air quality, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Without wanting to over-egg it, there is an issue about the lack of monitoring equipment. In my own authority, it turns out that the air quality monitoring equipment in certain areas has not been functioning properly for the past three years; it has been giving out false readings. It is really important that we have quality data that people can have confidence in so that we can take them with us that air quality is actually improving. Perhaps, through him, the Minister can take that on board.
I thank my hon. Friend. I could not agree more about data. I used to work in data before I was in this place. My experience with landfill was that once we got the monitoring stations around there, people would start to have more faith in the data. It is still not real-time and that needs to be addressed. However, I appreciate that that is not speaking directly to the amendment, and I think Madam Deputy Speaker wants me to wrap up.
When the Minister does the consultation, I ask her to look more broadly at the issues of odour and hydrogen sulphide, as well as limits on those, and perhaps to look at some of the suggestions I made in the ten-minute rule Bill on odorous emissions in the previous Session. What we have gone through in Newcastle-under-Lyme is an exemplar because it is about something people can smell rather than something they are breathing. There are lessons for us to learn from that and lessons that DEFRA can take forward in its consultation.
I would just like to inform the House, further to the points of order raised previously, that I understand that the gallows has been taken down and arrests have been made under the Public Order Act.
I am pleased to hear that, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Let me also say a quick word about James Brokenshire and Sir David Amess. First, their families can be assured of my ongoing prayers for them in the months ahead. We talk about the importance of disagreeing well. Sometimes we think that means that we have to agree and be all mushy and all think the same things. The great thing about Sir David and James is that they held really firm convictions but were able to hold them with grace and kindness. There is a little lesson for all of us in that. In that spirit, I thank the Minister for her engagement on this Bill and how open and accessible she has been. It has been a lengthy affair, but that applies very recently as well, and I thank her for it.
I will quickly rattle through three bits of the Bill: first, the World Health Organisation target set out in Lords amendment 3. As we head out on this new adventure outside the European Union, the aim should be to have higher standards, or at least standards as high as those that we set as members of that union, but it looks as though we are going for those that are lower, and that is very regrettable.
We have already heard about the enormous health impact of poor air quality, and it is not just in big cities. In Kendal—in my community and on the edge of the Lake District—Lowther Street has been rated as one of the 200 most polluted streets in the United Kingdom. It is everywhere that this issue matters. We know the impact on asthma, on lung function and on people being hospitalised for cardiovascular and respiratory conditions. Sadly, we heard accurately about the appalling impact and the loss of life, particularly of Ella, but also of thousands of others each year. I do not see why the Government, much as I respect what Aaron Bell said, would set themselves unambitious targets that they could achieve when they could set harder targets that would be more of a challenge. The Government should not be disagreeing with Lords amendment 3.
I also want to speak to the Government motion to disagree with Lords amendment 28. That amendment was put forward in the other place by my noble Friend Baroness Parminter. I will not support the Government motion, because it is bizarre that Defence and Treasury Ministers are effectively exempt from having to have due regard to environmental principles while making policies. When the Government scrapped the Department of Energy and Climate Change, many of us thought that was an inexcusable move, but the weak excuse that the Government used was, “All Departments should have due regard for the environment and climate change, not just one, that is why we are getting rid of the Department of Energy and Climate Change.” If that is the case, why are the Government exempting two of the most important Departments?
Perhaps the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury are the Departments that will find it hardest to take into account environmental policies in their decision making, but that is all the more reason to force them to do it. We cannot say that climate change is an existential threat on the one hand and on the other give major Departments a cop-out.
Moving on, Lords amendments 31 and 33 relate to the office for environmental protection. Here we have a new regulator clearly and demonstrably weaker and less independent than the one that it is to replace. That is obviously a backward step, and there is no denying it. However much the Government may have improved things from a weaker position to start off with, we are nowhere near what we have let go. We have an office for environmental protection that is too weak to enforce and too compromised to be trusted. The courts will be limited, as we know, in the sanctions they impose. The work of the office for environmental protection can be directed by Government, as we have been hearing, which is a case of the Government deciding whether the regulator can mark its homework. Clause 24 of the Bill gives DEFRA the power to issue guidance to the OEP on how it should enforce environmental law against DEFRA and other public bodies. It is clear that that is not full independence as promised. It is a step back from the situation we currently have.
My final point is that it is odd to say the least—very peculiar—that the office for environmental protection, in seeking to enforce environmental standards in this country, will not have power to assess the impact on the United Kingdom’s environmental standards of trade deals with other countries. Deals that permit imports produced with lower environmental and animal welfare standards will undercut and ruin British farmers and will lead to lower standards here, too.
This is a long overdue Bill, yet within it, there are so many things that are left to be desired. This is such an important set of issues that to come here with a Bill that leaves us with standards lower and less well enforced than we had beforehand, with a regulator less independent than the one we had before, is clearly a backward step.
I rise briefly to support Lords amendment 3, which would put legally binding World Health Organisation limits of 10 micrograms per cubic metre into law now. The arguments that have been put in place against that—that we might have some other target in October 2022—are fine, but let us have a minimum standard now. Nearly a year is a long time when we have a target to be achieved by 2030 and we can focus rational expectations.
We know that 64,000 people are dying a year. We know that globally it is 8.7 million. We know we are hosting COP26. We profess to be global Britain. My view is that this measure ticks all the Government’s ambitions and boxes. The Government talk about NHS prevention and limiting the amount of money spent on the NHS. The Royal College of Physicians says that the cost of air pollution is £20 billion a year. The World Health Organisation says it costs £60 billion a year in lost productivity and NHS costs. If we are serious about increasing productivity, we should improve air quality standards. In terms of value, if we saved even £3 billion of the £20 billion—on the lower number—we could invest that in a stream that would generate an investment of about £300 billion in capital for green infrastructure to head towards net zero.
We have talked about the problem with dementia, which is massively related to air quality, and an incremental increase in PM2.5 can increase mental health hospital admissions by a third. We have heard from the Government about levelling up, but we know that air quality particularly hits the poorest and the most diverse areas. Having a cap of 10 micrograms would make a lot of difference to levelling up.
We have talked about pathways and how we will get there without getting rid of cars and wood burners. We need to devolve power to local authorities to give them responsibility. Frankly, the situation is that wood burners generate 38% of PM2.5 and 2.5 million people have them. In urban environments, we need to stop selling them and phase them out. We may have to compensate people. Otherwise, we will never hit those targets and the targets will get away from us.
We certainly do not want the Government to have an ambition to double the amount of incineration by 2030, which they have. The latest incinerator in north London will generate 700,000 tonnes of carbon a year, as well as ultra-fine particulates that will give rise to leukaemia. We need to get our act together. We have the opportunity. People such as Stephen Holgate are already saying that they want a guiding light of 10 micrograms. We have heard the case of Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died at the age of nine and would be 17 now—that is how long we have been waiting after her death, despite knowing that she died of air pollution. Of course, we also need an office for environmental protection that has teeth, as there is currently in the EU.
In a nutshell, people have the right to clean air and the Government have a duty to deliver on that right. Let us get on with it and do it now.
I start by adding my voice to that of others who have paid tribute to Sir David Amess and James Brokenshire. I knew neither of them really, but I can see how much I missed in not knowing them. They sound like they were absolutely the very best of us and I send my love and thoughts to their families. My heart goes out to them.
This Bill is meant to be a once-in-a-generation piece of legislation. It has been described by the Government at various times as a flagship or a lodestar, and it is about time it started to live up to that kind of rhetoric, given that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world with 15% of its species now threatened with extinction. With that in mind, I welcome the improvements that have been made to the Bill in the other place, many of which address issues that have been raised repeatedly in both Houses. I also welcome the amendments that have been tabled by the Government to set legally binding targets to halt the decline of nature.
The Bill has a very long history: it was first proposed in 2018, has been repeatedly delayed and, last year, was absent from Parliament for more than 200 days. I urge the Government not to now create further delays and to accept these crucial amendments from the other place to make the Bill law before COP26. That is the kind of leadership that people are looking for from the country that will host that key meeting.
“declare that there is a biodiversity and climate emergency domestically and globally”,
I am utterly dumbfounded that the Government cannot agree to it. They may argue that it does not meaningfully change the Bill, which may be the case, but it is none the less incredibly symbolically important. With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report spelling a “code red for humanity” with 1 million species now threatened with extinction, we know that an emergency is upon us.
As Lord Deben said in the other place, refusing to accept this amendment
“will send the wrong signal, at a time when we should be united in sending the right signals, so that in all discussions people will know precisely where Britain stands.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
I therefore urge the Government to rethink their position and to listen to the scientists raising the alarm, to the young people on the streets worried for their future, and to the parliamentarians in this House. There are now less than two weeks until COP26 and if the UK is serious about demonstrating leadership, rejecting this amendment just seems so contrary to what we need to see—so perverse.
Soils and air are the very substance of what the Bill is about. Lords amendment 2, tabled by my noble Friend—I do not often get to say that—Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle, sets soil health and quality as a priority area for long-term target setting. Soils, as we know, are the complex ecosystems upon which all life on this beautiful planet relies. A staggering 25% of the world’s biodiversity lives in our soil. Britain’s soils alone store almost 10 billion tonnes of carbon. It is not simply dirt that can endlessly be abused and neglected; it is life itself. Its health is absolutely essential if the UK is to succeed in achieving its climate and biodiversity targets, yet we lose more than 3 million tonnes of topsoil every year in the UK. In its recent independent assessment of the UK climate risk, three of the Climate Change Committee’s eight urgent priorities relate to the impacts of the climate crisis on soils, and just today a new report was published that identifies poor soil health as a threat to national security.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to publish a new soil health action plan for England to ensure that soils are sustainably managed by 2030. That is desperately needed, but I am concerned that the draft outline will not even be consulted on until next spring. It is also positive to hear that the Government are exploring the possibility of a new target on soil health under future Environment Bill regulations, yet soil health merits proper referencing and legal protection through this Bill to take it beyond one Parliament. When our soils are rapidly degrading, we need that target now, so I urge Ministers to review their decision on Lords amendment 2.
Many hon. Members have spoken very eloquently about Lords amendment 3 on air pollution, and I would simply echo what others have said about the perversity of this. At a time when the WHO has just slashed the guideline limit for air pollution, the fact that we are refusing even to bring ourselves in line with the current—out-of-date—pollution target just seems to be incredibly perverse. Everyone has the right to clean air, as others have said, and we should be acting on it.
On tackling air pollution, does the hon. Member not agree that, to take people off road and on to rail, it is about time the Government built the western rail link to Heathrow? It would benefit people not only in my Slough constituency, but in the south-west, Wales and the west. That is the only way because if we are serious about tackling the climate crisis, rather than just talking about it—the Government committed to it in 2012, but have still not yet dug a single spade—it is about time that we moved forward on these transport infrastructure projects.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, and if people are travelling to Heathrow, I would far rather that they went by train than that they drove, so to that extent I would certainly agree with him.
Interim targets are obviously needed to achieve the long-term targets in the Bill. It is extraordinary for the Minister somehow to feel that there is some kind of contradiction between interim targets and long-term targets. They are not in contradiction with one another. The interim targets mark the progress towards the long-term targets, so to hear her oppose those seemed very odd. Baroness Brown of Cambridge put it very clearly in the other place when she said that
“it is easier to predict the impact of actions to support such systems over a five-year timescale than it is to predict outcomes in 15 or 20 years”, and that
“evidence shows the effectiveness of the combination of statutory interim targets and a legislated long-term goal.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
I would press upon the Minister that these two ideas are not in contradiction.
I would like to speak briefly in support of Lords amendment 28, which would, like amendment 1 that I tabled on Report, ensure that the MOD and the Treasury—and, indeed, anyone spending resources within Government —are not, rather perversely, excluded from having to consider the environmental principles. These five principles should be the very cornerstone of our environmental law, so it is deeply concerning that time and again the Government seek to put these Departments beyond reach. As the Minister is well aware, the Ministry of Defence owns significant amounts of land, including a third of our sites of special scientific interest, and protecting and restoring these areas will be absolutely essential if the Government are to deliver on the leaders’ pledge for nature to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. Essentially, when we know that just 3% or 4% of land is effectively managed for nature and that so many protected sites are in an unfavourable condition, we absolutely need action on that.
The exclusion of the Treasury is, if anything, of even more concern. If we ever needed a lesson on that, we have seen in the last few weeks how there appears to have been a battle between No. 10 and the Treasury over some key decisions when it comes to the heat and buildings strategy or the net zero strategy. Sadly, it looks as if the Treasury has won, because we are not seeing the finance behind those plans that we should. We are seeing things such as the continuing freezing of fuel duty since 2010, which is directly responsible for emissions being up to 5% higher than they would otherwise have been. I urge the Minister to look again at including the Treasury in this provision. Again, it seems very perverse to leave it out.
Lords amendment 31 would strengthen the independence of the office for environmental protection, which is essential if we are to have the strong watchdog we have been promised. When Ministers control the OEP’s board and budget, it is entirely inappropriate for it then also to be bound to consider their guidance on enforcing breaches of environmental law. I fear that such guidance, if coming from someone who controls the purse strings, will feel an awful lot more like an insistence than some gentle suggestions. The OEP needs to be brought in line with the approach taken to other agencies that enforce breaches of the law, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office. I do not see any reason why it should be treated differently.
Finally, Lords amendment 33, on environmental review remedies, would ensure that the interests of those accused of breaching environmental law, such as a developer or a fossil fuel company, were not favoured above the environment itself. Put simply, the court must be able to remedy breaches of environmental law. In opposing that amendment, I fear the Government have undermined the role of the OEP, which is meant to be a world-leading body to give the environment a voice and hold the powerful to account.
I thank the hon. Lady for her earlier comments about Sir David Amess and James Brokenshire. I have not had an opportunity to say anything, but in my 29 and a half years in politics, this has been one of the toughest weeks for Parliament. I know we will all miss both Sir David and James, as we loved them so dearly. Thank you for your comments—I appreciate that.
I, too, rise to support Lords amendment 3. My Vauxhall constituency, just across the river, is the start of the congestion charging zone, and it contains some of the most polluted roads in the country. Data from the Taskforce for Lung Health found that background levels of PM2.5 in Lambeth were more than 25% higher than the 10 microgram per metre cubed recommended limit. In some areas of Vauxhall, PM2.5 levels are nearly 50% higher than that target. The taskforce also found that nearly 7% of deaths in Lambeth were linked to that issue, with devastating impacts on every age group.
We have all mentioned Ella Kissi-Debrah, who was just nine when she died as a result of severe asthma, which was induced and exacerbated by air pollution. She was hospitalised 28 times in 28 months, and last year she became the first person to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. My constituents in Vauxhall cannot wait any longer, and they keep putting themselves at risk because of that difficult air pollution. The roads putting them at risk are the roads they must use to access shops and amenities, or to get to work, school or play, whether by foot, bike, bus or scooter. They are the roads that people, including me, must send their children along to school every day.
Last week, I visited St Anne’s Primary School in my constituency, which was identified by the Mayor of London as one of the 50 schools in the most polluted areas of London. Although it was good to visit that school it was also quite sad, because during the visit the headteacher showed me a state-of-the-art living wall that is using vegetation to protect the children from all the air pollution coming from the main roads. Such innovations are impressive, but why must schools take such measures to protect our young children? That is not right.
The Government have said that they will consult between January and October next year on air quality targets, but how many more targets do we need? The data is there. The data is choking us—no pun intended. It already exists. We know from a 2018 report by UNICEF that the effects of air pollution are more serious for children than for adults. We know from data released last week by City Hall that the areas with the highest levels of deprivation, or those with a higher proportion of people from non-white backgrounds, are more likely to be exposed to high levels of air pollution. We have the tools at our disposal to set that target, so why can we not do so now? As the mother of a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old living in an inner-London borough, I do not want my children growing up with that pollution, nor do I want the children and young people I represent in Vauxhall to continue to grow up with such high levels of pollution. Let us set that target once and for all, bring an end to this, and bring
I very much echo what my hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi said about air pollution. Earlier, the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Neil Parish, mentioned that the Mayor of Bristol had spoken of the M32 going right into the heart of the city. It is the border between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire. It goes through those inner-city areas, and we know that children living in those areas are particularly at risk.
When we have discussed that in various Select Committees and during the passage of Bills, I have found the Minister’s attempted justification for not adopting the World Health Organisation targets very weak, and I am afraid that the same is true today. Surely people’s right to have a log-burning stove is more than outweighed by the fact that there are 40,000 deaths a year because of air pollution. Surely that is far more important. However, other Members have more than done justice to the need to back the Lords on their air pollution amendments, so I want to talk briefly about Lords amendment 1, which has not been spoken about much.
There is no question but that we are in the midst of climate and ecological emergencies that simply are not being taken seriously enough, not just by the Government but by many others who, through their actions, are contributing to the problem and not helping to find solutions. I am usually quite sceptical about the value of grand declarations if they are not backed up by action—and often they are not backed up by action—but I think that formal recognition in the Bill of the gravity of the situation could make a difference.
We have led the way on that in Bristol. We formally declared a climate emergency in 2018 and a biodiversity emergency in February last year. As a result, we have a wide-ranging “one city” ecological emergency strategy, which serves as a blueprint for action on that front. Really, that is what it is about—not just making the declaration, but using that declaration as a way of stressing the urgency and driving action.
I support the Lords amendments on the office for environmental protection. The Bill should have been in force, and the OEP ready for action, for the end of the Brexit transition period. There is just no excuse for the Government’s delays and prevarications—or, it has to be said, for their reneging on their promise to base the OEP in Bristol, which I will not stop reminding them about. We have ended up with precisely the sort of governance gap that many of us warned about, which is shameful. However, now that we are where we are, we ought to accept the Lords amendments, which would ensure that the OEP is independent in nature, that it is able to properly hold Ministers to account for environmental wrongdoing, and that it has control over its own budget.
Finally, the fact that we are so far away from meeting our environmental obligations on air pollution, water quality—I think that will come up in the next group of amendments—and protection of biodiversity only reinforces the case for a strong OEP and more accountability for Ministers. However, there is nothing in the Bill to compel Ministers to act early to meet targets or take action where interim targets are missed. We have these long-term targets way into the future—we have a 25-year environment plan—but if we do not have binding interim targets, it is so easy to kick things into the long grass and say that we are working towards a date at some distant point in the future. We then find that that distant point in the future is suddenly upon us and nothing has been done to ensure that we reach the targets.
Lords amendment 12 would ensure that there are binding interim targets in the Bill, which is so important for our ability to hold the Government to account and to see incremental change that will get us to our final ambition. That needs to be kept in the Bill.
With the leave of the House, I will respond to the debate. May I reiterate the condolences that have been expressed? I was not able to be in the Chamber earlier. I have not worn my environmental leaf suit today, as a mark of respect to those two great men—Sir David Amess, who did so much on animal welfare, which is very relevant to my Department, and James Brokenshire. I think we all feel the same about them. We are proud to have known them, and we send our condolences to their families. I am terribly sorry.
I thank all hon. Members across the House for their contributions. As ever, whatever our differences, we listen to what has been said and work very closely together on these matters. I will whizz through some of the questions and comments that were raised before summing up.
Let me refer first to the comments by the SNP spokesperson, Deidre Brock, just to get the devolution issue clarified. She talked about this Government not respecting the Scottish Government. The power of the Scottish Parliament to legislate respects the exercising of reserved functions by Ministers of the Crown. That was tested recently in the Supreme Court, which agreed with the Government. That judgment by the Supreme Court directly supports Lords amendment 29, tabled by the Government.
I am going to leave it there, because I have so many comments to get through.
I want to refer now to particular questions and comments raised about the OEP. We heard some comparisons with the EU, in particular from Tim Farron, with whom we have had some very constructive discussions, as he said—I thank him for those comments. The OEP’s enforcement powers are different but will operate more effectively than those of the European Commission. The OEP will be able to liaise directly with the public body in question—that does not happen with the European Commission—to investigate and resolve alleged serious breaches of environmental law in a more timely and targeted manner.
On environmental review, the OEP can apply for judicial review remedies, such as mandatory quashing orders, subject to appropriate safeguards. That will work to ensure compliance with environmental law. The Court of Justice of the EU cannot issue those kinds of remedies to member states, so we truly believe the OEP is stronger, not weaker.
Hilary Benn mentioned the guidance power. Paragraph 17 of schedule 1 already requires that:
“In exercising functions in respect of the OEP, the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to protect its independence.”
The guidance power does not grant the Secretary of State any ability to intervene in decision making about specific or individual cases. The OEP does not have to follow the guidance where it has clear reasons not to do so. It has to provide its own enforcement policy. I think Dame Glenys would take issue with the idea that she is somehow heading up a weaker organisation. I do not think she would have taken on the job if she felt that that was the case.
On the biodiversity emergency, we have set a duty to set an additional legally binding target to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030. If that—not to mention the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday—does not demonstrate that we understand there is an emergency I do not know what else does.
Soil was mentioned by a number of colleagues, all of whom agreed that we need data. Our soil health action plan, to pick up on the points made by Kerry McCarthy, demonstrates that we really mean business with soil. Many of our other policies will be about working on soil health. It is not just about what is in the Bill; it is about all our wider policies whereby we are taking soil health extremely seriously.
Air quality was rightly raised by many hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), and the hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi). On what is the right number for the target, I reiterate that whatever the WHO said—whether 10 micrograms per metre cubed or now five—its analysis has not and did not outline a pathway to achieve that target. That is why it is so important that we gather the evidence and the science. I was so pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton himself pointed that out and agreed that this is the right approach. So many people today have mentioned the importance of getting the evidence and the data right.
I listened to what my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, but I assure him that we are not waiting for targets to be set to tackle the problem of air pollution. We are taking action now. One example is the legislation to phase out the sale of house coal and small volumes of wet wood, and to introduce emission standards for manufactured solid fuels for domestic burning across England. That was one of the big steps we have taken to cut down on PM2.5.
I am grateful for what the Minister says. Will she meet me to discuss the sort of mechanism we were talking about, so we might get a better focus on this issue?
I hear what my hon. Friend says and I will reiterate that to the new Minister with responsibility for air quality. My hon. Friend makes good points. Many other measures are in place connected to our air quality strategy, but he may be right that they need to be pulled together in a clearer way. We acted on many of the measures on which the coroner gave us guidance after the very tragic case of Ella Kissi-Debrah. Our hearts go out to that family, and I am thankful for all the input.
Regarding amendment 1, I must reiterate that actions are what are necessary to combat the climate and biodiversity emergency, not legal declarations. On amendment 2, the soil health action plan will provide strategic direction to develop the metrics that we need for the soil health target, and I point hon. Members to the written ministerial statement on that. On amendment 3, we will continue to collaborate with experts to ensure that the consultation on air targets is based on the best evidence. In setting targets, we need to carry out detailed modelling, as I said.
Amendment 12 fundamentally undermines the long-term nature of the targets framework. It removes necessary flexibility and forces us to meet legally binding targets every five years on complex environmental issues. Regarding amendment 28, the Government firmly maintain the position that exempting some limited areas from the duty to “have due regard” provides necessary flexibility in relation to finances, defence and national security.
Turning to amendments 31 and 75, I must stress that the guidance power is required to ensure appropriate accountability for the OEP. Finally, amendment 33 is not acceptable because it removes all protections for third parties who were brought into the OEP’s process of environmental review. The Government are confident of their position on these matters and I hope that Members will support us in returning this position to the other place, so that we get our world-leading legislation onto the statute book.
Just to explain the process, I am anticipating five votes; the first vote will take 10 minutes and the others, consecutively, eight minutes, so I really would not go too far from the Lobbies. There will be three from the Labour party, one from the Lib Dems and one from the Scottish National party. If Deirdre Brock would approach the Chair while the first Division is taking place, I will explain the process for the SNP Division, because it is a bit more complicated.
Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.
Lords amendment 2 disagreed to.