Queen's Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:36 pm on 16th May 2012.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 5:36 pm, 16th May 2012

My Lords, it is a pleasure to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Ashton of Hyde, to this House. As my noble friend Lord Myners mentioned, the noble Lord was at Eton College. I used to play soccer for Westminster against Eton College. We used to draw honourably, so that was all right. The noble Lord's background, as he described to us, was in the City-although I might make a party political point here. He said that it was natural that he should be a supporter of the coalition. For somebody who is in insurance to back something as risky as the coalition seems to me not at all clear, so maybe he would like to reconsider his evaluation of risk in that context.

It was of course very interesting to hear the noble Lord's wise remarks about regulation. I am an applied mathematician and I think that I have worked with all his companies, which are involved in the Lighthill Risk Network involving academics and the City. That was extremely interesting, as the way in which the City has developed risk methods in computers and mathematics is an important part of the world and Lloyd's of London is a great leader. The breadth of the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Ashton, from hunting through to the Army and in insurance, will, I am sure, make him a very welcome Member of this House.

Turning to my remarks on the Queen's Speech, I hope noble Lords will have learnt that there is a new principle afoot in this House enunciated yesterday by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe. He said, more or less, that if an issue is not in the Queen's Speech, you had better look it up in Magna Carta to see whether the same issue was discussed. He was referring to standardisation of the measurements of wine and corn, which are well discussed in Magna Carta but were somewhat absent from the Queen's Speech. In my case, I should like to speak on the environmental issues, which are extremely important. They were mentioned well in the Magna Carta, with its references to the responsibilities of office holders and landowners to maintain as guardians the natural environment and resources of this country-forests, rivers and fish.

In the constitutions of several other countries, the Kings and the Parliaments are given clear responsibilities for the environment. In Malaysia, where I was recently visiting, the King-the Yang di-Pertuan Agong-has to maintain 50 per cent of the land for natural forests. That is a remarkable commitment, which I was pleased to hear from local business is supported. The British Parliament has, over the years, had an international reputation for some of its legislation, from the Clean Air Acts and the formation of the National Trust to the Climate Change Act. Perhaps a reformed House of Lords, with its legislators having several years without electoral pressures, should have certain special responsibilities. The United States Senate is responsible for treaties. For the reformed House of Lords-perhaps with our new Magna Carta-we should have special responsibilities for the environment, natural resources and even the long-term existence of the UK. The Netherlands Government have an Act of Parliament in which their coastline is fixed but, as a debate in the Lords in 2000-my first debate-pointed out, the United Kingdom does only cost/benefit analysis as to whether the coasts are defended, as the sea level rises with climate change and the post-ice age land movements continue.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who is a practical environmentalist with her interest in fish, reminded us, the government programme in the Queen's Speech has two major Bills to be considered, one of which is on energy and the other on water. The Bill on energy aims to ensure that the UK has adequate power supplies that minimise carbon emissions and have different components to ensure security. We need wind and solar power systems but, since these can fail in critical weather conditions that are becoming more frequent with climate change, nuclear power or other clean fossil fuels, such as those with carbon sequestration, also need to be part of the system. I applaud this Government for continuing the previous Government's solid policy in this direction.

However, I criticise the Government for failing to argue strongly enough about the importance of the continued reduction of carbon emissions, not only by power stations but also by traffic. We are no longer run by Mr Toad at the Department of Transport, going faster and faster, but it is nevertheless important to point out that there is a strong connection between the short-term health benefits of reducing emissions from traffic as well as the long-term benefits of dealing with climate change. The Government should focus on the short-term benefits to explain to people why dealing with carbon emissions is important. They should not be bamboozled by certain Lords, and their well oiled propaganda machine, who continue to comment that there is no such thing as climate change. In fact, temperatures over the land areas of the world and the surface layers of the ocean are steadily rising, as is sea level. Desertification and drought are increasing. Some of the records in peak rainfall are one of the greatest climate change concerns to south-east Asia and southern China. Peak rainfall records are being broken year on year. They are now up to 150 millimetres an hour from about 100 millimetres an hour 20 years ago. The Governments of Brazil, Mexico, China and Indonesia are all introducing legislation. Of course, all of these countries remarkably agreed at the Durban meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to develop a road map for an international treaty after 2015. The idea that the world is moving away from climate change is simply not correct.

We all support the government objective in the Queen's Speech of expanding the UK economy, especially its exports. However, I am afraid that many companies and officials think that the UK Government could do a lot more to help export UK products and expertise in environmental technology. Small and medium-sized enterprises-I declare an interest as a chairman of an SME in Cambridge-need some kind of project financing and travel expenses to promote their products. I hasten to say that our own company does not seek this, but many SMEs have spoken to me about this issue. They compare the situation unfavourably with the support given by foreign governments to their companies. This is why governments in Asia, I am told by officials, are often asking "Where are the Brits?" at trade fairs and other events that are trying to promote environmental technology. UK officials are too embarrassed, they tell me, to say that the UK Government hardly covers expenses so that SMEs cannot attend these trade fairs.

An equally serious limitation is the UK Government's technical agencies not being encouraged to use their expertise and people to promote UK technology. I know this-I used to be head of the Met Office. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee is looking into this. Two years ago, at the beginning of the previous Session of Parliament, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, reported on how all this would change, but I am afraid that I have not seen that, nor have I heard it from officials or indeed SMEs.

One of the great successes of this Government in environmental technology is in the development of satellites and remote sensing. I applaud them for that. However, this success also needs more government support. Last week there was a great crisis in the observation of the Earth's systems and data as one of the most important older satellites ceased operating and no new ones are planned. There were leaders this week in the Economist-most unusual in the Economist on such a technical question-and Nature pointing out this crisis. Without data from these instruments, it will be impossible to provide warnings about natural disasters and long-term climate change.

Government plans for the G8 meeting in 2013 to focus on security and prosperity while monitoring and sustaining the environment are also important and there is great scope for international collaboration and trade to come out of that meeting.