Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 2nd June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 7:45 pm, 2nd June 2015

My Lords, it is a matter of regret that the gracious Speech is bereft of measures to protect and enhance the natural environment. I fully accept that this is not a coalition Government’s programme, which would have contained such measures, but it is disappointing that the Conservative manifesto’s commitments to draw up a 25-year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity and to keep the public forests and woodlands in trust for the nation are not included.

I do welcome, however, the strong line on securing a global deal on climate change. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury, in his excellent maiden speech, I agree that a successful outcome to the December meeting in Paris is crucial if we are to address the risks posed by rising average global temperatures. The Government are right to prioritise that international focus, although this parliamentary year will see key national decisions, such as the fifth carbon budget, having to be agreed. Given that the Tory manifesto opposed the introduction of a power sector decarbonisation target—something supported by the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party—I look forward to lively debates over the coming months in this House.

The measure in the gracious Speech that I wish to focus on, however, is the in/out referendum on our membership of the EU. Since the 1970s, Europe has become the core framework in most areas of environmental policy. It covers issues from air to water pollution, from biodiversity conservation to marine protection, the regulation of chemicals, waste and recycling, energy conservation and climate change mitigation, environmental liability and justice. In short, it is the most developed and influential body of environmental law and policy on the global stage. The advantages of an EU-wide approach are clear.

Many environmental problems require concerted action because they are essentially cross-border issues, such as air pollution, migratory species or maritime management. Further, where the issues are global, such as climate change mitigation or deforestation, European nations have much greater influence and leverage when working together.

Successive British Governments have rightly taken the view that European policy is the most effective and efficient means of addressing much of the environmental and climate agenda. The UK has exerted a significant influence on the evolution of that policy in terms of the priorities set, the scientific evidence, the policy tools employed and some of the key measures adopted. The EU’s adoption of a 40% cut in greenhouse gas levels by 2030, which is critical in the ongoing climate negotiations, is one example where Britain played a pivotal role.

Of course, with an increasingly diverse group of countries, decisions can be slower and compromises can be uncomfortable. Noble Lords need no further reminder from me, given the excellent reminders from the noble Lords, Lord Plumb and Lord Curry, that implementation and enforcement are constant issues. It is not a perfect Union, but these drawbacks, while they should not be glossed over, are substantially outweighed by the multiple benefits to the environment and, indeed, to the economy. At the RSPCA and the CPRE I saw the value of the birds and habitats directives in protecting nature-rich habitats and species. While a member of this House’s EU Committee in its inquiry into energy policy, I heard how business values the level playing field and reasonable level of policy certainty that the stability of EU policy offers—particularly those companies and utilities investing in large projects with long payback periods, such as renewable energy plants and transmission lines. EU environmental measures have helped to stimulate innovation, for example in the car industry—as the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, mentioned earlier in Questions—following the introduction of binding standards on emissions.

The overall impact of EU membership in the environmental domain can be judged to be strongly positive to the UK. With the gracious Speech firing the starting gun on a race towards a possible exit from Europe, it is time now for all those who recognise its value for the environment to speak out loud and clear. It is poignant to say that on a day when we have lost a friend such as Charles Kennedy, who was such a passionate pro-European and committed environmentalist. I hope that the environment movement as a whole will join Members on all sides of this House—it is a great sadness that the noble Lord, Lord Deben, is no longer in his place—who stand up for the environment and are prepared to make the case for Britain to stay in Europe.