My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Woodland Trust and president or vice-president of a range of environmental organisations. Your Lordships have heard a lot about global economics, social justice and business needs tonight, and at this time of night I want to talk to you about trees. This is probably one of the most important Queen’s Speeches for the environment—perhaps more important than any other. That is not immediately obvious from reading the Queen’s Speech, but practically every provision in it will have an environmental impact. However, before I touch on those environmental impacts, I will say that I wish that I was making the brilliant and humane speech that the noble Lord, Lord Low, made right at the beginning of this debate.
To focus on the environment and the gracious Speech, I will make three points. The first is about the repeal Bill. It is interesting that it is no longer called the great repeal Bill— I wonder why. Some 80% of the legislation that affects Defra’s responsibilities in the environmental sphere comes from the European Union, so there is a huge opportunity in transposing European law into UK law for the Government to make good on their manifesto commitment to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than when they inherited. A third of these European legislation regulations that Defra enforces in this country cannot simply be dragged and dropped into the new legislation, so we need a commitment from government to ensure that these pieces of legislation are not watered down either by design or by error when they are transposed and tweaked to make them relevant in a post-EU world. I hope that we can get a guarantee from government that where substantive changes are proposed, that should be by primary rather than secondary legislation. In this House we have all had many long debates about how adequate the scrutiny of secondary legislation is.
We also seek assurances from Ministers that not only the laws and regulations will be transferred but some of the principles of the EU environmental legislation, including things like the precautionary principle and the principle that the polluter should pay. Also, what will take the place of EU enforcement processes and the whole infraction procedure? The big question is: do we now need an environmental court?
My second point is on agriculture. We all hated the common agricultural policy, and it is a bit like being a kid in a sweet shop to be—still with £3 billion in our hands, we hope—able to drive the train set ourselves, and indeed to design the tracks on which it runs. However, the proposals in the gracious Speech seem very much focused on farmers and food, with the environment coming as a poor third. We need to look at an integrated process of land management which delivers a whole range of public benefits, and the public payment should be only for where farmers are rewarded for genuine public goods. These should include environmental services, such as delivering on biodiversity, reducing flood risk, helping with carbon sequestration, and dealing with water and soil protection. Scotland has a rather good integrated land management strategy. Perhaps we could just rub “Scotland” out at the top and put “England” there instead.
The issue in which I would be particularly interested is the integration of farming and forestry. At the moment their relationship is hugely dysfunctional, with the grant systems preventing farmers taking part in good forestry practice. We would also like to see the new agricultural Bill—whatever its terms might be—enabling a turnaround in the poor performance of this country’s planting rates in the future. At the moment, the Government’s target is 5,000 hectares per year but last year we planted less than 1,100.
The third issue that I want to touch on is a non-legislative one, and I have talked about it previously in this House. I greatly welcome the government commitment on better protection for ancient woodland. There is a proposal in the housing White Paper and we would very much like that to be taken forward. Unfortunately, the way in which it is currently framed would not be adequate. It is an urgent issue because the Woodland Trust is already aware of 700 cases where ancient woodland is threatened with damage. Indeed, HS2 managed to put a route through 63 of them in phase 1 and it will be putting the train tracks through 24 more in phase 2. Therefore, there is a real need to improve the protection of ancient woodland to the same level afforded to ancient buildings. I hope that the Minister can reassure me and encourage CLG Ministers to make sure that the tweaks to the proposals happen.
On balance, the European Union was good for the environment. In throwing out Europe, let us not compromise environmental protection. Can the Minister tell us how the gracious Speech will fulfil the very admirable government commitment to this being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it was found in?