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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:35 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of The Duke of Somerset The Duke of Somerset Crossbench 1:35 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, while we appreciate that few of the Bills alluded to in the Queen’s Speech will be brought forward before the next election, they indicate what the Conservative Party might do in the event that it wins a majority. However, it is also clear that, economically, the UK would be far better off under the status quo of membership rather than under any or no deal. Many parts of these Bills would be unnecessary as the provisions of our EU membership enshrine legislation—as, for instance, with the new Environment Bill, where the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle proposed currently apply to all EU member states.

However, the environment is a hot topic and people want to see cutting-edge policies that will make a real difference. Top of these must be urban air quality. Transport exhausts are a prime target, and not only private road vehicles need to change but also buses and trains, which are so often forgotten—not to mention aviation. Electricity is the favoured medium-term solution, but why are we not leaping straight over to hydrogen power? It has many advantages, the main one being that it is most abundant and pollution free. There are still a few problems to solve, such as transportation of the gas or liquid and its storage. Development and infrastructure costs will be high for both electricity for vehicles and for hydrogen fuel cells, but the latter is surely the silver bullet for our future transportation policies, whereas electricity production is dependent on fossils and will be for some time. The manufacture of storage batteries is extremely polluting. It was, however, good to see that renewables now account for nearly 50% of our generation in some quarters of the year. Have the Government commissioned any research on hydrogen, or are they slavishly following the generally accepted world view on the progression of power sources without questioning it? The £1 billion going to the automotive industry should be spent wisely.

The Government’s time targets for change are not ambitious and rather weak, in my view. I am sure that the motor industry is putting a brake on the speed of change, but policies such as pedestrianisation—Oxford Street comes to mind—and non-fossil fuel vehicles such as taxis and delivery vans going electric, if they go down that route, can be brought in much faster. We now have cleaner hybrid buses on the streets of our cities, but they seem to revert quickly to diesel. Does the Minister have any information on what proportion of their time they operate on electric only? I fear it will not be very high.

And what about trains? Electrification has been pathetically slow. In the West Country, route electrification has only reached as far as Newbury, so the new fleet of Great Western trains has to be hybrid, switching from diesel to overhead pantographs—the inefficiencies of this must be huge. On the railway line I take to Salisbury, South Western Railway operates trains which have a diesel engine under every carriage. The emission of smoke, noise and exhaust fumes that accompany their progress, or worse when they are stationary, is surely no longer acceptable. The line from Salisbury westward is a single track, although one can still see the old rails alongside. A little project, such as dualling this line, illustrates a typical worthy candidate of any cash released from the possible abandonment of HS2 and would greatly improve the reliability of journeys. The Government’s concern for the environment would be well satisfied if this project were scrapped in favour of smaller projects and upgrades throughout the country. The huge environmental cost of driving a new railway through our countryside, SSSIs and people’s houses and businesses has been underrecognised.

On the other hand, I am in favour of building new roads to bypass settlements and plug gaps in A-road dual carriageways. Such a policy would move the pollution away from where people live and avoid the damaging stop-start scenario in towns, where vehicles are at odds with pedestrians.

Another specific example where money will be well spent is at Stonehenge, where the monument—one of the biggest tourist attractions in the West Country—is completely spoilt by the nearby A303, which is often in gridlock. The proposed tunnel has suffered from the vacillating decisions of successive Governments but is now awaiting planning permission. I hope the Transport Secretary will do his best to push this forward.

I turn briefly to agriculture and declare my interest as an arable farmer. A botched Brexit will do serious harm to some sectors, due to adverse tariffs and disadvantageous new trade agreements. Beef and sheep farmers are in the firing line, as are those producing malting barley, where there is currently no market as no exporting ships have been reserved due to the Brexit uncertainty. If farmers struggle or fail, it is the very aims of Defra, such as biodiversity and water and soil quality, that will suffer. The new basis of support—public money for public goods and environmental stewardship—is fine, but the farmers will have to provide the work, and they can only do this while solvent.

It is laudable that the Secretary of State has vowed to maintain and improve food and animal husbandry standards, but it is hard to see how this statement dovetails with the new trade agreements with aggressive and distant countries such as the USA, which operate much looser standards.

Theresa Villiers has also spoken of releasing our farmers from the rigidity and bureaucracy of the CAP. Our civil servants have a reputation for gold-plating EU regulations, so it will be interesting to see how they avoid this course in future.

The Prime Minister recently spoke about increased tree planting in relation to reducing greenhouse gases, which I was pleased to hear, but I wonder on whose land this will happen and with what financial incentive to plant and maintain. Without pre-empting a forthcoming debate, how will this long-term policy happen in the face of an onslaught of tree pests and diseases, often arriving from overseas, that our weak import controls of plants and timber do not sufficiently inhibit? In addition to badger culls, we need proper control of the all-damaging grey squirrel through immunocontraception.

Other noble Lords have talked about broadband, and I hope the Minister will take that forward as well.