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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:52 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Liberal Democrat 2:52 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, this year the UN’s report on biodiversity and ecosystems outlined that nature has been declining at the fastest rate in human history. In my lifetime, we have lost 41% of the wildlife species in this country. In the face of that ecological crisis and the climate crisis, the case for which has been made so strongly on our pavements over recent weeks by Extinction Rebellion and others, it is right that the gracious Speech refers to proposals that aim to improve our environment.

However, the fundamental question has to be, in the face of a Government so zealously championing free trade, whether that can be made a reality, because it is quite clear that our farmers will be used as a bargaining chip in the face of US demands that, in return for access to its banking and finance sectors, we will have to take its food, with its lower environmental, food and animal welfare standards. Let us not forget that America has growth hormones in its beef, pork and dairy production. There are no federal laws protecting the welfare of hens, and in most states sows are kept in stalls for their entire gestatory period—whereas we, who are members of the European Union, have the highest animal welfare and environmental standards in the world. If we allow in American food, we will be accepting lower standards, which will put our farmers at risk. Let us not forget that 70% of our countryside is farmed. If our farmers cannot have a sustainable future, there is no hope for us to protect our environment.

I listened very carefully to the response last night from the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, when he was asked what had happened in the light of the fall of the Trade Bill and the welcome commitments that this House supported on animal welfare and the environment, which the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, my noble friend Lord Fox and others mentioned. In his reply, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, gave no guarantees that animal welfare and environmental protections would be kept in future trade deals. I listened carefully too to what the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, said in her opening remarks about free trade, where she committed to maintaining only consumer protections. She did not specifically mention animal welfare or environmental protections. So my fear is that we could face the bulldozing of our countryside in the face of an ideologically driven free-trade deal, which the Government seem hell-bent on pushing for.

There are things in the gracious Speech that I welcome. Like others, I welcome the commitment to the long-term targets. They have been a manifesto commitment and Liberal Democrat policy for many years, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, will be only too able to confirm, because she has listened, when we have shared platforms in the past, to me boring on about the subject. I am sure that we will not be bored by her today and I look forward to her future contributions in the House.

The question is: if we get these targets, how will we fund them? The JNCC has indicated that, in the last 20 years, funding for biodiversity has dropped by 42% as a percentage of GDP. Of course, local authorities have a critical role to play in protecting our biodiversity and adapting to climate change. There is nothing in the gracious Speech about tackling the problems in social care, yet social care is eating up the majority of local authority budgets, so I am not sure where the funding to protect the environment will be.

Similarly, how will it be enforced? We have heard about the office for environmental protection, but it seems that it will be insufficiently independent and it certainly will not have the teeth to hold the Government to account. It cannot fine the Government, which the existing EU institutions can—and that has played such an important role in bringing this Government, sometimes kicking and screaming, to protect our communities and our children in particular from air pollution. Looking at the Environment Bill, as I am sure other noble Lords have done, I see that there is a “get out of jail free” card. There is a commitment to include in the Bill the environmental principles that we have in Europe at the moment, such as the precautionary principles, but what gives effect to them has been hived off to a separate policy statement.

In the Bill itself, in Part 1, Chapter 1, Clause 18, the “get out of jail free” card is the phrase about Ministers not being obliged to take, or being able to refrain from taking, any action if the environmental benefits would be disproportionate when compared with other factors. For me, that is a green light for major infrastructure projects. I noticed that the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, championed airport expansion in her opening remarks. That clause seems to be a green light for major infrastructure projects, where short-term economic advantage will be used to trump the long-term environmental protection that we need in this country.

So it seems that we have in the Queen’s Speech some commitment and some hopes that we might be able to protect the environment, but that we are not willing the means to deliver this. Therefore, to my mind the deal we have at present in the European Union is the best one for our country and for our environment. It cannot come too soon that we have a people’s vote.