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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 3:07 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, I am honoured to have this opportunity to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, on her spirited maiden speech and on the issues that she rightly highlights. We on these Benches are delighted to welcome another committed environmentalist to the House and I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, who has been the doughty sole representative of the Green Party, will be pleased to have the company of her party’s former leader, who did indeed keep up with the Joneses. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is known for her spirit and plain speaking, which I suspect were fostered in her early years in Australia and then in her career in international journalism, so I advise the Government to brace themselves. I am sure that the House wishes the noble Baroness, with her skills in journalism, local government, agriculture and the environment, a vigorous and impactful career in our House.

Turning to the gracious Speech, I declare an interest as chair of the Woodland Trust. The Prime Minister, very poetically, said this morning that the UK will have the best environmental performance in the world. If he is going to deliver that, he needs to do a bit better than this Queen’s Speech. The climate change and biodiversity emergency is real, so the Environment Bill needs to introduce legally binding targets for biodiversity as well as for air, water and waste, with real mechanisms for delivering and reporting on delivery.

The climate and biodiversity emergency means that the Environment Bill must also introduce legally binding targets for tree planting in this country. I commend every word of the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Stone. Trees are the environmental version of the Swiss army penknife—other brands of multitool are of course available. Trees eat CO2 for breakfast and foster biodiversity, as well as their many other environmental and health benefits, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Stone. The Committee on Climate Change says that we will have to plant 50 million-plus trees a year in the UK for the next 12 years to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and enable trees to play their full role in maintaining temperature rise below the globally dangerous 1.5 degrees.

However, the Government’s non-binding target for tree planting over the five years of the previous Parliament—do your Lordships remember when we used to have Parliaments that lasted five years? I do not think that we will have many of those in the near future—was for 11 million trees over five years. I am afraid that the Government failed to hit even that very low target. We all marvel at Ethiopia—we marvel at its veracity, if the truth were known—when it claims to have planted 350 million trees in a day. Now that is what I call ambition. Let us have an ambitious but realistic legally binding target for tree planting, for climate change and for biodiversity as part of a national tree strategy enshrined in law. This is an important issue as part of this crisis. I also commend to your Lordships the fact that on 30 November the Woodland Trust is holding a mass planting day as one step in the big climate change fightback. Thousands of people across the UK will plant millions of trees and I invite all your Lordships to join us, either online or in the mud, in this glorious joint endeavour.

The Environment Bill will also set up the office for environmental protection, to fill the yawning gap that would have been left in departing from the EU’s environmental compliance mechanisms. Zac Goldsmith, the Minister, said yesterday that the environment movement had asked for the new green watchdog to have teeth. Lo and behold, the Government have given us a great white shark. While I welcome the fact that the OEP will now cover climate change, if it is to be a genuine great white shark it needs to have the teeth of genuine independence and adequate resources. The Government’s track record in funding such bodies is not good. Over the last few years Natural England, as the current biodiversity regulator, has had successive cuts to the point where it risks being toothless.

There are other issues on which the Environment Bill fails to give statutory reassurance. Non-regression from EU environmental standards is incredibly important and I share the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, that the hurly-burly of the trade negotiations will mean that the Government’s protestations on non-regression from those standards will simply disappear. That assurance should be on the face of the Environment Bill. If the Government are as genuine as they say they are about not lowering standards, what is the problem in putting that assurance into the Bill? Of course, in the background lurk the shadowy members of the ERG—the correlation between ERG membership and climate change-denying, free-trade prosecuting, deregulating and generally flat-earth beliefs is pretty positive. Indeed, if we look at the Americans’ first offer on a trade deal with us last December, the US was explicit that environmental standards would have to change. The trade Bill must keep faith with the Environment Bill, as those Bills go through, to make sure that the commitments in the Environment Bill do not disappear in the trade Bill negotiations.

The Ministers—the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, and the noble Baroness, Lady Vere—will no doubt say that I am an ungrateful doom-monger about the Environment Bill, so I must welcome one point. That is the commitment to legislate to require local authorities to consult their local communities before commencing street tree-felling programmes. I am sure that our maiden speaker will reflect glory on that at some stage.

I turn to the agriculture Bill, if we ever get one. This is our opportunity, as the only thing that gives a silver lining to Brexit is that, with wisdom, we could shape agriculture policy in a better way than has been possible for the last 45 years. However, we must not lose the valuable improvements that were made to the previous agriculture Bill in the other place; indeed, we must not lose the £3 billion of investment in agricultural support, for whatever purpose, that has been the case to date.

It is time now for something much more fundamental. We need a new land use strategy for this country—for England, as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already have theirs. Those strategies are perfectly good; we could just score out the heading and write “England” on the top. There are so many competing pressures now on our land—for food, for trees, for climate change needs, for peatlands, for biodiversity, for housing and development and for infrastructure—that we need a national debate on what land is for and what uses should be directed where to make the most effective use of this precious natural resource, one that we are not making any more of. The foresight report that the Government sponsored 10 years ago took no account of the current biodiversity and climate change emergencies, so we need new strategic thinking. I put the Minister on notice that I will table amendments on the creation of a land use strategy when either the Environment Bill or the agriculture Bill proceed. He may decide which Bill he would prefer.

I could say more but I will not, because I have run out of time. However, I must confess that I got quite excited when I saw the number of Bills with environmental opportunities in the gracious Speech. They give the chance to tackle climate change and the biodiversity crisis. Then I remembered Boris, Brexit and an election and I realised that none of these Bills might get very far, so I got very gloomy again.