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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:33 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour 3:33 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, much of which I agree with. However, I will focus more on climate change. In this context I very much welcome the advent of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, to this House and approve of her speech, which accords with much of what I have to say.

The gracious Speech included precisely six words on climate change. The Minister had a few more this morning, but not many. Yet this is the biggest challenge facing us and, as the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, has reminded us, we will not be on course for the next two periods of carbon budget. We have a lot to do. There are potentially things in this legislative programme that will help, but by no means enough.

We must remember that we have set a target for 2050, and there is some argument over whether that should be brought forward. Even if that is the target, it is how we approach it that is important—it is no use doing it in a straight line or backloading it. We need to take some drastic early steps if we are to reduce the concentration in our atmosphere of those dangerous gases.

The right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister this morning announced that he was going to set up a new climate change committee. I think he—or Downing Street, given that he is rather busy elsewhere just now—may rather belatedly have found out that there was a bit of a reaction to the lack of reference to climate change in the legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech. Incidentally, I have argued elsewhere that this House should establish a new climate change committee, which would help hold the Government to account in this light.

The legislation on this is inadequate. There is, as has been pointed out, no transport Bill. Transport is a major emitter. There is no energy Bill, yet energy is a huge part of what we need to deal with. There is no housing Bill, yet the nature of buildings is very important. The bits which are proposed as serious contributions against climate change are not properly spelled out. I have tried to read the Environment Bill. I am not sure I understand it completely and certainly welcome the inclusion of the principles in it, but the structure it is proposing for the Office for Environmental Protection is unclear—its independence, powers, potential sanctions and relationship with existing organisations and other public bodies all need greater clarification as we take the Bill through this House. Frankly, it does not have the implied authority that the European Commission used to have in threatening Governments with fines and reputational damage were they to fail to meet the legislative requirements or targets of the European Union. This House needs to address that very seriously.

We are not quite sure what shape the agriculture Bill will be in when it reaches us. We hope it will resolve some of the uncertainty in the agricultural community and give us a strategic medium-term programme for agriculture. I see that it proposes abolishing the single farm payment. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, will recall that I was partially responsible for bringing the single farm payment through this House during the reforms to the agricultural policy at that time. It was not brilliantly handled, one must say, but the principle of the single farm payment is that it applies to all agricultural land. As I understand it, the Bill proposes that there will be public good arrangements with farmers that will apply to pieces of land. However, it is no use having the best agricultural scheme for a quarter of your land if the other three-quarters are being farmed by plough, pesticides and fertilisers in an inappropriate way that damages our soil, air and water. There is something to be said for an all-agricultural land approach.

On the other legislation, I welcome the references to a building regulations Bill in relation to the post-Grenfell safety requirements, but with building regulations, you need to enforce them. The problem, as with other aspects of local government, is that the building regulations departments of most local authorities have been severely run down. If we are to improve safety regulations, we need to make sure that they are properly enforced, but improved building regulations also need to include regulations on energy and water saving. Energy efficiency is vital. Not having an energy Bill in this programme is a big gap. That Bill needs to step up the commitment to renewables and the nuclear programme if we are to meet our targets for emissions reductions. It also needs a major chapter on energy efficiency—in housing and elsewhere. That needs to be a central part of our national infrastructure strategy. At the moment it is only half there, if that.

Another vital decision on energy has yet to be taken. Domestic heating, mostly gas and partially oil, is a big cause of emissions in most of our homes. A decision needs to be taken on how we are going to switch that to a lower-carbon source, whether that is electrification, hydrogen, increased use of biogas or a mixture of those. That will mean the intrusion of government policy and industrial action into all our households that currently run on gas. That will mean taking consumers with you. It will mean taking workers in the industries with you. It will mean taking the public with you in what will be the biggest transformation of domestic heating—rather bigger than in my youth, when we had the introduction of North Sea gas.

Climate change is the issue of our time. We have spent a lot of time on the failure of statesmanship on Brexit—the failure of British and European politicians to resolve that complex issue. We have spent most of the past three years arguing about that. But a much bigger failure of statesmanship is the failure to tackle climate change. It is our fault: 85% of all emissions in all concentrations in the atmosphere have occurred during my lifetime; more shamefully, nearly half have happened since the Rio conference, when statesmen theoretically recognised the science and that something needed to be done. We are the generation that needs to change that, and we need to do so rapidly. We need to beef up this legislative programme as a contribution to doing so.