Amendment 95

Environment Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 28th June 2021.

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Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park:

Moved by Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park

95: Clause 22, page 13, line 25, at end insert “, and(b) how the OEP intends to co-operate with devolved environmental governance bodies.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment provides that the OEP’s strategy must set out how the OEP intends to co-operate with devolved environmental governance bodies (as defined in Clause 46 of the Bill).

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

Amendment 95 creates a duty for the OEP to set out in its strategy how it intends to interact with devolved environmental governance bodies, as defined in the Bill. It will promote co-operation between the OEP and devolved environmental governance bodies, and respect the devolution settlements by imposing this duty on the OEP only. Government Amendment 95 complements other measures in this Bill that enable the OEP to share relevant information with equivalent bodies and require it to consult them on any matters relevant to their functions.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, has outlined the importance of consultation with devolved counterparts in previous debates, and I hope that this government amendment will therefore be welcomed by him, in particular. This is a crucial addition to these other measures, which together will ensure that the OEP and devolved bodies can co-ordinate their functions effectively for the benefit of our environment across the union.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, Amendment 96 in my name has nothing to do with Amendment 95 but, for the convenience of the Whips’ Office, has been grouped with it.

In this legislation and many other policies, we aim to accomplish substantial changes in people’s behaviour. Particularly when it comes to keeping the heat down, we are faced with immediate disbenefits—things we are asking of people to make their lives worse or different. Therefore, we need to find a way of taking people with us, of explaining to and sharing decisions with them, to have their confidence and mean that they, with us, will take the decisions we need to take. The fundamentals of this are that we should be telling the truth, being transparent and trusting the public. Those are the virtues that I would like to see inculcated into the OEP.

The amendment asks that we gather research and information, because it is hard to find what you want if you are an ordinary member of the public or someone trying to put together an understanding that would allow them to critique government policy, to end up as an informed supporter or to offer helpful suggestions. Secondly, we should make it open, because far too much vital information is hidden behind paywalls. Thirdly, we should make it clear how the evidence supports government policies because, that way, people can see why they should be lining up behind the Government.

Absent that, we will get a lot of policies that sound nice but whose outcomes are suboptimal, and we will lose public support. Take an easy example: recycling. We all sort of want to do it but, when the council turns up outside my door, it smashes the glass into the paper. How is that recycled? Is it recycled or does it just go off to the incinerator? What is the truth? What is actually happening to justify all the effort that I have put in to separating one lot of rubbish from another? I cannot find the answer to that, but it ought to be easy.

Take another example: plant-based diets. We are told they save lives, alleviate hunger, reduce climate change, save water and minimise land use. That makes sense; there are obvious reasons to cut out the middle cow, go straight to the source of the energy and process it ourselves. That way, we ought to have much less impact on the planet. I have been indulging in an experiment, because my daughter went vegan at Christmas, and I record my thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi for making that a process that I have been able to endure.

However, you soon come to notice that milk from a cow is 90p a litre and milk from an oat is £1.80 a litre. If the plant-based diet arguments were right, it ought to be 45p a litre. Some of the difference may be down to rapacious Swedish capitalists outfoxing socially minded British supermarkets, but not that much. The problem is that we are not being offered information on the whole system costs; we are being offered information that cherry-picks things and leads us to make suboptimal decisions.

I rather suspect that it costs more to produce oat milk than it does cows’ milk. Generally, costs equate to energy and resources used. Based on the information I have, it seems very possible that oat milk is worse for the climate and environment than cows’ milk. Cows use the whole plant and process it at the point of consumption, rather than having to drag it to factories around the planet. The inefficiencies of the production of oat milk are magicked away by the rhetoric. After all, it is a cow-based economy that has been chosen by Knepp as the basis for its rewilding. A cow-based economy, run right, is strongly pro-wildlife. Going vegan has certainly resulted in a big uplift in the weekly bill. If we want people to go in that direction, that must not be the case. Indeed, it ought not to be the case on the basis of the arguments.

So I am not sure about that, but I am sure that I am not being given the real data and the whole picture. I am not being taken into the confidence of the decision-makers. We need to alter that. We need to empower the public so that we make choices that are effective in getting to the goals that we are all agreed on achieving.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Conservative 8:45 pm, 28th June 2021

My Lords, in addressing the amendment put forward by my noble friend the Minister, the Committee has today listened to some skilful analysis of the devolution situation from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. I await his comments on this amendment with some interest.

I want to probe my noble friend the Minister a little more on one aspect of what he sees as the content of his amendment, which refers to

“how the OEP intends to co-operate with devolved environmental governance bodies.”

Like some of your Lordships, I sat in the House as we debated Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act in 1998. The argument ended up being not to reserve the environment to Westminster, but there was still the oversight of all the EU’s environmental legislation to fall back on. That is the situation we face at the moment.

The Government are working on the problems that this now presents. I understand that they have hopes of a legislative consent Motion for their ideas. We foresaw some of this when we debated the Trade Bill in January. The Government were prepared to admit that one route to achieving agreements was to have a number of framework agreements. How many frameworks do the Government expect to have in relation to the environment, and what mechanism are they using to reach agreement on any of them? Are they working on any of these? If so, what stage have they reached? I wonder whether my noble friend could give us some details either now or in writing.

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee

My Lords, I will make a couple of brief points in relation to Amendment 96 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. First, a system exists that I think would meet what the noble Lord is asking for: I refer, of course, to the guidelines developed by Lord May of Oxford when he was the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser. These guidelines have three core principles governing the use of evidence in policy-making, which is partly what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was talking about. They are: first, seek a wide range of expert opinion; secondly, recognise uncertainties in the evidence; and thirdly, openness and transparency in the use of evidence. These guidelines will be especially important for the OEP because many, if not most, of the environmental issues that it will deal with will be ones where the evidence is contested. People will have strongly held opposing views, or they will claim that the evidence is incomplete or that there is uncertainty.

The answer to the request from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is for the OEP to follow the Government Chief Scientific Adviser’s guidelines. At the same time, the OEP may wish to follow the example of many other public bodies in conducting as much of its business as possible in public meetings so that the decision-making processes can be directly observed and the evidence, as it is being evaluated, can be studied by the public. Does the Minister agree that it would be valuable if the OEP operated under the guidelines set out by the Chief Scientific Adviser?

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. As always, his contribution has made a useful addition to the debate and he has put down a useful specific question.

I rise to speak in favour of the ideas and aims behind the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, although I come at this from a somewhat different direction. The noble Lord suggested that this was the way the Government, or the OEP, could lead the public; I suggest that we look at it from the other way around. On many environmental issues, whether you look at the climate strikers or last year’s people’s assembly on the climate, the public have in fact been leading and pushing companies and the Government to act. It is very helpful to the public to have available the information and published material, but rather than thinking about this as us leading the public, let us see it in other terms: as more of a partnership.

This amendment also takes us back to some of our debates on the Agriculture Bill, when we talked about the lack of agricultural extension and of independent advice to farmers. Indeed, a group of farmers I talked to last week were bemoaning the lack of independent advice available to farmers. A great deal of the information that might be collected and put together by the office for environmental protection would also be of great use to farmers. I think here of what the noble Lord, Lord Curry, said on the last group of amendments about regulatory capture. We want this to be available.

As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, a lot of research is behind paywalls. We are lucky enough in your Lordships’ House to have the wonderful Library; we can ask it to get anything we want, but that is not available to the public. It is a great pity that far too much publicly funded research is still hidden behind paywalls. The research that guides the OEP should be publicly available.

Finally, I turn to the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about oat milk. I remind him that the practical reality of our economy is that a great many externalised costs are not paid by the producers or sellers of a product and are therefore not reflected in the price tag. Many farmers are barely being paid, or not being paid, the production costs of their milk, reflecting the economic power of the supermarkets. I also point out that you can of course make your own oat milk, which would cut out the middle person, save you a great deal of money and cut out a great deal of packaging as well.

Photo of Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Hope of Craighead Chair, High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill Select Committee (Lords), Chair, High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill Select Committee (Lords)

My Lords, the Minister invited me to welcome government amendment 95, which of course I do and I imagine that, if he were here, the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, would do the same. It is particularly encouraging, if I may say so, that this amendment comes from the Government. It has not been necessary for me or the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, to struggle to get an amendment in these terms through the House. It is an example of a welcome and increasing recognition throughout government at Westminster that the devolved Administrations really do matter and need to be respected as equal partners in the various endeavours we are engaged in to maintain the integrity and standing of our country. That is particularly so in relation to the environment, where we are so dependent upon each other.

I am grateful to the Government for taking the initiative. This is a welcome amendment and it has my full support.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope.

I want to make a couple of points about information. Before I was into food, I was a journalist all my life, and I am very aware of how information gets into newspapers; probably 50% of the stories in the press at the moment come from PR companies. Meanwhile, a great many of our APPGs are sponsored by corporate interests that want to tell a particular story. About two years ago I was invited to sit on an obesity taskforce that was set up by an APPG. It was not until we were at the last meeting that we realised the whole thing had in fact been sponsored by Danone. A bunch of us took our names off the report at that point because you do not want to be associated with someone who is actually causing the problem.

I come back to what has been debated in the main today: the independence of the OEP and the type of information that it agrees to have. The issue of the oat milk tells the entire story. This is a company that wants to sell a lot and make a lot, so it tells a story. Whose information are we going to believe? It is incredibly important to remember that the situation with climate change is changing all the time, so all sorts of voices can get pre-eminence and the ones with a lot of money and deep pockets can buy their way into influence and buy and sponsor research. We all know the stories of what happened with the tobacco industry, and the same has been true of the fossil fuel industry. To have unbiased, genuine information from a setup like the OEP, which is genuinely independent, is vital because otherwise, we will always be prey to the types of commercial interests that got us into this problem in the first place.

Photo of Lord Khan of Burnley Lord Khan of Burnley Opposition Whip (Lords)

I shall speak to government Amendment 95 and Amendment 96 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

We welcome Amendment 95, which will require the OEP to set out a clear strategy of co-operation between itself and the devolved governance bodies. The 2021 Scottish continuity Act established Environmental Standards Scotland to carry out oversight functions in Scotland broadly similar to those of the OEP. Furthermore, the Welsh Government have committed to establishing a commission for the environment, independent from the Welsh Government, which will oversee the implementation of environment law in Wales.

Devolution is one of the UK’s greatest strengths but it also presents some practical challenges, which is no doubt one of the reasons why noble Lords have tabled devolution-focused amendments throughout the Bill. Partnership and collective working in matters of common interest has to be the way forward. The Minister outlined the rationale behind Amendment 95 and spoke to some wider devolution considerations in his introduction, but what other steps does his department plan to take to ensure that we strike the right balance between respecting devolved competence and ensuring a joined-up approach to tackling the climate and ecological emergency?

Amendment 96 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, requests the inclusion of a truth and openness policy in the OEP’s overarching strategy, and the noble Lord used the words “taking people with us”. Several colleagues have referenced the need for evidence-based policy-making in other debates on the Bill, and this amendment offers an interesting approach to ensuring that high-quality data, research and information is available not only to decision-makers in Whitehall but also to the public. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, looked at this issue; he mentioned evidence in policy-making and considered a policy of the OEP using the guidelines established by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser.

We are all alive to the fact that addressing climate change is going to require changes and sacrifices in our lifestyles, but if we are to achieve the level of buy-in that we need, the public must be able to have confidence in the policy-making process and the decisions taken by Ministers. While this goes slightly beyond the scope of Amendment 96, I wonder if the Minister could confirm whether he has had any conversations with counterparts at DCMS regarding their efforts, through the Online Safety Bill and other initiatives, to target disinformation on climate change?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 9:00 pm, 28th June 2021

I thank noble Lords for their contributions.

Although I welcome the commitment to transparency of my noble friend Lord Lucas, Amendment 96 would effectively cause the OEP to become a data bank. This would weaken its ability to focus on its principal objective of contributing to environmental protection and to the improvement of the natural environment. The OEP cannot simply publish commercially held data, nor can it ignore the sensitivity and confidentiality of certain data which may inform policy-making and make it public. It will be subject to clear requirements set out in existing law, such as the Data Protection Act 2018, which govern access to and protection of information. I highlight that the Bill explicitly sets out that the OEP must have regard to the need to act transparently. However, there may be occasions when the OEP cannot be transparent and make information publicly available, such as during the investigation of a complaint.

The Government support making environmental data open and public where possible: for instance, through DATA.GOV.UK. Defra is also developing a new interactive dashboard to improve access to the open data used in the 25-year environment plan outcome indicator framework. Defra published an update on 11 June which I encourage any noble Lords interested in this area to view.

My noble friend questioned the discrepancy in cost between cows’ milk and oat milk. Although I cannot pretend to know the absolute details, I can remind him that the thesis of the Dasgupta review was reconciling our economy with nature, learning to value valuable things and adding costs to pollution, waste and plunder. That is not the case today, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, made very clear in her speech earlier; unfortunately, the consumer often pays twice, over the counter and then through their taxes, or perhaps through a damaged environment. If products reflected the true costs of production, I suspect that the price system would be very different across most products today.

I was asked by my noble friend the Duke of Montrose to write to him about—I have to remind myself what I promised; I am now promising to write him about something and I cannot remember what it was. Yes, it was about the framework agreements that we have made with the devolved Administrations. I will take him up on that offer and I will write to him as soon as possible.

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, asked whether I believed that the OEP should follow the guidelines and guidance of the chief scientific adviser. It is certainly the case that the two should be working very closely together. Whether that relationship should be formalised is a different issue—I suspect probably not. However, I would expect that relationship to be a close one.

Finally, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for his kind comments about this amendment.

So I hope I have reassured the noble Lord and I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for his explanation of the reasons why he cannot go down the road that I would like him to go down. I suspect that, after I have studied them, I will fully accept them. However, it seems to me that, one way or another, we have to find a way to empower ordinary people to make these decisions and not leave this as something which is happening to them—particularly if, at the end of the day, we will be asking them to pay more for things or to not have things that they have at the moment.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I simply say that I very strongly agree, and that will remain a focus of the Government.

Amendment 95 agreed.

Amendment 96 not moved.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 97. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.