Amendment 19

Environment Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 8th September 2021.

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Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle:

Moved by Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle

19: Clause 17, page 11, line 8, at end insert—“(f) the principle that policies and decisions should take into account the interests of members of future generations.”

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

My Lords, I rise at the request of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, to move Amendment 19. He wishes me to send his sincere apologies that he is unable to be here today. I shall do my best to be a substitute, although I am not quite sure that my acting skills are up to it—but I shall do my best.

The amendment is very simple; it would add an extra principle to the list of principles to be considered, stating that

“policies and decisions should take into account the interests of members of future generations”.

The fact is that we know that the climate emergency and nature crisis are already here, but even more severe impacts are waiting in the wings for future generations. We are seeing floods and forest fires, and these impacts will grow in coming decades. Future generations are desperate for us to do something now so that they get a chance of a decent life.

In this Chamber we have all benefited from the vision, bravery and foresight of past generations, whether that is a parent or grandparent who fought in a number of 20th-century wars or those who founded the NHS or decriminalised homosexuality. Indeed, noble Lords may remember the noble Lord, Lord Bird, speaking very powerfully on his Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill at greater length on those issues. We are in a unique position now to change the course of history for our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and those not yet born, to make their lives better and safer and more secure, stable and prosperous. This amendment sets that out as a principle of government action. We need to acknowledge that responsibility and to listen to the young people who are saying, “What are you doing to our future now?”

We must have a commitment to long-term thinking and interrogating the consequences of our policy decisions—to look for better solutions to today’s problems that will leave the future better off. We all know—many Members of your Lordships’ House who have been former members of Governments within these walls have recognised—that decisions in the past have had unintended consequences. We have to start trying to solve the problems that we have created.

That was my introduction to the amendment. I wish to add one personal comment. We have a huge problem with short-term thinking. It is the nature of our political system; other political systems with different electoral arrangements and modern functional constitutions produce more long-term thinking and different kinds of approaches. It is beyond the scope of today to get into tackling that, but we can, by writing this principle of considering future generations into the Bill, do something to change the nature of our decision-making.

I turn to Amendment 20 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, also signed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and me. I want to pick up a few points from the same amendment proposed in Committee. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, asked a question then, and I really want to reinforce it, because we did not get an answer to it in Committee. She pointed out that in the Climate Change Act there is a requirement to have due regard for the military. What is different about this? We have discussed again and again in this debate the way in which biodiversity and climate are interrelated. If it applies to climate, how can it possibly not apply to the military and Treasury in this Bill too?

I also want to address the point about ensuring that the Treasury is covered by these provisions. The economy is a complete subset of the environment, and I note that there is currently a petition calling for the Government to set up a well-being economy, so that the Treasury makes its decisions on the basis of the well-being of people and planet, which has approaching 60,000 signatures.

In Committee, I referred to the integrated review, which acknowledges that the climate emergency is at the centre of security policy. It says that climate change and biodiversity loss are our number one international priority. How then can we not be seeing the environmental principles covering all our security activities? The Minister in Committee said that excluding those two paragraphs

“could restrict our response to urgent threats”.

It was suggested that the application would not be proportionate. I point the Minister to Clause 17(2) of the Bill, which says that the

“‘policy statement on environmental principles’ … should be interpreted and proportionately applied by Ministers … when making policy”.

Proportionality is already there in every aspect of the application of environmental principles.

In responding to questions about the Treasury being covered, the Minister said in Committee that we have to have

“maximum flexibility in respect of the nation’s finances”.—[Official Report, 28/6/21; col. 579.]

We can see where that got us. We have seen successive Governments of a number of different hues continuing to freeze the fuel duty escalator, which, up to 2019, had cost the Government cumulatively £8 billion. Of course, it is very difficult to measure, but there was certainly significant environmental damage, as the cost of public transport has kept going up and up and people have found themselves priced back into their cars. As the Overseas Development Institute noted in November 2020, the UK was last on a list of 11 OECD countries in terms of the levels of fossil fuel subsidies coming from the Treasury and going to the industries that are trashing our planet, and on transparency.

With environmental principles, the key really is in the word “principles”. Those principles should apply across the board to government, with the already existing allowance for due flexibility, particularly in case of emergency. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee, Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee 5:45 pm, 8th September 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for moving the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bird. I support the sentiments and the important issues that it raises and thank her for her remarks and her support for my Amendment 20.

The point of Amendment 20 is to help the Government’s policy statement on the environmental principles to put environmental protection at the heart of government decision-making. Currently, the principles ask departmental Ministers to consider the least environmentally damaging option when they are looking at a range of policy options. However, not all Ministers are obliged to take that policy statement into account. The MoD and the Treasury are exempted because defence and tax and spending have a disapplication from the existing statement on environmental principles.

I thank the Minister and his colleagues for meeting me over this summer to discuss this matter, but I am disappointed that we have not made as much progress as I thought we might, and I reserve my right to test the opinion of the House on this matter. As the noble Baroness said, the Minister said in Committee that the reason for this exemption was that it could restrict our response to urgent threats. I accept entirely that the MoD will have urgent threats which it needs to respond to, and I would support the Government coming forward with a targeted disapplication to enable that to happen. However, this is not a targeted disapplication; it is a blanket disapplication for the MoD. The MoD has a third of all the UK’s SSSIs—our most special land for habitats and for environmental protection. In addition, there are all the tenanted farmers, the ancient woodlands and all the land that could deliver so much in terms of natural resource protection on the 2% of the UK land mass which is the military estate in the UK.

There are plenty of examples in pockets of the MoD where it shows that it can marry together environmental protection and the protection of the state. However, unless we change this clause as it stands, I fear that the description in the National Audit Office review in 2020 of environmental protection in the MoD as a Cinderella service will not change. Equally, since then, in March of this year, the Minister Jeremy Quin MP and others launched the MoD’s new climate change and sustainability approach. It says:

“The response to climate change and sustainability in Defence must be led from the top and applied across all areas and at all levels.”

Without this amendment, that cannot be delivered.

As regards the exemption for the Treasury and for tax and spending policy, given the importance of tax policies and departmental budgets to deliver environmental targets when we are looking at managing the land for protecting the environment, it is almost unbelievable that there is that exemption. It means that Ministers will not have to consider environmental matters when they are looking at spending issues such as roads. As the noble Baroness said, the Minister’s response was that the exemption was to allow maximum flexibility. In the Government’s response to the Dasgupta review, which was produced earlier and to which the Government have signed up, they accepted that nature was a macro- economic consideration and supported setting out steps to align national expenditure with climate and environmental goals. Without this amendment, that cannot be delivered.

It is not just me saying that; since we last met in Committee, the office for environmental protection has given its first advice—at the request of the Government—on the draft environmental principles policy statement. I will quote from the chief executive offer of the OEP, which we will come on to in the next group of amendments. Natalie Prosser said that

“there are such important benefits to be reaped should policy-making across all departments embrace and live by these principles.”

That is all departments—not some departments. It would be a very worrying sign if the Government were to refuse that first piece of advice from the OEP.

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

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and I have put my name to Amendment 20. I will be very brief, because I had a real moment of joy and optimism this morning when I read the latest Defra briefing notes, called Key Facts on the Environmental Principles. I will read out two sentences from this factsheet, which lead me to believe—if these really are facts, as it says —that the Government have changed their mind. First, “Ministers across government”—I emphasise that—“will be legally obliged to consider the principles in all policy development where it impacts the environment”. Secondly, “All government departments” —I emphasise that—“must consider the environmental principles policy statement when developing policy”.

I assume that unless the key facts are not key facts, the Government have indeed accepted Amendment 20, and I very much look forward to the Minister confirming that in his response.

Photo of The Bishop of Oxford The Bishop of Oxford Bishop

My Lords, I shall speak in favour of Amendments 19 and 20, and passionately so.

Many members of your Lordships’ House have spoken of the urgency of the crisis before us; just yesterday, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch issued a powerful joint statement. They appealed to those with “far-reaching responsibilities”—including ourselves—to

“make short-term sacrifices to safeguard all our futures; become leaders in the transition to just and sustainable economies.”

There can be no exceptions.

Last week I was privileged to take part in an interdisciplinary gathering in Milton Keynes, which is part of my diocese of Oxford, which brought together, through the agency of Citizens UK, a range of contributors on the climate crisis. The first speech of about 12 during the evening was the most memorable. It was from a 19 year-old woman who described how, when she was 16, she first encountered the news of the climate crisis. She was told—mistakenly, of course—that nothing could now be done, so serious was it, and that the world would end in 10 years. The impact of this news was absolutely devastating to her mental health. She has moved on and is now active in climate campaigning, but her speech was a real eye-opener to the importance of engaging with future generations and those who are now young on this issue and all those with power and responsibility, indicating that they are part of our considerations.

With regard to Amendment 20, the Bill and the climate crisis need to be taken with equal seriousness across the whole of government. The submissions already made to your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Environment and Climate Change, of which I am privileged to be a member, indicate a catastrophic variation in the place these issues have on the agendas of major departments of state. These exceptions signal that this can be tolerated when the opposite is the case. Every part of national and local government, every church and charity, company, institution and household need to play their part, and that includes the MoD and the Treasury. As has been said, we need a fresh pair of economic spectacles.

Another contribution in the Milton Keynes seminar last week was a fine presentation from those planning the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, of which MK is in the centre. The environmental leaders in that venture are attempting to apply Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics as the foundation for the life of the arc and are viewing everything through that lens. Taxation is a key lever for government to drive environmental improvement, and I urge the Government to accept this amendment.

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

My Lords, I will speak primarily to Amendment 20 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. However, having interacted with the Minister on a number of occasions during my short time in the House, I feel that he will naturally address Amendment 19 on ensuring that environmental policies consider the interests of future generations. In fact, I am looking forward to seeing him on a speaking tour around schools, colleges and universities to promote this landmark Bill—with all the amendments accepted, of course.

The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, has consistently been profoundly clear, eloquent and razor-sharp on the issue of environmental principles in this Bill. Across the House, there is a strength of feeling that we have not made much progress on this matter. We cannot allow the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury to be excused from the need to take responsibility for what happens on our planet—it just sends out the wrong message.

It has been a very interesting short debate with some excellent contributions. It is disappointing that the Government have not addressed this concern to date. We did not get an answer in Committee. The wide exemptions the remain in the legislation mean that policymakers are less likely to apply the policy statement to the policies on defence and financial matters without explicit instruction to do so. We need all government departments and public authorities to adhere to the statement on environmental principles consistently and comprehensively. I listened closely and with good focus, as I always do, to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, on the possibility of Defra accepting Amendment 20. However, if that is not the case and the Minister does not respond positively to what the noble Lord said, and if the noble Baroness tests the opinion of the House, we on these Benches will support the amendment.

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) 6:00 pm, 8th September 2021

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this important debate. I know there is significant interest in this House in the environmental principles. Regarding Amendment 19, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, and presented by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, in a typically compelling and powerful speech, the contents of which I fully agreed with, I reassure noble Lords that the concept set out in the amendment is already covered by the duty on the Secretary of State, and I shall explain why. Currently, the Bill states that the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the environmental principles policy statement will contribute to the improvement of environmental protection and to sustainable development. I want to clarify for noble Lords that this legal reference to “sustainable development” encompasses and includes the importance of meeting the needs of future generations. That is what it means.

As I explained in Committee, these are internationally recognised principles and consistent with those agreed through the EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement. This amendment is therefore unnecessary, as the existing principles are fundamentally about passing the natural environment on in a better state to the next generation. However, adding it would nevertheless require government departments to consider an additional principle that overlaps with the existing objective but is not as commonly understood. The fear is that that would cause confusion, resulting in poor policy outcomes. I hope I have adequately addressed the issue raised by the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, and I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw it in his name.

I turn now to Amendment 20, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. First, I thank her for our discussions in the run up to Report. I understand the motivation behind the amendment, but the Government’s view remains that exempting some limited areas from the duty to have due regard provides vital flexibility in relation to finances, defence, and national security. I will take each of those exemptions in turn. Starting with the exemption on taxation, I understand the interest in removing this exemption, but Treasury Ministers want flexibility to alter the UK’s fiscal position and respond to the changing needs of, for example, the NHS, schools, the police and any number of other vital public services. Applying the environmental principles duty to taxation would be a constraint in cases where speed is required in altering the UK’s fiscal position, with limited environmental benefit. Nevertheless, the Government are committed to encouraging positive environmental outcomes through the tax system. An example of that in the Bill is our commitment to a new plastic packaging tax to encourage greater use of recycled plastic, which is estimated to achieve around a 40% increase in recycled plastic being used in 2022-23. The Treasury’s Green Book already mandates the consideration of natural capital, climate change and environmental impacts in spending. This applies to spending bids from departments, including at fiscal events.

Furthermore, the Government’s response to the Dasgupta review commits to delivering a “nature positive” future, ensuring that economic and financial decision-making, and the systems and institutions that underpin it, support the delivery of that future. I emphasise that the spending and allocation of resources exemption refers to central spending decisions only. In other words, once funds are distributed by the Treasury to other government departments, the principles will apply to how those funds are spent by departments. To be clear, even if we accepted this amendment, principles such as “the polluter pays” could not be applied to, for example, the allocation of overall departmental budgets. This is because allocating money between departments sits outside policy-making. In other words, this amendment would have no material impact in respect of the allocation of resources within government. To reiterate, however, the policy statement must still be considered at the level of individual policies that require spending, such as the design of new transport programmes or environmental subsidy schemes. This is where they can deliver real benefits.

Looking at the Armed Forces, defence and national security exemptions, as the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, noted, they are also excluded from the duty. That is to provide maximum flexibility in respect of the nation’s protection and security. However, I shall address some of the concerns raised in Committee about the management of defence land. The primary function of the defence estate is to support our operations and maintain military capability. It provides homes for those who defend our country, offices for work, space for training, and conditions to prepare to meet the ever-changing threats that the UK faces. Defence land cannot be practically separated out: it is part of the MoD and touches on decisions across the Armed Forces, national security and defence.

The MoD’s concern is that if we were to impose a consideration of environmental principles on defence policies, or on MoD land, it could result in legal challenges which could slow critical policies or expose sensitive decisions to the public domain, threatening national security. However, the MoD already has statutory duties to protect the environment and the enormous amount of land that the MoD owns, and these are not altered by this exemption. The MoD is subject to all the environmental legislation that other landowners are required to adhere to: the habitats directive, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act and others.

Under Clauses 98 and 99, the MoD will be subject to two strengthened duties: to take action to conserve and enhance biodiversity and then to report on the action it has taken. The MOD already reports publicly and regularly on its contribution to improving the environment and SSSI conditions, and showcases its conservation initiatives through the sanctuary awards. The MoD will fully comply with new reporting requirements in the Bill by building on its existing approach. Its SSSIs are managed through a partnership with Natural England, which jointly implements integrated rural management plans to improve and maintain them. The percentage of MoD SSSIs in a favourable condition in England is higher than the national average.

I recently met Minister Quin, who has responsibility for this area. Although I am not able to secure the amendment for this House, I am assured that the MoD takes its responsibilities to the environment seriously. I am confident in the wider arrangements in place to support environmental improvement. I hope, therefore, I have gone some way, at least, to reassure noble Lords and I beg them not to press their amendments.

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

I thank all noble Lords who contributed to this short but very powerful debate and the Minister for his response. I particularly wish to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford for reminding us so powerfully of how human health and planet health are interrelated and how the sickness of our planet has real impacts on people’s well-being, particularly that of young people. It is certainly part of the epidemic of mental ill health, from which our society and the whole world are suffering. I also thank the right reverend Prelate for mentioning one of my favourite books, Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. I commend it yet again, as I am sure I have before.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for her support for Amendment 19 and the noble Lord, Lord Khan, for his suggestion to the Minister. Indeed, I would extend that suggestion to all Members of your Lordships’ House. I take part regularly in Learn with the Lords, a chance to go out, through the mechanisms of your Lordships’ House, to speak to young people. It is a great opportunity, and it would be wonderful if more people took that up, particularly to speak about environmental issues.

I want to make one comment on the Minister’s response to Amendment 19. He suggested that “sustainable development” within the principles covers this. When we think about our current planning law and the way in which the term “sustainable development” is used in that and proposals for changes to our planning law, there is cause for grave concern about suggesting what sustainable development in our current legal framework might or might not achieve.

None the less, we have a lot to do and much pressure on our time. However, before I finish, I want to commend to your Lordships’ House the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Bird, has—one might call it fate—the number one slot in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills. The greater expanse of his Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill covers the issues that this amendment sought to address. I commend that Bill, engagement with it and support for it to all Members of your Lordships’ House. In the meantime, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 19.

Amendment 19 withdrawn.

Clause 19: Policy statement on environmental principles: effect