Clause 4

Climate Change Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:30 pm on 26th June 2008.

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Consultation on order amending 2050 target or baseline year

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 56, in clause 4, page 3, line 16, after ‘publish’, insert

‘at the same time as laying before Parliament the relevant order’.

May I seek your clarification, Mr. Atkinson? Should I also speak to amendments Nos. 57 and 70?

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

No. That is the next group of amendments.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Thank you for that clarification.

As we have discovered over the course of our debates, there is some concern that in future the Government may decline to implement the full advice of the independent Committee on Climate Change. Amendments Nos. 57 and 70 deal more fully with that, but this is a largely technical amendment, which would make it clear that the committee’s advice must be published and that, if decisions made by the Minister differ from the recommendation, the reason for the difference must also be specified and published. This is a probing amendment and I shall make my principal remarks on amendments Nos. 57 and 70.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Clause 4 is about transparency, which is a wise provision to have in the Bill given the confusion that we have already witnessed in Committee over the Government’s intentions on the balance of decision-making power between the Committee on Climate Change and the Government and/or Parliament. At an earlier stage of the Bill, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle seemed to suggest that some hypothetical future Government, in which he might be a Minister, would always take the committee’s advice. The logical position for him to take on clause 4 would therefore be to delete it.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

That is an interesting proposition, and we look to the next general election with increasing confidence. Anticipating that the Administration of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) will run all the way to 2050 would stretch to the limit the confidence of even our most ardent supporters.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but I think that he may be missing the point slightly. The amendment to the 2050 target can be made much sooner than that.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Front-Bench and Back-Bench Members may not always be as enthusiastic as each other on various things, but everyone is clear about the fact that there is a specific commitment to accept what the committee suggests to the Government about the target. We take the same view as the Government about it being an advisory committee, but we have said that if the Government are not going to put it in the Bill, they have to make it clear that they will accept what the committee says on the target.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

As ever, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Amendment No. 56 refers to the subsection in which

“the order makes provision different from that recommended by the committee”.

So we are discussing the Secretary of State disagreeing with the committee’s advice. I will resist the temptation to further debate the party politics, which would not be wise. I accept the good faith of the Conservative spokesman, on this occasion at least.

The debate on other parts of the Bill has also, probably quite accurately, revealed a level of potential distrust about Government intentions in such proceedings. We have heard the phrase, “wriggle room”, and I have worried about the influence of “go-slow Departments” in other parts of Government perhaps trying to influence the process. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal referred to civil servants who might say at some stage in the process, “Better not Minister”. Therefore, it seems right to have amendments that make the process absolutely watertight wherever possible, and in that respect, I happily support amendment No. 56. It is part of the process of making crystal clear what should happen under those circumstances, which is that, if the Government differ from the Committee on Climate Change’s advice on the target, Parliament must know the reasons why at the time at which the order to change the target is being laid. That will enable us to test the methodology suggested, to hold the Government to account and to spot any undue influence by wrigglers, go-slowers or better-nots.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I hope that amendment No. 56 is not seen in anyway as an attack on the Government; it is an attempt to ensure that the Government and any future Government are properly concerned with the issue. It is important because the Minister has shown himself willing to try to meet us. I referred on a radio programme to his willingness to move on the 2° in terms that may be embarrassing to him. I want to make it clear that the measure is there because we all feel that all Governments of any kind should be so constrained because it gives confidence to the public, and, after all, we are looking 40 years ahead—that is a very long time to predict how good future Ministers might be.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his flattering remarks but I wish that he would stop—there may be a reshuffle or something. Somebody may read the wrong things into his comments.

Let me try to help the Committee. On amendment No. 56, we know that the Committee on Climate Change has been established to give us expert advice. Clause 4 requires the Government to take the advice of the committee before making any amendment to the long-term target. That is an important part of the process. To reinforce the importance of the committee’s advice further, we accepted an amendment in the other place so that if the target is amended in a way that differs from the committee’s recommendation, the Secretary of State must set out the reasons for doing so. We accepted that point. It is quite possible that the Government would want to publish those reasons at the same time, and as I shall go on to say, it is not only quite possible, it is quite likely. Any Government will be aware of the likely  public interest in a change to the long-term target. In addition, clause 3 requires that the order amending the target, as I have said twice already, must be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. I think that it is unlikely that any Government would be keen to go into a debate in both Houses without having first made their rationale clear.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 1:45 pm, 26th June 2008

I do not think that anybody would doubt the point that the Minister is making, certainly in respect of the current Government or the next Administration, so far as we can see. However, as has been pointed out, we are dealing with the next 40 years here, and with the best will in the world, it is impossible to try to anticipate the political make-up or dynamics of an Administration 30 or 40 years hence. Is he confident that he can see that far down the road?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am very confident that I cannot see that far down the road. I am in a slightly difficult position in that the Government do not have a position on the tabling of the amendment. However, I am prepared today to put on record that if this Government propose to amend the long-term target in a way that differs from the committee’s advice, we will publish our reasons at the same time as laying the order for the amendment. I hope that that satisfies the point that the hon. Gentleman is rightly making.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

That is a very generous offer, but it covers only two of the next 42 years, so it does not really address the substance of the point.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As I do not anticipate a change in Government in the next 42 years, it goes much further than that. I hope that what I have said gives the hon. Gentleman surety. I do not disagree with the point that he has made, and I can go as far as putting that commitment on record. I hope that the Committee will agree that that has been done in good faith. I thank him for his probing amendment.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The amendment was tabled initially as a probing amendment, but the arguments that the Minister has advanced have done nothing to reassure me. The key issue is not the good intentions of this Government, or indeed the next one, but establishing a modus operandi that would bind all Governments through the next four decades. We remain somewhat concerned, and although we hear what the Minister says, we will reserve our position for Report. I do not intend to press the amendment to a Division. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 57, in clause 4, page 3, line 17, at end insert—

‘( ) Before laying before Parliament an order making provision different from that recommended by the Committee, the Secretary of State shall consult the Committee on the effect that difference will have on the risks for the United Kingdom of the predicted impact of climate change.’.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 70, in clause 55, page 26, line 2, at end insert—

‘( ) In preparing reports under this section the Secretary of State must have regard to whether the net UK carbon account is within the indicative annual range for the relevant periods and the effect of any differences on the risks for the United Kingdom of the predicted impact of climate change.’.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

As we have just heard, amendment No. 56 would have required the Secretary of State, in the event of setting a target that differed from that recommended by the committee, to publish at the same time as resetting the target the reasons why the advice of the committee was not followed. Moreover, in the event of a Government ignoring its advice—we are not anticipating that the Government today, or next year, or the year after would do so, but we are looking at the whole lifetime of the legislation until 2050—amendment No. 57 would require the Secretary of State of the day to consult the committee on what effect that diversion from its scientific advice would have on the risks that the UK would face from the predicted impact of man-made climate change.

Amendment No. 70 would then further require the Secretary of State to consider whether the country was still on course to meet its indicative annual range when making the report on the impact of climate change. In the absence of the amendment, the Government of the day could more easily ignore the good counsel of the independent committee and make a decision based on political challenges or even political expediency.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify a point? He is suggesting that if the Minister decides to ignore the committee, he must ask its advice on the implications of doing so. Is the Minister then bound to take notice of that advice? Is there a sanction if he fails to take notice of the committee’s advice on the implications of his ignoring it in the first place?

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

No. The process would inform debate in Parliament, as the matter would be one for Parliament. Debate in Parliament, and indeed in the country, would be better informed about the intended consequences of the Minister’s actions. It is likely that the Minister will wish not to reject out of hand what the committee advises but to trim. It is unlikely to be black or white. The Minister might say, “We’re going to have some difficulty with this. We’re not going to implement the Committee’s recommendations fully.”

On that basis, we will be facing a new scenario. It is thus important that the House of Commons and the public at large have access to the committee’s opinion, rather than leaving the impact of the revised strategy to further interpretation, especially by the Government of the day.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I hesitate to differ with the hon. Gentleman on his own amendment, but it actually says:

“the Secretary of State shall consult the Committee”.

It does not mention Parliament.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman understands. The Minister would consult the committee, but he would then have to report to Parliament. There would be a debate when he laid his budgets. There would still be five-yearly budgets, and there would still be debates in Parliament, but the Minister would have to consult the committee on the impact of his decision.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Surely my hon. Friend is drawing attention to something that is already a failing of the Environment Agency? There is a worry that when the Environment Agency’s advice is turned into ministerial propositions, it is often not tested against the Environment Agency. He is on to an important point: Parliament must be able to debate such matters with the knowledge of the committee’s judgment of the Government’s proposed changes. Parliament may well say, “It seems that the Government’s got it right,”—I am not suggesting that it will always be on the committee’s side—but we must know from an authoritative source what the effect of that change might be.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Absolutely spot on. Once again, my right hon. Friend puts it far more eloquently and articulately than I could hope to do. He has encapsulated the argument. We want to avoid a situation in which the committee has only one opportunity to give its opinion, which may be reinterpreted by the Minister. We argue that if the Government are willing to depart from the committee’s advice, they should have to explain to the public why they are doing so and be told authoritatively by the committee what effect that decision might have on the impact of climate change. We do not perceive this to be a problem in the short term, but as the life of the legislation will extend all the way to 2050, it needs to be foreshadowed in the Bill.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I apologise for not saying when I first spoke how good it is to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson.

If we accept for a moment the hypothetical possibility that at some stage during the next 40 years there might be a Conservative Government, I suppose that it is wise to be cautious about their ability to wriggle out of certain commitments. It might be more likely that there will be a Liberal Democrat Government in that time scale. Who knows? The Leader of the Opposition might be from the Green party. If we accept that there will be Governments of different colours and opinions, it is wise to propose amendments that would make processes more watertight and transparent, so, in that sense, I support the spirit of the amendment and certainly accept the Conservative Front Benchers’ good intentions. However, I do not think that amendments Nos. 57 and 70 are as critically important as amendment No. 56.

In the circumstances that amendment No. 57 envisages—when the Government appear to be obstinately refusing to take account of the committee’s advice—it is likely that we would all be able to draw our own conclusions about the likely impact of climate change on the UK. If we do not, civil society and non-governmental organisations will do so in our stead.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying and agree to a large extent, but amendment No. 57 proposes that the Secretary of State

“shall consult the Committee on the effect”.

Does not that give the committee the chance to say, when the Government do not accept its advice, that that will mean X, Y and Z? Given the argument about the importance of scientific evidence, it would be useful for Members of Parliament to have that before them when they debate the matter in the House.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but I do not think that that is necessary in the context of the Bill as a whole because the committee’s responsibility is to adjust the budget and look sector by sector at the impact regarding the future plans. It will still be mandated to only those targets and will make further advice based on the Government’s revised position, including their refusal to accept a target at that position. Therefore, the committee’s processes will reveal a lower opinion on the impact and certainly the steps that need to be taken. He might be right that that could be useful. It would certainly serve one purpose: to add to the embarrassment of any Government who were needlessly wimping out of tough decisions. In that respect, I have enough sympathy with the amendment to allow it to go forward.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I will try to resist the temptation to remark that some Committee members find it impossible to put party politics aside, even when they clearly do not arise, and that is always true of the Liberal Democrats, as one of their Members has shown regularly in this debate. That is sad, because this is an issue on which we ought to try as hard as possible to have a common view.

The reason why I hope that the Minister will find a reason to go at least some way towards this relates to the simple matter of the Environment Agency. I happen to have invented and set up the Environment Agency, so I know what I got wrong. I thought that I had set up an independent agency that would provide advice from which the public and Ministers could take their view. Over the years, the Environment Agency has come to provide advice that fits in with the budget that the Government set for things, and that is altogether different from the original intention.

In my constituency, for example, the Environment Agency advises the Government on coastal defence on the basis of the three-year budget that is put in place, even though the advice ought to be based on what might happen over the next 100 years. I had hoped that the Environment Agency, as is stated in legislation, would announce its advice in general on various scenarios so that the Government could then decide on a scenario, take responsibility for it, accept the agency’s independent advice on the cost, and then decide what had to be done and what the timetable would be.

That experience leads me to be concerned that the Minister and the committee, because of their good heartedness, believe that no one would behave differently from them. I feel rather bitter about that example because the result is not what I thought would happen. It would be helpful to make it clear that at the point at which Parliament is discussing that disagreement, there will be a real objective assessment of the difference between what would happen if we followed either the Climate Change Committee’s proposal or the Government’s alternative suggestion. This would not tie the Government any more. It does not make this less of an advisory committee; indeed, it makes it more of an advisory committee. However, the amendment does mean that if we were faced with such a situation in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, we could say, “This is what the committee says. It is not worth making this change; we have to tell the Government that really the cost of this is not satisfactory.” We would be able to debate the matter without trading disagreeable bits of science.

I do not want to enter into this issue too deeply, but one of the problems with the science is that it is rare that there is much agreement on a specific thing, although, for example, there is widespread agreement on a target of 80 per cent. plus. However, many bits of the science are much more complex, so arguments can be deployed on either side.

Parliament would do well to insist that it had the latest judgment of the committee on the Government’s proposals in its debates so that an informed decision could be taken. That would underline the role and the importance of Parliament.

I cannot imagine that this Government would not go back to the committee or that they would not tell people what the committee had actually said and pretend that it had said something else. However, I hope that they will be prepared to accept the amendment simply because it would do them no harm. It would not do any harm to the next Government, but it might ensure that at some time in the future, when times were tough just before an election, somebody would not try to do something through which Parliament was not given the truth.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:00 pm, 26th June 2008

I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman a serious question, and also, as a flood-hit MP myself, pay compliment to his achievement in setting up the Environment Agency, which was appreciated last year. The body of work required to deliver on the amendment is substantial. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that by the time that work has been completed and the committee has delivered its conclusion on the likely impacts of the change, it might as well have undertaken the work of the reassessing the carbon budget?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

That intervention worries me, because the sort of changes that we envisage are changes of considerable importance. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that Parliament would have to rubber-stamp or agree to the Government’s changes without those changes being satisfactorily tested against the knowledge and the science, that would be very dangerous. The committee would have to get a wiggle on, talking about wiggle in a different sense. It would have to do the work and provide the Government with a clear indication of the consequence of the decision to ignore its advice. That advice to the Government should be available to Parliament so that we can make a sensible decision. If the Government had got it right, no doubt we would support it, and if the Government had got it wrong, no doubt we would oppose it, but at least we would do so in full knowledge of the facts.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle for moving the amendments. Let me make three points to back up my argument that the amendments are reasonable, but the process is covered by other clauses, particularly clauses 33 and 55.

My first point is the most important. There is a danger of us misunderstanding the relationship between UK emissions and temperature in the UK. The UK’s contribution accounts for 2 per cent. The change in the target is very important for the carbon budgets, and only in the context that I described could it take place.  The link between the possible change in target and the potential change in temperature is less than the margin of error in the calculations in the first place.

We must always remember that our emissions do not dictate our average temperature. A constituent of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford asked her the other day whether she could avoid climate change by going to her house in France, which rather crystallises the difficulty that some people have. I am not suggesting that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle has that difficulty, and certainly not that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal has. It was just a point worth making.

Clause 33(2) states:

“Advice given by the Committee under this section must also contain the reasons for that advice.”

It is envisaged that the committee will put forward various public scenarios containing ranges, given that we are talking not about arithmetic but about science. As the months and years roll on, the United Kingdom climate impact programme, which we will publish in November, will play an important role. It is relevant practically to the Bill, and it will set out the United Kingdom’s best science to give us the range of scenarios based on parts per million and on temperatures.

Amendments Nos. 57 and 70 are already covered by the processes in the legislation, and because of the scenarios that I have described, the amendments would not achieve precisely or even generally what the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle seeks. I shall back up that point. Clause 4 already requires the Secretary of State to set out his reasons, and if he were to set the 2050 target at a level different from that which was recommended, there would still be transparency, because in those reasons, one would see the scenario with which he had differed from the committee. That is a long-winded way of saying that one would already be able to see the committee’s advice in the Secretary of State’s scenario, were it to differ from the committee’s.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

What happens if the committee gives three scenarios and the Minister decides not to take any of them? The Bill does not say that he has to take any. He could take one that was mid-way between two of them. In other words, he could modify the scenario, and there would be no independent evaluation of what happens. Indeed, that is exactly my concern. In those circumstances, lay people—Ministers are usually lay people—would be able to say, “It looks more or less right. I think we can’t quite do that, but if we come in between them, it ought to be okay.” There might be very good reasons why that would not work satisfactorily, and I should be happier if I knew what the committee thought about, let us say, a mid-point between two of its scenarios.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I take the point, but in practice the committee’s publication of its advice and reasons would cover those potential circumstances. It would be like publishing a logarithm book. It would contain all the options. Because the relationship between UK emissions changes at the margin, remembering that we are talking about the cumulative amount of carbon in the air under the curve of the trajectory over that long period, the  relationship between UK emissions and the global temperature is less than the margin of error in those scenarios, even on current knowledge.

There could not be any gap. Parliament would go bonkers and would turn down the affirmative resolution if the Secretary of State were to deviate from the accepted advice of the committee. I cannot see that arising, as the committee’s advice would be public. The UK climate impacts programme will be hugely important in setting the scenario, and will evolve. It is not conceivable that the Secretary of State would deviate from the target in a manner that was not based on the scenarios and premises of that programme’s report. I urge the Committee to consider achieving the hon. Gentleman’s reasonable objective through clauses 33 and 55.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. It is considerably more sensible and rational that the disappointing partisan comments from the Lib Dems which, if anything, water down and weaken the Bill, rather than improve it.

I understand the Minister’s argument, but I do not agree that clauses 33 and 55 achieve exactly what my amendments propose. Amendments Nos. 57 and 70 would bring greater clarity and certainty to any future decision-making process. However, I appreciate that a further layer of the onion lies beneath those clauses. If it is intended to publish a range of scenarios, more information will be available than one would have anticipated from a straight reading of the Bill. On the understanding that that is how it is intended that the Bill be interpreted and the committee will function—

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Has the hon. Gentleman considered that the devolved Administrations would have to be consulted? I am sure they would set out their reasons. That might give him further reassurance.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Yes, the devolved Administrations are an interesting element of the Bill. We will discuss their role later, particularly the ability of the Secretary of State, rather than the Prime Minister, to have a genuine locus in the decisions taken by the devolved Administrations. What we have is not perfect, but I take on board the Minister’s arguments and reassurances. On balance, and in the interests of forging consensus where possible, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

It may be opportune to point out that we are about a third of the way through the Committee stage and have just finished clause 4. There are another 89 clauses and six schedules to deal with.