Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this wide-ranging debate. I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury for his wise words, for his service, and for having engaged with me as a Minister in the run-up to this debate. Like my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, I am sure that we will continue to have lively, robust and insightful conversations as we take this Bill through its remaining stages. I will take this opportunity to address the points raised so far. I will try to get through as many as possible, but I am afraid that time will not allow me to answer them all, so I will write on any specific points that I am not able to address today.
The noble Lords, Lord Oates, Lord Teverson and Lord Bilimoria, all mentioned the seminal Dasgupta review. It is a powerful piece of work—a call to arms that makes plain our total dependence on the natural world and the massive damage that we are doing to it. It makes it equally clear that the fundamental challenge we face is finding ways to reconcile our economy and lifestyles with the natural world. He makes the point that the market is one of the most powerful forces for change of all, other than, perhaps, nature itself. However, as long as the market is blind to valuable things such as ecosystems and is unable to properly put a cost on pollution, waste and plunder, it will not be harnessed in a manner that will take us forward towards a solution.
I reassure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury, my noble friends Lord Randall and Lord Caithness, that we do not pretend that this is a silver bullet, nor is it the end of the story in relation to tackling this appalling crisis, as far as the Government are concerned. Nevertheless, it represents a big step forward. Extended producer responsibility is a profound thing, placing the burden on producers for the lifetime waste costs of a product. Targets, including the new ones that we have committed to, have been much debated today. It is not a complete solution, and I will come on to it later, but we are the first country in the world to attempt to use due diligence to deal with our international footprint. The Bill builds on a number of other major initiatives: our tree programme; the £640 million Nature for Climate Fund; our commitment to restore tens of thousands of hectares of valuable peatlands, and the shift from the common agricultural policy, which was totally destructive and incentivised destruction of nature, towards a system where every payment is conditional on the delivery of public goods.
Internationally, I do not think any country in the world is doing more heavy lifting in the run-up to the Convention on Biological Diversity than the UK. Our international nature strategy is calling for the highest possible ambition, with targets: more finance for nature and global efforts to tackle the main drivers of destruction. These are things that the UK, and no other country, is leading on. I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. We can invest hope in the recent election in the United States—at least, I can. The US now has an opportunity to catch up on environmental concerns, but it is not a matter of the UK catching up with the US—we are miles ahead. I hope and believe that the US will be able to catch up with the leadership that we are providing.
The noble Lords, Lord Teverson and Lord Wigley, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, all mentioned the importance of the marine environment. I forget which noble Lord mentioned the magnificent blue belt around our overseas territories, an area the size of India to which we are currently giving full, total protection. I am thrilled that we are about to launch our blue planet fund. It is another world first—a £500 million fund to help small nations in particular protect themselves against threats such as illegal fishing, pollution et cetera. This is among a whole raft of measures that we are taking to protect as much of the international ocean as we possibly can.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the hugely important issue of water quality. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, my noble friends Lord Randall, Lord Shrewsbury and Lord Trenchard, the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and others all talked about the quality of our rivers, waterways and seas. They focused in particular on the unacceptable levels of waste poured in to our waters through storm overflows. The quality of our rivers and other waterways is a high priority for this Government. We are taking action, through the Bill, to enable better join-up between water companies when they are preparing their statutory long-term plans, and to acquire statutory long-term drainage and wastewater management plans.
In addition to the amendments I mentioned earlier, based on the work of my honourable friend Philip Dunne in the other place, these measures give the Government extra levers to act on the most egregious sources of pollution and harm in our aquatic environment, including storm overflows. Water companies clearly must do more to prevent raw sewage flowing into our rivers. All the action I have described will be underpinned by those long-term targets, including reducing pollution from agriculture and wastewater, in particular phosphorus and nitrate, reducing water demand from the public water supply, and reducing the impact of toxic pollution to rivers from abandoned metal mines.
The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, emphasised the importance of water efficiency. I was surprised it was not mentioned by more noble Lords. Defra has consulted on measures and we will be publishing the government response to that consultation very soon, in the summer. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, talked about ending abstraction in fragile water systems; he mentioned chalk streams in particular. Restoring England’s internationally important chalk streams is a government priority. The Environment Agency is developing long-term plans to reduce our reliance on chalk streams, and I look forward to the publication of an action plan on restoring chalk streams later this year.
A number of noble Lords mentioned air quality. I covered it in some detail in my opening remarks, but the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Sheehan and Lady Jones, all talked about air quality as one of the major priorities we must deal with. I understand the push for specified targets in the Bill. I understand that impulse, but we should not underestimate the challenge—indeed, the upheaval—that would be needed to meet, for example, the current World Health Organization guideline level of 10 micrograms per cubic metre in large cities. It would be enormous.
We need to base whatever targets we set on the evidence and in the full knowledge of the impacts of the choices we will need to make to achieve them. My officials in Defra and experts and partners right across government, industry and academia are continuing to work out the full mix of policies and measures required to meet that target of 10 micrograms. At a minimum, we expect that doing so in London and other cities would likely require policies such as, for example, a total ban on solid fuel burning in cities, a reduction of traffic kilometres across our cities of up to 50% and many other measures. I am not saying that that is impossible, and the Government have been clear that they are not ruling out adoption of the WHO guidelines as a target, but there is a lot of work to do to fully understand the implications were we to undertake that target.
On targets, my noble friend Lord Randall, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and a number of other noble Lords talked about our new biodiversity target and asked for reassurance. It will be designed to be a net-zero equivalent for nature. We are pushing for the highest possible ambition and it will be subject to the usual scrutiny and consultation. We are not there yet; it is a complicated piece of work and, even within the NGO community, there is much debate about what form such a target would take.
The noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, raised the importance of interim targets for meeting the longer-term targets. He is right and the Government have created a triple- lock statutory cycle to drive short-term progress. The Government must have an EIP—an environment improvement plan—which sets out the steps they intend to take to improve the environment and review it at least every five years. The Government also have to report on progress towards achieving targets every year—publicly, of course. The OEP will hold us to account on progress towards achieving targets and every year can recommend how we can make better progress. The Government would have to respond to those recommendations. This ensures that meeting interim targets is taken seriously and will drive short-term progress. The Government may need to develop new policies when reviewing their EIP, where progress against this triple lock has been too slow.
My noble friend Lady Altmann recommended that the interim targets be legally binding. The difficulty there is that the natural environment, as everyone knows, is complex, interconnected and a system subject to numerous natural factors as well as human activity. For example, aspects of the natural environment such as water quality or soil health could respond very slowly even to ambitious short-term interventions. Legally binding interim targets could therefore result in the setting of less ambitious long-term targets or could force consideration of the wrong policies just to achieve those targets in the short term. What is important ultimately is that, if an interim target is missed, the Government consider what is needed to get back on track and our target framework will ensure that this is the case.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, asked why it would be different this time, given that so many targets have been missed. Yes, we missed the Aichi targets; I think every country in the world did. Targets create pressure, which is why many Members of this House are asking us to apply them, but in combination with the numerous measures that will help us to meet them—the new subsidy system, the nature for climate fund, net gain and so on, plus the OEP holding us to account—we can see a pathway to achieving these targets. There is a clear intent on the part of the Government.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about ELM. Although it is not part of the Bill, it is a simple principle. It means that the money that the Government pay is conditional on the delivery of public goods. It means that public money is not provided without the return of some kind of public good. It means compensating or paying landowners for doing good things that are in the public interest but which the market cannot yet fully recognise. Flood prevention is the example she gave; it is a very good example.
My noble friend Lord Lilley cautioned against a Soviet-style central planning system, and he is right: nature, by its nature, is diverse. Good things happen from the ground up, so his advice will very much be taken on board. That point was echoed by the noble Earl, Lord Devon.
Many noble Lords talked about the independence of the OEP and questioned whether it was independent enough. They included the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley, Lord Addington, Lord Cameron of Dillington and Lord Anderson, my noble friend Lord Duncan of Springbank, the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, very much for the time he has put into this and the advice he has provided; I look forward to continuing discussions with him.
The Government are committed to ensuring that the OEP is established as an independent body, which is why numerous safeguards are already in place to protect its independence. Schedule 1 includes the requirement that, in exercising any functions relating to the OEP, the Secretary of State has to have regard to the need to protect its independence. The EFRA Committee and Environmental Audit Committee jointly carried out a pre-appointment scrutiny of the preferred chair of the OEP and confirmed her suitability for the role. The OEP is under a legal requirement to provide an assessment to Parliament of whether it receives enough funding. Ministers will have to respond to that if the money is deemed insufficient. The Government intend for the OEP to be given a multi-annual indicative budget, which will be ring-fenced within each spending review period, giving the OEP even greater flexibility and certainty.
A number of noble Lords talked about the enforcement powers of the OEP. The noble Lords, Lord Whitty, Lord Oates, Lord Anderson and Lord Rooker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, raised this issue. The OEP’s enforcement powers are different from and will operate more effectively than those of the EU Commission, as it will be able to liaise directly with the public body in question to investigate and resolve alleged serious breaches of environmental law in a more targeted and timely manner.
On environmental review, the OEP can apply for judicial review remedies, such as mandatory and quashing orders, subject to all the usual safeguards, which will work to ensure compliance with environmental law. The Court of Justice of the EU cannot issue these kinds of remedies to member states. In addition, in exceptional circumstances where the OEP needs to act quickly to prevent something happening, it may apply directly for a judicial review. I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and other noble Lords to provide more detail on that, as I will not have time to do so in these remarks.
My noble friends Lady Jenkin and Lord Caithness and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, raised the importance of tackling our wastefulness as a society. The Environment Bill will allow us to deliver consistent and frequent recycling collections across England, ending the current postcode lottery; this is one of the biggest and most visible changes it will make on waste. It will ensure that councils operate weekly separate food waste collections, preventing food waste going to landfill and being incinerated. It will allow the Government to introduce clearer labelling on certain products and expand the use of charges on single-use plastics, not just those that have been listed.
As I said earlier, the Bill introduces extended producer responsibility. The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, said that the burden of waste should fall on the producer of that waste; that is exactly what the Bill does. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, made the point that recycling is the option of last resort. I agree and so do the Government, and that is reflected in our approach to tackling waste.
The noble Earls, Lord Lytton and Lord Shrewsbury, talked about the scourge of fly-tipping. The Bill gives enforcing authorities more powers to tackle the so-called Facebook fly-tippers operating from their homes. The resource and waste strategy includes further commitments, including to launch a fly-tipping toolkit to help local authorities and others to tackle fly-tippers.
The noble Lord, Lord Trees, raised the issue of antimicrobial resistance. That is not directly in the scope of the Bill, but I would like to carry on that conversation with him, because antimicrobial resistance is one of the greatest health threats we face. Although the new subsidy system—ELM—will have a bearing on the amount of antibiotics used in factory farms, that is not a matter that falls directly under the Bill. With his permission, I will return to that subject another time.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, mentioned lead pellets. That is not part of the Bill either, but I strongly agree with him and would like to see that shift happen sooner rather than later.
The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, mentioned heritage rail. I enjoyed a passionate conversation with him recently, and he really made the case for the exemption. The Government are very confident, as am I, that heritage railways will continue to operate, because although our electricity systems will no longer rely on coal, it can still be used by a range of industries that need it. The decision on where to source coal is, obviously, a matter not for the Government but for the companies involved.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, emphasised the importance of people having access to nature. That, too, is very much recognised at the heart not only of this Bill but of other government initiatives. We strongly agree with her, of course, and are working out the best and most appropriate mechanisms for delivering that kind of change. We are also working through the Department for Education and through the tree programme, which a number of noble Lords mentioned.
I have a lot to cover here. On biodiversity net gain, I can tell my noble friends Lord Randall and Lord Blencathra and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett—and, I hope, reassure them—that although nationally significant infrastructure projects remain out of the scope of the mandatory requirement for the Bill for the time being, the Government are exploring how a biodiversity net gain approach for big infrastructure projects could best be delivered, including what legislative levers could be used to support it. This is something that we are actively working on.
A number of noble Lords pointed to the potential tension between planning legislation and the Bill. The Bill lays the foundations for environmental protection, and that will form the basis of the forthcoming planning Bill. The Planning for the Future White Paper reiterates our strong commitment to biodiversity net gain, and I can provide reassurance that, in line with our manifesto commitment, existing policy for green-belt protection will remain.
The noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Redesdale, my noble friends Lord Trenchard and Lord Cormack and a number of others talked about the importance of heritage being part of our vision for conservation and the countryside. They are absolutely right. The 25-year plan explicitly recognises the link between the natural environment and heritage. It is, do not forget, our first environmental improvement plan, so it is at the heart of our approach.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, talked about several things, one of which was the value of English native trees as opposed to conifer monocultures. We absolutely recognise the biodiversity value of the former, which is reflected in our approach to the use of public money for funding and subsidising the tree programme. She also talked about biosecurity concerns, and why we should source more of our saplings domestically. She is right about that as well—and that too is reflected in our policy.
I am running out of time, so I hope that noble Lords who mentioned due diligence will allow me to come back to them another time. I thank my noble friend Lord Blencathra for his kind words about the Bill, and I hope that they provided some reassurance for others who raised the issue of delegated powers. I thank my noble friend Lord Taylor for his comments as well. As for my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s proposal to change “biodiversity” to “nature”, he makes an important point, but the trouble is that those two terms are not exactly the same. Planting a Sitka spruce monoculture might give us more nature, but it would not give us more biodiversity. The same is true across the board—so it is a subject ripe for an argument. I am happy to have that conversation, but I would take some persuading, because I think we are probably in the right place on this.
I am sorry for not having addressed all the issues raised. There have been some fantastic contributions, and I thank everyone who has spoken today. I hope that people feel that I have covered at least the bulk of the points raised. I have met a large number of Members and I am keen to meet more; I shall continue to engage. I also thank the various NGOs, landowning groups and businesses that have helped to develop the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.