HC Deb 07 February 1994 vol 237 cc77-116

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]

[Relevant documents: The First Report of the Environment Committee of Session 1992–93 on Forestry and the Environment (House of Commons Paper, 1992–93, No. 257) and the Government's Response thereto (Cm. 2259).]

7.24 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

On 25 January, the Government presented to Parliament four exceptional documents. Each of those was presented by no fewer than 16 members of the Cabinet, including my right hon. Friends with responsibilities ranging over economic and environmental protection. Among them were Trade and Industry, Agriculture and Fisheries, the Exchequer, Health, Defence, Heritage, Science, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and of course the Foreign Office with its interest in overseas development. They raise issues with the widest possible implications, for the principles set out in those papers must increasingly underpin Government policies across the board.

Unfortunately, that concern goes under a typically unlovely 20th century name: sustainable development. The term was, as one might imagine, coined by a committee, albeit a distinguished international one. The Brundtland commission in 1987 described sustainable development in this carefully defined prose: Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. I prefer to say that we are working for economic growth without cheating on our children.

We must continually stress the two sides of that equation: economic development and environmental protection. Sustainable development is not anti-growth. Indeed, it cannot be achieved except through growth. It cannot be achieved except through the maintenance of a prosperous economy. It depends on the encouragement of profitable, competitive, world-class industries. For modern demands for high standards of living will not abate; they are bound to continue to increase. It is successful private enterprise which will find new ways of meeting those demands in an increasingly sustainable manner.

It is profitable companies which will develop new solutions to environmental problems—problems such as air pollution. It is profitable companies which are already selling the environmentally sound processes throughout the world, processes which have been developed here in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

On the subject of profitable companies, can the right hon. Gentleman resolve for me what seems to be one of the central dilemmas of the present system—capitalist or whatever one calls it—that companies have limited liability and therefore have no responsibility in the way in which they are accountable to their shareholders for the future? How can the Government find a way of building in individual responsibility for companies for the future and square that with the companies' accountability to their shareholders and their limited liability?

Mr. Gummer

The issue of environmental liability is important and it is being considered with great care in the European Union. I look for the type of limited liability that is based on the duty of companies to do at any given time what any knowledgeable individual should do in pursuing policies that do not harm the environment or the future of our children.

There are arguments about how one draws that line. I would be very leery of saying to a company that it should know more about the environment than anyone else knows about it at a particular moment. The idea of insisting upon hindsight would be very dangerous, but I believe that we should be able to find a sensible answer. That is what the European Union is doing—trying to find the right answer.

Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

In that case, does the Secretary of State agree with and totally support the European directive that made it a requirement for companies undertaking major developments to carry out a properly worked out and costed environmental impact assessment? Alternatively, does he feel that it is sufficient to leave that as a voluntary set-up?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Lady knows that I have been pressing hard for a whole range of environmental assessments, not least the concept of environmental audits as part and parcel of the normal activity of major and medium-sized businesses. She knows my views on those matters. There are some real problems with the details of the directive which are not to do with the issues that unite us, so I cannot say that I agree with every jot and tittle. I believe that we must deal with the whole question of environmental liability in a sensible way which will meet the proper concerns of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) but will not lay on the shoulders of business impossible demands. We cannot expect business to have knowledge of something that is not discovered until some time afterwards. I look to a European answer which may be more in tune with our two requirements than is the case with answers suggested in other parts of the world.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

How does the Secretary of State square his statement with the activities of Fisons, a private company which is mining peat on Thorn and Hatfield moors in my constituency? It is ripping that lowland peat bog to pieces although it is important internationally. There has been a voluntary agreement between English Nature and Fisons since January 1992, yet it has still not been signed. I have pursued the matter since I was elected to the House and I can get no sensible answers. This site and other lowland peat bogs are very important, as most people are aware. Will the Secretary of State tell us what the Government intend to do to get the agreement signed and what they intend to do further to protect lowland peat bogs?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman knows that when I was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I spent a great deal of time being particularly interested in the alternatives to peat. That is an issue which, no doubt, unites us. I shall be perfectly happy to look at the details if the hon. Gentleman gives them to me. He may then get sensible answers, if that is what he seeks. I will do my best and see what needs to be done. I am sure that he does not want me to comment on the particular details of the matter here, although I am happy to look at it and to see what we can do.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Can the Secretary of State square his statement about not cheating our children with his decision on the thermal oxide reprocessing plant, which was based on a planning inquiry held some 15 years ago? The available evidence was not published. Surely that is not just cheating our children, but cheating our grandchildren's grandchildren.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman has not spent the time that I and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food spent in going through the details and coming to our conclusion. The case is now before the courts. The decision taken by me and my right hon. Friend was entirely consonant with my belief about not cheating our children. The hon. Gentleman must learn soon that there are choices to be made and that those choices have to be made after the most detailed discovery and discussion of what the facts are. That is what I did and I stand by it.

If we are to have the sustainable development that we want, we need profitable companies which can most afford to invest in new plant and cleaner technology. A thriving private sector will invest in the research and development that is needed to identify and understand the solutions to our environmental problems. Only from a thriving economy can we draw the resources that we need to continue to expand the health services, to invest in education, to conserve and enhance our landscape and to build our heritage—in short, to meet the proper aspirations of our people.

I start with that clear message because I believe that sustainable development must be woven into our life styles. It must not become an excuse for a puritanical belief that life must be miserable for it to be sustainable. The words "sustainable" and "development" must be kept together. It is the phenomenal success of industry over the generations which has contributed to many of the environmental problems today. It is only through business—better business—that any real solutions can be found. That is an essential part of the discovery of solutions to the problems that we face.

The British, who invented the industrial means of production, have long experience of the harm that can be done. That was best expressed in a poem by Hopkins, in which he wrote: Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. Hopkins expressed his anguish at seeing the destruction and loss from industry—[Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) has not looked at the poem recently. If he looks at it carefully, he will see that it contains a number of the demands for sustainable development that we are addressing this evening. Hopkins also possessed the vision that we need—the vision of all that remains, of all that is fundamental and of all that can be preserved. It is on that preservation and on that seeking to pass on our heritage to the next generation that the sustainable part of sustainable development depends.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

We should get something clear at the beginning of our debate. The Secretary of State seems to identify development with sustainable growth. Does he see growth to satisfy all human aspirations as being a continual and everlasting process? Does he believe that, if there is a time when all reasonable human aspirations have been satisfied, it will be unreasonable to expect continuing economic growth?

Mr. Gummer

I can only point to a quotation that I used in my introduction to the document on sustainable development, which is the sensible comment made by Newman that growth is the only evidence of life. I find it difficult to conceive of a society in decline in which it is worth living. There is no known example of a period of flowering of culture and science that is also a period of economic decline. Culture and science flower at a time of economic expansion. That is a fact of history and it is one explanation why the socialist societies did not produce the scientific and cultural results that one would have expected over the years. Marxism developed a period of permanent economic decline.

I look to a society that grows. A society in decline cannot meet the reasonable demands of a civilisation in which human beings expect each year to find new ways in which to express themselves and to grow. I have no objection to that. Growth must happen in a sustainable way. It is only those who are so saddened that they cannot imagine sustainable growth whom we should fear. Those people want to use the admirable concept of sustainable development as a means of imposing on the nation their views about the restrictions that should be placed on the spirit of man. I find that another excuse for a sort of puritanism which, I hope, we shall have grown out of.

We can take pride in the United Kingdom's part in the Rio earth summit. Our environment strategy of 1990 meant that we were well placed to call on other nations to plan comprehensive strategies. We, ahead of most, had done so. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was the first world leader to announce his firm intention of attending the summit, which helped to ensure that other prominent Heads of Government took the plunge. On that occasion, my right hon. Friend launched the Darwin initiative and the technology transfer project. He also announced our sponsorship of the "Partnerships for Change" conference.

Those initiatives have made a real contribution and we should emphasise the nature of that contribution. They have made clear our commitment to the need for a global realisation of sustainable development. Britain was committing itself to partnership and to an understanding that we in the developed countries have a special responsibility to help other nations meet their commitments. The solution has to be global, but it will not be achieved unless the partnership is universally accepted.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I ask the Secretary of State a question of which I gave his office notice? If there is to be a global solution, why does not the biodiversity action plan extend to the British Indian ocean territories of Chagos Archipelago, Tristan da Cunha and St. Helena, which are fantastically rich in biodiversity? If the Government are setting an example, why does not their biodiversity policy extend to the outposts of empire?

Mr. Gummer

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving notice of that question. I have to admit that it would have been more difficult to answer if he had not done so.

At the time, there were reasons that made it difficult to put those places in the same category as the other. dependent territories, but I am seeing whether we can overcome the problem. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is particular biodiversity in those places, as there is in many countries mentioned in the biodiversity document. He points to the fact that the demands of sustainable development, in its widest sense, will be met only by a global solution. I shall be happy to write to him about my researches.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

I agree with my right hon. Friend about the global solution; the documents deserve everyone's support. Many people, however, believe that world population growth has a fundamental role to play. Indeed, in reply to the debate on the earth summit last year, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said that population growth was causing considerable environmental problems. Will my right hon. Friend note that it is a matter of regret that population and planning takes up only one word in one line of the four documents? Might not it be expanded in the future?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that we could discuss that subject for a long time. One of the problems is that what has been most damaging in many countries is not population growth but the movement of the population into urban centres from the countryside. Sometimes, people treat the issue too simplistically. In Latin America, for example, the population expressed as persons per square mile is not very high, but the number of people who have crammed into urban areas in the past 25 years, denuding the countryside, is high. The problem is complex and difficult, and it is devastating the environment. I agree that the matter should be thoroughly discussed, but it needs to be discussed on a much wider basis than only population control.

Mr. Ottaway

My right hon. Friend must accept that world population is growing at the rate of 10,000 every 55 minutes, which is not insignificant. What better opportunity is there to discuss the problem than during this debate on the documents?

Mr. Gummer

The documents' specific purpose is to deal with a number of other issues. I am not speaking for you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am sure that, if my hon. Friend wishes to do so, it will be in order to discuss population growth as part of sustainable development.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Is not it true that every new mouth born in the world has to be fed but it comes with a pair of hands and a brain? It is the sum total of human creativity and energy which has made the world a better place in which to live for the majority of people.

Mr. Gummer

I am carefully trying to avoid the type of discussion that would divide hon. Members in a different way from which we are usually divided. I believe that human beings have an individual validity. That leads me to be extremely careful about the promotion of certain methods to deal with sustainable development, but that is better left for another debate. I am pleased that, on such a subject, my hon. Friend and I are on the same side.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

I liked the right hon. Gentleman's redefinition of cheating children. How does the Government's policy on North sea oil and gas fit with their concept of sustainable development? Does not the dash for gas cheat our children?

Mr. Gummer

I do not think so. If we did not make the changes, the possibility of meeting targets on carbon and achieving a cleaner environment would be much reduced. It would not be reasonable to say that the Government's policy does not make a real contribution towards sustainable development.

Mr. Michael Bates (Langbaurgh)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gummer

I must get a little further into my speech before I give way to my hon. Friend.

Our proposals were designed to underline the commitment of the United Kingdom to a global partnership with the rest of the world. As a former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I am aware of the considerable part that is being played by the trustees of Kew, who are helping nations that would otherwise not have the ability or scientific base to provide the information that they need to begin their sustainable development programmes.

On his return from Rio, it was again the Prime Minister at the Lisbon and Munich summits who persuaded other European Union and G7 Heads of Government to undertake to produce plans for sustainable development. Since then, the United Kingdom has secured election to the newly established United Nations commission on sustainable development. The United Kingdom is one of the first to produce the promised sustainable development strategy and the first to publish a programme under the climate change convention.

That sustained commitment shows the Government's seriousness about building for our long-term future. I know that our aspirations are widely shared.

We need to show in all that we do the recognition that it is only by a world partnership that we can achieve our aims. My predecessor built a good relationship between the United Kingdom and India and, through that, between the north and the south. We have expanded that and there are now many lines of communication between the south and member states of the European Union. I hope that, together, we can carry that policy forward.

One of the remarkable achievements of last year's meeting in New York was that the suspicion between north and south was considerably allayed and many of our previous arguments were resolved. That is a helpful development and we shall seek to extend it in meetings in Geneva and again in New York. I believe that the Indian Minister will seek to do much the same at a meeting in Agra, which could do much to break down the sensitivities of new nations, which feel that it is hard for them to present such documents, because they may be criticised by older nations. We have accepted the principle that we should be prepared to criticise each other, which is a major breakthrough, in order to achieve the best possible answer.

It is particularly beneficial to have not only the clear commitment of the Government but the personal commitment of the Prime Minister. I hope that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) will ensure that the Labour party leader will make the same commitment. It would be good to have a statement of clear support from him. I have difficulty recalling the last time that the Leader of the Opposition made a speech or the issue, but perhaps now is the right time for him to do so. The attitudes set out in the documents must have widespread support. It is inevitable that those who are already convinced and who are campaigning for one environmental cause or another will say that we have not gone far enough. It is right that they should goad us, but it would be wrong for us to accept their assessment without reserve. Everyone has accepted that this is the right direction and we can demonstrate that the strategy that we have set out measures up to the importance of the issue.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Will not the deregulation initiative which is being promoted by the Government seriously weaken the action on environmental improvement? I know that the document says that economic instruments will be used in preference to regulations, but does the Minister agree that what should be used is that which is most effective? Will he also consider not necessarily going for economic instruments in every single case?

Mr. Gummer

I agree absolutely that we must use the most effective measures. Deregulation is not about getting rid of necessary regulations, but unnecessary ones.

The hon. Lady should ask hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench, who have steadfastly refused to support the fiscal measures that are necessary to deliver the carbon dioxide commitments—[Interruption.] It is all very well for the Opposition. They know perfectly well that they could not deliver what is needed for carbon dioxide emissions without the fiscal measures that we have taken. The Opposition are dishonest and hypocritical if they will not stand up and say which taxes they would increase to ensure that we can reach the carbon dioxide targets.

Mrs. Helen Jackson


Mr. Gummer

I will give way to the hon. Lady if she will tell me which taxes she would raise. If she will not tell me, she should not be talking about this part of the debate.

Mrs. Jackson

Will the Secretary of State tell us the specific targets for the reduction in carbon emissions which the Government are prepared to set by the year 2000?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Lady is short-sighted if she does not know that. We have signed up to the international targets and we have said exactly how we will achieve them. The Labour party has refused to accept the measures that are needed to reach those targets. What is worse is that the Labour party and, I believe, the hon. Lady herself want to get rid of the electricity which is produced by nuclear power. That would mean that we would have to tax even more heavily and would have to cut even more to meet those targets.

If the hon. Lady looks at the Labour party's policy on nuclear power, she will see the problem that it presents. Nuclear power currently provides about 22 per cent. of the United Kingdom's electricity. If that were to be replaced, the United Kingdom's emissions of carbon dioxide would be between 6 million and 15 million tonnes of carbon higher. How would the hon. Lady deal with that? Where would she get an alternative for that? What taxes would she put up to damp down the use of energy? The hon. Lady and her party would have to spend about double what is proposed.

The trouble with the Labour party is that it is generous in its generalities and it is careful never to make any particular promises. The hon. Lady has again betrayed the facts. The Labour party has no policy, except promising the best and promising that we can get it all without a single increase in taxation and without any disadvantage to anybody anywhere in the world; or, at least, anybody in the world who has a vote.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that some of the hopes that were placed on wind energy are proving not to be as fruitful as was expected? Does not that form of energy have substantial environmental disadvantages?

Mr. Gummer

My constituency contains two nuclear power stations and many of the people who campaigned against the building of Sizewell B asked us to replace it with wind energy. I am interested that many of those same people are busy writing to me today to say that I should oppose any possibility of putting up a wind farm anywhere in Suffolk. I note, therefore, that there are many people who are always against everything, but who are never in favour of anything. Those people then complain if they do not have the electricity that they need to keep the old warm and to keep the hospitals and schools running.

The Opposition would be much more credible if they honourably told us which taxes the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) would allow them to increase in an unforeseeable future in which they might possibly gain power. The public would respect them much more. I wish to hear which taxes the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury would impose to meet the requirements in respect of which we have imposed the taxation which the hon. Gentleman now opposes. What extra taxation would the hon. Gentleman propose to cover the nuclear deficit when he removes the possibility of any nuclear use?

Perhaps the Opposition have changed their policy and they have a new policy on nuclear power.

Mr. Alan W. Williams


Mr. Gummer

I have been generous in giving way. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if he will tell me which taxes the Opposition would want to increase. Will he tell me that?

Mr. Williams


Mr. Gummer

Then I will give way.

Mr. Williams

The Secretary of State has talked at length about the matter. The right hon. Gentleman is trying to justify VAT on fuel—[HON. MEMBERS: "Which taxes?"] I am coming to it. He is trying to justify VAT on fuel on the basis that it will reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Would not the Secretary of State have more credibility if he told us that the money was to be earmarked for energy efficiency schemes which would reduce carbon dioxide emissions? Is not the money being used to cure the public relations problems of the Government?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman will not get away with that. That is the last refuge of—I will not say what, because it would be unparliamentary. He knows in his heart of hearts as a geologist and an expert, as he often remarks, that the policy of his party is incredible. What does he say? He says that our policy would be more credible if we not only bring in the taxes to which the Opposition are opposed, but spend the money raised on something that the hon. Gentleman thinks is a good idea.

I remind the hon. Gentleman of what we are spending the money on. There is a considerable increase in the money which is going to every pensioner, so that they can now get assistance towards the major work involved in having an energy-efficient home. We are dealing with 500,000 homes this year. The hon. Gentleman knows that, but he does not mention it.

I gave way to the hon. Gentleman on a false prospectus. He made it clear to me that he was going to tell me which taxes the Opposition were to raise. The hon. Gentleman was going to tell me how the Opposition would deal with the fact that less carbon is put into the atmosphere by nuclear energy. He did not tell us, because the Labour party does not know. If it does know, it dare not tell us.

Labour Members would then find themselves in the same position as the most dishonourable case, which is the Liberal Democrat party. The Liberal Democrats, of course, are always green in words. The Liberal Democrats were in favour of the extension of VAT to fuel and then they changed their minds. Why? They changed their minds because there was a by-election in which it was inconvenient to stand up for their principles. I note that principles in the Liberal Democrat party are convenient only as long as they are electorally sound. The party has shown the same kind of principles on green issues which it showed on the racial issue in Tower Hamlets. Whenever there is a problem that can be got out of by winning a vote, the Liberals will be there.

The party knows perfectly that it would have to tax to meet carbon dioxide requirements. Liberal Democrats are very good at saying how green they are, but they never say how they would tax. They use generalities, but they never mention facts when it comes to how it will affect somebody who might vote for them.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)


Mr. Gummer

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain why his party dropped the proposal for VAT on fuel.

Mr. Hughes

The Secretary of State spoils a debate on important issues with this banter, which all hon. Members could enter into. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I will answer the right hon. Gentleman's question. He knows perfectly well that he has been entirely selective about recent political history. We did consult before the election on whether VAT was a sensible option for dealing with environmental issues. We rejected it as an option. It was not in our manifesto for the general election and it has not been in any since, because we have been persuaded by the arguments. I am sure that the message of the debate will be that if the Government consulted more widely and listened to the answers more closely, they would have a sounder policy.

Mr. Gummer

It is fascinating that the hon. Gentleman should say that, but he has not mentioned that he would introduce another tax, which would have the same effect, but which was not mentioned to the electorate. That part of the manifesto was kept very quiet. The Liberals published all kinds of leaflets which suggested that they would manage the green goods without paying the difficult price for that.

Mr. Hughes

No, no.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman cannot say, "No, no". I have raised this issue for a simple reason: if we are to win the battle for sustainable development, we must be honest about the cost. We cannot deliver that development unless we accept that real costs are involved. The Government have committed themselves to insist upon those costs and to help those least able to pay them.

The system that we presented was much more generous than that which the Labour party suggested was the minimum necessary. We do not go for the minimum of help; perfectly rightly, we have done better than that. Does the Labour party support the necessary taxes that must be imposed? Does the Liberal party come out and say, "Yes. We would tax. This is the amount and this is how it would affect people"? Do the Liberals put that in their manifestos for by-elections? No, they do not.

I have some hope for the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury, because we agree about many issues, but I have no hope for the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), because the Liberals would have to turn back the history of 50 years if they started to tell the truth about taxation.

Mr. Hughes


Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman will have plenty of opportunity to talk about this issue.

Mr. Hughes

The right hon. Gentleman does not want to listen to the argument.

Mr. Gummer

I will be very happy to hear the argument and no doubt we will hear in extenso—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ad nauseam."] If we deal with sustainable development, we must make sure that we do not pick out particular aspects and avoid the holistic approach that we need to take. We cannot win the battle on climate change unless we are prepared to charge the cost. That cost must be clear and we must seek to ensure that it does not fall on those who are least able to pay it. We must make the measures effective if we are to deliver the end.

There is more to it than just fiscal measures. We need to insist on the role of individuals. The Government must set a clear example, and so must the House. I am pleased that the House has decided to meet the same targets as have been set for Government offices. The House of Commons and the House of Lords will meet the 15 per cent. reduction in energy use. I met the man responsible and he is satisfied that the programme is well on course.

The Ministers in each Department responsible for green issues are also responsible for delivering the departmental targets. At the end of the period concerned, we should have achieved the 15 per cent. reduction that we need. I hope that, among other things, the temperature at which the House generally works will be lowered. I believe that it is higher than it need be.

The only way in which we can, ultimately, achieve our ends and sustain them is not only by setting an example, which we must, but by harnessing the enthusiasm, the willingness to contribute and the simple common-sense actions of countless individuals nationwide. Those small things, which everyone can do, make a huge difference to our achievements. It is true that while every household is responsible for 7.5 tonnes of carbon going into the atmosphere, that emission could be reduced by 1 tonne if people adopted relatively small measures. Many may point the finger at each one of those measures and say that they do not seem much, but if each household, out of 20 million, were to adopt those simple measures, the difference could be enormous.

By using less central heating, by using only that amount of water that needs to be boiled for a particular function, by using energy-saving bulbs and by walking, when possible, instead of driving, a great deal could be achieved. That is why we have set an example not only by what we are doing in Government buildings and offices, but by helping pensioners to provide the insulation necessary for their homes.

Those measures represent just 30 per cent. of our target. We must consider transport, which is an important part of the equation, although it is responsible for less carbon than that produced from domestic sources. The car is perhaps the single most emancipating manufactured product yet devised. We need to retain the freedom which car owning has provided. [Laughter.] It is all right for Opposition Members to laugh, but the car has given to many people opportunities that they never had before. Those opportunites should not be laughed at. The Opposition will find that the electorate does not share their laughter, because people feel that the motor car has been and is a great force for good.

The car must be the servant, not the master. The issue is how we control the car sensibly within our society. That is why the sustainable development plan states frankly: If people continue to exercise their choice as they are at present—and there are no other changes—the resulting traffic growth would have unacceptable consequences for both the environment and the economy of certain parts of the country—and could be very difficult to reconcile with overall sustainable development goals. There are several approaches to solving that. One is to increase the cost of travel by road. The Government have not baulked at that responsibility, but I have not noticed enthusiasm from the Labour party to support the extra duty on petrol, over and above the cost of living, to help towards that. I have not noticed that, because it is embarrassing to support tough, necessary measures; it is much easier to claim the credit for the advantages that those measures achieve and to make generalised anti-road comments.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer

I am happy to give way if the hon. Lady will tell me that she will support that tax.

Ms Walley

In view of what the right hon. Gentleman has just told the House, do I take it that he and the Secretary of State for Transport intend to review the widening proposals for the M25?

Mr. Gummer

What an interesting answer. I have still not heard an answer about the tax. The Opposition do not want to answer that question. They do not want to accept the fact that they want all the easy popularity, but they do not want to meet the bill. Meeting the bill for sustainable development points up the difference between hypocrisy and reality. I will not, of course, aim either of those words at anyone because that would be unparliamentary.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) knows perfectly well that a public inquiry is being held about the future of the M25. That is the proper way to conduct business. I am sure that she would want the public to have their say, and no doubt they will, and a decision will be made as a result.

A second solution is within our hands as individuals, because we can choose to use the car less or more sensibly. Many people already make a point of doing that and I believe that many others will do so. Technical measures can also help, such as the manufacture of cleaner motor vehicles and I pay tribute to those who have already done so much in that regard.

We can also, however, employ the land use planning system to influence the siting of new shops and offices. Where we choose to work, where we go to enjoy ourselves and where we go to shop are significant choices for our use of the car. They also make a significant impact on urban quality.

Understanding what is needed to improve the quality of cities and towns requires us to look at issues in a broader way. How people shop relates to how they use their cars. How local authorities respond influences whether businesses will invest in town centres. Good urban design demands vitality in the urban property market. That vitality flows from people's decision to shop in town centres. In turn, that depends on a positive approach to planning and managing town centres. That is a job for local authorities, because they must be imaginative in enabling things to happen. They should not say no to a substantial new development without making clear their reasons. Whenever possible, they should point to an alternative way of making provision for economic development. They must adopt a positive approach.

Local authorities must work with local people, landowners and developers to identify the right local strategy. Those strategies in local plans must take account of the national priorities set out by the Government last year in planning policy guidance note 6. That policy is intended to help to deliver town centres that serve the whole community. Those centres should provide a focus for retail development where competing businesses are near enough for shoppers to compare prices and benefits from competition. They should be places in which a series of different uses are encouraged. They would then be attractive to local residents, shoppers and visitors because they would have lively restaurants, cafes, culture and entertainments, as well as shopping facilities and places for people to live.

I want us to improve the quality of our towns so that we can reduce the pressures of urban sprawl and the pressures to develop green-field sites. That means encouraging new shopping developments in locations where they can reinforce town centres—in town centres or within walking distance of them. Where they would result in an unacceptable impact on a town centre, it may be necessary to discourage development on green-field sites on the edge of cities.

I wish to mention a further development that has resulted from the document on sustainable development. Month by month, we shall have new examples of the steadily developing strategy outlined in the document. Today, the Producer Responsibility Industry Group, representing 28 major companies in the packaging world, presented to me some new packaging proposals. I have the document in front of me. It must be considered further by both Government and industry. Businesses must decide whether to follow its recommendations or face the prospect of a much more bureaucratic scheme proposed by legislation in response to the European Union packaging directive.

The Government must also reserve their position on the plan until industry is sure that it complies with United Kingdom and European Union competition law and until appropriate authorisations have been received from the relevant competition authorities. But I have no hesitation in endorsing the way in which the industry group has approached the challenge. Recycling is a crucial part of any sensible sustainable development strategy. The plan would nearly double the recycling and recovery of packaging waste from 32 per cent. in 1993 to 58 per cent. by 2000. It would bring convenient access to recycling to 80 per cent. of homes by the end of the century, either through home collection or close-to-home bank schemes. Some 15 per cent. of households—3.5 million homes—will be covered by 1996.

The plan includes a clear commitment to expand markets for recycled materials. Having looked hard at potential markets, we believe that recycling of plastics waste is projected to increase from 5 to 16 per cent. by 2000. The plan also safeguards some of the recycling activities most seriously threatened by the impact of foreign schemes, such as United Kingdom paper collection and reprocessing. I shall want to look again at some of the detailed targets, but I believe that the plan is a major step forward.

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)

As my right hon. Friend knows, the Select Committee on the Environment is midway through its inquiry into recycling. Will he confirm that the producer responsibility group document will be made available to the Select Committee before it reaches its conclusion?

Mr. Gummer

I am happy to do that. It will also be discussed widely by the industry and I hope that we shall have a concerted agreement at the end.

Mr. Bennett

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm that, if a Minister refers to a document in his speech, he has a duty to place a copy in the Vote Office? There is none there at present. As the Minister has referred to the document, does not he have a duty to produce it for the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Yes, that is the usual procedure. I hope that the Secretary of State will make the necessary arrangements.

Mr. Gummer

I am happy to place the document in the Library and the Vote Office. I apologise to the hon. Member for Denton and Redditch if he feels that I have not already done so, but I received the document only this afternoon. Once I receive full details, I shall certainly make them available to the hon. Gentleman. The document will be in the public domain—it is the group's document, not mine—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not have wished me to hide the information from the House.

We should ensure, almost immediately, that the new arrangements made so happily through the Uruguay round make it clear that those policies work closely with our environmental policies. We agreed that in Rio and, on the international stage, we contribute to work under way in OECD, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, and the United Nations Environment Programme to examine the interaction between trade and environment policies. I recently had a meeting with my French, German and Spanish colleagues to see how best the European Community can contribute to that important aspect of our policy.

We have announced that the Government will put forward their policies not just for internal criticism but for outside monitoring, which is why there is a panel on sustainable development with such distinguished members. We shall also have a round table on sustainable development, whose proceedings and attitudes will be determined by its members, not laid down in advance. We are reaching out to ensure that the citizens' campaign will reach every village and town in the country, so that sustainable development becomes part of everyone's policy. That is essential if we are to achieve sustainable development.

I began my speech with the first half of a quotation from Hopkins' poem. Some hon. Members will be longing to hear the end of that poem, for at least it holds out hope of change—

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

And hope of the end of the speech.

Mr. Gummer

As the hon. Gentleman says, it also holds out hope of the end of my speech.

The poem says: And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs— Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. There is much to give us hope for a real renaissance in our attitude to the environment in which we live and breathe. Throughout the world, there is a determination to achieve sustainable development, not to cheat our children. Not only in the rich west but in the poor south we must find a way through on a global basis. But none of us can be excused from accepting our individual responsibility for contributing to sustainable development.

8.15 pm
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I welcome the opportunity to debate the documents and sustainable development. I am pleased that the Government say that they want to take Rio forward. It is good to see them trying to go forwards rather than backwards for a change.

The Government announced the four documents with a great fanfare of trumpets at the Banqueting house. Again tonight, there has been much trumpeting from the Secretary of State about how wonderful the Government are being. But what do the documents really add up to? The answer, I am afraid, is very little. They contain a reiteration of existing statements and commitments, but little that is new. The Government have laboured mightily and brought forth 567 pages, two committees and advice on opening your curtains when you get up in the morning.

The two committees are all well and good, but they do not add up to a real vision of a sustainable future for our country or the rest of the earth that we all share. May I highlight some general failures in this exercise by the Government? First, they have failed to look with real imagination to the long term. They have recognised the need to do so, but have not done it. The documents contain no sense within the Government of a real concept of where our country could be in 50 or 100 years' time.

There is much talk about the need for research, consultation and waiting for evidence before making decisions, but no sense of direction. If the Government had a sense of direction, they would have recognised the importance of global actions and solutions, especially in relation to the developing world.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) is here, because he pointed out that, following the Budget, the Government are freezing the amount that our country is spending, in cash terms, on overseas aid. Let us put that into the equation when discussing global solutions to sustainability. Let us also put the general agreement on tariffs and trade into the global arena. I was pleased that the Secretary of State—this was a first for the Government—acknowledged today that we need to put the environment into the GATT process. When the Prime Minister came back from the Uruguay round, he was asked about that by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition. This, in fact, answers the question that the Secretary of State asked today about my right hon. and learned Friend, who asked the Prime Minister about the impact of the outcome of the GATT negotiations on the environment. The Prime Minister replied that no one thought there was a problem. Everyone accepted, he said, that the environment was happily taken care of.

Of course, the environment has not been taken care of. Many people are rightly worried that the GATT process will trump environmental protection in international agreements. We want the environment and its needs written firmly and clearly into the remit of the new world trading organisation.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

I am all in favour of bringing the environment into the GATT round, but many of the most vociferous opponents of the idea are countries of the south which believe that it would be used as a cloak for protectionism by the rich countries of the west.

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman misreads the feelings of many countries in the south. They want to be able to exercise protection of their environment themselves; at the moment, the GATT rules do not allow them to. If environmental protection became an excuse for protectionism, that would not be a good thing. Equally, we must not allow the cause of free trade to lead to the unnecessary degradation of the global environment.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of the documents is that which deals with the prospect of catastrophic climatic change and the impact of carbon dioxide emissions leading up to and beyond the year 2000. Let us consider the steps leading up to the year 2000 first. The Secretary of State made a great deal of that in his speech. Perhaps, then, he will tell us where he believes the savings of carbon dioxide emissions will come from through the work of the Energy Saving Trust. That trust has £6 million from British Gas and a promise of £25 million from the regional electricity companies—and that is it. Is this the trust that is going to yield up about a quarter of the prospective savings of carbon dioxide to which the Secretary of State tells us the Government are already firmly committed? I suspect that we need to hear a great deal more about the funding for, and the actions of, the Energy Saving Trust before we can believe that the Government intend to deliver their commitment.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that in February 1993 he told Green Magazine that Labour had been thinking of a number of small but effective tax measures, which included increasing VAT on environmentally unfriendly products? On which products would he put VAT; and does he consider coal-fired power stations, with their production of carbon dioxide, environmentally friendly?

Mr. Smith

I can tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what our document, published in 1991, said—that we would favour putting small increases of VAT on items such as heavy metal batteries and materials containing CFCs. If the hon. Gentleman cannot tell the difference between a heavy metal battery and a domestic gas bill, I am afraid that he is even more stupid than I thought.

The Government's bogus argument is that VAT on domestic fuel is a green measure, intended to change environmental behaviour. In fact, of course, it is designed purely to raise money for the Exchequer—but they do not tell us that. Putting up the price of domestic energy does not change the behaviour of the overwhelming majority, who carry on using the same amount of energy as before, but paying more for it. The people who give up using some of their energy are the people who cannot afford to carry on using it. So the entire burden of a minimal reduction in energy use and carbon dioxide emissions is borne by those who are least able to bear it. That is what happens when VAT is imposed on domestic fuel.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Select Committee on the Environment carried out a study of energy efficiency and recommended that the Energy Saving Trust be funded to the tune of £1.5 billion. Where does the hon. Gentleman think that sort of money should come from? If he thinks it should come from the utilities, will he make it clear to the British people that their electricity and gas bills will have to rise considerably to meet that target?

Mr. Smith

First, the hon. Gentleman should ask the Secretary of State that question. Secondly, it seems to have escaped his notice that the regional electricity companies are making about £1.5 billion profits each year. Thirdly, if the hon. Gentleman had properly read the Opposition's proposals for a national programme of energy efficiency work, he would know that what we propose does not require a single penny's contribution from the taxpayer. Nevertheless, under the sort of programme that we suggest, with a small premium increase in the unit cost of gas and electricity only for people who have had energy efficiency work carried out for free, four times as much carbon dioxide could be saved as the Government claim they will save by means of imposing VAT.

Mr. Dafis

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm one little statistic? Is it not true that Government receipts from 17.5 per cent. VAT on domestic fuel will amount to £2.5 billion?

Mr. Smith

Correct. But the Government will spend only about 2 per cent. of that on the home energy efficiency scheme. So the Secretary of State's claims to generosity—all that extra money going into energy efficiency—amount to nothing more than one fiftieth of the sum that the Government intend to take away from people.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South-East)

Does my hon. Friend recall that when the Paymaster General was asked, during consideration of last year's Finance Bill, what percentage of the VAT would go on energy measures, he said that he was not prepared to answer hypothetical questions? Does not that nail the lie being used to mislead the public about the reasons behind the VAT?

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was noticeable that the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, introducing his Budget in March last year, said not a word about any increase in funding for energy efficiency work. Finally, however, the Government woke up to the fact that they had to be seen to be doing something to mitigate the impact of VAT, and that they did in November.

Dr. Spink

The hon. Gentleman is wriggling and refusing to answer a simple question. I shall ask him once again. Which taxes will he enforce or raise to reduce CO2 emissions? It is a simple question. Please may we have a simple answer?

Mr. Smith

I have already given a simple answer to the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown). By establishing a national programme of energy efficiency work, such as we propose, one can save four times the amount of energy that the Government claim to be saving through the imposition of value added tax, without imposing a single penny of extra tax.

Perhaps the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) can tell us why—even on the Government's figures—Britain's carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced by less than 1 per cent. through the imposition of VAT on fuel. The Government are imposing the maximum social pain and distress on millions of people for absolutely minimal environmental benefit.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Smith

I must speed on, so I shall not allow any more interventions at this stage.

What will happen after the year 2000? The Government's calculations for what they will do in the run up to 2000 are paltry, but when we ask what they have in store beyond that year they say: Further international action may well be necessary. The current Convention measures will need to be reviewed in the light of the further scientific evidence that has been sought. In other words, they have no clue what will happen beyond the year 2000.

At the moment, all we have from the Government is a commitment, which they show little sign of being able to meet as carbon dioxide emissions are rising, to have emissions at the 1990 level in the year 2000. We have no commitment beyond that, not even one to stabilise at the level from the year 2000. The documents do not give us any further information.

The first general failing of the documents is that they have no real long-term vision. The second general failure is that the Government do not understand, as they should, that environment protection can be an opportunity and not merely a threat and a burden. Throughout the documents, the environment is seen as something that imposes penalties and dampens prosperity, but it can be a stimulus for prosperity. It is estimated that the global market in environmental products and technologies will be worth at least $300 billion a year by the turn of the century. I hope that, instead of harping all the time on the difficulties of meeting some of the environmental challenges, the Government will start to think about the inherent opportunities.

Thirdly, the documents fail to understand that sustainability is about social equity as well as environmental probity. The Government have totally failed to grasp that fact and their attempt to claim VAT as an environmental measure is precisely in that category. A sustainable approach does not mean that one simply ignores people's needs, especially the needs of those least able to cope with some of the changes that may be necessary.

The Government's documents are, therefore, defective in their wider vision, but the detail also leaves a lot to be desired. There are four areas of concern. First, the roads programme; even the Government are beginning to show some signs of recognising that the development of public transport and not the building of more roads provides the key to a proper sustainable transport policy. Will they, therefore, admit that they were wrong to desecrate Twyford down? If the Secretary of State is so fond of Gerard Manley Hopkins—as, indeed, am I—he will know the closing lines of that wonderful poem, "Inversnaid", where Hopkins writes: What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and wildness? Let them be left O let them be left, wildness and wet: Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. Will the Secretary of State apply that to Twyford down; to the 161 sites of special scientific interest that are due to be destroyed by the roads programme; and to the 500 SSSIs that have been damaged during the past three years? Will he apply those principles to the sites that we ought to be declaring inviolable for ever, as part of our implementation of the European Union's habitats directive? Will he apply that to the parts of the home counties where the M25 is to be widened?

If the Secretary of State is serious about putting sustainability at the heart of our transport policies, he will launch a proper and thorough review of the roads programme and its impact on the environment.

I touched on the second area of concern when I mentioned habitats and biodiversity. The hedgerows are one of the most important forms of habitat in this country. The Government said in their manifesto at the last election—we know that they said a lot of things which have since turned out not to be the case—that they would legislate to provide statutory protection for our hedgerows. So, what has happened? A Conservative Back-Bench Member valiantly tabled a private Member's Bill to do precisely that, but it was talked out by some of his fellow Conservative Back Benchers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who has pursued such matters vigorously since he came to the House, produced a Bill last Friday which would have provided protection for hedgerows, but the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), who sits on the Conservative Benches, objected and the Bill fell.

The deregulation task force document produced by the Government states in recomendation No. 314 that the task force recommends: Abandon the proposed introduction of hedgerow legislation. That recommendation is, as yet, undenied.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

The hon. Gentleman is putting the argument rather one-sidedly. He should recall that three years ago I tried to introduce a private Member's Bill to protect hedgerows. The Bill was not blocked by any of my Conservative colleagues or the Conservative Whip but by the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend, the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen).

Mr. Smith

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to reintroduce his Bill, I can assure him that he will have full co-operation from the Opposition to ensure that it gets through. We have made the Government that offer on several occasions. If the Government want to introduce legislation—perhaps as part of their long-delayed legislation to pave the way for an environmental protection agency—we would give them full and speedy co-operation.

Perhaps the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) and the Secretary of State could tell us whether it is the Conservative party manifesto commitment on hedgerows that will stand or the deregulation task force proposal. We have lost one fifth of our hedgerows during the past 10 years and it is about time that they had proper statutory protection.

The third area of concern is forestry. At the moment, Britain is one of the least forested countries in Europe. There has been a remarkable improvement in the planting, conservation and access policies of the Forestry Commission during recent years. The Government appear to accept, because they signed up to the forest principles strategy at Rio, that we need a proper forestry strategy. But there is no prospect of a national strategy if, as the Government appear to wish, the Forestry Commission is to be privatised.

An interdepartmental working party is already beavering away and is due to report to Ministers about now. Ministers are due to make their decisions on the future of the Forestry Commission in the next few weeks. We in the Labour party insist that the Forestry Commission, in whole or in part, should remain in the public sector. It should not be privatised because, if it were, public access, the conservation values of forest maintenance and management and the possiblity of having a genuine national strategy for the future of our forests would be diminished. Perhaps the Minister will give us a commitment that the Government will abandon any plans to privatise the Forestry Commission.

The fourth issue on which progress could be made is bathing water standards. At the moment, our bathing water and our beaches fail to meet the European Community directive legal levels for quality in far too many cases. If one looks around the regions, one will see that, in the south-west, 13 per cent. of beaches fail to meet the standards. In southern England, outside London, 24 per cent. fail to meet legal standards. In the north-west, 67 per cent.—two thirds—of all the beaches have bathing water that fails to meet the legal requirements laid down in agreed European directives.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) seems to be placing much reliance on European legislation. Surely he must remember the Environment Select Committee's unanimous condemnation of the directive for being poorly based on science. That has been reiterated by the Director General of Water Services. Furthermore, a substantial piece of work has been done by Which? exposing how it is enforced in Europe and here.

Mr. Smith

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman, unusually, is mistaken. He is getting his directives mixed up. What he said might well be true as far as the drinking water directive is concerned, but it is not true in relation to the bathing water directive. If he wants a practical demonstration of that, I have with me a sample of bathing water, culled only yesterday, from a beach in Cornwall. Its contents are rather unpleasant. This is the bathing water

What are the Government up to? They are in what one might call a recidivists' alliance with the new right-wing Government in France, trying to get the bathing water directive and a whole series of others repealed, withdrawn or amended. The bathing water directive is there on the memorandum that is circulating between the two Governments.

The Prime Minister may believe, as he told us when he came back from the Council in December, that it is perfectly all right for us to swim in sewage when we go to the seaside in this country. I do not share that belief. I want to ensure that our bathing water is improved rather than diminished in quality. I want to see the bathing water directive upheld and not dismantled. I have the proof of why it is needed.

I have identified only four of the many specific issues that could be advanced. We must see much better progress, much more conviction and some signs of real action if the Government are to be believed in what they say about sustainability; otherwise, these documents and the Government's statements on sustainable development will remain simply statements, worthy statements perhaps, but with no sign of action and no real vision underlining them.

8.45 pm
Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)

I am glad to be able to follow the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), because he and I were old colleagues on the Environment Select Committee many years before he reached his present distinguished role, which I hope he will enjoy for many years.

I should remind the hon. Member that the Environment Select Committee has produced reports not only on the drinking water directive but on the bathing water directive as well. The unanimous findings were that the directive was not well based in science. As I said a moment ago, that has been upheld by what the Director General of Ofwat has said, but also by an interesting paper—I commend it to the hon. Gentleman—produced by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

One example of where the directive is defective in science is that the parameter for the incidence of salmonella—as laid down in the bathing water directive—is nil, not 0.001 or 0.000001 per cent. As a third of all gulls carry salmonella, any beach that is near gulls could pass only if those gulls were shot. I am sure that that is not a method which the hon. Gentleman would commend. Like him, I am totally committed to improving the standard of bathing waters, but the matter should be addressed by reference to proper health threats, not by simply framing directives in poorly produced scientific language.

I feel a bit left out of the debate, because I have not brought my book of Hopkins poetry with me. I will not venture down that road. One of the most striking things about the debate is that if it had been held in the aftermath of Rio, approximately two years ago, there would have been far more press attention and far more hon. Members in the House.

We have gone a great way since Rio in all sorts of ways, but I am afraid that, in public perceptions and interest, we seem to have gone backwards. That confirms my general impression that the media are more interested in issues that are trivial and transitory than those that are important and long-term, as undoubtedly this issue is.

Rio was accompanied by much razzmatazz. None of us could have woken up and not heard—if we listened to the "Today" programme—Brian Redhead and others lecturing us on all these extremely important issues and saying what a critical conference it was. Some things have come out of it, but it is a painfully slow business.

There is much common ground between Opposition Members and Conservative Members. I include Ministers in that, because trying to take forward international agreements when one knows that some who signed up to them did so because they wanted press attention at the time of the razzmatazz, yet had no intention whatever of honouring them, must be a frustrating process.

Some criticism was made of the United Kingdom at the time for wanting to look at the fine print of the various agreements before signing up. As so often under those circumstances, the United Kingdom is only the second country to publish a detailed response. I am reminded of a report on acid rain, of which the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury and I were co-authors. We said that the Government should join the 30 per cent. club. They did not, but they were very confident that they would achieve the club's objectives. That has come to pass. But has the hon. Gentleman looked recently at the record of all the countries that signed up? Quite a few subsequently said, "Sorry; we meant to achieve that goal, but we did not manage to."

I had the honour to be one of the four Members of Parliament who attended the IPU follow-up conference in Rio, in November 1992. Considerable interest was expressed in some of our United Kingdom activities—especially the annual reports of the Department of the Environment, which are extremely well set out and coherent, and contribute greatly to debate on a factual rather than a suppository basis. [Laughter.] It is always possible to make slips: on a previous occasion, I referred to the Po without adding the word "river".

I also welcome the digest of statistics produced by the Department; that, too, contributes a great deal to factual debate. What Rio produced were words, words, words and yet more words. I do not believe that future generations would forgive us if we did not deliver on some of those words—and one of the most important subjects is climate change and global warming.

There is, in general, a scientific consensus on that, although some debate still takes place: the greenhouse effect is recognised as highly probable, although there is room for debate on whether global warming results from it. However, there are extremists on both sides. There are the ostriches, who will say that, because one or two scientists do not agree, we should do nothing; and there are those would take us back to the dark ages, reacting hysterically and histrionically to the evidence.

I think it eminently sensible to operate on the precautionary principle—not just because of the important matters that are at stake, but because the precautions make sense in their own right. It makes sense to conserve resources and energy, to preserve species and to be both good neighbours and good forebears for generations yet to come. I have always felt—as, no doubt, have other hon. Members—that my duty is to pass on to the next generation a world better than the world that I inherited.

I believe that, so far, we are on common ground; but all the actions taken in the United Kingdom and the European Union will be of little consequence if we cannot export our attitudes to other countries. Countries such as China are so important, in terms of their population and their potential economic growth, that if they are unwilling to play a part in the attempt to tackle global warming, we might as well all pack up and go home. We must take every opportunity to embrace such countries in international conventions, and to assist them by means of technology transfer and other forms of help.

The Government have, very properly, entitled their attempt to turn their aims into action at home "Helping the Earth Begins at Home". Fifty per cent. of our greenhouse gas emissions are generated by and from buildings; 25 per cent. are caused by traffic. Every individual has some control over those emissions.

One of the depressing features of traffic emissions is that, although Europe and the United Kingdom spend considerable time producing regulations that control what goes into cars at one end and what goes out at the other, little effort has been put into trying to improve the efficiency of the engines in between. There is enormous scope for new technology in car design that might cut that 25 per cent. total.

I believe that the car is with us to stay. Although it is highly desirable that more people use public transport wherever possible—or, indeed, use no transport other than their own two legs—there is a good case for ensuring that the traffic that remains is civilised. That means proper traffic management schemes, proper bypasses and a good look at road pricing—not necessarily in terms of charges for motorways, which would deal with the wrong end of the problem, but in terms of charges for entry to congested cities. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will examine that possibility first.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

Surely the real problem—which the Government have not yet tackled—is how to reduce dependence on the motor car. We all agree that such a measure would be very unpopular, but no one has come up with an effective proposal this evening.

Mr. Jones

Of course that is a problem. I think that pricing has a part to play, along with changing attitudes and trying to encourage more car sharing. I have always believed, however, that, rather than trying to make water flow uphill, we should recognise what people are going to do and try to make it less environmentally damaging. That, I think, represents the thrust of what I have been saying.

I have mentioned the importance of bypasses. My constituency is fortunate, in that the A41 bypass opened recently. It is well recognised as one of the most environmentally friendly new roads in Britain: it will have 80,000 trees along its length by the end of the planting season, and it will bring much-needed relief to the communities on its path—Berkhamsted, Northchurch, Bourne End, King's Langley and Hemel Hempstead.

My constituents living in those roads—and in roads represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page)—will know that the environmental arguments are strongly in favour of the bypass, and I am sure that the same is true of other hon. Members' constituents.

Those who attack the roads programme always seem to be in favour of the bypass in their constituencies; it is the generality they attack. A few months ago, I replied to a constituent from Friends of the Earth who had suggested that the programme should be reduced, asking him to give me a list of the roads that he thought should be removed from it. He never replied: they never do, because they are unwilling to face up to what may happen in individual areas.

I have referred to emissions from buildings, which may be caused by heating or lighting. There is undoubtedly a strong case for greater efforts in energy conservation, as the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury rightly pointed out; currently, however, we await the Government's response to the Select Committee's report on that important subject.

I will not anticipate either that response or the debate that I hope will follow it, but I shall highlight one or two points. The energy ratio fell between 1983 and 1989, but that trend reversed, and there has since been a sustained 3.7 per cent. per annum increase, which needs to be addressed. My noble Friend Lord Walker of Worcester said 10 years ago: A new publicity campaign would move the UK from being one of the most apathetic nations in energy conservation to a position where we are the best within two years. I never did think much of my noble Friend's forecasting methods, but he has to be so far out with that particular prediction that I hope he will not be reminded of it too often. If we do not try to deliver on his promise of 10 years ago, we shall be in severe trouble in future. There must be greater legislative effort and more resources directed at energy conservation.

There have been exchanges during this debate on the Energy Saving Trust Ltd. I reiterate that it must be properly financed. As the Committee recommended, the Government must adopt a proactive stance, to ensure that all interested parties realise the important role that they should play.

In that context, I was particularly disturbed by the recent comments by the gas industry regulator to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, in which she appeared to go back on her commitment to the E factor and to energy conservation. I subsequently had an exchange of letters that may be published eventually, but I am still extremely concerned that the regulator is not taking that part of her duties as seriously as she should. I commend to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the Select Committee's recommendation that a statutory duty should be placed on regulators to have regard to the environment. There is much to be said for public authorities setting a proper example. There are some good stories of energy conservation among Government Departments, but such achievements have not been universal and in some cases, Departments have gone backwards. The new system of green Ministers should not be just a pleasant get-together now and again, but must contribute to ensuring that the laggards pull their weight and deliver energy savings.

The local authority sector is extremely important because of the number of disadvantaged families that it embraces. Local authority and housing association new build and property renovation should be undertaken with energy efficiency in mind. There are still many technical barriers to that in the local government regime—particularly in respect of leasing. I hope that there will be a positive reaction to the Committee's recommendation in due course. I would attach strings to all future capital investment to ensure that energy saving is delivered.

Greater emphasis must be placed on combined heat and power. It is absurd that so much energy is wasted by not co-ordinating power generation and the heating of offices, factories and homes. Proper energy labelling is also important. It is difficult for the public to know when they are purchasing an environmentally friendly piece of equipment or even an environmentally friendly house. In my constituency, Admiral Homes—pioneers in energy conservation—designed a house with a rating of 10, which is an important achievement.

However, lending authorities such as banks and building societies do not take energy efficiency into account when valuing properties or deciding how much to advance individual borrowers. That does not make sense. If people enjoy lower household running expenses because they spend less on energy, they must more easily be able to afford the repayments on the capital borrowed. One way forward would be for building societies and banks to change their lending policies in that regard.

Although I see scope for flexibility in building regulations between one parameter and another, the last thing I want is a dilution of the impact of these regulations on energy efficiency. I was horrified at the statement by the managing director of Bovis Homes when he was appointed to one deregulatory party—that he was out to get the building regulations. That seemed to be prejudging the issue that he was meant to examine, and was quite inappropriate.

Price must play a part in reducing energy consumption. Whatever Opposition Members may say about value added tax on fuel, it did not exist in the past. I remind the House that the Liberal party document, "Costing the Earth", said that it advocated as a first priority the imposition of a tax on energy … The United Kingdom is unusual amongst EC members in not applying even standard rates of VAT to domestic fuels … If it proved completely impossible to persuade our international partners to adopt energy taxes, we would nonetheless press forward, but phase them in at lower levels than otherwise—for example, by ending the anomalous zero-rate of VAT on fuel". No amount of wriggling by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) will get the Liberals off that hook. We all know that the Liberal party ditches promises whenever there is a convenient by-election. I live in the Millwall ward of the Isle of Dogs, for goodness' sake: I know the sort of literature that comes through the door from the Liberal party. It is disgusting, and the Liberal party's response to it is disgusting. There is no way in which the Liberals could deliver on the energy philosophy they set out in the document I quoted and in others.

It is fair to say that price, although important, is not enough. There have to be carrots as well as sticks. There are schemes in place which benefit some people. I commend the Energy Saving Trust, the home energy efficiency scheme and the Government's extension of that scheme.

However, the middle classes, who could well afford to cut their energy consumption, are complacent about it. Not one constituent who has written to me complaining about VAT who lives in a large house and comes from a well-heeled background has said anything about the environment or about doing anything to their home. Yet I know from what I have done to my home that one can save enormous quantities of electricity, gas or oil if one goes about it in the right way.

I said that it was necessary to move people away from their total dependence on the motor car, so I welcome the increase above the rate of inflation in the tax on fuel. An effective measure that could accompany that is to get rid of the car tax and put the same amount on fuel tax.

That would save on the cost of administration of the car tax. It would deal once and for all with tax dodging. It would provide a powerful incentive to use less fuel. It would not harm pensioners, because on the whole they do much less than the average mileage. The measure would hit those who use cars to drive long distances every year. I catch the eye of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) at that point, but I know that he uses the train frequently.

Forestry was an important part of the Rio declaration. It is important internationally. We must remember that sustainability is the key. Nothing is more depressing than seeing so-called environmentalists campaigning for bans on imports of hardwoods. By doing so, they tell a country that what it has is of no value. If what a country has is of no value and it cannot make any money out of it, it will find something to do with the land which will generate an income. That is bound to be bad environmentally.

We must encourage those who have sustainable policies and discourage those who have not. For example, peninsular Malaysia has the British heritage of an excellent 50-year replanting cycle, although there have been problems on the island of Borneo. Other countries in west Africa and south-east Asia do not have sustainable policies. I strongly recommend taking a differential approach not only to countries but to plantations and companies within them.

It is important that we do what we can, but we must do it in practical terms. I remember talking to a leading environmentalist in Brazil when I visited that country a few years ago with the Select Committee. Museo Goldi said that people in the west had to get away from talking about the environment at cocktail parties and start to help countries to do something about improving sustainability. He went on to say that the British had one of the best records that he had come across. The Overseas Development Administration was financing work through the Oxford Forestry Institute to help Brazil to improve its performance.

There is a lot to do. One has to remember that the greatest fire in the history of the world occurred in Brazil. It occurred because of the tax regime in Brazil. The cause of the fire was Volkswagen—a funny sort of company to cause a fire in a forest. Apparently, it owned the land and needed to demonstrate that it was being developed, which was done by burning down the trees.

At home, I think that the Government's response to the report that we produced on forestry and the environment was a little disappointing. There are some positive signs; I welcome the fact that the Government are considering the need for a national forestry strategy. Given our low tree cover ratio, I find it peculiar that the Government rejected our recommendation to establish one-stop shops to provide advice on forestry applications and grants. Landowners who have to go between the Countryside Commission, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, local authorities and other organisations become lost in a maze, and probably put off the idea.

Equally important in the report was our recommendation that England, Scotland and Wales should be considered separately for the purpose of developing forestry strategy. The geography and geology in each of those countries are different, and, although they should be brought together in a national forestry strategy, what is right for Scotland is not necessarily right for England, and vice versa.

Mr. Dalyell

On the subject of Scotland, the hon. Gentleman knows the case of Mar lodge, and he knows Dr. Jim Ratter, the adviser on the Select Committee that went to Brazil. A number of us feel strongly—as does Dr. Ratter—that we must set an example. If we are to make suggestions to the Brazilians about what they should do with their Atlantic rain forests, we had better do something about the ancient forest of Caledon.

Mr. Jones

I have some sympathy with the argument of the hon. Gentleman, who would not expect me to comment specifically on that issue.

In many third-world countries, it has rightly been asked of me, "How can you lecture us about what to do with our forests when you have destroyed the vast majority of yours in the industrialisation process?" It is extremely important not to lecture, but to try to work in co-operation with others, which is why I praised the work of the Overseas Development Administration.

In the almost 11 years that I have been in the House, I have never been involved in a debate with such a long-term impact on the future of not just this country but the world. It is sad that so little seems to have been achieved in the intervening period since the Rio summit. But our Government have done a great deal more than others, for which I commend them.

9.12 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The partisan comments of the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) spoilt his argument and were as invalid as the similar part of the speech of the Secretary of State for the Environment. However, his non-partisan comments contained many sensible suggestions, which I hope that the Government will take up. He also made some mild criticisms of several Government policies, which I hope that the Government will read, hear and act on.

Today's debate is the first since the Energy Conservation Bill passed through the House on Friday. Passing legislation and doing things will also be far more effective than talking—that was the message of Rio. I welcome the fact that the Energy Conservation Bill has not yet been blocked by the Government, and I hope that they do not seek to water it down in Committee—one of the first practical tests of whether we are serious about sustainability.

It is ironic that we are having the debate today—the very day that the Government are defending their position on wanting to start up THORP, the thermal oxide reprocessing plant. They are also trying to defend their unwillingness to have a public inquiry. To many of us, and to huge numbers of people up and down the country, that is one of the most unsustainable of the Government's recent commitments. I hope that the court will be able to provide an effective backstop and order the Government to have a public inquiry.

Today's debate is welcome. I welcome the Minister for the Environment and Countryside to his relatively new responsibilities. I am glad to see him here and look forward to working with him.

The debate should have occurred in the summer. It was scheduled to occur in the last week of term before the summer holiday, but it was hijacked by the Maastricht shenanigans and was lost. That is a reflection of the failure of the system, to which I shall return. Producing documents and then debating policy, as opposed to debating policy and then producing documents, is a funny system and a funny way to govern and consult. It is all too indicative of the way in which we have behaved so far and I am ever hopeful that the system will improve. We should have had the debate here and in the other place well before now so that it could have influenced the content of the Government's documents when they came to produce them.

My premise, to which the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West alluded, is that the Government should set an example. Whatever the standards of other Governments in following up the Rio summit, we should set an example. Even if others' standards fall short, we should seek to have the higher standards. On that premise, the Government are about to submit their document—a little belatedly, as they committed themselves to producing it by the end of September—to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, which was set up at the Rio conference.

We ought to note that the debate, as evidenced by the current consultations between the Whips on the Front Bench, is far too short for the subject. To fit in a debate which will last for no more than two and a half hours and the last of the substantive business after a private Member's motion again indicates a lack of commitment to take the issue as seriously as it merits. It is not that the country is not committed. One of the interesting—and, if we are not careful, misleading—facts displayed in the opinion polls is that people still think environmental issues are less serious. That is not true. Most people have adopted the environmental agenda and have recognised the importance of it. It may not be at the top of their list: if they are out of work, they may have other things to think about. With 3 million people unemployed, it is not surprising that employment or the state of the economy is at the top of the list. But most of the environmental pressures and movements of the 1980s have produced a residual strong commitment and we should not be deluded either by the apparent lack of interest or by the apparent shortness of the debate. We want to take part in the debate, we want to influence the Government and what I shall say will be aimed at trying to get the Government to be stronger, better, quicker, faster and tougher. They have taken some steps, but many of us believe that they have not yet gone far or fast enough.

The fundamental issues have been alluded to and addressed either specifically or indirectly in the documents that the Government produced at their £20,000 jamboree down the road at the Banqueting house during the past month. We are talking about the sort of growth that we achieve and the quality of life that we want and can get. We are also discussing the right level of consumption and not just accepting that there is a demand for more and more consumption. The debate is not only about inter-generational equity, as it is called, but about equity in Britain and equity around the world. These are all big issues.

It is not acceptable that after 14 years of Conservative government the gap between the rich and poor in the country has widened; nor is it justified by the fact that the same has happened in most other countries. It is certainly unacceptable that the gap between the richest 20 per cent. and the poorest 80 per cent. has widened. Those issues were all on the Agenda 21 part of the debates at the Rio summit. This debate addresses that entire range of subjects, including population, housing and quality of life the world over.

Dr. Spink

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

I shall try to let as many hon. Members intervene as possible, but the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) has intervened twice already.

Ministers are clearly increasingly nervous about the Liberal Democrats; otherwise, they would not have a go at us so often. They must be nervous if they continually have to quote the draft before the final draft before the final document as policy and never allude to the final policy document itself. If they are nervous because we are chasing them, I am happy about that, too.

Dr. Spink


Mr. Hughes

No, I shall not give way on that point because I want to leave time for other hon. Members to speak.

The responses to the White Paper suggested a general disappointment. It contained many coulds, ifs and maybes rather than whys, whats and whens. The Government need not accept my word—the National Society for Clean Air called it A Small Step for Sustainability and Friends of the Earth said that it had been disappointed by the limited extent to which any new approach to marrying the twin objectives of sound economic development and protecting the environment has emerged. In the days following the Whitehall launch down the road, many newspaper headlines reflected the general disappointment.

Dr. Spink

But what taxes would the Liberal Democrats impose?

Mr. Hughes

I can deal with taxes if the hon. Gentleman wants me to, but I am trying to keep to the central issue. I shall end my remarks by saying yes, we all have to pay. We should be quite straightforward about that.

The day after the launch many newspaper editorials reflected the general disappointment. One stated that the gloomy environmental picture posed "hard questions" and would need not just a searching scrutiny of the lifestyle of the Great Car Economy but a challenge to familiar assumptions about growth and change and suggested that the Secretary of State's reference to Cardinal Newman was not very useful. The Financial Times, hardly a partisan newspaper, judged the White Paper to be "a pale green blockbuster". The Independent said: Major gives green light to nuclear industry growth. Those comments represent incompatible views, but there were also adverse comments from those whom one would expect to be critical, which included: Our green hopes, their empty words". Andrew Marr wrote an interesting commentary in which he made it clear that the documents did, however, highlight some difficult choices.

Let us accept that the Government had generally high expectations. No one thought that they were doing terribly well and the documents told us little new. Indeed, I think that it was Madam Speaker who said that it was not a new policy, which was why there was no statement in the House. Some of us knew already that it contained nothing new.

Let me suggest why we were disappointed and how the Government should respond. First, the White Paper contained an inadequate set of responses. It contains inadequate targets, timetables and proposals for monitoring. I and many others believe that unless we have clear targets and timetables and an objective method of monitoring our attainment of those targets and timetables we shall be partisan and merely whistling in the dark.

We need economic indicators. Many people have worked on indicators that would serve our purpose. We need valid projections, statistics, facts and figures to assess objectively how well the Government are doing. By definition, they are not those produced by the Government in their own defence to justify themselves when, like any Government, they fall short of their objectives.

Secondly, the whole process needs to be much less inadequate. It is not sufficient to have a series of Green and White Papers which regularly fall short of the targets that they themselves set. There can be no doubt that that is what is happening at the moment. We have a process whereby the Government consult, disappoint those whom they have consulted by appearing not to have listened, produce documents and then propose inadequate mechanisms for carrying forward the debate anticipated at Rio. A panel, or round table, on sustainable development and a citizens environment initiative are no substitute for a series of rigorous governmental processes to test the validity of what is and what is not a sustainable policy.

We should establish an entirely free-standing body which is regularly the proactive generator of proposals—a body like a royal commission. Local and central thinking should be integrated into that body. Any draft governmental proposal should be rigorously scrutinised by Select Committees of both Houses before it is concluded and, so far as possible, a consensus should be sought. I am not arguing that my view alone should prevail; I want the best common agreement. I believe that I can persuade the Government of the merit of my case, but I shall not have the opportunity to do so if there is no debate before they produce their documents or if they do not read or take account of people's submissions.

There is much good practice. The Dutch are very good and the Canadians are very good, for example, and the Government know that. It has been suggested to me, and I agree, that if the Government did what the Canadians did last year—passed an Act of Parliament setting up the mechanism for a round table and so on—we would do better. Will the Minister consider the Canadian model and the Dutch model—the American model is not far behind—and provide us with an evaluation of whether we could use those models here?

My third proposal is about inadequate integration. For me, the test of whether we have sustainable development is whether we marry sustainable economic policy into our sustainable environmental policy. For me, that means that the Treasury is central. In Holland, much taxation never passes into law until it is co-signed not only by the Chancellor or the Finance Minister but by the Environment Minister. Unless we debate the sustainable benefit of taxation A compared with taxation B, we shall not bring about that marriage.

The reason why the Government got into such a muddle in connection with VAT on fuel, and the reason why the Liberal Democrats backed off the idea, was that it did not add up as the best way of taxing for green purposes. If the Government had consulted widely about it instead of the Chancellor pulling it out of his red box and saying, "Wow! Here is a good money-raising wheeze and it is also environmentally sound", the Government would not have been in so much hot water and they might not have lost two by-elections to the Liberal Democrats during this Parliament.

There are many ways in which one can test sustainable policies and we each might have our pet test. I can only list some of the ways in which one can test them.

One can test them by considering energy policy. I would argue that one needs a sustainable, coherent energy policy; one cannot have the nuclear review one day, the renewables review the next and decide the future of the coal industry the day after that. We have to ensure that we do what we say we will do. It is no good saying that we will reduce energy consumption if Government buildings then consume more energy. It is no good setting Energy Saving Trust Ltd. a task and then giving it a minimal amount of what it needs to carry it out.

Alternatively, one can use transport as the test. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) gave obvious comparable examples. One has to ask oneself whether the motorway widening scheme is acceptable on present tests. Is it acceptable that we lose more than 50 per cent. of our sites of special scientific interest as a result of about half of our motorway schemes? The answer that I and others would give to that is definitely no.

One can use agriculture, planning and the countryside as the test, whether one considers hedgerows or sites of special scientific interest—only five years ago, 3 per cent. of those remaining sites had been destroyed, but now 5 per cent. have been destroyed. I welcome what has been said about planning and out-of-town superstores, and so on, but that was a policy for which some of us argued 15 or 20 years ago and it is now a bit late. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury said from a sedentary position earlier that it is a bit like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. We have built all the blessed superstores out of town now; the country has been ploughed up; people have to drive to the stores and they are not near railway stations. It is a bit late now, but I hope that we have learnt the lesson.

We could have had sustainable targets for air pollution as the test. The Government eventually signed up in Rio to a target for carbon dioxide emissions, but with no legal commitment. That is not good enough. There are already serious doubts about whether even the target that the Government set is sustainable and achievable on the basis of their present performance. We have to do better in terms of domestic, vehicular and industrial pollution if we are to achieve even the Government's target for the year 2000.

We can use water pollution as the test. To use a crude test, six of our eight premier bathing resorts still discharge raw sewage. If that is where we have arrived after 14 years of Conservative government, the priorities are wrong.

There are many tests. Those are some of the obvious ones. Population is another one. Trade is one. Aid is one—and in Malaysia recently there have been examples showing the inadequacies of our aid programme.

I was asked the question that we are all asked: are we speaking about hypocrisy or reality? The answer is that we have to speak about reality, and reality requires difficult nettles to be grasped. It requires us to work out how we pay the price. The question about how we pay the price has an answer. We pay the price by making the most worthwhile investment and we make the most worthwhile investment by ensuring that we hand on the same amount of capital in the bank, if not more.

Maurice Strong, the secretary general to UNCED, said; We have to make sure that the road from Rio is a fast track, if we are to realise our hope that the United Nations Earth Summit really was a quantum leap forward on that road to sustainable development. Nobody could call the British road from Rio a fast track. We have started on the road, but unless we go much further, much faster and much more effectively, it will not be we who pay the price, but those who come after. We shall have spoilt their chances of inheriting from us a sustainable world.

9.30 pm
Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

The climate change convention commits developed countries to taking measures aimed at reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. The Government have accepted that commitment and they will meet that commitment. They might even better it. That is real action, not just words. We have already heard tonight that we need real action, not more words, to protect the environment.

A real and positive contribution can be made by nuclear electricity generation to reduce the United Kingdom's emission targets for the year 2000. We currently generate about 22 per cent. of our electrical power through nuclear energy. If we replaced that by gas or coal-burn generation, the UK's emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases would be dramatically increased. The Secretary of State said that there would then be an increase of 6 million to 15 million tonnes of carbon a year.

We must ensure that we retain a balanced energy strategy which allows for the replacement of the old Magnox reactors as they go off stream before the year 2000. We need new nuclear stations and new nuclear capacity to come on stream to replace the Magnox stations. I am as anxious as other hon. Members to bring forward the energy debate when we can review the position of nuclear power within our strategy. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to press his right hon. Friends to bring forward that review. I accept what the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said about the need for a co-ordinated and comprehensive strategy which would embrace issues such as waste management. However, I believe that we should bring forward the nuclear review at the earliest possible moment so that we can plan rationally and responsibly how to protect and enhance the environment and to meet our Rio commitments. If we are to meet our Rio commitments, we need a stable nuclear component within a balanced energy strategy. I hope that the Opposition will now accept that fact.

Labour has consistently called for the adoption of more stringent targets than those included in the convention to deal with the problem of climate change. After the Rio summit, the then Labour environment spokesman attacked the Government for dragging their feet. Labour claimed in June 1992 that more could have been achieved and that British Ministers could have played a more positive role, especially in respect of global warming. How could they have done? Where is Labour's policy for achieving more? How could the Labour party achieve more, without imposing taxes on energy, when it wants to destroy the nuclear component of power generation? Will the Minister explain that to me, because I fail to see how it could be achieved?

The Liberal party has also shown a certain amount of inconsistency. It opposes the Government's decision to levy VAT on domestic fuel and power. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) quoted from its 1991 policy document entitled "Costing the Earth", in which it showed itself to be even more hypocritical than the Labour party. Page 31 of the Liberal party's 1992 general election manifesto made a commitment to introducing a Community-wide energy tax on all energy sources.

The Liberal Democrat party reaffirmed that commitment on page three of its Green Paper, "Taxing Pollution, Not People", which was published in September 1992 and stated that it supported The European Community proposals for an energy/carbon tax and would press for its immediate implementation at a national level". I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey nodding in agreement with that statement.

That document accepted that such a tax would lead to increases of 58 per cent. in the price of coal, of 14 per cent. in the price of gas and of 13 per cent. in the price of domestic electricity. Page nine states that the proposals are too timid rather than too radical". The Liberal Democrat party's support for the EC carbon tax showed its uncritical enthusiasm for all things European. Will the Minister explain that inconsistent element in its policy which I do not understand?

9.36 pm
Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to make a few brief comments in the debate and I thank the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) for curtailing his remarks.

I am as cynical about the Government's record on the environment as I am about their record on so many other matters. The two main themes at Rio were the developing countries and the global environment. We restated our commitment to the developing countries to reach the United Nations aid target of 0.7 per cent. of GDP, but the Goverment have cut our aid budget from 0.52 to 0.27 per cent. over the past 14 years. Recently, it has been revealed that aid of £254 million for the Pergau dam in Malaysia was partly used for arms. That was a corrupt, improper use of the aid budget. It makes one feel cynical about the Government's aid policy.

Often we hear the Government say one thing but do another. We have a carbon dioxide problem and too little forestation. A major effort should be made to tackle that. With the surplus in agricultural production under the set-aside policy, it is eminently sensible to increase forest cover. The Government have a target to double forest cover by 2050, yet we still face the possibility of privatisation and the danger that forests will be cut down to make a quick profit.

In the documents, the Government talk about promoting the use of public transport, but what have they done? They have privatised the railways, which will hardly help. In the past year, the coal industry in particular has suffered from the dash for gas. I said earlier that I liked the Secretary of State's redefinition of sustainable development—that it would not cheat our children. What else are we doing with the exploitation of North sea oil and gas?

The dash for gas could have been halted and slowed down by imposing combined heat and power regulations on new gas power stations and by insisting that they use their energy efficiently. That would have transformed electricity generation over a 10-year period, with power generated at 80 per cent. efficiency instead of the present 40 per cent. The national rivers survey by the National Rivers Authority in 1990 showed for the first time ever that there has been a net deterioration in the quality of British rivers. What do the Government do? They cut the NRA's budget by 30 per cent. over three years. In a recent European summit, the Government backtracked on EC water quality directives.

Deregulation is threatening environmental protection, and we are still waiting for the environmental protection agency which was promised four or five years ago by the Government. All that we have been promised for this Session is a paving Bill. I feel let down, as do the people of this country, by the Government's record. It is short-sighted in terms of the environmental technology industry and it puts us at the back of a queue behind Japan, Germany and the United States in that tremendous growth market.

I finish by referring to a recent newspaper article by Professor David Pearce, a professor of economics at London university. He said that there was little in the policy papers to suggest that the Government understand the meaning or implications of sustainable development. That comes from an insider who knows more about the Government's policy than any hon. Member in the House this evening. It is sad. The debate concerns taking Rio forward, but I am afraid that the Government just do not have the political commitment to what was discussed in Rio.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you hear a point or order from me at 10 o'clock to save time? The point of order will concern the fact that there are a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House who were trying to be called.

Madam Speaker

I will hear the hon. Gentleman's point of order now.

Mr. Dalyell

I make no complaint about those hon. Members who were called. Could it be registered that my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) and for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and other hon. Members would have liked to take part in the debate? Those hon. Members will take it ill to be berated by sections of the press and to be told that there is no interest in Rio and in the environment—far from it.

Madam Speaker

There is a great deal of interest in the matter. Between them, the two Front Benches will, by 10 o'clock, have taken one hour and 40 minutes in a short debate. I would also point out to the hon. Gentleman that two orders were quite properly divided on. Those took 25 minutes, during which time other hon. Members could have been called.

9.42 pm
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

It is only fair to point out that the Secretary of State took 52 of those minutes on his own account. The right hon. Gentleman's responses to interventions were often somewhat longer than the interventions.

This has been a good debate, and it is unfortunate that more of my hon. Friends were unable to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, because of the time restraints. I should like to draw the attention of the House to a couple of remarks made by hon. Members. It was significant that the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), who is respected on both sides of the House for his views on the matter, could not manage to get through his speech without making some minor criticisms of the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) made a good critique of the documents and of their effectiveness or otherwise. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) as usual made a knowledgeable speech, and brought the benefit of his great expertise on the subject to the House.

The Secretary of State made great play in his opening speech of a piece of work by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I thought that it would be appropriate to look for a response in the form of poetry. [Interruption.] The Minister now may be reticent to get involved in this literary side of the debate. I thought that the words of Wordsworth might be appropriate: Blest statesman he, whose mind's unselfish will leaves him at ease among grand thoughts. The issue at stake during this taking Rio forward debate is whether the Secretary of State has dealt with the grand issues, and, indeed, how at ease he is with them. That seems to be the crucial test.

The Secretary of State made a few interesting points tonight. Over the past few months, I have studied him and I accept that he has a genuine set of green intentions. He feels strongly about some issues, about which he sometimes rants in the Chamber. [Interruption.] Perish the thought that the Secretary of State should ever rant. There appears to be a black hole, however, between what the right hon. Gentleman believes he is doing and what the proposals in the Government's documents are likely to achieve. A good example of that, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, is the link between green issues and environmental policy and economic growth and economic policy in general. That is at the core of sustainable development.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury said, the global market in environmental technologies is worth $300 billion according to the OECD and $600 billion according to other estimates. Either way, it is a massive market, far bigger than the global market for the aerospace industry. I hope that we can agree that that is the case.

We need a sound domestic base on which to develop that market, especially if we are to maximise the export potential that is offered. A survey of 300 United Kingdom businesses, recently carried out by environmental consultants, revealed that, although the global market is growing exponentially, Britain is at the bottom of the league. According to a study conducted by the German Government, Germany has 21 per cent. of the market, while the United States and Japan have taken, respectively, 16 and 13 per cent. of it. The United Kingdom's share is so low, unfortunately, that it does not even figure in the survey. Those consultants concluded: The British technology industry is not a world player. The Government's obsession with privatisation is also threatening the future of our forests. I hope that the Minister will take the initiative tonight, because it is about time that the Government said that they would not pursue that privatisation. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can offer hon. Members that assurance.

I have the honour to represent part of the north-west, but I regret to say that 67 per cent. of the bathing beaches in that region have failed the bathing water directive. The Wirral, on Merseyside, has some of the best beaches, but some are not even recommended for people to use. At the same time as the statistics are published, the Minister dodges his way around Europe trying to get Britain out of that directive. If people use our beaches at all, they are forced to stand alongside raw sewage, sanitary products and other equally appalling objects.

The recent accident at Ellesmere Port reveals that the petro-chemical industry is not safe and has a huge potential for inflicting environmental damage. I support the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) for a public inquiry into that accident. It is time that we learnt from such disasters about how mistakes are made. We should try to learn how to avoid similar environmental damage in the future.

On all those issues, the Government behave dirty at home, while their record abroad is one of missed opportunities to lead. The British people have lost confidence in the Government's environmental policy, as they have in so many of their other policies. The time is coming when the Government will no longer be trusted to protect our environment, because they are obviously failing to do so now.

9.48 pm
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins)

I have been fascinated by this debate. In a former incarnation, I was responsible for matters in Northern Ireland and I was immensely impressed by the quality of the briefing that I received from officials in my Department, as well as by my Secretary of State and other Ministers who have told me about the success story of this country's environmental policy.

I was particularly fascinated by a survey carried out on people's attitudes to environmental problems. It showed that although 85 to 90 per cent. of those canvassed were concerned about matters relating to the ozone layer, greenhouse gases, and so on, the same percentage were entirely opposed to actions to remedy those problems if they involved cost.

We are arguing about a climate of change in public opinion, which means that we must get it across to people that dealing with those concerns will cost money or affect individuals' way of life. Unless we create that climate of change, we shall be unable to fulfil the requirements and targets set out in these immensely important documents.

In Northern Ireland, I was Minister responsible for the Department of Economic Development and the Department of the Environment. Those two Departments were indivisible. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said that this area of environmental activity is an opportunity, not a burden. I could not agree with him more. As a result of my experience in Northern Ireland, we produced a document called "Growing a Green Economy", which dealt with economic growth and environmental protection. That is why I was refreshed and heartened to realise, on taking this new job, that we were trying to do the same thing here.

Ms Walley

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Atkins

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I do not have time.

Our task concerns those in industry and business as much as environmentalists. We must encourage each side of the argument—if argument there be—to recognise the virtues on both sides.

As Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) spoke with great authority on, and interest, in environmental matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) made a brief intervention in his speech. I recognise that some of the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West were critical in detail. It is right and proper that, on such a wide subject, we should consider a number of activities and we recognise that, whereas the Government are achieving more than many of our contemporaries in other countries, we have some way to go in other areas.

I do not accept, however, the attack by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury on the Government's transport and roads policy, for example, which he made with great venom, albeit with a twinkle in his eye. None the less, it is a serious point. Labour-controlled Lancashire county council in my constituency is determined to push a motorway through rural areas, affecting rural habitats and parts of my constituency and others. Like the Liberal party, the Labour party says one thing at national level but does another locally. Such action is not untypical of Lancashire council and many other Labour-controlled authorities.

Mr. Dafis

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Atkins

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I do not have time. I am not referring to his party, but if he wants to take up the matter, he will have an opportunity to do so later.

Leaflets have been posted in my constituency and those of some of my hon. Friends saying that the Liberal party is against VAT on fuel. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, what the Liberal and Labour parties say in the House is contrary to the policies declared by their spokesmen.

The Government, led by the Prime Minister and supported by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, have taken action to produce documents that have fulfilled a commitment to spell out what was required and what the future holds. We must make it clear that that will bring burdens to bear. The Opposition have not been prepared to do that.

Soon after arriving at the Department, I learnt about the packaging initiative, to which my right hon. Friend referred. It is immensely impressive, and it will be extremely important in getting the industry to realise what needs to be done and in encouraging people in the industry to recognise the lead taken by the group of 28. Today, in another part of Britain—Derbyshire—I launched The Countryside Means Business, which profiles 12 small companies reflecting the sustainable development message and encouraging economic activity in rural areas—activity which is also environmentally sensitive.

This week, the United Kingdom ratifies the Basle convention on the control of the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes and their disposal. The United Kingdom will become a party to the convention in May, and on 1 May the new waste licensing regulations come into force.

Tomorrow marks the first of a series of 10 road shows on the theme of climate change: the challenge and the opportunities. Next week is energy advice week; the following week the Government publish their response to the Select Committee report on energy efficiency in buildings. The Helping the Earth campaign is to be extended for another two years. Here, indeed, is evidence of activity and of a commitment to the targets set. by my right hon. Friend and by the Government throughout the length and breadth of this country. We, therefore, have nothing to be ashamed of.

There is certainly more work to be done, and we must keep at it. The hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) mentioned bathing beaches, a subject which I, as a fellow north-west Member, understand well. The sewage outfalls of this country have needed attention for many years, but not much attention has been given them—although hon. Members may have mentioned them from time to time. As a result of the bathing water directive and of the Government's commitment, about .2 billion is being spent on the problem. Compliance has risen from 56 to 80 per cent. of beaches, and by 1995 the vast majority will meet the mandatory standards of the directive. It is simply not true to say that my right hon. Friend has been going around Europe trying to stop the bathing water directive. We need to nail that canard here and now.

It is worth adding that a four-year study by the universities of Wales and of Surrey showed that more fuss is made about this matter than it merits. As I have said, .2 billion is being spent to bring our beaches up to the standards that we want.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West referred to a number of points that interested me. I was particularly taken by the idea of the surveys of energy efficiency done before people buy houses. I was associated with that good idea on my first engagement in this job. I am interested to learn that at least one building society has taken it up. Clearly, it would have an effect on owners if, before they bought a house, such a survey were part of the deal. Any encouragement of the practice is to be welcomed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point asked one or two questions about Labour and Liberal policy. It is not for me to answer those questions—

The Minister for Local Government and Planning (Mr. David Curry)

It would not take long.

Mr. Atkins

Indeed not. In our documents, we have set out targets which constitute a challenge to the public, and we have set out ways and means by which round table advice from the great and the good—they understand these matters; they can criticise and advise us on what we need to do—can be elicited. That shows that we recognise that more needs to be done. We recognise that independent, impartial, outside advice can tell us where we need to be moving, to build on our energy efficiency campaign, and so on. We have increased expenditure on that campaign by up to 50 per cent. this year, and the budget for energy efficiency stands at about £100 million. Home energy efficiency scheme expenditure has doubled, and will be about £75 million in 1994–95. All this is more evidence of our commitment and of the tremendous lead given by my right hon. Friend during his tenure of office.

Let me remind the House that we are talking about sustainable development and a strategy to meet it. The strategy builds on the 1990 environment White Paper, which sets out principles of sustainable development and looks ahead 20 years to 2012 to identify the problems and opportunities that we must all work on. It studies processes and the way in which we can achieve sustainable development and who can do what—whether the Government, local authorities, businesses, industry, voluntary bodies or whoever. It also sets out three new Government measures: an independent panel, a national round table and a citizens environment initiative.

As I listened to Opposition Members, it became increasingly clear that the Opposition parties are presenting a fraudulent prospectus—saying what they want in general, but being coy about, or denying, the specifics. They never accept that there is a cost and they pretend that it can all be done without upsetting the voters.

There is a cost and the public deserve—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. This is not a complaint about the fact that neither I nor my lion. Friends the Members for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) have been called, but concerns the way in which Parliament operates. You will recollect that on a Monday—after a Banqueting house press conference had taken place in the morning—I raised a point of order, which you most courteously heard, about whether it was proper that a press conference should take place with a great fanfare but that there should be no statement in the House of Commons. I subsequently raised the matter on the Floor of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) supported me from the Opposition Front Bench. He agreed with my point of view and, Madam Speaker, you gave a very sympathetic response on that occasion.

Since I saw the Leader of the House about the matter he has written to me saying that I had no reason to complain because there would be a debate, which he implied was better than a statement by the Secretary of State. However, tonight we have seen exactly what happens in a debate, and that it is not a substitute for a ministerial statement.

Therefore, if on future occasions any Government should spend all that money—I gather that it was a heck of a lot—

Mr. Simon Hughes

It was £20,000.

Mr. Dalyell

Yes. If any Government spend £20,000 on making a statement at the Banqueting house, we should at least have a statement in this House. Tonight's debate has proved that there is no substitute for such a statement, when a Minister can be questioned—

Madam Speaker


Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. There are no points of order arising from that matter. I dealt with the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) about 20 minutes ago. I understand exactly what he is talking about; however, it is not a point of order for me but a matter of business. The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members may wish to raise it during business questions on Thursday.

The debate has been very short and I have enormous sympathy with Back-Bench Members who have been sitting here for the past two or three hours waiting to speak, while Front-Bench Members took about one hour and 40 minutes between them and other Back Benchers also took a considerable time. On such occasions—when several other Back Benchers have a contribution to make—there ought to be a little more understanding and hon. Members' speeches should be more brisk. The hon. Gentleman's point of order is, therefore, a matter for business questions, but I think that I have made my views very clear. I am very disappointed for those Back Benchers who have been sitting in the Chamber for some time and have not been able to speak in the debate.