1 July 2020
Finance Bill, Report Stage: Impact of the Finance Bill on the environment

Jesse Norman MP responds to a debate on the impact of the Finance Bill on the environment.

Jesse Norman

It is a great pleasure to be able to speak to the very interesting conversation debate that we have just had. It ranged very wide and far indeed, but I will speak now to the specifics of the clauses.

New clause 28 would require the Chancellor to assess the impact of the Bill on the environment, and new clause 34 would require the Chancellor to review its impact on human and ecological wellbeing, including that of future generations. New clause 13 would require the Chancellor to assess the impact of the Bill on the UK meeting the UN sustainable development goals. New clause 14 would require an assessment of the Bill’s impact on the UK meeting its Paris climate change commitments.

I could do no better than the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) in rehearsing many of the achievements of the Government set out in his speech, so I am very grateful to him for doing that. He rightly highlighted the achievements that we have made in terms of offshore wind, but it was left to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) to mention the 42% reduction in emissions since 1990 while the economy grew by two thirds, so I do not need to dilate too much on that topic.

Let me merely speak to these amendments to the legislation. These amendments are not necessary and they should not stand part of the Bill. Tackling climate change is a top priority for the Government, with the UK becoming the first major economy to pass legislation committing to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The Government remain committed to meeting this milestone and have consistently demonstrated the UK’s world leadership in clean growth and development. For example, the 2019 spending round included additional funding for biodiversity measures to support the maintenance and restoration of vital habitats for wildlife and to deliver the 25-year environment plan. Following that, the spring Budget reinforced our track record in the area, announcing at least £800 million for carbon capture and storage—that should be of great interest to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), who is no longer in his seat—and more than £1 billion of further support for ultra low emission vehicles. That Budget also announced that we will at least double funding for energy innovation.

The Bill highlights the progress we are making towards our commitment to tackling climate change, as well as towards sustainable low-carbon development and meeting international agreements. The Bill provides significant ​incentives to support the continued decarbonisation of transport. Clause 83 establishes tax support for zero-emission vehicles, exempting them from the vehicle excise duty expensive car supplement.

The Bill also ensures that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs can prepare for the introduction of the plastic packaging tax. That was rightly highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) and will incentivise businesses to use 30% recycled plastic instead of new material in plastic packaging. The Government are also reopening and extending the climate change agreement scheme to support energy-intensive businesses to operate in a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way.

Catherine West

Will the Minister give way?

Jesse Norman

If I may, I will speak to the clauses and then take up the points made by Members in the debate.

New clause 28 would require the Chancellor to assess the impact of the Bill on the environment, specifically considering the impact on achieving net zero emissions by 2050, on meeting carbon budgets and on air quality standards and biodiversity. The Government are committed to meeting our net zero milestone. The net zero review continues to make progress, although, let us be clear, like everything else the capacity to consult a wider group of stakeholders has been affected by covid. Many resources have been devoted to covid-related matters given the position we are in, but the review continues to make progress and we will publish a call for evidence, which will allow businesses and stakeholders the chance to engage seriously ahead of publication.

Carbon pricing has already contributed to emissions reductions in the power sector, as the share of coal-based electricity fell from 40% in 2012 to 5% in 2018, which is something everyone should be proud about. Future climate strategies will be set out in due course, including as part of the national infrastructure strategy.

The Government have also created skills advisory panels to help local areas understand their current and future skills needs, including in low carbon industries, and to tailor provision accordingly. The Government will assess the impact of potential interventions against the contribution they make to our environmental goals, including on climate change and air quality targets.

New clause 13 would require an impact assessment of how the Bill is meeting the UN sustainable development goals within six months of Royal Assent. It is important to realise that it is already a requirement for UN member states to review their progress towards meeting the global goals at least once, and we as a country have been proactive in assessing that and reporting back to the UN.

New clause 14 would require a review of the Bill’s impact on the UK meeting its UN Paris climate change agreements. Under the Paris agreement, the Government must maintain and report on their emissions reduction commitments in the form of a nationally determined contribution. The UK’s legally binding commitment to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050 is among the most stringent in the world, and the system of governance that implements that commitment under the Climate Change Act 2008 is world-leading.​

New clause 34 would require the Chancellor to review the impact of the Bill’s provisions on human and ecological wellbeing, including on future generations. The Environment Bill is designed to ensure that the environment is at the heart of all environmental policy making. This Government and future Governments are held to account if they fail to uphold their environmental duties through a newly established Office of Environmental Protection, including legally binding, long-term targets on biodiversity, air quality, water, resource efficiency and waste management on top of the net zero target.

Turning to some of the comments that I thought were of great interest, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire was absolutely right to highlight the Government’s record in this area. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) raised a challenge on top-ups. My view here, as elsewhere, is that we will look with great interest to see whether the policy is effective. If it is effective, we will look even more closely at whether our policy as the UK Government needs to be changed, but it is obviously far too early to be able to say that. If he believes, as we believe, that actions matter, not just words, I am sure he will agree. If the Scottish Government want to do more in that area, they have received an additional £3.8 billion through covid funding, and they can divert some of that if they wish.

Stephen Flynn

Will the Minister give way?

Jesse Norman

I am afraid I just do not have any time. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman at the end if I do.

I want to respond to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), who rightly highlighted the importance of local authorities for cycling, walking and tree planting. I agree with her about that. She asked about the replacement strategy for the emissions trading system. I think she is aware that we have framed two alternatives. The first is a UK ETS, and the second is a carbon emissions tax. We are open to a negotiated agreement, but we have the resources, through either of those options, to implement a scheme that addresses the issues that she is concerned about.

Finally, the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) called for leadership not rhetoric. I wonder whether she was referring to the Welsh Government, whose tree planting plans have been disastrous. They seem to be way behind, according to their own tree planting estimates.

The hon. Lady specifically picked out the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire said, that project would not provide value for money. It would be a terrible waste of public money. That money could be spent much better.

Sir Edward Davey

Absolute nonsense.

Jesse Norman

I spent a lot of time looking at it when I was a Minister at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the right hon. Gentleman, who is chuntering from a sedentary position, is quite wrong about that. It would provide terrible value for money.

It is also fascinating that the project is not an environmentally wise idea. The hon. Member for Cardiff North may not be aware that the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales specifically highlighted the major ​impact on biodiversity, the loss of intertidal habitat and the impact on local ecology, and National Resources Wales talked of a “major adverse impact”. I agree with the hon. Lady that actions matter, not words, and that leadership matters, not rhetoric, and we are seeing that by turning down this very bad project.

The Government are committed to tackling climate change and to being the first generation to leave the environment in a better condition than we inherited it. These measures go towards making that happen.