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3.30 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the noble Viscount has rightly reminded us that today we are discussing environment, agriculture and related matters. With the noble Viscount, I look forward to the maiden speeches from the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Ellesmere, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood.

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In dealing with these matters I have to declare two interests, as your Lordships require: one as President of the Campaign for Rural Wales and the other as President of the Federation of Economic Development Authorities. I declare the latter because, after dealing with environmental matters, I shall have something to say about local government, leaving my noble and expert friend Lord Carter to deal with agriculture when he winds up from these Benches. I emphasise that both positions carry no remuneration. It is therefore not a pecuniary interest. In fact, somewhat to my regret and the regret of my bank manager, both constitute a negative pecuniary interest in the sense that I am out of pocket as a result. However, I take it that that is of no concern to your Lordships.

Let me start with the environment. The noble Viscount said that the Government have a long-standing commitment to the environment. I readily confess that I had hoped for much more than appears in the gracious Speech. I had hoped to be able to welcome the announcement of improved standards for reducing pollution from cars. I had hoped to be able to greet with enthusiasm a number of important measures: new laws on air pollution and dangerous wastes; new grants to encourage more small woodlands in lowland areas; legislation to safeguard common land on the basis of the Common Land Forum; and legislation to protect public access to the countryside through footpaths. My hopes were in vain. However, before noble Lords opposite jump up to say that I am being too ambitious, that those demands are unrealistic and that no one in their right senses would do all that, they should know that I am only listing—and listing verbatim—the commitments made in the Conservative Party manifesto of 1987. I repeat the year: 1987; I have not yet got to 1992.

To be honest—I always seek to be honest with your Lordships—I hardly dared to go back to 1983. I lost heart when I opened the Conservative manifesto of that year and found the words:


    "The worst problems of air pollution have been resolved".
I hope not to be a cruel man, and at one point I had thought that to remind noble Lords opposite of what was in the 1983 manifesto, in the middle of the biggest asthma epidemic of our century, might have been overstepping the mark. But there it is in black and white, and it is a measure of the complacency of their party in these matters that that sentence comes back to haunt them.

But we must be fair. The 1992 Conservative manifesto promised us a new environment agency. We now have it presented to us in the gracious Speech, and indeed in the speech of the noble Viscount. But, again, I must confess to being rather baffled by the Government's approach to the matter. We are told that the Bill is to be introduced in your Lordships' House, not today, but perhaps next week. We were, of course, told the same thing about the paving Bill promised in last year's gracious Speech. I remember welcoming the principle of that Bill last year, just as I now welcome the principle of this Bill. That Bill never saw the light of day; but I will let that pass. It is this week, next week, sometime, never, as the old jingle goes.

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Before the new Bill is even published, the Secretary of State is conceding in another place, as he did on Friday last, that he has already decided to amend the wording of the Bill to provide, as the noble Viscount said, for a clear duty to be laid on both agencies in a manner which environmental organisations would prefer. He also told us the other measures that the Bill will contain. Those have been confirmed, and I am grateful to the noble Viscount for confirming them in his speech today. But not only that; the Secretary of State went on to announce the membership of the agency for England and Wales, explaining, however, that it has to be an advisory committee for the moment,


    "while legislation is going through Parliament".—[Official Report, Commons, 18/11/94; col. 310.]

I do not wish my objections to reflect in any way on those who have been invited onto the agency, all of whom I am sure will do an admirable job. The noble Lord, Lord De Ramsey, is to be chairman. I congratulate him upon his appointment. As a former president of the Country Landowners' Association, and as a Conservative, I am sure that he is well qualified. I was also interested to see on the list Mrs. Shirley Jackson, a fellow of the Society of Practitioners of Insolvency, although I am not sure that that does not introduce a rather sinister note into the activities of the proposed agency.

However, the point that I wish to make is that it seems odd, to put it at its mildest, that your Lordships are to be invited to debate a Bill which we have not yet seen, the contents of which seem to be amended from day to day, apparently setting up two agencies with powers that we do not yet know—and before any of that happens, the Secretary of State is already announcing the membership of one of the agencies. The Secretary of State for Scotland, if I may say so, seems to have been much more discreet, as has the Secretary of State for Wales, who according to Mr. Gummer is allowed one appointee on the new agency.

Furthermore, and on top of all that, I now learn from my honourable friends in another place that the House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment is to take evidence on the Bill. As far as I am aware—and I am open to correction—the dates fixed are 23rd and 30th November and the Secretary of State himself is to appear in person before that committee on the 30th. I am sure that we shall learn a great deal from his evidence—perhaps even the noble Viscount will learn something that he does not already know. Whatever the outcome, the least it seems to me that your Lordships should do is to postpone reading the Bill a second time—that is, assuming that it is introduced in the first place—until we have had an opportunity to read the glosses which the Secretary of State will no doubt wish to put on the various measures in the Bill when he is under interrogation by members of the House of Commons committee. We will no doubt accommodate ourselves to that process. Nevertheless, to use a rather crude expression, it seems to me an odd way to run a railway, and I am by no means sure that it is not derogatory to your Lordships' House.

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Let me move from the particular of the Bill to three general comments about environmental policy. First, I very much hope that we can begin—and I think that the noble Viscount started along this road—to debate environmental matters not just in terms of stopping people doing things in order to protect the environment but in positive terms—the jobs that can be created in industries and services that are and will increasingly be necessary for environmental improvement.

New technologies are developing new ways of reducing environmental damage and new skills in handling the damage that has already been done. There is a whole new wealth-creating sector that is at present only in its infancy. Recent estimates put the benefit in terms of jobs at anything up to half a million in Britain alone. We must —and I say again "must"—make sure that we in the United Kingdom are at the forefront of this new technology. It is no use pretending that we can only compete in the old industries. We have to compete in the new. The new industries embrace the whole area of environmental technology, of engineering and electronics, of rescuing the real and frequently dirty planet on which we have to live. That should not be seen as a chore. Far from it; it should be seen as an opportunity to create wealth and employment. We should be able to rejoice in the opportunities rather than, as many now do, complain about the restrictions.

My second point follows from the first. Here again I join with the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater. If we are to look positively at environmental matters, we must all be involved —not just those who are involved with what are known as "green" issues, such as myself, but all of us. Here it seems that we are making some progress. In the agricultural world, thanks at least in part to the efforts of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, it is increasingly being recognised that agricultural and environmental policy should be integrated. That is not the case at present. Furthermore, the key—the essential key—to that process of integration lies in the redirection of agricultural support mechanisms away from production support towards environmental incentives.

In industry, too, the CBI—not naturally a political friend of my party—has taken welcome note of the matter, recommending to its members what it calls its "Environment Business Forum" which enjoins on participants, as noble Lords will know, the nomination of a board-level director with responsibility for the environment and the publication of a corporate environmental policy statement. All that is very good, although I sometimes wonder whether it is so welcome in the City of London.

My third and last point concerns local government. I hope that your Lordships will agree that there can be no serious effort on the environment unless local authorities are fully involved and, indeed, are fully committed. The opportunities for local authorities to improve their own local environment are almost endless. But nothing is worse or more demoralising than being told by Whitehall that your projects are worthless, that you will be given what you are given on the basis of an arcane Whitehall calculation called standard spending assessments, and that if you want to raise further funds from your electors you will be capped.

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I have brought local government into our debate partly because of its importance to the environment, which I have tried to explain—and which I am sure all your Lordships recognise—but partly because I believe that in local government we now face a situation that is not far short of critical.

Let me explain. Those who are involved in local government have lived through many changes in the past few years. Probably the most traumatic was the episode of the poll tax. Apart from the trauma that that involved in itself, the resolution was almost worse. It turned out that local authorities were to be subjected by central government to a rigorous system of central control, control of how much they could spend and how much they could raise from those who were supposed to be their constituents.


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