Blair criticised over lack of action on environment

The Government came under fire in the House of Commons on 24 November from both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders after only a thin scattering of new legislation on the environment was announced in the Queen's Speech.

The Government is "committed to promoting sustainable development" and will "continue their leading role in protecting the environment, including the global climate," according to the Queen's Speech. Against those assertions, the legislative programme has little to offer.

  • A Bill to establish the Greater London Authority will include powers to introduce congestion charges and taxes on non-residential parking. The revenues will be used to improve public transport in the capital.

    However, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott lost the fight for legislation to make similar powers available to all local authorities. Since pilot projects will be needed to test the powers before they are used on a wide scale, congestion and parking taxes - and the major investment in public transport promised in this summer's transport White Paper (ENDS Report 282, pp 21-24 ) - are now in serious danger of being delayed until after the next election.

  • The Water Industry Bill, introduced in the Commons on 26 November, will end water disconnections for non-payment of bills, and give customers greater choice over water metering. But there is no legislation to introduce the proposals unveiled this summer for a comprehensive overhaul of controls over water abstraction (ENDS Report 281, pp 44-45 ).

  • One item of environmental legislation not mentioned in the Queen's Speech was introduced in the Lords on 26 November. The Pollution Prevention and Control Bill will implement the EC Directive on integrated pollution prevention and control (see above).

    A Bill to establish a Strategic Rail Authority will only be published in draft. The new body, announced in the transport White Paper, will eventually become the main regulator for the passenger network.

    The Freedom of Information Bill has suffered the same fate. A White Paper setting out the Government's original plans was issued last December (ENDS Report 275, pp 24-26 ), but the Bill will only be published in draft next year, with no commitment to legislate even in the next parliamentary session.

    Legislation to establish a Food Standards Agency - like the Freedom of Information Bill, a Labour manifesto promise - may not even be published in draft. A White Paper on the Agency was published in January (ENDS Report 276, pp 39-40 ), but the food industry is bitterly resisting proposals that the new body should be funded by a levy on food outlets. The Queen merely announced that the Government will be "taking forward proposals" for the Agency.

    This hierarchy of plans prompted Conservative leader William Hague to goad the Labour front bench in the debate on the Queen's Speech. "The winners," he said, "have a Bill; the losers have a draft Bill. The real losers have their proposals taken forward. The completely defeated have a consultation paper. For those who have nothing at all, there is the consolation of being Deputy Prime Minister."

    There was "nothing in the Queen's Speech about the environment, nothing about transport except for the shadow rail authority," said Mr Hague. "What is the point of having an integrated transport policy when [Mr Prescott] cannot even integrate it into the Government's programme?"

    Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown joined in the criticism. The lack of legislative plans on the environment, he said, was "the most disappointing and depressing omission from the programme."

    Mr Ashdown reminded the Prime Minister that he had promised when introducing his first Queen's Speech 18 months ago to "'put concern for the environment at the heart of policy-making.' It now appears that that was the same heart his predecessor put us in relation to Europe. Eighteen months later, there has been no significant legislation to back up those words.

    "There are no energy efficiency measures to build on what we have. There is no progress towards green taxation and nothing to protect wildlife. Above all, there is nothing to reduce the number of cars on the road."

    Citing Labour's election promise to "reduce and reverse traffic growth," the Liberal Democrat leader reminded Mr Prescott of his comment last June that he would have "failed if in five years' time there are not...fewer journeys by car."

    "Unfortunately, the Government's transport White Paper now meekly hopes only 'to reduce the rate of traffic growth,'" Mr Ashdown pointed out. "The aim of reducing traffic has been converted into reducing the rate of the increase in traffic. Faced with their promise to reduce and reverse traffic growth, I fear that the Government have simply reduced and reversed their transport policy."

    While acknowledging that Mr Prescott has "gained a growing and deserved reputation for being serious about the environment," Mr Ashdown suggested that he is "not, it seems, sufficiently trusted by his Government to introduce a single piece of nationwide legislation on the environment which could make a reality of his brave words in foreign conference halls."

    Earlier, the Prime Minister had to be chivvied by Norman Baker (LibDem, Lewes) to say something about the environment in his speech. Apart from citing Mr Prescott's international achievements in "putting environmental issues on the agenda," Mr Blair was able only to look back to this year's Budget, claiming that it had "introduced a series of measures...that are designed to improve environmental technology and to help protect the environment," while the New Deal for the young unemployed is being used "to implement energy conservation programmes the length and breadth of the country."

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