Yesterday, Mary spoke in Parliament in a debate on the impact of the EU referendum on energy and the environment. Click here to read the whole debate.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms).
We have heard today that environmental problems do not respect borders. I would like to posit an alternative argument to the one just advanced by the hon. Gentleman, who said that everything was pretty much okay. I say that things are not that okay and that Britain’s membership of the EU has been instrumental and crucial to the improvement of UK air quality, the cleaning up water pollution, the management of waste, and the protection and enhancement of biodiversity. It has also given us a global platform on which we can show global leadership in tackling climate change.
Earlier this year, the Environmental Audit Committee, which I chair—I can see several colleagues from it dotted around the Chamber here today—carried out an inquiry into the effects of EU membership on UK environmental protection. We heard from a wide variety of witnesses, including business people, academics, politicians and non-governmental organisations. The overwhelming majority told us that the environment was better protected as a result of our EU membership.
We do not have to look too far to find examples of that protection. In the 1970s, the Thames was biologically dead. It may not look any cleaner from the Palace of Westminster than it did in the ‘70s, but it serves as a great reminder of how EU membership has cleaned up our environment. We can now see seals and dolphins—I have yet to see one from my window. Otters are now in the high end of the Thames. That success story has been repeated up and down the country, as once dead rivers have been brought back to life. Where once it was dangerous to swim, now it is safe for people and wildlife alike. The EU water framework directive has cleaned up our beaches and our rivers, and the marine strategy directive has encouraged us to set out that ecologically coherent network of marine protection zones. It has not been an easy task and I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), for his work in this area.
Does my hon. Friend and colleague agree that one of the things that we found in the Committee’s study was, in essence, that the European Union is a union, which therefore has minimum standards that are ratcheted up? It does not allow individual members to undercut other members on the environment, which means that there is a platform across Europe, and across the globe as well, of best practice.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but of course the setting of those minimum standards does not prevent individual member states from going above and beyond them. Vitally for business, it also provides a common baseline and a harmonised market for products. That is absolutely crucial for UK businesses as we move forward into the uncertainties of a Brexit world.
EU membership is also key for air quality. Successive Governments have dragged their feet on this very difficult issue. Since 2010, the UK has been in breach of EU legal air quality limits in 31 of its 43 clean air zones, and one of those is in my constituency of Wakefield. Although London tends to get all the attention—as a cyclist in London I am certainly aware of the very high pollution levels—constituencies such as Wakefield with the M1 and M62 crossing by it have severe burdens of cardiovascular disease and lung disease as a result of the breaching of those limits.
EU legislation has allowed UK campaigners to hold the Government to account. The High Court has ordered Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to come up with new air quality plans. In April, those Ministers were back in court over allegations that their plans were still insufficient to bring the UK’s air quality in line with EU minimum standards. There is a series of question marks about what will happen to air pollution standards in the brave new Brexit world.
On biodiversity, the nature directives have preserved some of the most treasured places, plants and species in our country. Many of our best-loved sites, such as Flamborough Head, Dartmoor and Snowdonia, are protected by the EU.
The birds and habitats directives are the real jewels in the crown of our environmental protection. Does the hon. Lady agree that, even if we do keep them in British legislation—as I hope we do—what we must do is ensure that there is a proper enforcement mechanism? That is what the EU has provided us with, and we will need to create a new enforcement mechanism that is as rigorous as possible.
I do not think that anything can be guaranteed in this world. The first step is to hear from Ministers, but it is said that today is like the last day of term. I wish the Under-Secretary well in whatever future role he is called on to play in the Government. He has been an excellent Minister, and he has appeared before the Environmental Audit Committee many times. I do not think that anything should be taken for granted. As a passionate pro-remain campaigner, I took part in many debates during the EU referendum campaign, and I heard many different versions of Brexit depending on whom I was debating with.
In an interview with The Guardian, the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) described the birds and habitats directives as “spirit crushing”. He said that if we voted to leave, “they would go”. We will have to see whether his version of events is the same as that of the new Prime Minister. He also said that leaving the EU would free up both common agricultural payments and up to £2 billion in “insurance and incentives” for farmers. Nowhere in that do I hear anything about the need for protecting species, wildlife, and plant life. There is no mention of the vital services provided by soils and bogs or of the need for the restoration of bogs and peatlands, which we recommended just a month ago in our excellent report on soil, and which was echoed this morning by the Adaptation Sub-Committee report of the Committee on Climate Change. So, we have seen otters, hen harriers and bitterns making a comeback, and the referendum result could put all that progress at risk.
The EU has also played a key role in promoting investment in sustainable businesses and technologies. Investors need clear policy signals emanating from strong legislative frameworks, and, to be fair, those frameworks are provided by the Climate Change Act 2015. However, our Committee has received some mixed messages from the current inquiries into both the Department for Transport and the Treasury. In particular, I posed a question on the cancellation of the carbon capture and storage competition, which has had a massive debilitating effect on investor confidence. We do not want to get into a position where consumers are not spending and investors are not investing, because that is absolutely disastrous not just for the economy, but for the UK’s environmental progress.
Twenty years ago, in 1997, the UK sent almost all of our household waste to landfill. Now we recycle almost 45% of it, although I was disappointed to see those numbers slightly dip last year. The Treasury introduced the landfill tax escalator in response to the EU landfill directive. Over the past five years, according to the Environmental Services Association, the waste and resources management sector has invested £5 billion in new infrastructure thanks to this long-term policy signal. Those policy signals are vital as is the need to keep investing in infrastructure if we are to meet those 2020 waste targets—if they still apply in UK law. [Interruption.] A sip of gin to keep me going. A slice next time, please.
I shall end on the topic of microplastic pollution. The Committee is concluding its inquiry into microplastics—tiny particles of plastic, which can come from larger particles of plastic that are broken down, or from products such as shaving foams, deodorants, toothpastes and facial scrubs. Unfortunately, it seems to be the higher-end products that have not been cleaned up as quickly as the mass volume scrubs. We are finding that the particles have washed down the sink, passed through sewage filtration systems and ended up in the sea. Anyone who has had a dozen or half a dozen oysters recently will have consumed about 50 microplastic particles. For those of us who like seafood, that is something to reflect on. Bon appétit.
Over a third of fish in the English channel are now contaminated with microplastics. As an island nation we must take the problem of microplastic pollution seriously. The way to solve the problem is to work with our partners in the EU. Those are not my words. It is what the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told our Committee when he gave evidence just before the referendum on 23 June. If the EU takes action to address an environmental problem, it creates not only a level playing field for businesses, but an opportunity to market environmental solutions.
Brexit raises a series of questions. There is the issue of the circular economy package, which is the EU’s drive to get us to reduce waste, recycle more and have a secure and sustainable supply of raw materials, such as paper, glass and plastics. That would have driven new, green jobs in the UK economy. The decision to abandon all that has left investors reeling.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), the shadow Secretary of State, about Siemens’ decision to freeze its investment in the wind industry in Yorkshire, Hull and the Humber and we face a protracted period of uncertainty. When the Under-Secretary of State appeared before our Committee as part of that EU inquiry, he told us that the vote to leave would result in a “long and tortuous” negotiation. That has not even begun yet.
The period ahead is fraught with risks. The UK risks not being regarded as a safe bet, and investors may no longer wish to invest their cash in UK businesses. Significantly, contracts are no longer being signed in London because the risk of London no longer being part of the European single market means that people want contracts to be signed in a European country so that if something goes wrong, contract law will be enforceable across all the countries of the European Union. That will have a very big effect on our financial and legal services.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in the emerging recycling market across Europe, with us being at arm’s length and possibly facing tariffs, regulations and so on, people will invest in Europe rather than in Britain?
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That is the point I was making. When looking at where to put new foreign direct investment, investors will look again and go to the area of least risk. Those risks are reflected in the economy.
We found out from our inquiry that the environment and the UK’s membership of the EU had been a two-way street. It forced us to take action much more quickly on waste and on water, but it also acted as a platform from which we could project our own British values, particularly in relation to climate change. DECC Minister Lord Bourne told the Committee that the UK’s voice was louder in Paris because we were part of a club of 28 countries. I worry about the global agreement reached at Paris and the possible damage to achieving those climate change targets as a result of our withdrawing from the European Union.
In the 1970s the UK was the “dirty man” of Europe. Economically, we were the “sick man” of Europe. Since then we have cleaner beaches, we drive more fuel-efficient cars, we have more fuel-efficient vacuum cleaners, and we can hold the Government to account on air pollution. Environmental problems do not respect borders, and require long-term solutions—much longer than the five-year term of a Government or, in some cases, the two-year term of a Treasury Minister.
EU membership has allowed the UK to be a world leader in tackling environmental problems with our brilliant science base and our pragmatic civil service to provide good nuts-and-bolts solutions to many of the challenges we face, and created British business as a world leader, whether through its retrofitting diesel buses in China or helping the Indian Government with water management for the Ganges delta. These are knowledge and services that our country can export proudly because we have been clean in the European Union. The result of the referendum has caused a great deal of political and economic uncertainty. I hope we will get some reassurances from the Government about the threats that it poses to our common home, and the actions that any new Government will take to ensure that we leave a better future for our children.
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