Withdrawal Bill needs to include scrutiny for any backwards steps on the environment

With all the Henry the Eighth powers, secondary legislation making powers, and judicial erasure powers that Parliament will have handed to the Government in the Withdrawal Bill and other Brexit legislation, Ministers are going to find themselves with an unprecedented ability to rewrite enormous aspects of UK law at will. The Commons will be effectively by-passed and the Lords may feel compelled to wave it all through, as happens with almost every piece of secondary legislation. For this reason, it is so important that we put a backstop into law now, to protect environmental, food safety and animal welfare standards. 

The government says that they want to improve these standards, and not reduce them. That’s fine – I’ll support anything that improves standards. But if Ministers are truly committed to not reducing standards then why not include a guarantee in the legislation itself?

In the absence of an Environment Bill or the promised Environmental Enforcement Body, then we need a minimum level of protection for our existing standards. Any measure that will have the effect of weakening our environmental protections must face the full scrutiny of Parliament and not be snuck through in secondary legislation. This shouldn’t be a contentious point, and I hope the Minister will concede to the strength of the arguments and accept this Amendment

Clean Air Bill goes to Lords

My Clean Air Bill has been submitted to the Lords today and will hopefully reach a 2nd reading in a few months. It is one of five separate Bills being put forward by MPs and local authorities to promote the idea of a Clean Air Act.

Sadly, the Government is sticking to its own path of having air pollution dealt with as part of the Environment Bill. I am meeting with a range of NGOs and Rosamund Kissi-Debrah to coordinate amendments to this Government Bill, so that we have legislation that guarantees Clean Air as a Human Right.

We may get the Government to shift towards tighter standards and tougher action, but I will continue to make the case (with many others) for a separate Clean Air Bill that deals with the crucial issue of enforcement in a comprehensive way.

Queen Speech: my response to the crime and justice sections

My Lords, it came as no surprise to me that there was nothing to delight my soul in the Government’s programme. For example, a fair justice system that keeps people safe takes more than a royal commission; it takes resources. When budgets have been cut by one-third, the system does not function well and justice suffers. I hope that the royal commission will examine the impact of austerity on fairness and access to justice. I also question any attempt to impose longer sentences when we are failing to deal with the care and rehabilitation of the large number of people already in the system. The probation service and the Prison Service are unable to cope properly with the existing numbers. If you add to that number, you are adding to those pressures and problems.

The tighter rules on carrying knives repeat the same rhetoric we have heard for years and fail to address the fear on the streets and the lack of a visible police presence, which can lead many to arm themselves for so called self-protection. The deaths and injuries from knife crime are a horrendous outcome of bigger social problems. We should be debating legislation that strengthens the family and community bonds that stop knives being seen as the solution to anything except eating dinner. Increasing Section 60 stop and search is not the answer. Research by the Times into the use of stop and search in London throws doubt on its effectiveness. In Enfield and Camden, two of the boroughs where the tactic was used most, knife attacks over the past year rose by 28% and 13% respectively. Use of this tactic risks alienating communities that could assist in combating knife crime.

We should be getting drugs off the streets and out of the hands of organised crime by regulating their use and selling them at pharmacies. We should be focused on breaking the cycle of violence experienced by far too many who come to see it as an inevitability in their lives. While I welcome the government support for action on domestic violence, the rest of this proposed legislation lacks the vision to deal with the problems we face. In fact, many of the big issues are not discussed at all.

The preventable deaths of five people a day on our roads is a scandal. The facts that these deaths are taken for granted by the Government and that our efforts to address road danger have stalled in recent years display shocking complacency. This level of criminality receives no attention from the Government, when the obvious solution is to hand out a lifetime ban to anyone who fails to stop and take responsibility for their actions as a driver.

Instead of action on the big issues that impact on the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people, we have a government proposal to criminalise unauthorised encampments. This is targeted at Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities, which is discriminatory and adds an extra threat on top of existing prejudice against those communities. I am also deeply concerned about how criminalising encampments will affect a whole form of peaceful protest that was previously a civil matter. It means criminalising the setting up of protest camps for the pettiest of reasons. It is because the Government and their corporate backers have been losing the debate. For example, Extinction Rebellion has changed the debate by being inconvenient. That can involve blocking roads, but obviously that is nothing like our Prime Minister, who today blocked the cycle lane on the Embankment so that he could get to work. I do not know where he was coming from. Extinction Rebellion sets up temporary protest camps to co-ordinate its actions, provide advice, handle liaison with the authorities et cetera. Last year, these actions sent a message to people and to Parliament, and Parliament responded by declaring a climate emergency. It showed that protest can be a powerful positive legitimate force in our democracy.

Local people setting up anti-fracking protest camps as a way of mobilising a continual presence on the doorstep of the frackers was very important. The frackers lost, despite all their powerful connections and party donations. Powerful people do not like losing, and they look at ways to make life more difficult for the protestors. That is the inspiration behind the proposed legislation to make this form of trespass a matter for the police and to give them the ability to seize property and vehicles. There are other protest camps. For example, local people protesting against HS2 are camped out near water meadows and ancient woodlands that face destruction, for example at Harvil Road in Hillingdon. They have been pushed out today.

I welcome the setting up of a constitution, democracy and rights commission, but could we not open that up to citizens’ assemblies to consider the way forward? The process should be designed to obtain maximum public consent and create a democracy fit for the 21st century. Obviously, the first issue of constitutional reform should be an elected second Chamber using proportional representation. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for so passionately advocating proportional representation and for pointing out that Greens have to work much harder for a seat than any other party. The problem for me is that this Government will attempt to use this constitutional commission to cement their own power and give even greater autonomy to Ministers. We need a Parliament elected via a fair voting system which can take back control.

Leading Labour peer and rail expert slams HS2

Lord Berkeley has sent me a copy of his dissenting report on the HS2 Review and it is damning. It isn’t just his criticisms of the way he was written out of the process, despite being deputy chair of the Review, but his view that the positive conclusions in the Review are not supported by the evidence.  

I know it is difficult for many Greens and Labour supporters to criticise investment in any public transport project, especially one that claims to promote better links with the north of England, but Lord Berkeley is exactly the sort of person you would expect to enthusiastically back HS2. He has been the Labour Opposition transport spokesperson in the Lords. He advises on European matters to the Rail Freight Group, having chaired the group for over 15 years. He was Public Affairs Manager of Eurotunnel from 1981 until the end of construction of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 and before that was involved in the planning and construction of various major projects around the world. He is a rail enthusiast, who has helped deliver rail projects like HS2.

Lord Berkeley believes that the Review suffered from “a bias towards accepting HS2’s evidence in preference to those of others.” He criticises the failure of the Review to go public with evidence from Treasury officials and states that his own best estimate is that the benefit vs cost ratio is possibly as low 0.6 for every pound invested. It therefore ranks as poor value for money when using the Treasury Green Book. 

His dissenting Review concludes that the priority should be spending on regional rail services in the north and midlands. “HS2 is the wrong and expensive solution to ‘making it faster and easier to travel for work and leisure by providing better North South intercity services. Many more people travel to work and leisure on local or regional services, and those in the Northern Power House and Midlands Connect areas are some of the worst in the country.

There is strong evidence that the greatest need and demand for improved rail services is within the regions… “Its stated aim of providing better North South links is just as likely to attract more jobs from the regions to London than the other way round.”

Parliamentary support for this project was generated four years ago when the costing for HS2 Phase 1 was £15.1bn (2016). It is time for Parliament to rethink that support as the financial cost now stands at £54.5bn (2019 prices), an increase of 361%. That is a lot of money to spend on an environmentally devastating project that brings limited economic returns. 

Met Police acted unlawfully in Extinction rebellion ban

This is an historic win because for the first time we’ve challenged the police on overstepping their powers and we’ve won. It’s great.

This shows how the police have gone beyond their powers when dealing with peaceful environmental protests, There is a pattern in recent years of the police being under pressure from the government to help impose fracking on communities that don’t want it and to stop the highly successful Extinction Rebellion from raising the issue of climate change. Government Ministers were very vocal in wanting the police to clamp down on Extinction Rebellion’s October protests, after the summer protests led to Parliament passing a motion declaring a climate emergency.

Incinerators have no place in a zero-carbon world

I find it infuriating that Labour and Lib Dem councils are still approving waste from energy incinerators while their national parties declare a Climate Emergency. Labour have passed a motion at their conference aiming for zero carbon by 2030, but contracts between local authorities and incineration companies will last well beyond this timescale.

In 2016 waste incinerators officially accounted for 10.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gases and that total is going up rapidly as we burn more waste.  The real total is double that according to analysis done by the ‘No Incinerator UK’ campaign, who point out that the amount of plastic being burnt has gone up rapidly since 2011 when the government last calculated the mix of waste that was being put into incinerators.

A quick glance at oil company profits from recent years shows that plastic production has become crucial to their profitability with plastics accounting for half of global oil consumption growth to 2040. Oil, in the form of plastic, is the ideal fuel for incinerators and enables them to reach the temperatures where everything else burns nicely. We want to stop cars using petrol in the next ten years, so why are we happy for incinerators to use it?

Two years after Grenfell and what has changed?

Part 1 of the Inquiry into the fire at Grenfell Tower has been published and the obvious question is why hasn’t the government removed the cladding from the other 400 high rise buildings that could be a danger to those living inside them.

Compartmentation of the building, whereby fires were supposed to be contained within individual flats, therefore failed. The whole building was ablaze. The “stay put” guidance was based on compartmentation, and there was no plan in place for changing from “stay put” advice to “get out”. I raised these issues after the Lakanal House fire, in which six people died, as part of my report as Chair of the Planning and Housing Committee of the London Assembly. It is staggering that the same mistakes can be made after so many warnings.

The cladding on Grenfell Tower did not comply with the Building Regulations. The Inquiry did not make a recommendation to remove the cladding on other buildings because it was self evident that it must be done, and “because it is accepted that it must be done”. The Chair adds that “the programme of remedial work should be pursued as vigorously as possible.”

It is more than two years since the Grenfell disaster – it is gross negligence of the government and the owners of these buildings that they are still smothered in this flammable substance. 

The second question is why Ministers ignored warnings from within the industry that the regulations were confusing and needed revision? Part two of the Grenfell Inquiry has to quickly give us the answer. My view is that the desire of Minister’s to eliminate red tape and promote self regulation, led to a widespread culture of cutting corners on health and safety. The fire brigade lacked the regulatory powers and resources to ensure that buildings were safe, but continued to plan their response to emergencies on the assumption that the building regulations would contain the fires in one place. The Lakanal House fire should have shown the London Fire Brigade that this wasn’t the case, which is why I was the first elected politician to call for the public inquiry into that fire. Sadly, the public inquiry did not happen.

We failed to learn lessons when we had the chance, I hope the Grenfell Tower Inquiry can speed up the process of making people’s homes safe places to sleep.

Future Generations Bill introduced

Today, I am introducing the Future Generations Bill on behalf of independent peer, John Bird (founder of Big Issue). This Bill aims to look after the interests of the very young and those not yet born. In the words of John Bird, the world of tomorrow should: “… not simply be an accumulation of the half-arsed hopes and the short-term governmental thinking of days gone by.”

Continue reading “Future Generations Bill introduced”

Court date 24th October – Extinction rebellion ban

Extinction Rebellion’s application for Judicial Review has been scheduled for an urgent day-long hearing in the High Court on Thursday 24 October from 10.30am. Baroness Jenny Jones, Caroline Lucas MP, Clive Lewis MP, David Drew MP, Ellie Chowns MEP, George Monbiot, and Adam Allnut are bringing the action on behalf of Extinction Rebellion to challenge the police’s blanket ban on our protests across the whole of London for the remainder of the week. Continue reading “Court date 24th October – Extinction rebellion ban”

Legal challenge to Extinction Rebellion ban

A collection of Climate rebels, including Parliamentarians such as myself, Caroline Lucas MP and Ellie Chowns MEP, are taking the Met Police to court to challenge the Section 14 Order which bans Extinction Rebellion Protests throughout the whole of London. We believe that the ban is an abuse of the law and in violation of fundamental human rights and our lawyers are seeking an emergency hearing this afternoon. We expect that the Court will rule the ban null and void. Continue reading “Legal challenge to Extinction Rebellion ban”