Bishop of Chelmsford – Budget is missed opportunity for environment

On 13th November 2018 the House of Lords debated the Chancellor’s Budget Statement. The Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, spoke in the debate to highlight concerns about the environment, the two-child limit and fixed odds betting terminals.  

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, for many on these Benches there are measures to welcome in this Budget: for instance, the decision to increase the work allowances within universal credit for families with children and people with disabilities, as other noble Lords have mentioned. This goes a substantial way towards reversing the cuts announced in 2015. Likewise, the announcement of measures to aid the transition to universal credit, worth £1 billion over five years, is also welcome, as is the additional and non-repayable run-on support for new claimants to help people manage during the five-week waiting period before their first payment. However, I am disappointed that the run-on support does not cover the child elements of universal credit.

This House has heard my views before, and indeed the views of many Bishops, on the two-child limit. We hoped the Budget might have addressed this. A policy that penalises children through no fault of their own seems unfair and damaging. Furthermore, there is disappointment that, having made the courageous decision to reduce fixed-odds betting limits from £100 to £2, the Government have delayed implementation. As many are saying, if it is right to do, it is right to do as soon as possible. However, the subject of this debate is,

“the economy in the light of the Budget Statement”,

and some of us were hoping for a greener economy as a result of this Budget. I express some dismay that hardly any mention of this has been made from all sides of our House, although with some exceptions.

There are some things to welcome, such as the investment of £20 million next year to,

“improve sustainability and innovation in tackling single-use plastic waste”,

which will be a benefit if plastic producers actually modify their methods to increase recycled content above 30%. I know that this coming Thursday the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, is to move,

“that this House takes note of the threat of plastic to the environment”.

The urban tree-planting initiative will do something to help offset our carbon output and improve the immediate environment for many of our citizens. The £20 million ​for local authorities to tackle air quality is also welcome. It remains to be seen whether the Government’s industrial energy transformation fund to encourage businesses with high energy use to switch to greener sources will be effective, especially in light of the discontinuation of enhanced allowances for energy and waste-efficient equipment.

However, it seems that these measures in the Budget, although welcome, simply do not go far enough to tackle and reduce our contribution to climate change and the ongoing damage to animal and bird habitats in this country and beyond. Some of your Lordships may recall the damage that was done to Wanstead Flats, in the diocese where I serve, this summer at the height of the heatwave. Over 200 firefighters battled for four days to contain a grass fire. Wanstead Flats is a magnificent resource for the people of east London. It is the gateway to Epping Forest and a home to rare skylarks and migrating birds. Of course, urban grass fires always have and always will break out, but we can no longer ignore the evidence that our hottest summers are, on average, getting hotter and our coldest winters are getting colder. It is therefore more likely that rural and urban wildfires, and all kinds of other disasters, will be more common and more devastating. Yet although this Budget came in the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the warning that we have about 12 years to substantially cut our emissions, it did not substantially address our increasingly desperate environmental situation and the stark predictions that the IPCC reports. What was needed was a Budget containing measures that would seriously reduce our carbon emissions through more wide-ranging environmental taxes and a more intentional shift in departmental spending budgets away from activities and suppliers that damage our environment.

Care for our environment is about survival, of course, but it is also the bedrock of human flourishing. Fiscal policies and investment that enhance our environment will create a decent and productive place in which all of us can live and work. Now, I am well known as being a prolific drinker of the highly delicious flat white, which seems to have the right proportion of coffee to frothy milk. I drink a lot of it. Nevertheless, I was disappointed that even a simple thing like a reusable cup levy was rejected in this Budget. I am sure that it would have had an immediate effect, like the very successful plastic bag levy, and I for one will go on the record as being happy to try to carry a reusable cup, just as I now carry a “bag for life”. As the Government consider spending £291 million to extend the Docklands Light Railway to help serve the 18,000 new homes that are planned in east London and they consult on the creation of a “Great Thames Park”, the Budget has missed the opportunity to gird these exciting developments with strong environmental protection.

Like the Government and all of us, I am sure that the Church of England must do much more to improve its environmental position. The Church will do all it can to help and is indeed leading the way on issues such as ethical investment, but so much more is needed. It is the earth itself that is crying out. The poorest in the world are suffering first and suffering most. We have a moral duty to keep global warming well below ​the 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and limit temperature increase to 1.5 degrees, as the Paris Agreement commits us to, and we simply need to develop policies that will make this happen.

Christians say the following words several times every day—indeed, we say them each day in this House—“give us today our daily bread”. It means learning what constitutes enough and not asking for or expecting anything more. It is an uncomfortable but urgently necessary economic corrective to many of our policies and all our expectations. My hope, and indeed my prayer, is that the Treasury will begin work now on planning for and scoping more profound environmental measures as it prepares for the next Budget. I fear that our planet cannot sustain many more missed opportunities.

Baroness Kramer (LD) [extract]...I was absolutely thrilled when the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford raised the green agenda, which we did not hear much about during this debate. This was a real opportunity to put down a marker, as the right reverend Prelate said, particularly ​after publication of the intergovernmental report on climate change. Why do we not have a 5p levy on plastic cups? I would have thought that the Treasury would welcome the money, as well as the impact that it would have on the overall plan to reduce plastics. Surely this would have been an opportunity to ban single-use plastics within three years, which is entirely doable.

Lord Bates (Minister) [extract]…The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford called for further action on plastics and food waste. The right reverend Prelate declared his passion for the flat white, which henceforth will be in a reusable cup. Defra will be publishing resources on its waste strategy in 2019, which will set out the further actions we intend to take. He also asked about what more we are doing for the environment, as did several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Hain. The Budget announced a £350 million industrial strategy transformation fund to support businesses in transitioning to a low-carbon future and action on single-use plastics as part of the Government’s wider strategy to address plastics waste, with further detail to be set out in the resources and waste strategy later this year. Subject to consultation, a tax on plastic packaging will be introduced from April 2022. It is not right to say, however, that coffee cups are so rarely recycled. However, there is no practical way to apply the tax to just hot drinks. It would have to be levied on all types of disposable plastic cups, which at this time would not be effective in encouraging reuse…

…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and my noble friend Lady Stroud talked about the moves on universal credit and gave some insights. I join my noble friend Lady Stroud in paying tribute to Baroness Hollis. For a brief and painful time, I was the Lords spokesman for the DWP until I put in a plea to the Chief Whip and anyone else who would listen to move off to the Department for International Development—or anywhere else—to get me out of her line of fire. The power of her delivery was incredibly effective; she always narrowed things down from the big picture and the big numbers to individual families and cases, which made what she did so powerful. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, that if she were privy to this debate, she would be urging for more and pointing out where more needed to be done.

Some noble Lords referred to comments made on this side in relation to universal credit. A couple of responses from the Resolution Foundation were cited. Its director, Torsten Bell, said that the Budget will benefit some families because it includes giveaways on both the benefits side and the tax side. He went on to say that the Chancellor has delivered a,

“very welcome … £630 boost to low-income families”,

on universal credit. This will mean that the Government’s flagship welfare reform,

“is now more generous than the benefit system it is replacing”…

…My noble friend Lord Northbrook struck a chord with a number of noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, when he talked about the delay in the introduction of the measure on fixed-odds betting terminals. I know that it is a contentious measure. Fixed-odds betting terminals have been in operation since 2001. We undertook the review. It has now been decided that the maximum stake will be cut from £100 to £2, which is extremely welcome. There was been a well-argued debate in the other place on the timing of that. The Chancellor has set out his proposal for it to be in the autumn of next year. To counter that, there has been a proposal that it should be earlier. However, whether it is in the spring or in the autumn, the reality is that, after many years, that welcome change will be brought in to help alleviate the deleterious effects of that side of the gambling industry.


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