Divided loyalties: Interview with John Gummer

4th May 2018


Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change John Gummer (Lord Deben) talks to Chris Seekings about Brexit and the UK’s role as an environmental leader outside the EU

Described by Friends of the Earth as “the best environment secretary the UK has ever had”, John Gummer is someone whom surely many wish was still in government, at a time when environmental protections look increasingly precarious.

With a career in politics spanning almost five decades, his current position in the House of Lords might be his most important to date – even more so than when he served under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and John Major in the 1990s.

Lord Deben, as he is known today, is responsible for overseeing arguably the most crucial piece of legislation to pass through parliament in a generation: the EU Withdrawal Bill.

This is intended to transfer all existing EU law into official UK statutes, including the environmental regulations that have seen Britain shed its image as the ‘dirty man of Europe’ over the past 45 years.

Delivering Brexit

With Lord Deben rescheduling our chat several times amid huge media interest in the bill, it dawns on me that I am about to speak to one of the few people actively shaping the future trajectory of the UK for decades to come.

I start by asking what the initial reaction has been to the historic bill in the House of Lords? “We have three major areas of concern: the first is that this bill does not give parliament control, like the people that wanted us to leave the EU kept on talking about – it gives ministers control,” he says.

While Lord Deben is vehemently opposed to Brexit, he insists his belief in parliamentary control is one he has had to raise in the past when bills have failed to meet the criteria. “There is a whole area there that is constitutionally unlinked with my views on Brexit, and I shall be insisting the bill does not give powers to ministers that seem entirely unacceptable to me.”

The second area of concern with the bill is specifically related to the environment, and the omission of EU protocols, he tells me. These often set the tone and parameters within which judgments are made, and include concepts such as precautionary measures that make it necessary for government actions to consider environmental impacts. “But if we can’t take those protocols, we will want to transpose their meaning into our law, ensuring that all the defences we have as an EU member state remain after we leave,” he adds.

The final concern is entirely related to Brexit, and involves the UK remaining in key EU institutions such as the European Atomic Energy Community, which coordinates research into nuclear power. He is also clear in his view that Britain should remain in what he describes as “Mrs Thatcher’s greatest achievement” – the single market. “Or at the very least we should be remaining in the customs union, so we will be debating those things and insisting that the government takes them seriously.”

Planet over party

I point out that the government has been quite vocal in its insistence that environmental protections will remain after the UK leaves the EU, with Michael Gove frequently referring to his ‘green Brexit’ vision. However, Lord Deben is sceptical of this concept, highlighting that the message is inconsistent with what other members of the cabinet are trying to implement, such as Liam Fox’s pursuit of a free trade deal with the US. “He knows that he is going to have to allow standards of meat hygiene and animal welfare that we would not currently accept in this country as part of the EU,” he says.

Lord Deben is referring to the infamous chlorinated chicken that sections of the media have said could be sold in the UK as part of any US deal, and points to other countries that have had to reverse environmental regulations when dealing with the Americans. “It happened in Australia – they had to lower their standards when agreeing a deal with the US because that is what they insist on – so it’s not me that Gove has got to convince, but the rest of his Brexiteer friends.”

I put it to Lord Deben that many would accuse him of being disloyal to his party at a time when the government is already under intense scrutiny. He responds by explaining that one of the reasons he joined the Conservative Party was because of its belief in the EU. “I am not changing the way I believe – if the party wants to change what it believes, that is up to them, but I will continue to stand for what I have always stood,” he says. “In that sense I am a proper representative of the Conservative Party when some other people are not – they are more representative of neoliberal 19th-century thought.”

Lord Deben also struggles to see where there might be any environmental opportunities outside the EU. He talks about how he would like Britain to be stronger on regulations for cars and vans, but argues that the UK is far too small a market to influence changes in these areas outside the bloc. “Indeed, one of the questions I ask leavers is what specifically we can do outside the EU that we can’t do within that will benefit the nation. I regret to say they can rarely find anything at all – when they do it is usually untrue,” he says.

“I am a proper Conservative – others are more representative of neoliberal 19th-century thought”

Ambitious plans

As chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben’s day job is advising the government and devolved administrations on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reporting to parliament on the progress made towards environmental targets.

The government recently published its 25-year Environment Plan, unveiling a series of pledges, from planting 500,000 hectares of new forests to eliminating all avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042.

Lord Deben believes it is a “good document”, and that the government has chosen the right things to fight for. However, he warns that a great deal more information is needed to explain how the plan will be delivered. “It needs more figures, more timetables, and some very serious work on land use and fertility, along with a whole range of other things.” Despite this need for more clarity, he is keen to stress that the plan is still in its infancy, adding: “We shouldn’t condemn it because it is missing some things – it is in the first stage of its development, and I welcome it considerably.”

He is also keen to highlight the government’s “extremely interesting” Clean Growth Strategy, although is sceptical about how it intends to meet its fourth and fifth carbon budget commitments. These are the amount of greenhouse gases the UK can legally emit up to 2032 if overall emissions are to fall by at least 80% of 1990 levels by midway through the century. The Committee on Climate Change concluded that the government had made a strong commitment to achieving its goals, but that gaps in achieving the budgets remain.

“The government is setting out some pretty ambitious desires, but it’s perfectly true we will need some seriously new policies in addition to what we have got if we are to meet the carbon budgets, but we have to meet them because they are the law.” Lord Deben explains how the law governing carbon budgets can only be changed if his committee advises that it should be, but says there is “no likelihood of us doing that”. “The government knows that the budgets have to be met, and I have no doubt over the coming months that it will be explaining what policies it intends to add to those we have.”

“We will need new policies, in addition to what we have, to meet the carbon budgets”

Past, present and future

As environment secretary, Lord Deben introduced the UK’s first-ever environmental tax, and was later instrumental in the passing of the Climate Change Act in 2008. I am keen to know what he considers his greatest achievement while in office. After a long pause, he explains that it is EU member states agreeing that those in the best position to tackle climate change would do more, so those in less good positions could do less, that sticks in his mind. “It was the first time that nations had a shared responsibility in the environment, and I was very happy to be involved,” he says. “It was also a remarkable example of how we now have to work between the rich and poor countries today.”

This is another reminder of Lord Deben’s belief in the EU project, as well as his perception of the UK as a global leader of environmental legislation. He explains how having an independent body such as the Committee on Climate Change is “entirely unusual”, and that many other countries are looking to emulate it. “Our climate legislation and structure is unique and is being followed by a large number of countries. The Spanish are hoping to take aspects of it; so are the New Zealanders, as are the Irish – I don’t think there is another country in the world, except perhaps Mexico, which is governed like us.” He also singles out Amber Rudd for praise for the leadership role she took during the drafting of the Paris Agreement, saying the deal was largely thanks to work done by the British. “Which is one of the reasons why I think Brexit is such a mistake, because the rest of Europe has actually followed our lead – and if we are outside, the kind of pressure that we have been able to put on, and the kind of leadership we have been able to show, will not be there for us.”

Lord Deben says it will be increasingly important for NGOs to ‘hold the government’s feet to the fire’, with environmental issues perhaps falling down its list of concerns following Brexit. He mentions that while in government, he found Greenpeace “extremely valuable” in the absence of much pressure from the opposition, and that the same could be true today. However, he says that NGOs must continue to be innovative, and urges them to be grateful, arguing that saying thank you is the best way to get policymakers to repeat good actions. “But above all else, they must make sure what they say is true,” he insists. “NGOs are very good at expressing things in a way that catches the public consciousness, but they need to be much tougher about being absolutely accurate, because it lets all of us down when we see an NGO fail the truth test.”

Lord Deben once described sustainability as “not cheating on our children”, and I ask if he thinks we have reached that point yet. “I think we are much closer than we were, and Paris has made that possible, but we must never be complacent – and, of course, we need NGOs, and magazines like TRANSFORM, constantly getting us to do things better.”

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