Baroness Jones: The impacts of government corruption on climate change

'Between July 2019 and March last year, Ministers had 63 meetings with fossil fuel and bio-mass producers.'

COP26

Jenny Jones is a Green Party member of the House of Lords

The Conservative Party have taken almost £1.5million in donations from the energy industry, since 2019, under Boris Johnson.

I mentioned this fact upfront, as my starting point in a House of Lords debate on ‘outside influences” regarding the government’s decisions to give out more oil and gas licences for the North Seas despite all their promises about reducing carbon emissions.  

We live in a corrupt country, run by autocratic Ministers who facilitate their friends pocketing large amounts of public money either directly, via government contracts, or indirectly, through putting holes in the regulatory system.

We’ve seen this recently with the fast track scheme for PPE contracts and the second job scandals involving MPs. Money buys access and access gives you everything from subsidies to licences. 

Corruption is often framed in the media as an issue of personal greed, but it also has real world impacts on government policy and the lives of ordinary people. If you’re in the development industry it might give you changes to planning red tape. If you’re in the energy business it might buy you another decade of profitable polluting, while the planet burns.

Influence                                      

Between July 2019 and March last year, Ministers had 63 meetings with fossil fuel and bio-mass producers. That is nine times the number of meetings they had with renewable energy companies. 

That strikes me as odd? A government that is chairing COP26 and is meant to be switching to renewables fast, but is meeting the fossil fuel and bio-mass companies nine times more than the companies that they are relying on to deliver the sustainable future they are promising.

As well as the small private meetings, ministers also attended hundreds of other larger group meetings with fossil fuel companies and their representatives. Fossil fuel producers were present at 309 of these, compared with 60 for renewable energy generators.

Again, I don’t understand why Ministers are focusing on a polluting industry that we need to shut down, rather than renewables, with all the new job opportunities, which we need to rapidly grow?

Tax, profit and subsidies

We have a government that is keen to support a polluting industry that is equally keen to support the ruling party.

This might be excused if the oil and gas industry was filling the coffers of the Treasury, as well as the Conservative Party, but surprisingly that isn’t always the case.

In a recent court case brought by some climate campaigners the judge acknowledged that in some years oil and gas companies had paid less in taxes than they received in tax breaks. The judge wrote: 

“The claimants point to clear evidence of negative taxation flows in particular years; specifically negative tax flows overall in 2015-16 and 2016-17 of £2 million and £359 million respectively.” 

Now, the judge quite rightly said that focussing on single years ignored the fact that “the tax position over the life of the concession is at worst neutral”. Why only neutral?

We know that UK oil and gas is one of the most profitable countries for the industry in the world, but we can’t even be sure that it pays its own way in tax?  

The government will claim that there is no subsidy for oil and gas, as it defines fossil fuel subsidiesas “measures that reduce the effective price of fossil fuels below world market prices.

In other words, the government is giving the industry millions of pounds in tax breaks but this isn’t a subsidy because it doesn’t result in lower prices for consumers. Well that’s brilliant (yes, that’s sarcasm) and if they don’t like the word subsidy, let’s just call it fossil fuel support.

Our government doesn’t deny the tax breaks, it just makes it clear that this doesn’t mean lower prices, it just enables the companies to make more profits. 

In fact, it is so profitable that those making money out of this polluting industry have enough spare cash to give the Conservative Party millions of pounds.

Donors

I won’t go into the detail of all the donations made by the industry directly and indirectly, as we would need far longer than an hour’s debate just to list them.

Our self-regulatory system of government does not stop people buying influence. Civil servants are not around to take notes when a Minister attends a party fundraiser where oil executives have paid £12,000 for a seat at the table. 

Civil servants can’t know what conversations went on when an MP gets a huge donation to their private office a few months before they are appointed as a Minister in charge of the projects that the donor wants to push through. It has happened in the last few years and to be fair, the Minister stepped aside from a major decision – but only after the media contacted them.

The National Audit Office can’t even get access to Minister’s WattsApp conversations with party donors about favoured projects, unless the Minister self declares that they regard the messages as relevant. Even when Ministers have been taken to court to get those messages, suddenly the phone is broken or lost. Or, they do a Boris and claim the messages were lost when he changed his phone number.

North Sea licences

We chaired COP26, but the government is now dishing out a large number of licences for North Sea exploration. I really don’t see how this can be compatible with reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. 

There are generic conditions that have to be met, but only on new submissions. As I understand it, projects already in the pipeline can get a licence without reference to climate change. 

Individuals and companies linked to the oil and gas industries have donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative party in the past year, while the government mulled over these new licences. There might be parliamentary rules that stop peers like me from asking written questions about the influence such donations have on the Ministers making the decisions, but its clear and obvious that the influence is there.

Conclusion

Corruption is rife, the negative impacts on our environment are clear and I want to hear from the Minister how we are going to junk the broken system of self-regulation in favour of a more robust legal system that either involves the police, or an end to large scale donations. The days of having a Ministerial Code enforced by someone appointed by the Prime Minister are gone. It doesn’t work when Ministers don’t play by the rules. 

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