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Page last updated at 13:19 GMT, Sunday, 13 July 2008 14:19 UK

Hilary Benn interview

On the Politics Show, Sunday 13 July 2008, Susanna Reid interviewed Hilary Benn, MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Hilary Benn, MP
Hilary Benn, MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

SUSANNA REID: Joining me now is the Secretary of State for the Environment, Hilary Benn.

Welcome to the Politics Show.

HILARY BENN: Good afternoon.

SUSANNA REID: Were you satisfied with what the Prime Minister brought back from the G8, this vision of halving greenhouse gas emissions.

HILARY BENN: Well, that did represent a step forward and a very important one.

But what's really going to count is the deal that we negotiate in Copenhagen, next year, having opened the door to negotiations in Bali last December.

And the fact that climate change figured very prominently in the discussions amongst the G8 leaders, is only right and proper because we know we've got to make the change.

The science is very, very clear and the pressures are building and the fact that oil is now at a 100 and what, 45 dollars a barrel, is a reason not to put off tackling climate change, but actually a reason for getting on and doing it.

SUSANNA REID: The US didn't sign up to Kyoto and it is reported that on his way out of the G8 summit, President Bush said goodbye from the world's biggest polluter, punched the air and grinned widely. Is his departure from world politics, going to help the negotiations.

HILARY BENN: I think it's very clear that the politics of climate change in the United States is changing. I was there about a month ago and I went to the mid-West States where they're talking about having a cap and trade scheme, look at what's happened in California, Florida, the East Coast, so at state level, they get the message that this is something that America needs to do. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have said that they will support a cap and trade scheme if they're elected and I think at Bali last year, all of the countries were very, very conscious that the United States is likely to be a different place by the time we get to Copenhagen in 2009 and can we beat climate change without the world's largest economy playing its part, well no, of course we can't and we need that but we also need the leadership from Europe which we're getting. We also need a contribution from China and India.

SUSANNA REID: But you're optimistic if there's a new leader at the helm of the US it's going to make this a whole lot simpler.

HILARY BENN: I think we are going to see a change. One only has to look at the speeches that the two contenders have made to see that.

SUSANNA REID: Domestically, you're putting a 60% cut in emissions by 2050, in to the Climate Change Bill which is going through parliament at the moment. All the scientific evidence points to a more ambitious cut, 70 possibly 80%. Why not put that in.

HILARY BENN: Because we've got a process for deciding how to strengthen the target. We recognize the science has moved on since the 60% figure, which was a recommendation from the Royal Commission on Environmental pollution.

We have asked the Climate Change Committee, which is already operating in shadow form, led by Adair Turner, to look at whether the target should be strengthened up to 80%, that's what the Prime Minister asked him to do in November.

SUSANNA REID: Eighty backbenchers want it put in now as 80%. Sir David King, the government's former scientific advisor, calls climate change today in the Observer, the greatest to challenge facing civilization. We don't need the committee to decide that do we. You can say that now. 80% should be the target.

HILARY BENN: Well I think you have to have a basis on which to choose the target figure. After all, a lot of careful study went in to the 60%. And the Climate Change Committee has been given this task. If we didn't think that the target needed to be strengthened, well we wouldn't have asked them to undertake this important work.

SUSANNA REID: So you think that 60% is too low.

HILARY BENN: I think, looking at the changing science, the Prime Minister said in November, do we need to strengthen the target, does it need to be up to 80%; so we acknowledge that the science is presenting us now with a different picture, but you need a process for deciding what that figure should be.

You can pluck a figure out of the air and if you went round the House of Commons, you'd find lots of different suggestions. We want the Climate Change Committee to be strong, independent and authoritative and I think its recommendations are going to have very considerable weight, and we will find out on the 1st December, when they report, what they think the 20:50 target ought to be.

SUSANNA REID: Will the Bill already have gone through by then or is there a provision in the Bill to allow for what the Committee suggests ? (overlaps)

HILARY BENN: There is provision in the Bill by secondary legislation to change that figure, so it's not as if you're allowing it to disappear and you can't do anything about it.

And when it comes to leadership, as I travel round the world, people recognize the leadership that Britain is giving, because the Climate Change Bill itself will make us the first country in the world to put on to the statute book, a binding commitment to reduce CO2 emissions.

SUSANNA REID: Talking about reducing CO2 emissions. Other backbenchers are also angry about raising the vehicle excise duty thresholds on some older cars, increasing the car tax on more polluting vehicles.

Its retrospective, it goes back to cars from 2001. How does that reduce CO2 emissions.

HILARY BENN: Well what it does it to make it clear that the more polluting a vehicle is, the more you're going to pay, the less polluting, the less you're going to pay.

The fact is, if we're going to tackle climate change, there are some hard choices that we need to make and we want to encourage all of us, to choose less polluting vehicles.

Lower emitting vehicles and since three out of every four cars that is sold in the country, are actually second-hand cars, not new ones, it's important that you have a change that also applies to the second-hand market, as it does to new cars.

SUSANNA REID: Isn't the purpose of a green tax to influence people's behaviour and how does a retrospective tax influence behaviour or does it just penalize them for something they've already done.

HILARY BENN: Well it's not retrospective in the sense that people are not currently paying the tax but they will in future and any change in vehicle excise duty, applies at the time you put it in place. You go back ten years, we had an absolutely flat, single rate of vehicle excise duty, which didn't distinguish at all between the emissions levels of different cars. We've changed that. And it is about taking a choice that will help us to deal with the problem that we have just been discussing and ? (interjection)

SUSANNA REID: But how is it actually going to reduce CO2 emissions, unless you're specifically asking people to scrap the car they own at the moment and buy a car which has better fuel efficiency.

HILARY BENN: It will act as an incentive as people take decisions about what car to have, what car, second hand or new to buy, to think about what the emission levels are, because there will now be an even bigger incentive to pick the lower emitting vehicles.

SUSANNA REID: This is a time of financial squeeze for so many people. Are you explicitly asking people to buy a new car or to pay more car tax. That that is the choice that you asking them to make. Both of which incur greater cost.

HILARY BENN: We're simply laying out that the vehicle excise duty in future, will have a bigger range between the least emitting, after all, if it's below a 100gms of car ? (interjection)

SUSANNA REID: But you see in the future ? (interjection)

HILARY BENN: ? of carbon ?

SUSANNA REID: ? it applies to cars that have already been bought and are currently owned.

HILARY BENN: Of course it does and there are other things that we're doing, have an impact on the costs that people bear currently. This is about making a change, it's about providing an incentive and an encouragement and after all, when one looks at the price of petrol and diesel, well that too is acting as an incentive to everyone, to try and reduce use of fuel and reduce emissions at the same time because if we're going to deal with the problem of climate change, there are some tough choices that have to be made and government is about making those, not running away from them. David Cameron in the past has said, we won't shy away from tough choices. When it comes to this, he's no where to be seen.

SUSANNA REID: So if you're going to put financial penalties on more polluting cars, are you saying then, that you back a higher fuel price as well. That is something that you support, the current high price of petrol and diesel.

HILARY BENN: No, I'm simply saying that the price of the petrol and diesel currently reflects the global price, because there is a huge amount of demand and that is coming up, face to face with the amount of supply that is available.

SUSANNA REID: But it acts as a deterrent doesn't it because the higher the cost of fuel, the fewer car journeys you're going to make.

HILARY BENN: Well I think we're definitely seeing people thinking more carefully about the journeys that they make. Where they can do so, not just in Britain but in other countries ? (interjection)

SUSANNA REID: So it has a positive environmental benefit.

HILARY BENN: ? but it's a fact of life that that is the cost of petrol and diesel for our cars and what it sends to us, all of us, is a message that this is a resource crunch.

We're coming face to face with it and therefore making the transition now from a high carbon, dependent on oil economy, to a low carbon future is absolutely essential and the countries that do it first will be in a stronger position.

SUSANNA REID: Let's move on to an issue that has dominated the headlines for all the wrong reasons in the last week, knife crime. As a father of four children with city homes, what is your gut instinct about how we tackle knife crime.

HILARY BENN: I think we need to do all of the things that can be shown to make an impact. The fact that there is a great public debate about this, that we've taken action already, that Jacqui Smith will be unveiling new proposals on Tuesday of this week, the powers that there are to search people in pubs and clubs where there might be a problem, I think fundamentally it's about the responsibilities that we have as parents. And I think ? (interjection)

SUSANNA REID: What about mandatory jail sentences, one suggestion, for those found in possession.

HILARY BENN: Well, I think you've got to look at the individual circumstances and you don't want to fill up the prisons. I think it's about getting across the message that look, you're likely to be damaged yourself.

I attended a presentation in Leeds recently, given by a couple of police officers who are going round schools getting the message across, that if you carry a knife, one of the consequences may be that someone will take it off you and turn it on you.

It was very graphic and it certainly made the audience think. And I think we need more of that, so that we encourage young people to be aware of the consequences of carrying a knife and the impact it may have on them as well as others.

SUSANNA REID: Just finally and briefly if you can. We have a by-election coming up in Glasgow East. It's been called make or break for Gordon Brown. Is it.

HILARY BENN: It's a by-election and Margaret Curran is an excellent candidate.

In the end politics is about taking the right decisions for the future and Gordon Brown has all the qualities that we need to provide leadership of the country. He's not going to run away from tough decisions and he will help us through.

SUSANNA REID: Are you confident Labour are going to win.

HILARY BENN: We're going to fight to win, certainly.

SUSANNA REID: Hilary Benn, thank you very much.

HILARY BENN: Thank you.


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NB:These transcripts were typed from a recording and not copied from original scripts.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for their accuracy.

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The Politics Show Sunday 13 July 2008 at 1200BST on BBC One.
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