Leading article: A gap between rhetoric and reality

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The Independent Online

It always pays to read the small print where this government is concerned. It turns out that a £10m fund announced at last month's Labour conference by the Environment Secretary, David Miliband, to encourage private industry to build wind farms will, in fact, be lifted from an existing official scheme to promote double-glazing and insulation. In terms of cutting the UK's climate emissions, this is robbing Peter to pay Paul. It is perfectly reasonable to expect the Government to promote actively both wind power and energy conservation. Yet it seems ministers want the credit for both, but want to pay properly for only one.

This is the kind of sham we have been presented with time and again by New Labour, especially in relation to environmental policy. First there is a lot of encouraging talk from ministers about how seriously they take the threat of climate change and that they are prepared to take radical measures to combat it. But then comes some legislative sleight of hand, perhaps some prevarication and, ultimately, a lamentable failure to deliver.

Before this year's budget, we were told that the Chancellor was preparing a sizeable increase in taxes for fuel-inefficient vehicles. But, when the day arrived, Gordon Brown unveiled a measly annual road-tax bill of £210 for drivers of gas-guzzling cars. The hype that preceded last year's meeting of the G8 at Gleneagles was just as misleading. We were told that President George Bush, under the influence of our Prime Minister, was on the verge of an historic reversal of policy on climate change. What we actually got was the dampest of damp squibs.

Now hints are being dangled before us that there is to be a climate-change Bill in next month's Queen's Speech, which will set up an independent body to assess national progress in reducing emissions. This is something demanded by environmentalists and both the main opposition parties. But already there are signs that such a Bill would have no teeth. Rumours abound that ministers are baulking at the idea of setting annual emission reduction targets, that there is no question of statutory limits on national C02 output.

This government should be warned that there are limits to the public's patience. Unless the gap between rhetoric and action begins to narrow soon, New Labour is in danger of losing all credibility as a protector of the environment.