It’s so often the case that environmental issues are overlooked in parliament, squeezed in time and overshadowed by other priorities. But last night saw something rather special: three hours of uninterrupted parliamentary debate on the environment in which politicians from all parties were competing to speak and make and seek commitments about future environmental protection.
In advance of the debate Greener UK worked with all the political parties, keen to influence both the government and those who hold it to account. Last night’s debate saw a remarkable political consensus on several areas especially on:
- the need for a new, independent body to hold government to account on its environmental performance and standards;
- a universal acceptance of the value of environmental principles;
- the importance of ensuring that principles such as the precautionary principle endure post-Brexit with a healthy debate on how to achieve this; and
- the need for a new environmental protection act to be brought forward as quickly as possible.
MPs spoke with passion
Every contribution to the debate was rich in content and high in passion, with party politics largely parked for the evening.
From the Conservative backbenches, Richard Benyon highlighted the government’s recognition that there is a governance gap on environmental protections, and that we have to find a way to fill it. Zac Goldsmith pledged to work together with colleagues from across the House of Commons to ensure we have a world class body, that nature has a voice and the government can be held to account. James Heappey said that leaving the EU does not mean we are turning our back on the standards that have led to the environmental improvements achieved over the time we have been in it.
Sir Oliver Letwin pitched a perfectly timed question to Michael Gove as he arrived in the chamber. When asked whether “the possibility of proper environmental legislation” was on his mind, Michael Gove nodded. Hansard captures such moments with the phrase: “indicated assent”. A nod to the environment if there ever was one.
The Green Party’s co-leader, Caroline Lucas, was delighted that the government appeared to accept the case for an environment act and a statutory enforcement body with powers of sanction. But she argued this should not stop the principles being included in the Withdrawal Bill, especially since they need to be enshrined on day one of Brexit.
Labour’s shadow Brexit minister Matthew Pennycook, and Environmental Audit Committee chair Mary Creagh, both argued that environmental principles need to be embedded in statute, not least for the UK to comply with its international obligations and because this was a more binding option that the policy guidance route which others proposed.
The justice minister, Dominic Raab, responded for the government, committing the government to environmental principles and a strong new watchdog, and to acting quickly. We welcome his commitment that “Leaving the EU will not diminish our commitment to environmental principles. Indeed, it is an opportunity to reinforce them”.
It’s a big shift in the debate
All in all, the debate marks a considerable shift. A few months ago, the government was contesting whether there was a governance gap, environmental principles were hardly being debated and an environment act was merely a twinkle in the eye of the green NGOs.
There is no doubt that, since becoming environment secretary, Michael Gove has been a major catalyst in propelling the environment up the political agenda. It is now rightly seen as a critical issue for Brexit discussions. But backbenchers have played an important role too in moving the debate forward: proposing amendments and challenging the government, all with the common aim of securing stronger environmental protections in the future.
Of course, Michael Gove’s encouraging words must be matched by action, a point that has been well made previously. The drawn out nature of the bill’s passage through the House of Commons allows a chance to make progress, as does the bill’s impending scrutiny by the House of Lords.
The next significant moment is likely to be on the sixth day of committee, when our future environmental governance systems will be discussed. The government’s response to concerns about technical gaps in the bill did not provide sufficient reassurance, so these issues will also be returned to in future debates.
Ultimately, the fate of the bill lies in the hands of the government. Ministers will have heard the cross party consensus in yesterday’s debate. Yes, there are important details to be sorted out. But the way forward is clear: politicians across the spectrum, and the people they represent, want action to deliver strong legal frameworks and protections, including a dedicated environment act.