MPs demand more from the Environment Bill

Tawny Owl perched on branch in bluebell wood.A cross-party group of MPs has called for the draft Environment Bill to be strengthened. The Environmental Audit Committee’s report follows its inquiry into the draft Environment Bill published in December. The committee doesn’t pull its punches and demands urgent action to plug gaps in environmental protection.

The report makes a number of recommendations which reflect much of the evidence that Greener UK and many other stakeholders have submitted on the draft bill. MPs have provided the government with a hefty list of improvements that they would like to see made in a number of key areas.

Here are four top messages from the report:

1. Independence needs to be in reality not just in name
One recommendation is that the proposed new watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, must be accountable to parliament and more independent than the government has currently proposed. What is more, the committee demonstrates a clear appetite for parliament to be responsible for the new watchdog and finds no legal or constitutional impediment to this.

Another recommendation is that the government should make a strong and visible commitment to multi-annual budgets and the body’s budget should be agreed by parliament, with a funding architecture mirroring that of the independent National Audit Office. Transparent, autonomous funding arrangements are a critical demonstration of the extent of the body’s independence.

2. Legal compliance should be tightened
The report says that the Office for Environmental Protection must be able to instigate its own investigations and its enforcement procedure must be “more imaginative” and go beyond traditional judicial review so that it allows for substantive and not just procedural issues to be challenged.

Echoing the evidence of many stakeholders, the committee found that the bill’s proposals on environmental principles such as polluter pays and precaution downgrades their legal effect and is “not fit for purpose”. To address this, the government must introduce a stronger duty, remove or tighten the myriad of exclusions currently buried in the draft bill and give parliament a clear role to approve the intended policy statement, intended to provide guidance on how the principles are to be interpreted.

3. Climate change must be included
The exclusion of climate change from the Office for Environmental Protection’s remit has been baffling from the outset. The absence of one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time is deeply troubling and must be addressed when the bill is introduced to parliament. The committee has highlighted the gap in enforcement which this would create, and the increasing challenge of meeting the forthcoming fourth and fifth carbon budgets as further evidence of the need to plug this gap.

The committee has also given thought to what else the bill should contain if it is to deliver the world leading environmental governance system the government has said it wants. Essential cornerstones of this are the objective of a high level of protection on the face of the bill, and a framework for targets and interim milestones to be achieved across government, to be set following stakeholder consultation and parliamentary scrutiny.

4. Focusing only on England is a disjointed approach
The committee has expressed disappointment that limited effort has been made to co-design a body and governance framework to cover all four nations of the UK, given this would provide greater independence, a level playing field and more co-ordinated action. It has also highlighted the urgent need to clarify how the various arrangements will work across the UK after Brexit.

The committee, like many stakeholders, welcomed the inclusion of Northern Ireland within the scope of the bill but reinforced that this will require careful consideration, for example to ensure appropriate representation from Northern Ireland on both the board and within the staff of the Office for Environmental Protection, to ensure it can deal with country specific issues adequately. 

How should the government respond?
It’s clear the government has set itself a challenging prospectus: to deliver a watchdog that gives the environment a voice and holds the powerful to account, and to become a world leading curator of our most precious asset of all: the planet.

In his time in office, Michael Gove has shown himself willing to listen, reflect and rise to challenges. He must now ensure that the government’s collective response to this report takes notice of its careful and well-argued recommendations, and that it leads to the ambitious bill and governance system we all want to see.

 

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