MPs of all parties want a groundbreaking Environment Bill, but will it deliver?
The Environment Bill passed an important parliamentary milestone on Wednesday with its second reading. This is a clear sign that there is strong cross-party support for the bill in principle. But, as many MPs said during the debate, the bill is not yet good enough, either to address the environmental crisis or to meet the government’s aspiration to set out the most ambitious environmental programme on earth.
Where is change most needed
Five recurring themes permeated the parliamentary debate. MPs from all parties were united in calling for the new watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, to be truly independent, with the necessary powers to hold the government to account on its environmental commitments. There were many good ideas on how to do this. For example, the chair of the environment, food and rural affairs (EFRA) select committee, Neil Parish, called for a multi-year budget to be enshrined in law. The chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Philip Dunne, stressed the importance of independence in his Times article recently. Carla Lockhart from the DUP summed up the mood of the House when she said “I think we all agree that we certainly do not want an OEP that is a toothless tiger; we want one that can react to and govern the climate and nature emergency in which we find ourselves”.
Many MPs voiced concern about future environmental standards. Shadow Secretary of State Luke Pollard said non-regression on environmental standards was “a floor that we must not go below”. It was good to hear Defra Minister Rebecca Pow confirm “We have absolutely no plans to reduce our existing level of environmental protection”, but this misses the point somewhat, as it’s not the plans or intentions of current, supportive ministers that is drawing concern, it’s the, as yet unknown, plans of future governments, when priorities and attentions may have shifted that are the real worry.
While the government is committed to introducing a target to reduce air pollution from particulate matter, there is widespread consternation that the respected World Health Organization 2030 guideline is not explicitly included within the bill. Sir Robert Neill cited the bill as “an opportunity to advance rapidly towards WHO standards”. The government’s general approach on environmental targets is to involve experts and public consultation. While this is welcome, the government has not yet convinced MPs or the public why it is not seizing the opportunity to set a legal target to reduce particulate pollution through the bill.
Environment secretary George Eustice recognised that, in light of the crisis facing our natural world, “We need to act now to turn things around”. His enthusiasm for the bill was clear, but this must be converted into tighter laws. For example, habitats created through the new ‘biodiversity gain’ provision must be protected in perpetuity, as Tracey Crouch argued. The provisions to set new legally binding targets are welcome, but improvements are needed to how these are set and met: the current wording would allow major aspects of our environment to be excluded, such as the sea, and allow action to be put off until it is too late.
Finally, MPs argued that the government must match its domestic environmental plans with ambition to reduce the UK’s global environmental footprint. A new due diligence obligation to tackle environmental harms in business supply chains is needed, argued Kerry McCarthy. New MP for Ealing North James Murray urged the government to “seize this chance to show true global leadership on protecting our environment”.
Ministers must listen
Labour said it would be a “critical friend” to ministers during the passage of the bill. The environment secretary confirmed that the government is “always open-minded to good amendments” and Rebecca Pow said that her door is “constantly open” to anyone who wants to raise concerns about the bill. Such a constructive approach to law-making is heartening, as all too often bills end up as political footballs, absent from the reality that they will set our legal framework for years to come. Greener UK recently experienced her open door policy ourselves in a constructive meeting with other stakeholders and we look forward to maintaining this positive dialogue.
What happens next
Now that the bill has passed its second reading, the setting up of the Office for Environmental Protection can begin in earnest as the government is allowed to spend money on important aspects such as procuring office space and recruiting the chair. Ensuring that there are checks and balances in how this body is set up is just as important as getting the detail of the legislation right. The recruitment of board members and the initial budget setting are important hallmarks of independence. Stakeholders will maintain a vigilant watch over the new watchdog during this critical, formative time.
The bill itself will now be pored over by a committee of MPs, who will hear evidence from stakeholders and then debate proposed amendments to the bill. The opportunity to legislate for environmental ambition in law doesn’t come around often and we hope to work with the government, parliamentarians and others to make the bill, in the words of the former Environment Minister Theresa Villiers, the ”truly landmark piece of legislation” we all want to see.