This is meant to be a year of environmental ambition. In November, the prime minister announced his plan for a green industrial revolution, while COP President Alok Sharma’s recurring message is that “…urgent action is the only way to meet our [climate] goal”.
As we prepare to host the Glasgow climate summit, such impassioned speeches and rhetoric can only be expected to increase, but warm words alone do not guarantee environmental progress: that can only be done through firm action, including law making and budget allocation.
The government has called the Environment Bill the “huge star of our legislative programme” and “a lodestar by which we will guide our country towards a cleaner, and greener future”. And yet, since it was first promised by Theresa May in July 2018, it has been plagued by a catalogue of delays and consistently held back while other legislation has progressed.
The latest delay has come about because the government is concerned it will run out of time to complete parliamentary discussions on the bill before the end of this parliamentary session. The bill is nearing the end of its scrutiny by MPs and the rules mean that if it moves to the House of Lords and fails to complete its passage, it would fall and have to go back to square one. By holding the bill in the House of Commons, the government can carry it over into the next session, meaning it can pick up where it left off.
The impact of coronavirus on parliamentary scheduling has been profound, as MPs, peers and the House authorities grapple with virtual systems, home schooling and the many other challenges of coping with a pandemic. But it is important to remember that the government has had more than four years since the referendum, two years since the draft bill and one year since the UK left the EU to get these plans in place. In the past year, the government has chosen to move forward with a range of other legislation, for example on trade, internal markets, domestic abuse, drones and public lavatories. The order in which legislation is progressed is indicative of the government’s political priorities so, in the light of this latest delay, it must now reiterate its commitment to the environment in the clearest possible terms.
MPs have a chance to improve the bill today
When it is debated later today in the House of Commons, MPs must push the government to strengthen the bill in three key areas.
The bill will enable the government to set new targets on air, water, waste and nature. The decline in our natural world, our air quality and our river health, of which there is now irrefutable evidence, can only be tackled by decisive law making. That is why leading businesses have called for legally binding milestones to be built into the bill and environmental NGOs are pressing for a ‘net zero’ equivalent goal for nature. Amendment 5, led by Tim Loughton, would make interim targets binding and New Clause 5, championed by Hilary Benn and supported by a cross party group of species champions, would require the government to set a 2030 target to halt and begin to reverse the decline in nature.
2. Independence of the watchdog
As the slow progress on the Environment Bill shows, government commitments do not always live up to expectation. That is why independent oversight really matters and why the independence of the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) must be strengthened, with parliament given a stronger role in decisions on the watchdog’s board members and budgets. The OEP will be able to take public authorities to court on the most serious of breaches of environmental law but, for this to be an effective and dissuasive deterrent to law breakers, the process must have teeth, and the unprecedented restrictions on the court’s ability to grant remedies lifted. Amendment 23, tabled by Luke Pollard and his shadow Defra colleagues, allows a chance for MPs to assert the independence of the OEP.
3. Securing environmental principles
Environmental principles, such as acting with precaution and avoiding harm, should guide the thinking and actions of all public authorities, but the government’s proposed framework would “loosen the nuts and bolts of environmental regulation” at a critical time when some are already clamouring for rules to be dismantled. An amendment (New Clause 1) led by Caroline Lucas and supported by six political parties would close the gaping loopholes that would allow some government departments to ignore environmental principles.
The bill needs to be implemented quickly
Governments prefer to operate sequentially: legislate, implement, review, repeat. These unprecedented times mean that this government must now act concurrently and pick up the pace on implementation as the National Audit Office recommended, if it is to address the serious environmental problems we are facing within a generation.
There is a strong argument that the OEP should start as a fully fledged shadow body in July, which was when it was meant to go live. Dame Glenys Stacey and her team need the resources to recruit staff and to set up the necessary systems to avoid the accountability gap widening further.
Urgent clarity is needed about the process for setting up the new enforcement system through which the OEP will bring cases to the High Court. Will there be consultation on its governing rules and when will these be available for parliamentary and public scrutiny?
The environmental principles policy statement, first promised in 2018, must be published for consultation immediately. Asking MPs to debate the government’s framework on environmental principles without sharing its proposed policy makes a mockery of parliamentary scrutiny.
The government should recommit publicly to the October 2022 deadline by which the new environmental targets will be presented to parliament and it must publish a clear programme for target setting so that progress can be tracked.
Other promised initiatives, such as a Deposit Return Scheme, should be started without further dithering and delay. The government’s waste prevention plan was due to be revised in 2019 and has so far not seen the light of day.
There is no doubt that this latest delay to the bill’s progress is a major setback. But, if the government uses the extra time wisely, then improvements can still be made and its ambition for a cleaner, greener future will live to fight another day.