The further delay to the Environment Bill is a big blow to UK green leadership

Over the weekend, The Daily Telegraph broke the story that the Environment Bill was to be beset by a further delay of unknown length. The paper had received a briefing from Downing Street that the government was reluctant to accept amendments passed last week when the House of Lords debated the bill.

The beleaguered bill, variously described by the government as a “flagship”, “landmark”, “lodestar” and “world leading”, has been repeatedly delayed since it was first proposed in 2018. While some of this delay is undoubtedly due to the pandemic’s impact on parliamentary business, most of it is due to the government’s own decisions and control of how legislation progresses. At various times it has held the Environment Bill back while choosing to progress other legislation. At no time have opposition parties or any external stakeholders sought to delay the bill.

The government promised completion by COP26
Following pressure over the bill’s timetabling and its absence from parliament for over 200 days, environment minister Rebecca Pow pledged in January 2021 that “…we will achieve Royal Assent before COP26”. Her Lords counterpart Lord Goldsmith reiterated this welcome commitment in June, reassuring peers that “it is absolutely our intention that the Bill be passed before COP26”. He went so far as to stress that missing this deadline would “weaken our hand in these extraordinarily important climate and environment negotiations”.

This though seems to be exactly where the government has ended up.

Since the bill entered the Lords, peers have worked tirelessly to stick to a demanding timetable, which remains on track, thanks to late night sittings and much goodwill. The environmental NGO community has also played its part, issuing countless briefings to inform debates and accepting the brisk timetable as necessary to enable the government to brandish a hot off the press Environment Bill at the Glasgow summit.

The bill is now at Lords Report stage where a small number of amendments are voted on. Last week the government lost seven votes. There will be more votes this week and probably a handful of other defeats. But none of these would be unpredictable or impossible to resolve if the government was prepared to seek a small amount of compromise. For a bill of this length and complexity this handful of defeats will have been both predicted and planned for by bill managers. So why is there this further delay?

Only the government can answer that question, but No10 sources are claiming it is because the government wants “a good Bill rather than getting a Bill which is sorted by Cop”. The same sources point to one of the amendments, which incorporates a statement recognising the climate and biodiversity emergency, and assert that the government will not agree to amendments seemingly written by Extinction Rebellion.

The real reason for delay
We believe these comments are just a smokescreen for the government’s real reasons for delaying the bill, which amount to a reluctance to accept changes to the core governance framework in the bill. If one examines the other amendments that have passed, none cover new issues: they have been the subject of many parliamentary briefings, recommendations and reports, and they have been debated and discussed for years.

The amendments cover three broad issues:

  • strengthening the targets framework to include binding five year milestones, a soil health target and a stronger air quality target on particulate matter;
  • reducing ministerial control over the board, budget and enforcement work of the Office for Environmental Protection, so that its independence is strengthened; and,
  • restoring discretion to the courts, so they can stop environmental damage occurring as the result of an unlawful decision.

Each of these was passed with strong cross party support. Each relates to a matter of significant public interest, such as tackling air pollution or improving soil health. Why would a government committed to world leading legislation be so intransigent to a package of sensible amendments that will strengthen its flagship bill?

Amendments, once passed in the Lords, are returned to the Commons where MPs can either accept, reject or modify them. There is a clear middle way for each of the Lords amendments. In fact, finding compromise is the only way forward when a bill enters this ‘ping pong’ stage and is essential to a timely passage. Everyone, apart from the government it seems, is willing to seek and find this middle ground on these issues. Peers from all sides of the House have made constructive suggestions for how this might be achieved, both in debates and directly to ministers and their advisers.

Delaying the bill puts our environment in jeopardy
Finding a path through this latest impasse really matters.  Until the bill is passed many of its vital measures cannot be enacted, including setting up the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), without which there is no independent oversight of environmental law. The powerful cross party Liaison Committee recognised this when it urged the government in February to give priority to the Environment Bill, “…given the gap that now exists in environmental governance following the end of the transition period.”

While much excellent work has been done to install the first board and put interim arrangements in place, the OEP will remain, in essence, a shadow body until after the bill achieves Royal Assent, the clauses to establish it are formally commenced, and secondary legislation is passed to transfer the interim staff team to the final body. Until this happens our air and water quality and nature are less protected, with people and wildlife at unnecessary risk.

The government’s political manoeuvres are having real world consequences for the environment and for our ability to persuade other countries to do more, just weeks before crucial international negotiations. The sooner it puts the Environment Bill back on its priority list – and works with peers to seek compromise rather than division – the better.

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