All 41 contributions to the Environment Act 2021 (Ministerial Extracts Only)

Read Full Bill Debate Texts

Wed 26th Feb 2020
Environment Bill
Commons Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons & 2nd reading
Tue 10th Mar 2020
Environment Bill (First sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 1st sitting & Committee Debate: 1st sitting: House of Commons
Tue 10th Mar 2020
Environment Bill (Second sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 2nd sitting & Committee Debate: 2nd sitting: House of Commons
Thu 12th Mar 2020
Environment Bill (Fourth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 4th sitting & Committee Debate: 4th sitting: House of Commons
Tue 17th Mar 2020
Environment Bill (Fifth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 5th sitting & Committee Debate: 5th sitting: House of Commons
Tue 17th Mar 2020
Environment Bill (Sixth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 6th sitting & Committee Debate: 6th sitting: House of Commons
Thu 19th Mar 2020
Environment Bill (Seventh sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 7th sitting & Committee Debate: 7th sitting: House of Commons
Tue 3rd Nov 2020
Environment Bill (Eighth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 8th sitting & Committee Debate: 8th sitting: House of Commons
Tue 3rd Nov 2020
Environment Bill (Ninth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 9th sitting & Committee Debate: 9th sitting: House of Commons
Thu 5th Nov 2020
Environment Bill (Tenth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 10th sitting & Committee Debate: 10th sitting: House of Commons
Tue 10th Nov 2020
Environment Bill (Twelfth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 12th sitting & Committee Debate: 12th sitting: House of Commons
Tue 10th Nov 2020
Environment Bill (Thirteenth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 13th sitting & Committee Debate: 13th sitting: House of Commons
Thu 12th Nov 2020
Environment Bill (Fourteenth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 14th sitting & Committee Debate: 14th sitting: House of Commons
Thu 12th Nov 2020
Environment Bill (Fifteenth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 15th sitting & Committee Debate: 15th sitting: House of Commons
Tue 17th Nov 2020
Environment Bill (Sixteenth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 16th sitting & Committee Debate: 16th sitting: House of Commons
Tue 17th Nov 2020
Environment Bill (Seventeenth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 17th sitting & Committee Debate: 17th sitting: House of Commons
Thu 19th Nov 2020
Environment Bill (Eighteenth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 18th sitting & Committee Debate: 18th sitting: House of Commons
Thu 19th Nov 2020
Environment Bill (Nineteeth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 19th sitting & Committee Debate: 19th sitting: House of Commons
Tue 24th Nov 2020
Environment Bill (Twentieth sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 20th sitting & Committee Debate: 20th sitting: House of Commons
Tue 24th Nov 2020
Environment Bill (Twenty First sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 21st sitting & Committee Debate: 21st sitting: House of Commons
Thu 26th Nov 2020
Environment Bill (Twenty Second sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 22nd sitting & Committee Debate: 22nd sitting: House of Commons
Tue 26th Jan 2021
Environment Bill
Commons Chamber

Report stage & Report stage & Report stage & Report stage: House of Commons
Wed 26th May 2021
Environment Bill
Commons Chamber

Report stage & Report stage & 3rd reading
Mon 7th Jun 2021
Environment Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading
Mon 21st Jun 2021
Environment Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage & Committee stage
Wed 23rd Jun 2021
Mon 28th Jun 2021
Wed 30th Jun 2021
Mon 5th Jul 2021
Wed 7th Jul 2021
Mon 12th Jul 2021
Wed 14th Jul 2021
Mon 6th Sep 2021
Environment Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage & Report stage
Wed 8th Sep 2021
Mon 13th Sep 2021
Wed 15th Sep 2021
Wed 13th Oct 2021
Environment Bill
Lords Chamber

3rd reading & 3rd reading
Wed 20th Oct 2021
Environment Bill
Commons Chamber

Consideration of Lords amendments & Consideration of Lords amendments
Tue 26th Oct 2021
Environment Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments & Consideration of Commons amendments
Mon 8th Nov 2021
Environment Bill
Commons Chamber

Consideration of Lords message & Consideration of Lords message
Tue 9th Nov 2021
Environment Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments

Environment Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons
Wednesday 26th February 2020

(4 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Environment Act 2021 Read Hansard Text

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Environment Act 2021 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

George Eustice Portrait The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a pleasure to open this Second Reading debate on the Environment Bill. In recent decades, our natural world has faced multiple pressures. As a consequence, we face two great global challenges: climate change and biodiversity loss. A million species face extinction, and climate change is piling the pressure on nature, doubling the number of species under threat in the past 15 years. If global temperatures rise by even 1.5°, we will lose even more of our precious life on Earth. As an island nation, we are acutely aware of the devastating effects of plastic pollution on marine life. We need to act now to turn things around. This Government were elected on the strongest-ever manifesto for the environment, and this Bill is critical to implementing that commitment.

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op)
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The Secretary of State is clearly right about the two big global challenges that we face, but does he also recognise that, as a country in our own right, we face a specific challenge with air pollution? Will he explain why he will not commit to the World Health Organisation-recommended legally binding limits on air pollution, to be set and met by 2030?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Bill provides for us to do precisely that by setting targets for PM 2.5. We will want to consult and engage people on exactly what that target should be. It is worth noting that the World Health Organisation has commended this Government’s air quality strategy, saying that it is an example for the rest of the world to follow.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place, and I welcome the Bill because it is a valuable step forward, but does he recognise that particulate pollution is a very real cause for concern, not just in inner cities but in suburban areas such as mine? Will he look at why we cannot use this Bill as an opportunity to advance rapidly towards WHO standards?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I simply say to my hon. Friend that the Bill gives us the powers to set precisely those long-term targets and to monitor our progress towards them. It also contains powers, later in the Bill, to improve our ability to manage air quality and support interventions that will enhance air quality.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I would like to make a little bit of progress. I am conscious of the number of Members who want to speak today.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessors, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who did a lot of groundwork on this Bill. I should also like to record my thanks to my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who has been involved with the Bill from the start.

The Bill is key to this Government’s ambitious environmental agenda. In 2020, as the UK hosts the next climate change conference, COP26 in Glasgow, we will be leading from the front as we write this new chapter for the UK outside the European Union: independent and committed to net zero and to nature recovery. The Government will work to tackle climate change and support nature recovery around the world and here at home, whether through recycling more and wasting less, planting trees, safeguarding our forests, protecting our oceans, savings species or pioneering new approaches to agriculture.

The first half of the Bill—parts 1 and 2—sets out the five guiding environmental principles for our terrestrial and marine environments to inform policy making across the country. These principles are that the polluter should pay; that harm should be prevented, and if it cannot be prevented, it should be rectified at source; that the environment should be taken into consideration across Government policy making; and that a precautionary approach should be taken.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
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What action are the Government taking to ensure that carbon offsetting is permanent and long lasting? Greenhouse gases can be in the atmosphere in some cases for hundreds of years, and there is a danger that carbon offsetting could be only temporary, so will the Government look at that point and come forward with proposals on it?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Bill contains a number of measures relating to a biodiversity net gain. It includes, for instance, a provision on conservation covenants, which will enable a landowner entering into an agreement to plant woodland, for instance, to have a covenant on that land as part of an agreement that would prevent it from subsequently being scrapped.

Tracey Crouch Portrait Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con)
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The breadth of this Bill and the level of scrutiny that its various versions have already faced are testament to its importance and the hard work of Ministers, colleagues across the House, officials and an enormous number of organisations, yet there are still opportunities to strengthen it. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is open-minded to amendments that strengthen the Bill, particularly on biodiversity net gain? Some of us agree with Greener UK that that ought to be secured and maintained in perpetuity.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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My hon. Friend will know that the Government are always open-minded to good amendments. However, she makes a valid point, which is that the Bill’s contents have already been extensively scrutinised. The Bill as presented before Second Reading has taken account of many different views.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies
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The Secretary of State will be aware that current EU air quality standards are enforced through the courts, with Client Earth and so on having taken the Government to court. Will he accept that this Bill should include an independent agency with teeth that enforces World Health Organisation standards and, ideally, gives the fines to the health service and local government to help treat the damage caused by poor air quality and to reduce pollution locally? The Bill simply does not do that at the moment.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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The Bill will establish the Office for Environmental Protection, which will have the power to take public bodies to an upper tribunal if there are breaches of the law. Of course, there are remedies in such a process through the usual mechanism of court orders.

The Bill sets out a framework for setting and taking concrete steps towards achieving our ambitious, legally binding long-term targets, and chapter 2 will establish that new, powerful independent Office for Environmental Protection to provide expert, objective and impartial advice on environmental issues and to take a proportionate and transparent approach to issues of national importance concerning the enforcement of environmental law. The OEP will hold this and every future Government to account by reporting on the progress we have made to improve the natural environment, as set out in our published evidence-based environmental improvement plans and targets.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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Will the Secretary of State give way?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I am going to make some progress.

The annual progress report we published last May showed that 90% of the highest-priority actions from our first 25-year environment plan, which will become our first improvement plan, have either been delivered or are on track. We have heeded the advice of both the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and I look forward to continuing to work closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne). The OEP will enforce compliance with environmental law where needed, complementing and reinforcing the work of the world-leading Committee on Climate Change.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
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Given that clause 40 gives the OEP quite broad prohibitions on the disclosure of information, how will we know what it is up to? Will the Secretary of State explain—he can do so in writing—why we need those prohibitions? Will he confirm now that the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, which are so important to public access, will not be interfered with? Will he state in the Bill that there will be no restriction on the public’s access to information through the EIR?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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The framework set out in this Bill contains multiple mechanisms through which information is made available. We will be setting targets that will be reviewed every five years. There will then be a published environmental improvement plan that will also be reviewed every five years, and a progress report will be published annually. There are many mechanisms through which our public approach to delivering on our targets is made clear.

Edward Timpson Portrait Edward Timpson (Eddisbury) (Con)
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I welcome the Bill and its attempt, alongside enhancing the environment, to improve our farmers’ ability to produce food. To that end, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the new legally binding environmental targets will take account of the best techniques available to our farming community, so that the targets are eminently achievable?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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My hon. Friend makes an important point. Our Agriculture Bill is currently in Committee, and it includes not only tackling and mitigating climate change, but a wide range of other environmental objectives. The measures and policies in that Bill will indeed contribute to supporting the objectives and targets set out in this Bill. The OEP will provide a free-to-use complaints system for citizens, and it will also have the power, as I said earlier, to take the Government to court.

Matt Western Portrait Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
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One of the issues for so many of our communities is appreciating just how severe the crisis is, particularly for air quality, as we have heard in many interventions. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to put the power with the people and increase investment in monitoring stations? Monitors could be fitted to the refuse lorries that go down every street across the land, which would provide us all with real-time data.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The waste management section of the Bill will provide us with the ability not only to strengthen our requirements on producer responsibility, but to improve our ability to track waste, so that we can ensure that it is disposed of properly.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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I spoke about the traceability of waste to the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and heard that the Bill is perfect. However, I urge the Secretary of State to consider my amendment in Committee on the traceability of waste, particularly the end destination of municipal waste, so that residents who recycle know that their recycling will not end up in the oceans.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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While I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, will look carefully at any amendments, the Bill will also give us the legal powers to prevent the exporting of plastic waste to other countries, confirming a manifesto commitment.

Theo Clarke Portrait Theo Clarke (Stafford) (Con)
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Residents in Stafford are concerned about the impact of plastic pollution, and I commend the local organisations, such as Stafford Litter Heroes, that are doing so much to tackle this blight on our beautiful countryside. What steps the Government are taking to implement incentives such as the drinks container deposit return scheme, which would allow everyone to do their bit to protect our planet every day?

--- Later in debate ---
George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Bill contains new powers for enhanced producer responsibility when it comes to managing single-use plastics or waste more generally, and the Bill will give us the power to extend that to new categories. The Bill will also provide the power to enable us to establish deposit return schemes.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
- Hansard -

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I want to make some progress, because I am conscious that many Members have put into speak today.

The second half of the Bill sets out measures to improve our environment right now. The Bill will enable British business to be part of the solution by incentivising and supporting approaches in the UK that will deliver for our environment. Part 3 will help us to accomplish greater resource efficiency and a better approach to waste through more circular ways of using the planet’s finite resources. It will encourage manufacturers to develop innovative packaging and strong sustainability standards by making them responsible for the entire net cost of disposing of used packaging. It will stimulate the creation of alternatives to the single-use plastics that wreak havoc on the marine environment, while establishing consistent rules to help people recycle more easily across our country and giving us powers to set up deposit return schemes.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies
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Will the Secretary of State give way?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I am going to make some progress.

The Bill will improve how we hold to account those who litter, so we can tackle the waste crime that costs our economy over £600 million every year. It will put pressure on businesses to waste less food and get more of the surplus out to those who really need it.

Part 4 deals with air pollution—the greatest environmental risk to human health. Fine particulate matter is the most damaging pollutant, so the Bill makes a clear commitment to set an ambitious, legally binding target that will drive down particulate levels and improve public health. The Bill will give the Government the power to ensure that polluting vehicles are removed from our roads, and it will give local authorities greater capability to improve their local environment, from green spaces to healthier air for everyone to breathe, so that we all lead longer, healthier lives wherever we live and work.

Ruth Edwards Portrait Ruth Edwards (Rushcliffe) (Con)
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I greatly welcome the ambitious proposals in this Bill, and of particular interest to my constituents in Rushcliffe are the measures on recycling. The proposals to standardise which recyclable materials are collected door to door and to include glass and food waste in that list are particularly welcome. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to enact these measures as quickly as possible? Can he give me an idea of the timeframe for these proposals becoming a reality on people’s doorsteps?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we will be consulting on when to deploy the powers in the Bill. It is important that we have greater consistency on recycling and on what local authorities are required to do, so that people play their part and know exactly what is required of them.

Part 5 will facilitate more responsible management of water, so that we have secure, safe, abundant water for the future, supporting a more resilient environment. We know that nature needs our help to recover.

Charles Walker Portrait Sir Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con)
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As my right hon. Friend will know, England has 80% of the world’s chalk streams, and successive Governments have failed those chalk streams miserably. The abstraction reforms in this Bill are welcome, but they do not go far enough; nor is there any explicit commitment to building reservoirs, particularly the Abingdon reservoir. Will the Minister reflect on that?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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Obviously, I am happy to discuss these matters with my hon. Friend. The Bill has powers to strengthen the abstraction licensing regime and to limit licences that have been established for some time. It will also give us powers to modify some of the legislation on water pollutants, so that we can add additional chemicals to the list, should we need to do so.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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Although there is a lot to welcome in the Bill, the Government could achieve a lot more, particularly on water consumption. This is an opportunity to introduce targets for water consumption through labelling mechanisms that allow consumers to decide which products to buy and consume by comparing the amount of water those products use.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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We have consulted on a range of measures on water consumption. We do not think we need additional primary powers in this Bill to take steps to address those issues. We will obviously be responding to the consultation soon.

We know that nature needs our help to recover, so the focus of parts 6 and 7 is to give communities a say if their local authority plans to take down a beloved neighbourhood tree, and public authorities will be required to ensure they conserve and enhance nature across the board.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper (St Albans) (LD)
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Will the Secretary of State give way?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I will make some progress.

Landowners will be able to agree conservation covenants with charities and other bodies, so they can be assured that subsequent landowners will be required to continue the sustainable stewardship they have started. The Bill will require developers to provide a 10% increase for nature, giving them the clarity they need to do their bit for the environment, while building the homes we need across our country.

Nature recovery networks will join up space for species across our country, with local nature recovery strategies capturing local knowledge and mapping habitat hotspots, so that we can target investment where it will have the greatest impact.

Philip Dunne Portrait Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con)
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Will my right hon. Friend give way?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I will give way one more time.

Philip Dunne Portrait Philip Dunne
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is being generous in giving way. I apologise for not being able to speak in this debate as I have a Westminster Hall debate at 2.30 pm.

Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that there will be coherence between the environmental land management scheme presented in the Agriculture Bill and empowering people to be supported through the nature recovery schemes?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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Yes, that is what we will be doing. Indeed, the design of our future environmental land management scheme will have a local component, and we want to make sure that what we do to promote nature through ELM is consistent with the local nature recovery strategies.

Chris Grayling Portrait Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)
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Will my right hon. Friend give way?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I will give way one more time, and then I will make some progress.

Chris Grayling Portrait Chris Grayling
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My right hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way.

This is one of the most important parts of the Bill. We need to restore habitats in this country, with a particular focus on those species—birds, hedgehogs and others—that have declined so dramatically in numbers. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the mandate that goes with these measures, both for the new agency and for local authorities, will focus on helping those species to recover, particularly by recreating the habitats that will enable it to happen?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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My right hon. Friend makes an important point, and the Bill will require local authorities to have their own strategies for biodiversity and for nature recovery. As he identifies, these are exactly the types of issues that we want them to address.

Before I close, I will highlight three new additions to the Bill since it was introduced in the previous Parliament. Clause 19 will mean that, when introducing a Bill, every Secretary of State in every future UK Government will have to include on the face of that Bill a statement on whether the new primary legislation will have the effect of reducing existing levels of environmental protection.

The second addition is that the Bill will create a new power to implement the Government’s manifesto commitment to end the exporting of polluting plastic waste to non-OECD countries. We will consult industry, non-governmental organisations and local authorities on specific restrictions or prohibitions.

Thirdly, clause 20 will require the Government to take stock biennially of significant developments in international legislation on the environment and then publish a review.

In conclusion, this Government are committed to leaving the environment in a better state than we found it, whether through planting 30,000 hectares of trees a year by the end of this Parliament, transforming our approach to agriculture, tackling air pollution or improving our waste management. This Bill will create the framework to set a long-term course for our country to drive environmental improvement, and I commend it to the House.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
- Hansard -

Environment Bill (First sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Committee stage & Committee Debate: 1st sitting: House of Commons
Tuesday 10th March 2020

(4 years, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Environment Act 2021 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 10 March 2020 - (10 Mar 2020)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Environment Act 2021 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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Q You reflected on the independence of the OEP and have suggested that concerns might be raised about its funding and funding cycle. Are there amendments you would like to see to the Bill to establish that independence in a clearcut way? Along with the OEP’s potential independence, would you like to see something specific in the Bill that protects its remit and funding cycle so we can be assured that it will not be subject to the vicissitudes of the Department or the Exchequer?

Signe Norberg: With regards to the specific areas of the Bill, there could be strengthening amendments to schedule 1, which sets out the appointment process. A paragraph in there to specify the role of the Select Committee in appointing the chair would strengthen the Bill, because the OEP’s chair has the power to select the other members. Within that, there is also a funding section, which could establish the five-year process. The important thing is that the OEP, with its formidable remit, will have independence and certainty in the long term. That should go beyond this Government, secure in the fact that successive Governments will deliver on the commitments. It should have a baseline budget to operate from, regardless of economic circumstances. If the funding mechanism in schedule 1 is strengthened, that would be welcome and really bolster the OEP’s ability to do its work.

Martin Baxter: In terms of a specific amendment, paragraph 2(1) of schedule 1 could be changed. It says:

“Non-executive members are to be appointed by the Secretary of State” ,

but you could add to that, “with confirmation from the Environmental Audit Committee and/or Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.” That would give Parliament enhanced power in that appointments process. That is a targeted, small amendment that could enhance independence in the process.

Rebecca Pow Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow)
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Q Thank you so much for coming in; it is really appreciated. I have two points to pick up, one of which was raised by Ms Norberg. I think you suggested that the Office for Environmental Protection, the overarching body that will hold public bodies to account, ought to be more like the Office for Budget Responsibility, but that body does not have the enforcement functions that the OEP will have. Do you have any views about that?

Signe Norberg: The point about appointing the chair is more about ensuring that there is scrutiny around who is appointed as chair. We fully recognise that the OEP will have a different remit compared to the OBR. It is more about ensuring that Parliament has a role in appointing the chair.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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Q The OBR and what we are proposing for the Office for Environmental Protection are quite different in terms of functions. The Office for Environmental Protection is more like the Equality and Human Rights Commission and very much set up on those lines. Do the others have views on that?

Martin Baxter: Given the importance of the OEP and questions about independence and holding public authorities, including Government, to account, stakeholders feel that that enhanced independence is very important. The model of having a confirmatory vote from the appropriate Select Committee in that appointments process is something that the OBR has in its remit, and we think that could be transferred across to the OEP as well. That is not to say that they do not have very different functions as bodies; we fully accept that.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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Q Could I widen it out a bit? Industry and business have been very engaged in the development of the Bill, which is much appreciated. One of the strong messages we got from your two groups, in particular, was that you wanted legally binding targets and strong direction in the Bill. Why do you feel that is so important? Can you help the Committee understand whether the Bill is strong enough and why you want that?

Edward Lockhart-Mummery: You are absolutely right. We have been working on this for about two or three years with a wide group of business organisations. We have got 20 of the main business groups, covering all sectors, from the Federation of Small Businesses to the CBI, Make UK, Water UK and the Home Builders Federation. Consistently across that group, the notion of a long-term framework for the environment is incredibly important.

We did a bit of research looking at the timescales over which businesses take decisions, whether it is project cycles, investment cycles for capital, or whatever. A lot of the investment cycles are very long. Unless you have a long-term framework for the environment, it is difficult to make the kind of improvements that we would all like to see.

In the past, we have often had very short-term decision making on the environment, which makes it difficult for business to adjust. If we are constantly in that cycle of responding very quickly and introducing policies on a one or two-year basis, it is very hard for business. Everyone—human beings—wants to see a clean and good environment. Business supports that as much as everyone else. If they have clarity over the long-term direction of policy and a clear set of targets, they can start designing. Whatever sector you are in, you can start designing.

Let me give you a quick example. We are working with the home building sector on a sectoral plan for all new houses, for the environment, because we have got the clarity of net zero and because we are getting clarity on targets through the Environment Bill. The sector can suddenly sit down and start saying, “Right, these are the long-term things we need to plan for—water efficiency, flood resilience and air quality.” They can start investing in the R&D and driving innovation.

We think that is very important, and we advocated very strongly right from the start. We put together a blueprint for the Environment Bill. We have advocated very strongly to Treasury and others that that long-term framework is important. We think it is a game changer, in the sense that, as soon as you have that, rather than environment being a compliance issue within firms, it becomes a strategic issue within firms, sectors and local areas, where everyone can build this into what they are doing.

In principle, we think targets are fantastic and we really welcome them in the Bill. We also think that there are some small changes that could be made to the target-setting framework that would be win-wins. They would improve the ability to achieve environmental outcomes but also reduce costs and increase certainty for business. I will focus on two—so that I am not hogging the microphone, I might then hand over to colleagues. One is that we would really like to see clear objectives in the Bill. At the moment, there is a target-setting mechanism, but it is not exactly clear. It says that four targets will be set in four areas, but it is not clear exactly what targets would be set. It would give greater clarity to have objectives that consistently show what kind of targets are going to be set and give that long-term clarity for everyone.

We have often made the point that, in the past 10 years, we have had eight different Secretaries of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. If they all set their own targets, depending on what they are interested in, you could end up with a patchwork of targets. We would really like to see clarity on the objectives. This is the kind of thing we are talking about. If the Bill said something like environmental objectives would be to have a healthy, resilient and biodiverse natural environment, an environment that supports human health and wellbeing for everyone, and sustainable use of resources, those would be high-level objectives but would give everyone clarity, as to how targets would be set.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I just interrupt you there for a second? I might bring the other gentleman in from the Broadway group—

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Minister, if anybody brings him in, it will be me. May we please finish hearing what is being said and then you can come back in?

Edward Lockhart-Mummery: One thing we did with IEMA is a big survey of about 370 people working in businesses and different organisations. I think 95% of them supported having objectives in the Bill. That is that one.

The other thing is to have a clearer duty right at the start that environmental improvement plans have to enable the targets to be met. At the moment, the targets are legally binding in the sense that if you miss a target, Government have to make amends and take action, and there is a reporting mechanism. What is missing—and is in the Climate Change Act 2008—is what we call a day one duty, something that says there is a duty on the Secretary of State to make sure that they are putting in place the right policies to support this. These two things would underline that clarity and long-term certainty for business and reduce long-term costs for business to achieve the outcomes.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you. In the light of all of that, are there any final questions from the Minister?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q On a related point, do you think it is important to have an equivalent governance framework to the OEP in Scotland and Wales? Northern Ireland is already committed to joining the OEP, as is set out in the Bill. The other two have close liaison with all the teams and countries, but at the moment they have said they are going to set up their own bodies. How important is it, from a business point of view, that they function in as similar way as possible?

Martin Baxter: In terms of functioning, the really important thing is common standards driving common outcomes. Businesses are working across the UK and beyond, so having a harmonised approach to the environmental outcomes we are looking to achieve is very important.

In terms of the governance mechanisms, the Scottish Government announced last week that they were looking to create an independent body and watchdog. For Northern Ireland, there are obviously the provisions in the Bill. Wales is perhaps on a slightly different track at the moment. I am not entirely sure where it is in terms of an independent body.

There is clearly an opportunity to drive efficiency by having a common framework, maybe for an overarching view. Yes, I agree with common governance frameworks and ensuring that there is co-operation and collaboration, so that where we have shared environments, such as shared catchments, we are managing those and setting targets and objectives for improvement on a common basis. That is very important.

I also think there is the potential within the UK that, if we start to set different standards, we will shift burdens from one place to another. If you end up with very different policies on waste, for example, you might end up shipping waste from one part of the UK to the other, just because it happens to be easier or cheaper. Those overarching mechanisms of co-operation and collaboration are very important.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you very much indeed. Ladies and gentlemen, that brings this session to a conclusion. Ms Norberg, Mr Lockhart-Mummery and Mr Baxter, thank you all very much indeed for coming along and affording the Committee the benefit of your observations. We are deeply grateful to you.

Examination of Witnesses

Martin Curtois, Andrew Poole and David Bellamy gave evidence.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Finally in response to this point, Mr Curtois.

Martin Curtois: On the point made earlier about plastic, post the David Attenborough programme and others, there was almost an overreaction against plastic, in the sense that people to some extent forgot its value in food preservation and were effectively looking to ban it. One problem we have to take into account, so far as plastics are concerned, is that, as was mentioned, the environmental consequences of using other products can sometimes be worse. That is obviously something that we want to steer clear of.

We also need to be careful about using the right plastics. Moving to a system in which products are manufactured primarily from high-density polyethylene, polypropylene or polyethylene terephthalate, or from a single-source product—with one plastic used for the bottle top as well as the bottle, for example—would make it a great deal easier to recycle. For example, we have a plant in Dagenham, in east London, where we effectively recycle many of the plastic milk bottles used in London, turning them into plastic pellets. Obviously, from our point of view, that single-source aspect is very important. That element needs to be taken into account.

I can understand why the focus has been on single-use plastic items first, because it has been the biggest element that the public have leapt on, in terms of recycling and in terms of wanting change, so I can see why priority has been given to that. If we can start to get that right and start to make changes that mean—for example, we have developed some kit that recognises the black plastic used in TRESemmé shampoo bottles, because of the pigment within it, which allows us to recycle that more efficiently. Significant changes can be made that could start to reduce the environmental impact quickly, which I think we all want.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Mr Bellamy clearly highlighted the legal requirements already in place on a lot of waste and recycling issues. There is the waste strategy, which has the reuse, recycle, longer-life element to it, which is very strong. Will you give us business’s point of view on how the Bill will move us towards what we call the circular economy? What opportunities will that provide for businesses in particular? Maybe you could give special thought to the Bill aligning all local authority recycling collection services across the country. What sort of opportunities might that, among other measures, offer businesses?

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Mr Bellamy, you appear to be in the firing line this morning.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Sorry about that.

David Bellamy: Clearly, the powers in the Bill on extended producer responsibility, introducing a deposit return system and collection consistency—provided these systems are developed holistically together, and are joined up—will, combined, revolutionise our recycling system in the UK. As I say, we need to be mindful of unintended consequences. That is why they need to be developed holistically: so we have a coherent system.

Consistency is an essential piece of this jigsaw that we do not want overlooked in taking these reforms forward. If producers are asked, for example, to label their packaging as either recyclable or non-recyclable in a binary system, it is vital that we bring the public with us on that journey. The collection system needs to be in line with that change, and consistency will need to be in place, ready, in time for this new producer responsibility system. That is vital for the FDF and its members. We support that approach.

We would also like a very early signal from Government that they plan to include plastic film in that core set of materials, for consistency. We may even be able to accelerate that faster than the work of the UK plastics pact, which I think is looking at 2025. We may be able to do that sooner with the right co-operation in the chain. We would like to be ambitious in that regard. By that, we mean mono-material and multi-material films, and we include cartons in that aspiration as well. We would like the Government to be more ambitious on that. Let’s get this right from the start, so the local authorities have the right signals from Government about the consistency in the core set of materials, and develop the infrastructure accordingly from the outset. That is very important to us.

I mentioned earlier that it is important that all the money raised by producers in this new system goes towards improving the system. That is why we have separate issues with the plastics tax; it does not adhere to that principle, because we have a policy of non-hypothecation in the UK. We are not in support of a plastics tax; we are in support of reforming the producer responsibility system through a few modulated fees, which would then be used to improve the system.

One specific issue we have is the exponential cost our members face in buying the packaging recovery notes. You may be aware that these prices have gone up exponentially over the past year or so for plastics and aluminium. There is no evidence that this additional money—our members are paying hundreds of millions of extra pounds in these costs—is going towards improving the recycling system. We are happy to pay the extra money, but we want to see the improvements in the system. We would like a meeting with the Minister as soon as can be arranged to discuss a range of options that we have set out in a written submission to Government about things that can be done in the shorter term to address this PRN crisis, as we regard it, within our membership. We would like the Minister to reconsider our request to have that meeting as soon as possible.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

There is no requirement on everybody to answer every question, but gentlemen, do either of you wish to add anything to that?

Andrew Poole: From our point of view, one of the things that has become abundantly clear over the past few years is that our members as small businesses are saying that they want to do the right thing, and they want to demonstrate to their customers that they are doing the right thing. Talking about the holistic approach to waste and recycling, a lot of these issues are pragmatic. How do we make it easy for small firms to play their role? On local authorities, obviously, small businesses are not allowed to take their waste to municipal sites. They are not eligible for municipal waste collections in the way that many domestic householders are, despite many of them not using many more different types of waste than those households. Again, that is in the spirit of making it as easy as possible for small firms to comply and play their role. That would be one element of it.

Environment Bill (Second sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Committee stage & Committee Debate: 2nd sitting: House of Commons
Tuesday 10th March 2020

(4 years, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Environment Act 2021 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 10 March 2020 - (10 Mar 2020)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Environment Act 2021 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

I will come back to you if I can, Dr Whitehead.

Rebecca Pow Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you very much for attending—it is much appreciated. The Government are committed to funding all new burdens on local authorities through the Bill, so I want to get your view quickly on that. I would also be interested to know, in the light of that, what opportunities the Bill offers local authorities, perhaps particularly referencing the fact that lots of local authorities have committed to their own climate and environmental standards, and to tackling the climate crisis. How do you think it might help you to deliver those?

Mayor Glanville: It is a positive Bill in the sense that we all share its ambitions to respond to the climate emergency, uphold the principle of “polluter pays” when we are talking about waste and recycling, and embed high standards for air quality in domestic legislation. Local government shares all those ambitions.

To take waste and recycling, there are some ambitious principles set out in the Bill, especially for dealing with single-use plastics, encouraging deposit and return schemes and improving the way recycling is delivered. Underneath that, however, is the context that I set out of the challenge of local government finance. If we are to move to the type of systems that are set out in the Bill and introduce food recycling everywhere, it would require an uplift in resources.

I welcome what the Minister said about new burdens being met with resources, but often the detail about where those burdens lie comes later. I have some experience of taking part in discussions on measures such as the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. There is normally a dispute later between central and local government about what the new responsibilities are and where they are fully accommodated. You often get transition funding, which allows some adaptation and change, but the picture for long-term revenue for local government is still incredibly challenging. I know that we are all going into a spending review and some of those things might be addressed.

There are huge opportunities for local government, because when it comes to waste and recycling, we are obviously the processors of all our consumer waste. We all want to see less of that waste produced in the first place. As I said, I gave evidence last year. If we just focus on plastics and single-use plastics, that is obviously where a lot of residents and campaign organisations are focusing our minds, but with a true waste reduction strategy consumer packaging would not be produced in the first place and there would be more upstream regulation of the types of materials that go into our waste system.

Some 70% of councils have all seven common forms of plastic recycled in their waste streams, but other types of packaging that local authorities cannot process are still going into the waste streams. Consumers often think that they can recycle them and it can be frustrating for them when they find that they cannot. Those types of packaging obviously increase the amount of residual waste.

As the Bill develops and regulation flows from it, we are hoping not just that we will focus on the work that we all need to do to continue to improve the recycling end but that we will work at the producer end, which, obviously, individual local authorities and the LGA do not have the scope to focus on. That is where we can really add value. We can clarify some of the areas where local government needs to rise to the challenge, but also where industry and consumer behaviour need to change.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q So this is very much what is termed a framework Bill. I get the impression that the local authorities would welcome more public consultation and engagement to get this right for you and for the businesses that we heard from this morning.

Mayor Glanville: Absolutely. As I said, we all face a tremendous amount of challenge from residents, consumers and activists. We all want to play our part in responding to the climate emergency. We as the Local Government Association have been doing a lot of peer-to-peer work. My board has created a climate change emergency action plan, and we are keen to continue that work. Where we would value a greater voice is at the political and officer level, if there is a taskforce linked to the Bill, especially on climate change emergency and action. I am told that there are still some details there to work through in terms of leading that full sector-led response.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Can I ask two things? The Minister said that all new burdens would be met. What is the figure that you said initially that local government would need to do the work set out in the Bill?

Mayor Glanville: Just on the area of waste and recycling, to meet the objectives that are set out in the Bill, we have done some internal modelling that said there would be a £700 million gap in local government funding to meet those new responsibilities and burdens. That is in the context of a total amount of around £4.2 billion spent on processing household waste. Of that, £700 million is spent on recycling, so it is a doubling of the recycling and reducing element that is outlined in the Bill.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you. It will not be necessary for every member of the panel to answer every question, but to set the stage and for ease of reference, I will on this occasion simply work from, in my case, right to left—in your case, left to right. Ms Hammond, please.

Judicaelle Hammond: Thank you. Local nature recovery strategies are a real opportunity to make a difference to nature. There are a few things I would like to raise in terms of how they are going to work. First, at the moment, they are just about nature. We wonder whether there is a point to them being more holistic, so that we avoid silos and manage to have a look at how land is used in a way that maximises the various benefit types, including flood management and climate change, not just nature. This is a plea for them to not just be considered in isolation.

Another aspect is the issue of who should be leading on this. The Bill provides for a multiplicity of possible responsible bodies, including local authorities. As we heard from the gentleman from the Local Government Association, local authorities are already overstretched. We have an issue over whether they have the capacity to lead on that.

Another aspect is skills, and that was raised to the Committee. Would Natural England be better placed to do that?

It is important to have clear priorities. There need to be no gaps and no overlaps with regards to local nature recovery strategies, and that needs to be an important driver from national Government. Most of the land we refer to is in private ownership, so it will be important to consult with landowners and land managers on that.

Alan Law: The Bill has the potential to be the most significant environmental piece of legislation since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. We have worked on conservation in this country for the last 70 years, driven by a focus on looking at the rare and putting in place protection measures for those rare site species: parks. What is exciting about the Bill and its links to the 25-year environment plan is the ambition to go from protecting small parts of the countryside—looking after the rare and the special—to trying to drive wholesale large nature recovery. That ambition around recovery is fundamental. The most important part of the Bill revolves around this nature recovery network and the links between the local and the national.

Will local nature recovery strategies alone deliver the ambition of the nature recovery network? No, they probably will not. That will not happen without further tightening up, either in the Bill or in supporting guidance or regulations. For reasons already articulated, we need to ensure that local nature recovery strategies operate within some form of national framework so that they are coherent. A national framework needs to be in place.

There need to be mechanisms for developing local nature recovery strategies so that they are quality assured and checked to ensure that they actually add up to a part of that coherent network. We need to see clear expressions of the set national targets writ into those local nature recovery strategies. At the moment we have an ambition at the front of the Bill around targets and we have a tool—a delivery mechanism—around local plans, but there is no hard-wired connection between the two. That is not difficult to achieve, so the issue is to tighten up around the links between targets, delivery processes, and some of the accountabilities.

Dr Mitchell: I have some opening words from my perspective on the Bill itself. British farmers are the stewards of our natural environment, and they have a good track record of protecting, maintaining and enhancing our environment. We welcome some aspects of the Bill, but some improvements could be made to ensure that environmental enhancement policies are carefully considered, and that food production and the environment go hand in hand. One of the key themes in the Bill and its various measures will be the need for them to work for farmers and food production as well as for the environment. Setting that context and going on to nature recovery networks and local nature recovery strategies, there is a lot of jargon around. We need greater clarity on these different phrases and how they all fit together.

How local nature recovery strategies may be used is unclear from our perspective. The suggestion is that they may be used to inform planning decisions. That makes us slightly nervous because is it some sort of designation that may be used to identify environmental priorities or opportunities that may restrict what farmers might want to do with their land in future, such as new building requirements? Farmers may want to update and modernise their buildings, but will that be restricted if they are in one of these areas? Or might they have an impact on land values?

Those are some of the questions we have in the back of our minds. Farmers get very nervous when you start drawing lines on maps, particularly when it comes to thinking about how environmental land management schemes may be ruled out in future. If these strategies are used to identify where farmers may be able to enter into one of these ELM schemes, does that mean they will be restricted in their engagement? We recommend that these local nature recovery strategies are confined to areas that are already identified for environmental value, such as sites of special scientific interest.

My final point is that we need to ensure that farmers are properly consulted at an early stage of the strategies, so that food production is considered alongside any environmental priorities.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you for coming in. I want to go back to the local nature recovery network strategies and how they link to national strategies. Clause 98(5)(b) includes a very specific reference, that the local nature recovery strategies

“could contribute to the establishment of a network of areas across England for the recovery…of biodiversity”.

That is newly added since the previous Bill, in response to engagement with stakeholders. I want to know, first, whether you welcome that and what you think about it and, secondly, going on a bit, your view of the overall measures in the Bill in driving us towards this nature recovery environmental improvement.

Alan Law: We welcome the insertion of that clause. I have “could” underlined, rather than a more affirmative statement on the plan to undertake it. The ambition is clearly there to develop local strategies that add up to a coherent whole, but a little bit more in some of the supporting guidance or regulation to tighten up exactly how national standards will be met should be defined, and how those can be used in terms of local strategies. A timeline for production of the local strategies, again, would be great to see coming through while the Bill is in transition.

It will be really important to have some formal mechanism for scrutinising those plans and for advising on how fit for purpose they are. They will go back up to the Secretary of State, who provides that scrutiny. Forgive us for the presumption, but perhaps a body such as Natural England could provide that sort of role.

Dr Young: We were really pleased to see that addition in the Bill, because it makes the link. It is clear in the explanatory notes that it is talking about a nature recovery network. I will reiterate how important a nature recovery network is to tackle the massive declines that we have seen in nature over our lifetimes.

I agree with Alan’s point that the Bill uses the phrase “could contribute”. Certainly, the Bill’s ambition is clear, but there is always a danger of the ambition not being implemented in the way the Government foresee. When resources are tight, organisations will do what they must do rather than what they should do. It would be good to see a change in some of the wording in the Bill from “may” to “must” so it achieves the ambition we really hope it will achieve. The Bill uses the phrase “a network of areas”. It would be really good if the term “a nature recovery network” were included in the Bill rather than just in the explanatory notes, so that we are really clear what we want the Bill to do and what we want people to do.

It will be important to think about how this is implemented. Again, we are really pleased that the duty on local authorities in an earlier section of the Bill has been improved so that it is about local authorities not just having regard to the protection of biodiversity but enhancing it and having regard to local nature recovery strategies. However, in the past, “have regard” has not been a very strong term and has not led to sufficient action to halt the declines. A slight change of wording—perhaps to “act in accordance with local nature recovery strategies”—would really shift the focus from thinking to doing and taking action.

We would like local nature recovery strategies to be more clearly required to be expressed in the planning system. I think local authorities and public bodies having regard to local nature recovery strategies in their decision making about planning and spending would lead to stronger action. It would also help to a certain extent with the point that colleagues have made about consultation, because the planning system provides us with a ready-made administrative system for good consultation.

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I just have one question. I think there is general consensus that we do not want a lower standard of environmental protection after the end of the end of the transition and the implementation of the Bill. Do you feel that the Bill replicates our current level of environmental protection—the level as it was when we were a member of the EU—or will it deliver a lower level of environmental protection?

Judicaelle Hammond: There is no reason, given the way the Bill is framed at the moment, that those standards will drop. The CLA is on record as a strong supporter of high standards remaining, not least because that gives us an opportunity to use high standards as a unique selling point both in the export market and internally. These are absolutely necessary, and we need to make sure that we maintain them.

The Committee may want to consider the kinds of issues with trade deals that are being raised at the moment with the Agriculture Bill. They apply in exactly the same way to the need to ensure that we do not get imports that are produced at much lower standards of environmental protection—and, indeed, climate change action—than would be allowed here. That is an element of the Bill on which there could be some really useful reflection.

Dr Mitchell: There are a number of safeguards in the Bill to ensure that our environmental standards are not lowered. The environmental governance aspects around target setting, the embedding of the environmental principles and the introduction of the OEP should ensure that our standards are not lowered.

One of the things that we need to consider alongside our standards is the fact that farmers are doing a lot to maintain our environment as well as creating habitats and enhancing it. We ought to recognise that as well as all the things that we do to improve and enhance our environment, there is a lot of work in terms of good day-to-day management and maintenance that farmers do to maintain our landscapes. At the moment that does not seem to be recognised in the Bill, and we would like that to be recognised a bit more.

Alan Law: There are two aspects here—differentiating ambition from certainty. On the one hand, the Bill provides the mechanism through target setting to go beyond existing standards. That is entirely welcome. As yet, we do not have the clarity around those targets, but it is entirely welcome. The other area is around potential regression. There is a protection in the Bill through clause 19 around primary legislation, but that does not apply to secondary legislation, so conservation regulations in that area could be subject to regression.

--- Later in debate ---
Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q In the context of recovery strategies, one suggestion is that permissions for, say, residential building could require a target of a specified percentage of canopy cover on developments. As a number of people have said, it is significant that the section in the Bill on trees deals with cutting them down but is silent on planting them. Do you think that a target for a specified percentage of canopy cover on developments might be welcome among builders if it could be incorporated into plans in a clear way?

Rico Wojtulewicz: Ideally, yes. The difficulty is that every site will be very different, so if you specify a particular type of site, it might be quite difficult. In somewhere like London, where you desperately want an increased density, if you specify a particular type of canopy cover, it might be very difficult to deliver that, whereas in somewhere like Cornwall you might be able to deliver increased canopy cover with less concern.

It also depends on the type of canopy cover that you are looking at. If, as part of your biodiversity strategy, you know that you would like to encourage a particular type of species to visit that site, and maybe encourage a nature network to improve, you need to know what species of tree or plant you would like to use. That information is very scant, which is a real difficulty for developers. The majority of the people I represent are small and medium-sized builders, although we have some larger ones, and they win work on reputation, so a good site is vital. That is almost part of the sales pitch in the end, but unless you have that feed-in knowledge it is very difficult.

We work with an organisation called the Trees and Design Action Group, with which we have been partnered for a while. It produces a document called “Trees in Hard Landscapes”. That allows us a better idea about what we can do on sites. That expertise is not necessarily shared across the wider industry and specifically among local planning authorities.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Welcome. Thank you very much for coming. I know that many house builders have already done some really excellent work on biodiversity and net gain, voluntarily, off their own bat. What is your view about mandating it to get environmental improvement? Do you think the 10% specified in the Bill is the right level?

Rico Wojtulewicz: I honestly could not—I do not think anyone could—give an honest answer to that. When we were approached, we welcomed biodiversity net gain because we recognise it is vital. We recognised that 10% might feel like an arbitrary figure, but if it is deliverable, why should developers not go for it?

We are at the start of understanding what we can deliver and how. I can give three perfect examples of that. We have the great crested newt district licensing scheme, which has only really come to fruition in the past few years. We worked with Natural England on that. That eDNA tests newts in a local area, which means you do not have to do a ginormous survey. That is a very new technology and has only just been introduced. Two other ones are bee bricks and swift bricks. Those allow more bees and swifts to visit a site and be part of the network of biodiversity on that site. Those are new technologies. It seems amazing that we could not incorporate those before in developments, but we are really at the early stages.

From our point view—whenever I speak to our members—we will do as much as needs be, as long as there is an industry out there. If you look at ecologists, do we have enough ecologists in local authorities to offer advice and guidance? Do we have the right network of information, so that it is simple and easy to use—so that all developers, whether self-build or building 2,000 homes, can understand what to deliver on site to reduce the burden on professional ecologists, who might want to tailor a scheme to make it unique.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q The Bill is a framework Bill, so the 10% is signalling that this is the direction of travel. I just want to hear you say whether you are pleased about that. Is there a good direction of travel? All the nitty-gritty about exactly what you are asking will be set in the regulations and secondary legislation, and I hope you will put into that. I have met lots of house builders, and my impression is that they welcome this because it signals a paradigm shift in the way our development will go.

Rico Wojtulewicz: Broadly yes, but of course, again, it is site specific. Not every site can deliver. There will still be exemptions, and that is part of the Bill. Small sites have not been exempt, and we do not want them to be. This should be uniform across the whole industry, and we should all be trying to have an ambition. If that ambition is 10%, it is 10%, but Government and partners must do all they can to assist builders to deliver that, preferably on site rather than off site.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Before we proceed, Ms Chambers, you indicated that we would not talk about a particular clause today. In so far as we have the time you are entirely within your rights to comment on anything that is relevant.

Ruth Chambers: Thank you.

Ali Plummer: If I could just add something, there are two parts to that question. One is about maintaining the robustness of enforcement mechanisms; what we are really looking for through the independence of the OEP is maintaining that in longevity. It is not necessarily about the intent of the body as it is being set up, but making sure that it maintains that independence and robustness going forward.

I guess a watchdog and enforcement body is only as good as the law it is able to uphold, which comes to the second part of your question. There are lots of welcome provisions within this Bill that should allow us to go much further and to build on existing environmental protections, but we would be looking for much more robust reassurance that that floor—those existing protections—will remain for us to build on. The second part is making sure that we are able to secure existing environmental legislation so that the OEP can continue to uphold that.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Welcome, everyone, and thank you for coming. I just wanted to get some clarification, because there seems to be a view that in leaving Europe we are going to have lower environmental standards, but the whole point of this Bill and, indeed, the OEP is that it will enable us to have higher standards. First, we will roll over all the environmental law; we will then create our own measures, and it is quite clear to me that the Bill enables us to do so. At EU level, the Commission can issue judgments on a breach of law, but they are not legally binding on member states. Do you not think that the court order remedy in this Bill would be stronger than that?

Ruth Chambers: I would go back to my previous answer about the lack of remedies that the tribunal will have at its disposal. It is severely constrained by the clause, if you look at the small print.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q But it can ultimately issue fines if it so desires, and before that, the OEP will try to remedy any problems through discussion, advice, analysis and scrutiny. It will only go to the upper tribunal if it really needs those extra teeth, and that opportunity is there.

Ruth Chambers: We very much support your vision for how the enforcement system would work, where it is front-loaded, if you like, and the OEP acts as a strategic intervener and litigator rather than a serial nit-picker. Nobody wants a busybody poring over every single decision of every public authority; that is nobody’s vision for how this body will work.

However, at the moment when we get to the end of the process, if a public authority is found in breach of environmental law after all of the good work that the OEP will necessarily have done, what we are left with is a statement of non-compliance. It is very hard to know exactly what bite that non-compliance will have, factoring in the upper tribunal not having a very effective or strong set of deterrents. It is helpful to have your reassurance, Minister, that the tribunal will be able to impose a financial penalty if it sees fit. It would be even better to have that reassurance written into the Bill so that there is absolute clarity on it, and stakeholders and public authorities know that there is bite to this process. That will provide the deterrent that we all want, so that things are sorted out early on.

Ali Plummer: It is also worth reiterating that the ability to levy fines is really welcome, but what we are actually looking for is to either prevent environmental damage in the first place or remedy it. Although a fine is a welcome part of that, we are really looking for remedial action, or the ability to ensure that the public authorities or others are taking the actions needed to remedy the environmental damage. While a fine can provide for some of that, it is not necessarily—

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q But as I hope I made clear, that is the last step; remedy is the first step of the OEP. I hope it is very clear now that we have left the EU, and as a sovereign nation we will be responsible for setting our own environmental laws. It is then the role of Parliament to scrutinise those laws.

That leads me on to the whole issue of the targets, and what we will be scrutinising in order to improve the environment, which is the focus of the Bill. We have a triple lock within the system, and I just wanted your views on how you think that will work. We call it a triple lock because we have five-yearly improvement plans; we have annual reporting on how those five-yearly plans are going to get to the long-term targets; and we have the Office for Environmental Protection analysing all of that to drive environmental improvement. We think that is very strong, so I wondered what your views on that were.

Rebecca Newsom: The thing that I would want to say about that is that reporting and analysis are really important, but are not the same as interim targets actually having a legal force. It is a top priority from all of our perspectives to ensure that the short-term interim targets that lead towards end goals have that legal bite, so that there is absolutely no wiggle room in terms of the requirement on public authorities to ensure progress straightaway to meeting that long-term goal.

That is really important, particularly also because there is a track record for voluntary targets set by Government not being met or being abandoned—for example the 2020 target of not using peat in horticulture has not been met. Another example is that site of special scientific interest targets have also now been dropped, and they were voluntary. It is really important that we have that safeguard in the Bill, guaranteeing that the interim targets will have that force.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q To get our SSSIs, the 75% in good and favourable condition, is in our 25-year environment plan. The first phase of the Bill is the 25-year environment plan. It is called the environmental improvement plan. That is what I call the second side of the Bill. It is in the Bill. This actually provides all the levers and all the tools to do exactly what I think you all want us to do.

Rebecca Newsom: I think we are agreed to a large degree on the vision. The difference is that the environmental improvement plans are not legally binding. It is good to have a policy document, but it needs to have legal force. That is what is going to guarantee the drive forward of change in the short term.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q But targets will be the legal force; the setting of the targets is the legal duty.

Rebecca Newsom: Long-term targets definitely, but the interim targets will not have that force, as the Bill is currently set up.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q But wouldn’t you agree, on the environment, it is an ever-changing, flexible scene? That is why we have interim targets.

Rebecca Newsom: Yes, absolutely. It is really important to recognise that, in different environmental areas, change towards long-term goals, and progress towards meeting them, does not always happen in a linear way. We recognise that, but that is not an argument not to make the interim targets legally binding. It is an argument for the Government to apply some flexibility in the type of interim targets they might set.

For example, in some areas, such as bird species abundance, you could have an interim target that relates to the planting of wildflower meadows or to particular types of tree planting in certain areas, because there is that flexibility and non-linearity towards the long-term goal. In other areas—for example, pesticide pollution in rivers—it would be much easier to do an outcome-based interim target. In both cases, they need to be legally binding. The Government could apply that kind of flexibility to the type of target, without compromising on the legally binding nature of it.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you. The Minister invited you to set out your concerns, and you have done so very lucidly, if I may say so. We cannot engage too long, however, in a bilateral discussion.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Final questions or statements from the Minister.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you all for your input. I know that all your organisations have engaged previously, and it is invaluable. We have had a lot of talk today about targets. I partly get the impression that you think we should have much stricter, tighter and more defined targets set in the Bill. We will set legally binding targets in the four areas specified as well as the PM2.5. Do you feel that the intention is that we fully engage further with NGOs, the public and experts to set these targets as we go through, and potentially learn lessons from other areas where targets have been set but have not worked very well? What is your view on that, in order to help us get the right targets? Do you think that is the right way to do it?

Ali Plummer: I think they are really welcome and vital. This area of the Bill is quite sparse. The targets are difficult. We are trying to tackle some challenging and difficult issues. One of the things that we will be looking for is the welcome conversation that the Government will open with experts, practitioners on the ground and stakeholders to make sure that we are genuinely setting achievable and ambitious targets. We are setting a high level of ambition but we are also clear what we need to do in order to achieve those targets. Those two conversations need to go hand in hand. We cannot set high-level ambitious targets without having a genuine conversation about how we are going to get there. Otherwise, we will end up setting long-term targets and potentially arguing for the next 15 years about how to do it and then have to start the whole process over again.

We are looking to build some of that Government intent into the Bill. We then have certainty and clarity that not just this Government but successive Governments will continue that intent and make sure that the Bill is going in that direction—in particular, on the advisory function, making sure the Government have access to good-quality expert advice. It follows more of the model we see in the Climate Change Act 2008, where there is a “comply or explain” mechanism built in. The Government can take this expert advice, which is public, transparent and clear, and comply with it, or give a good, clear explanation why not. Those are the sorts of things we are looking for. As Ruth reiterated earlier, I think we are as one on this. We totally recognise the Government intent. We are looking for a Bill that will make sure that successive Governments hold that intent. That open dialogue, where we can all have a genuine conversation about what we need to put in place to tackle these issues, is welcome.

Rebecca Newsom: I basically fully agree with what Ali has just said. I am also grateful for the intent; it is about translating it into a robust legal framework. I would add that, alongside getting the advice functions right, it is also about the public consultation through the target-setting process. As you said, continuing this conversation through formal consultation processes is key for the ongoing target-setting framework.

Ruth Chambers: Again, I endorse what my colleagues have said. I want to say two final things. First, we are asking for some of the very good intentions and objectives that we have talked about today to be more explicit, rather than implicit, so that whether we are a business, a member of the public or a future Minister, we have that clarity going forward.

Minister, you helpfully referred to the target development process, which will not form part of this Bill but will nevertheless be an important match to it. It will happen over the next few months, and if the targets in the first tranche are to be set by 2022, although that sounds a long way away, we all know from the way Governments work that it is actually not that far. The sooner that process can start in earnest and the sooner there can be clarity about how stakeholders can be involved, how we can feed in and when the consultation is going to be, the better, so we can make sure that we play a full and meaningful part in that.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you very much indeed. I think that brings the proceedings fairly neatly to a conclusion. As I have said to everybody else and will say to you, earlier this morning the Committee passed a resolution agreeing to accept written submissions. If there is anything that you feel you missed out or wish you had said, please put it in writing and let the Committee have it, and it will be taken into account.

Ms Chambers, Ms Newsom and Ms Plummer, thank you very much indeed, both for your patience and for the information you have given to the Committee. We are all grateful to you, and look forward to a successful resolution.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Leo Docherty.)

Environment Bill (Fourth sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Committee stage & Committee Debate: 4th sitting: House of Commons
Thursday 12th March 2020

(4 years, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Environment Act 2021 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 12 March 2020 - (12 Mar 2020)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Environment Act 2021 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Caroline Ansell Portrait Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

You should chip in!

Dr Benwell: Thank you; I could do a little list now.

On biodiversity, we would have species abundance, species diversity and extinction risk. On habitat, you would have habitat extent and quality. On waste and resources, you would have resource productivity and waste minimisation. On air quality, you would have SOx, NOx—sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides—ozone and ammonia. And on water, you would have biological quality, chemical status and abstraction. There is a great set there, but some of those exist in law at the moment, so we do not need them now. What we do need is a framework that will ensure that when they come and go, future Governments have to fill that gap.

There are several ways to do that. You have heard about the options in relation to an overarching objective that could be a touchpoint for setting targets. You could simply list those targets in the Bill and say that they all have to exist somewhere in law. Alternatively, you could look at the significant environmental improvement test in clause 6 and make it clear that it needs to achieve significant improvement for the environment as a system—not just in the individual areas listed, but across the whole natural environment. That is so we know that we will have a strong set of targets now and in the future.

I will be briefer on the next points, but that was point one. Point two would be about ensuring that action actually happens. The environmental improvement plans should link to targets. There should be a requirement for environmental improvement plans to be capable of meeting targets and for the Government to take the steps in those plans. And the interim targets to get you there should be legally binding.

Point three—I promised I would be faster—is about the Office for Environmental Protection and ensuring that it has the independence and powers to hold the Government to account on delivery.

I have just remembered one thing missing from the Bill, in response to Dr Whitehead’s first question: the global footprint of our consumption and impacts here in the UK. Adding a priority area for our global footprint and a due diligence requirement on business would be a really remarkable step, again, to show our leadership around the world.

George Monbiot: All I would add to that brilliant and comprehensive review is that there has been an extraordinary failure on monitoring and enforcement of existing environmental law in this country. We see that with Environment Agency prosecutions and follow-ups, and similarly with Natural England.

You can have excellent laws in statute, but if the resources and the will to enforce are not there, they might as well not exist. At every possible opportunity in the Bill, we need to nail that down and say, “That money will be there, and those powers will be used.” That is particularly the case with OEP, but it also applies to the existing statutory agencies.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con)
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Q Thank you so much for coming in. How lovely to have some enthusiasm! I will build on that enthusiasm for a second. I know there are probably lots of things that people think ought to be tweaked. Overall, can you sum up what you think the opportunities from this Bill will present to us?

Given that we have left the EU, I personally see this being a much more holistic system. I would like your views on that. You might also touch not only on the opportunities for improving the overall environment, but how this will touch on our society and business; we have to bring those people along with us.

George Monbiot: I think there is a fantastic opportunity in clause 93, which inserts the words “and enhance biodiversity”. That is something we can really start to build on. We find ourselves 189th out of 216 countries in terms of the intactness of our ecosystems. We have seen a catastrophic collapse in wildlife diversity and abundance, yet for far too long our conservation mindset has been, “Let’s just protect what we have”, rather than, “Let’s think about what we ought to have.” I would love to see that built on.

We can further the general biodiversity objective by saying, “Let’s start bringing back missing habitats and species to the greatest extent possible,” with the reintroduction of keystone species, many of which we do not have at all in this country, others of which we have in tiny pockets in a few parts of the country, but we could do with having far more of.

We could re-establish ecosystems that might in some places be missing altogether, such as rainforests in the west of the country; the western uplands of the country would have been almost entirely covered in temperate rainforest, defined by the presence of epiphytes—plants that grow on the branches of the trees. There are only the tiniest pockets left, such as Wistman’s wood on Dartmoor or Horner wood on Exmoor. Those are stunning, remarkable and extraordinary places, but they are pocket handkerchiefs. They would have covered very large tracts.

We need to use this wonderful enhancement opportunity, which the Bill gives us. There is a lot to build on in clause 93. We can say, “Okay, let’s start thinking big and look at how we could expand that to a restoration duty and, hopefully, a reintroduction and re-establishment duty.” That harks back to clause 16, where we have five very good environmental principles; I think they have been introduced from international best practice. But perhaps we could add one more to those, which would be the restoration of damaged or missing habitats and ecosystems and the re-establishment of nationally extinct native species. We will then not only be firefighting with the Bill, but looking forward to a better world, rather than a less bad one than we might otherwise have had.

Dr Benwell: That is a lovely way to put it: starting to think about restoration and improvement, rather than clinging on to what we are missing. That is the opportunity provided by the Bill.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q It does say “significantly improved”. That is the purpose of the Bill.

Dr Benwell: I am with you. I am saying that is a very good thing. Ensuring that we do that at a systemic level rather than improving one or two cherry-picked areas is something that we need to lock down in the targets framework.

You are right: the approach of doing things in a holistic manner, rather than just choosing one or two favourite options, is so important. It is the core insight of such a broad swathe of environmental thinking, from James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, on the one hand, to Dieter Helm’s theory of natural capital on the other. The common insight is that the environment has to operate as a system. If you choose one thing to focus on, you end up causing more problems than you solve. Think of tree planting. When that is the only, myopic target, we end up planting trees on peatlands and making things worse, or doing what was proposed the other week: planting trees on beautiful, wildflower meadowland. You have to think about the system. That is the promise here.

There are two other big opportunities, if you are asking where we could get excited about with the Bill. We need to think about the benefits of the environment for human health. If we could get a handle on the World Health Organisation target regarding the 40,000 premature deaths from air pollution a year, and demonstrate to the Government that there are wide-ranging benefits from environmental improvement, that would be thrilling.

On the business point, it is such a cliché but it remains true that what businesses really want is certainty. In the natural environment sector, they have never had anything more than fluffy aspiration. So many environmental policies of the past have said, “Ooh, we’ll do nice things for nature and we might see some improvement.” If we nail it down with a strong set of legally binding targets, businesses will know that they need to start changing their practices and investing money, and we will see some change on the ground.

There are lots of particular provisions in the Bill that could work well for businesses, such as net gain—at the moment, it is a patchwork from local authority to local authority, but we can standardise that now—and local nature recovery strategies, where we will know about targeting business investment in the future. There are big opportunities. We just need to tighten up those few provisions.

George Monbiot: To pick up on Richard’s second point about health and connectedness, almost all Governments have always agreed that outdoor education is really positive, yet nobody funds it. There is a massive loss of contact between schoolchildren and the living world, and I hope the Bill might be an opportunity to put that right. That is another thing that I would add to the shopping list.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you very much, gentlemen. The 25-year plan is being enacted through the Bill, and the plan does touch on the area that you mention, but thank you.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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Q I will ask two questions that I put to previous witnesses. The first is about clause 18, and the exemptions for the armed forces, defence or national security, and for taxation, spending or the allocation of resources within Government, and whether you think that is appropriate. I have been doing some work on munitions dumps around the UK coast. I have also called for environmental audits to be done of the Ministry of Defence’s activities—for example, on land and sea—so I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on that.

On clause 20, and the requirement in the Bill for the Secretary of State to report on international environmental protection legislation every two years, do you think it might be more appropriate for the OEP to do that, and to decide what international legislation is really important, rather than the Secretary of State?

Dr Benwell: On the exemptions from the principles policy statement, it is important to think about the weaknesses in that section as a whole. It is unfortunate that the legal duty attached to the principles is to have due regard to a principles policy statement, rather than some sort of direct duty on the principles themselves. I am hopeful that the principles policy statement, when it comes out, will do some beneficial things, if it reaches into all Government Departments and sets a clear process for the way the principles should be considered. I hope that the Department will be able to share its thinking on the principles policy statement as we go. Engagement has been very good, on the whole, with the Bill, but it would really help to see that principles policy statement in public.

The exemptions are very wide-ranging. It perhaps makes sense for certain activities of national security to be exempt. However, there is no reason to exempt Ministry of Defence land, for example, which includes areas of extremely important biodiversity. In fact, that is probably one area where we will see net gain credits generated on public land under the net gain clause, so it is strange that that is exempt.

Perhaps the weirdest exemption is the one that essentially takes out everything to do with the Treasury. When we are thinking about things like the principle of “the provider is paid and the polluter pays”, it is very strange that nothing to do with taxation or spending will be considered in the principles policy statement.

As for clause 20, I think you could do both. It would be perfectly possible for the Government and the OEP to consider international examples, and I think it would be very useful to benchmark both primary legislation and secondary legislation, in terms of non-regression. The Bill as a whole can make sure that we never have to rely on that if it is strong enough and brave enough.

--- Later in debate ---
Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Those are excellent succinct responses. The circular economy directive already exists, but we are not now bound by it, as we are not an EU member. Do the measures in the Bill reflect the UK moving on from that directive—capturing what is in it and moving ahead of it? Are there things that could be done in the Bill to ensure that that happens?

Libby Peake: The Government have said that they are going adopt the measures in the circular economy package, but we have not determined yet whether we are going to exactly match what the EU does in future. Yesterday, the EU published a circular economy action plan, which we will not be bound by. It is really welcome that the Government have said on multiple occasions that they want to at least meet, and preferably exceed, what the EU does, but there are some ways in which the document that was released yesterday is potentially more ambitious than the measures laid out here.

One of the things in that document is that the EU is planning to regulate and tax single use and planned obsolescence, and it is not focused specifically on plastics. If the UK wants to get a jump on the EU, there is an opportunity to do that by simply changing the language in the Bill so that we are tackling single use, rather than just single-use plastics.

Richard McIlwain: I agree that the EU has already talked about an ambition, even by 2030, to halve waste produced. That is very ambitious, granted, by 2030, but that is the level of ambition it is looking at.

As is always the case with enabling legislation, primary Acts, the devil will be in the detail of the statutory instruments, but there may well be some framing to do in the Bill to set the level of ambition about where we are ultimately trying to get to on the materials we consume, the amount we recycle, and the amount of waste we produce.

Even in the circular economy package, there are some targets that have been talked about in the resources and waste strategy, such as 65% household waste recycling. We are currently bumping around 45%, so we have some way to go, but Wales is up above 70%. Perhaps we should be looking across at Wales as a leader, as much as we look to the EU.

Libby Peake: An earlier leaked version of the circular economy action plan that was released yesterday included a much more ambitious target, which was to halve resource use—not just halve residual waste. That did not make it into the final version, but it would have been revolutionary. It was widely applauded by the environment sector. It has not made it into the EU legislation, but that does not mean that the UK cannot aim for that and up its ambition. That is certainly something that we would like to see in the targets.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q On that point, one of the ideas is that we can do our own thing on our environmental targets. We do not have to do what Europe says, and potentially our targets could be better.

Yesterday, we had some business interests explaining how the measures in the Bill would help them change the design of their products so that they are more reusable and recyclable, longer lasting and so forth. What are your views on measures in the Bill that would help consumers to take more considered actions towards reducing waste and recycling? I am thinking particularly about the requirement for local authorities to be more consistent in their waste collections.

Libby Peake: I would say that, in terms of recycling collections, a lot of the things that the Government have proposed will certainly correct some of the long-standing shortcomings of the system we have had in the UK. We have a postcode lottery, because people do not necessarily know what can be recycled and it is quite confusing.

In terms of getting people to feel responsible for their decisions and the materials they create, the main mechanism in the Bill that does that is the deposit return scheme, because that is the one thing that will indicate to people that the material they have actually has a value; it is not just a waste material that you need the council to take away. We would certainly encourage the Government to come forward as quickly as possible with plans for an all-in deposit scheme that can encourage such thinking.

Richard McIlwain: I completely agree. There has been an awful lot of focus over the last few years on how we incentivise business to do the right thing. Often, that is about economics and the bottom line, and we sometimes forget that that is equally important for the citizen. We often come up with campaigns and ways to raise awareness—they involve pictures of dolphins and whales—and we appeal to people’s sense of morality rather than making it cheaper for them to do the right thing.

Libby mentioned a deposit return scheme, which works brilliantly in over 40 countries and regions around the world. We should absolutely be doing that on time, by 2023; we should not be delaying. Charges on single-use items, not just single-use plastics, is another economic nudge for people. On recycling, there are twin sides of the coin. We need to extend producer responsibility and simplify the types of packaging material, which will hopefully all be recyclable. On the other hand, having a harmonised collection system that allows people to collect those at home will make a big difference.

One further step that could ultimately be considered is whether you could place an economic incentive in the home through a scheme such as “save as you recycle”. Once you have harmonised people’s collection systems, you would make waste a separate chargeable service, so people pay for what they have taken away—in the same way that, if you are on a water meter, you pay for what you use. That would really focus minds. There is a real relationship between the producer’s responsibility and the citizen’s responsibility, but we need to incentivise both—not just business.

Libby Peake: That is a logical extension of the “polluter pays” principle. It is great that that is part of the Bill and that part of Government thinking is that the polluter must pay. At the moment, however, you are tackling only one side: the producers. People’s decisions produce waste as well, and not having “save as you recycle” variable charging, or what is traditionally called “pay as you throw”, puts people off a bit. Not having that does not necessarily carry through the logic of producer responsibility and “polluter pays”.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I have a quickfire question. We have our resources and waste strategy, which sets our long-term targets for reducing waste and for sending zero biodegradables to landfill by 2030. Overall, do you see the measures in the waste and resources section of the Bill, which is large, as a big step forward in putting all this together?

Libby Peake: I think it is a really big step forward in sorting out the long-standing problems of the recycling system. It is not yet clear how it will deliver the Government’s commitments and aspirations on waste reduction and resource use reduction. In a way, it is slightly unfortunate—not that I would want to the delay the Bill—that this has come out before the waste prevention plan update, which was due last year and which I understand will be consulted on soon. Hopefully, that will set out some more ambitious policies for how resource use and waste will be minimised before we get to recycling.

Richard McIlwain: That is a fair point. Absolutely, from a Keep Britain Tidy perspective, we welcome the measures in the Bill. The extended producer responsibility, DRS and charging for single-use items—we hope it is not just single-use plastic items—are big steps forward. As Libby says, in terms of extended producer responsibility, it talks about promoting not just recycling but refill. You would hope that the modulated sums applied to each piece of packaging would be far less if an item can be refilled or reused rather than simply recycled.

There does not seem to be much in there in terms of how we reduce our material footprint overall and how we reduce our waste overall. That is probably an area that we need to consider.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I want to ask about the targets timeframe. In the Bill, the targets do not have to be met until 2037. Does that date reflect the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in?

Richard McIlwain: In a word, no.

--- Later in debate ---
Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q On the subject of protected articles, I share your view: I am somewhat mystified as to how those have landed on the Bill in this way, and about what is protected and what is not. Are there particular areas that you consider ought to be in the Bill as protected articles, in addition to the ones that we have at the moment, and are there any ways in which you think the protection element of REACH regulations—securing proper standards, inter-trading of chemicals and so on—might be better reflected in the Bill, or do you think the protected articles that there are at the moment fulfil that requirement?

Dr Warhurst: On the protected articles, REACH is a huge piece of legislation. You could decide to protect everything, but that might cause some problems. One of the things we particularly noticed is that article 33 of REACH is about consumers’ right to know about the most hazardous chemicals in the product, and article 34 is an obligation on the supply chain to report problems with chemicals up the chain. Those would certainly be added to what we would view as protected.

However, it goes beyond that; as you said, it is about the level of protection for the public. The problem with chemicals regulation is that we are dealing with tens of thousands of chemicals in millions of different products. It is a very complex area, and it has been very challenging over the decades as Governments and regions have tried to control them. EU REACH is the most sophisticated system in the world, but it still has a huge amount of work to do. There are a lot of chemicals to be got through, because when one chemical gets restricted, the industry moves to a very similar one. Our worry is that some of the decisions around that require huge amounts of work and data, and are subject to legal challenge by industry. We do not see any way in which the UK can replicate that system. In many ways, it would be more straightforward—although possibly not in terms of legal challenge—to be more focused on following what the EU does, rather than trying to create another system that to some extent may be a bit of a hollow shell, because there is not the resource to really control new chemicals.

Bud Hudspith: I pretty much agree with that. I do not think I need to add much to it.

Nishma Patel: Again, this comes back to the process and detail behind the Secretary of State being able to consult, who the consultation is with, and how it would take place. One point to consider is that anything that would be changed under UK REACH overall—any article—would have tso be in line with article 1 of REACH, which is about providing the highest standard of environmental protection to consumers, as well as reducing testing where possible. It is not about the principle of “Is there a possibility for the regulations to digress, because a justification needs to be provided?” It is about how that will be consulted on, and how that information will inform policy making in the UK through various stakeholders.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you very much for coming in to talk to us. Obviously, exiting the EU provides us with opportunities for industry, such as integrating the most current scientific knowledge into the decisions we make concerning chemicals. In the Bill, we have the flexibility to amend REACH while retaining its aims and principles; I just wondered whether you could summarise what you thought the right balance was.

Nishma Patel: From an industry perspective, if we look at the trade of chemicals leaving and coming back to the UK, 50% of our trade goes to the European Union and 75% comes to the UK. To work from two pieces of legislation, which go in the same direction, communicate with each other and co-operate, makes sense from a commercial perspective, as it does from an environmental perspective.

The opportunities are there, in terms of doing something differently or making amendments. As it stands, however, we see that the need to stay close to the European chemicals regulations far outweighs the opportunities.

Bud Hudspith: I think we are coming from a similar position. We start from the basis that alignment is one of the most important things. We have interesting problems. We have members in the south of Ireland as well as in the rest of the UK. It would be pretty unacceptable to us if there were different protections, in terms of chemicals, for those two groups of people. That extends from a broader view across the whole of Europe among people at work.

I would agree with Nishma that alignment is most important. We accept that in theory there could be improvement made through the UK position, but I suppose I am a bit cynical about whether that is likely to happen. Therefore, we would be supportive of—I think an amendment was proposed—making it clear that the Minister needs to improve on what is there. Clearly, however, consultation about what we believe is an improvement and what is not is quite important, because an improvement to someone may not be seen by others as an improvement.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q So do you welcome the requirement in schedule 5 for consultation?

Bud Hudspith: Yes, we welcome that. That was the point made before. Parts of it are fairly vague and we would like it to be much clearer as to who should be involved. There should be clear consultation with the chemical industry—the people who work in the chemical industry and the people who represent them.

Dr Warhurst: The principles sound good, but the point of principles is how they are interpreted—not just the political decisions about interpretation, but these capacity issues. The problem we see is that it is very difficult for the UK to be in a position, even if it wanted to, to go ahead of the EU, which we have not seen as very likely. In parallel areas, such as chemicals and food contact materials, where the UK could have gone ahead of the EU, it has not, even though countries such as Germany, Belgium and France have.

I will give a practical example. Perfluorinated chemicals are in all our bodies. They are in our blood. They were talked about in a recent film, “Dark Waters”. They are in food packaging, ski wax and textiles. The EU is proposing to do a general restriction on these chemicals for non-essential users. This is thousands of chemicals. That will be a huge job for the 600-person ECHA and member states around the EU. There will be challenges from industry. We know that Chemours is already challenging a decision on one of the chemicals in the group.

We do not see it as credible that a UK-only agency, which will have to spend a lot of time just administering the registration system that is set up or the applications for authorisation, will really have the potential to copy that. But we would obviously like the Government to make a commitment that they will follow this and ban these chemicals.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I want to pursue the question about whether we would be better off in or out of REACH. Do you think there are concerns that the new regime would not provide the same level of consumer environmental protection? There is a particular issue about keeping pace with changes in the EU and whether our standards would fall below it. Do you have concerns?

Bud Hudspith: I would follow on from Michael’s point. We have concerns about the resources available to the Health and Safety Executive and the technical ability of people in the HSE to mirror what has gone in the European Chemicals Agency, its size and extent, and the amount of work that has gone on over many years to get to the position that it is in now.

It seems as though we will be in a situation where we will start again from scratch. Even if we achieve what has been achieved in ECHA, it will take us many years to get there. We are worried, especially about that intervening period. Where will we be? I do a lot of work with the HSE, and I am aware of the kind of pressures it is under. It is easy to say that the HSE will do this, or that the HSE will do other things, but unless it is given the resources and people to do that, it is words rather than action.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Before anybody answers, I neglected to ask people to introduce themselves, so would you perhaps make up for my deficiency by introducing yourselves as you go along?

Lloyd Austin: We are all looking at each other to see who goes first. My name is Lloyd Austin. I am an honorary fellow of Scottish Environment LINK and convener of Scottish Environment LINK’s governance group.

My answer to the question is that it depends. Different parts of the Bill work in different ways. It is clear that environment has been devolved for the whole time. Lots of environmental regulations and, as you say, practices differ between the Administrations already, and they will continue to do so. On the other hand, there is also a need, as you rightly say, for proper co-ordination, co-operation and joint working, so we would encourage all those things. In a way, it is not for us to comment on whether the devolution settlement or any other constitutional arrangement is right or wrong; we simply try to encourage the Administrations, in whatever arrangement there is, to try to achieve the best environmental outcome.

There are different ways of doing that for different things in the Bill. On the EU environmental principles, we have a question mark about how they are applied in Scotland and Wales in relation to reserved matters; that seems to be a gap in the Bill. We understand that the Scottish Government are bringing forward their own legislation in relation to the EU environmental principles, which will apply, obviously, to devolved matters. That is positive and welcome, but we would encourage the Administrations to work together to try to agree some form of statement about how those principles, which are the same at the moment because they are in the Lisbon treaty and therefore apply to all Administrations, will operate coherently across the piece and how they will replicate, in a sense, the way they work at the moment. We believe there are discussions between the Administrations about that at the moment, but it would be useful to stakeholders for such a thing to be consulted on before the different bits of legislation get finished off.

John Bynorth: I am John Bynorth, policy communications officer at Environmental Protection Scotland. Certainly, devolution is one of the main challenges facing the UK legislation that is coming in. It is important to ensure that standards are common between the different countries. There is no point having one set of standards in England and not having the same standards in Scotland. Ministers and civil servants in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Northern Ireland should talk to each other to ensure consistency, so we do not end up with two different types of air quality policy, for example, which could be quite damaging, and just in general, as Lloyd said, in respect of environmental standards.

The SNP Government launched their environmental strategy for Scotland last month. They have made it very clear that they will retain or even try to exceed the EU standards that we have just left behind by leaving Brussels. They have been a lot clearer on that. We do not see so much of that in the UK Environment Bill. Those are important distinctions. On the clampdown on domestic burning—the sale of solid wood fuels and wet wood—you cannot have two different policies in England and Scotland, for example, because somebody would just sell something across the border that was illegal in England. We need to have a look at things like that and to ensure that people are talking to each other and that the links we have are maintained.

Alison McNab: I am Alison McNab. I am a policy executive with the Law Society of Scotland. We are the professional body for solicitors in Scotland and have an interest not only in representing our own members but in acting in the public interest.

Your question raises an interesting point. It is important, of course, to bear in mind that deviation is a natural consequence of devolution. Equally, I agree with the comments by both Lloyd and John that there is merit in consistency and coherence in the approach. We know that, in attempting to avoid regulatory tourism, there are aspects where Scotland may be said to be slightly ahead. In Scotland, we have seen regulations on the introduction of a deposit and return scheme.

In terms of the Bill, Lloyd made a point about the environmental principles, and how reserved functions of UK Ministers in Scotland will be dealt with. We anticipate Scottish legislation in the coming weeks. That may give some clarity around that. There may be opportunities where the consistency of the work of the Office for Environmental Protection can be strengthened. There are provisions in clause 24 of the Bill about a requirement for the OEP to consult, and an exemption from the restriction on disclosing information in clause 40. There is potential scope for strengthening those provisions.

In relation to everything else in the Bill and common frameworks around environmental matters more generally, the extent to which consistency is sought is somewhat of a political matter for the Joint Ministerial Committee to give consideration to. At the moment, it appears clear that there is a desire to achieve consistency on at least a number of environmental matters.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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Q Thank you for coming. We have had extensive consultation already with all the devolved Administrations, which you welcome. Each of the areas is choosing to opt in or out of different parts of the Bill. The Scottish Government have opted in to some areas. How do you think being part of the Bill would benefit citizens of Scotland?

John Bynorth: Obviously, there are different laws in Scotland, particularly regarding regulation. They should definitely work more closely together, liaising between the Office for Environmental Protection and the body that has just been announced by the Cabinet Secretary for Environment in Scotland, Roseanna Cunningham, which will be set up as a similar sort of regulatory and enforcement body. It will be good to have the two talking to each other, so they can learn from each other’s experiences. We should not have two distinct bodies that do not pick up the phone and talk to each other between Edinburgh and Bristol, or wherever the OEP will be based. We can see closer co-operation between the two, just to ensure that the whole of the UK is covered.

Things such as air pollution do not respect boundaries—it is a bit like the coronavirus, except it does not even respect inequality: it affects the poorest and those with underlying health conditions more than anyone else. Anything that is learned or being put into place by the UK Government should be taken up by the Scottish Government and vice versa, because they are doing a lot of work to improve air quality through air quality management areas. There are 38 in Scotland; they are introducing four low emission zones for the main cities in Scotland, to reduce the amount of transport pollution.

I see a lot of opportunities there. Politics should not come into it; whether there is an SNP Government, or a Conservative Government here, should be disregarded, because air pollution and the environment affect people’s health. We are talking about it more from an air quality perspective. There are other views as well.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Potentially, water would be the same.

Lloyd Austin: First of all, I agree with John about the need for the OEP and the Scottish body, whatever it is called, to have stronger powers and duties to co-operate and liaise. If a citizen of Scotland wishes to raise an issue and they go to the wrong body, it is very important that that body is able to pass on their complaint or concern. That relates to my earlier point about reserved matters. It is obvious that the citizens of Scotland will look to the UK Government and the Bill to address any reserved matters that fall within the definition of environmental law under the Bill.

It is not for us to say whether a matter should or should not be reserved. We would like what is reserved to be more transparent. There are quite a lot of discussions about which areas of environmental law are reserved. That is not very clear to citizens at this stage. The OEP will be responsible for reserved matters under the Bill as drafted, but as I indicated there is a lack of clarity about the application of the principles to them. The Committee might want to look at that, to see whether that gap could be filled.

As was commented on earlier, devolution leads to differences. There were differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK before devolution, when we had the Scottish Office and administrative devolution, and that has continued. From an environmental point of view, we would like those differences to lead to a race to the top rather than a race to the bottom. The more that each of the Administrations can lead the way and encourage others to follow suit, the better.

For instance, you indicated, Minister, that the Scottish Government have opted in to some and not other parts of the Bill. I think that is fine. It is very welcome that they are moving faster on a deposit return scheme. On the other hand, it looks as though there is agreement on extended producer responsibility, and all Administrations will move together. I hope that the race to the top will encourage all Administrations to move faster. The fact that the Scottish Government have moved faster and further on a deposit return scheme will encourage the other three, and vice versa. In relation to England, the Bill does some very positive things regarding biodiversity and the recovery of nature, and the setting of targets. I would argue that the Scottish Government could learn from that and then go beyond it.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I am sure we will learn some lessons from watching your deposit return scheme. That will prove useful.

Alison McNab: I echo the comments made by Lloyd in relation to the OEP. I suppose the key thing is that the benefit to consumers may come in clarity on who is dealing with what, where they seek assistance, where they take complaints, and so on. It is important that the law is clear and that people are able to guide their conduct based on a clear understanding. That will be important to achieve in the context of the Bill and all that comes from its enabling provisions in particular.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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Q Will you welcome as much alignment as possible through your version of the OEP? We have made it clear who comes under that and where people go to report. Would you like to see a similar body?

Alison McNab: What is important is that whatever is set up can work well alongside the OEP. Perhaps there is scope for strengthening provisions in the Bill for the OEP to work alongside bodies in the devolved Administrations to ensure good working relationships, consistency, the sharing of information, and so on.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Good afternoon, and thank you for coming down. The Bill leaves a number of things out of its scope, including tax and spend and allocation of resources by the Treasury, and MOD activities, among others. Do you think that is a sensible way to go about things? Perhaps I should not say sensible. What are your thoughts on those exemptions?

Lloyd Austin: From the point of view of environmental NGOs, we agree. Greener UK colleagues made this clear earlier in the week, and we support those comments. The definition of environmental law is perhaps too narrow. We are interested in policies and measures that have an impact on the environment, because we are interested in environmental outcomes and achieving good environmental objectives. That is the key thing. If any policy or piece of legislation has an effect, whether good or bad—many things are good, and many may not be so good—it should come under the remit or gamut of somebody considering the impact on the environment. Therefore, the definition should be as broad as possible.

In reality, we accept that there will be exceptions. Those exceptions should be based not on the kind of broadbrush things indicated, but on a degree of justification for why—reasons of national security or whatever—the environmental issue has to be overwritten. Nobody thinks the environment will always trump everything but, on the other hand, where the environment is trumped, there should be a good reason, and that reason should be transparent to citizens.

John Bynorth: The question of exemptions may be for the military. I understand that they currently apply the principles of environmental law, but why should they be exempt? They use a huge amount of machinery and there are air quality issues there. It seems that the Secretaries of State will have the final decision on which targets are implemented, so there are concerns about that. It is a bit arbitrary and unjustified that the military, for example, should not be subject to the same conditions as everyone else.

Alison McNab: Without touching on the specific exemptions, it strikes me that there may be scope for greater specification within the Bill about what the exemptions are to be. If memory serves me correctly, when the Bill was consulted on at draft stage in late 2018 and early 2019, there was an additional exemption around anything else that the Secretary of State considered should be exempt. We have come some way from that view. There may also be greater scope for scrutiny within the Bill on the exemptions, which the Committee may wish to consider strengthening. Essentially, there are opportunities for more specification and more scrutiny.

--- Later in debate ---
Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q It is getting quite complicated, isn’t it? I know that you cannot speak for Northern Ireland or for Wales but, as far as you can answer this, are you aware that there has been strong collaboration so far between interested bodies and the Government on the Bill? If you are, do you think that has been working well so far? How effectively do you think co-operation on nature recovery networks might be?

Lloyd Austin: We cannot really answer in terms of co-operation between the Governments; we are not the Governments. We speak to all four Governments, and sometimes we hear signs of good co-operation and sometimes we hear signs of challenges—shall I put it that way?—whereby different Governments give us different indications of the nature of the discussion.

One thing that I am certainly aware of is that through our Greener UK and Environment Links UK network, there is good co-operation between the NGOs across all four countries. I am speaking as the co-chair of the Greener UK devolution group as well; that is how I am familiar with some of the work going on in Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as Scotland. There are examples of good co-operation; equally, there are challenges.

In relation to nature recovery, one of the key challenges is that the Bill requires the Secretary of State to set a target on biodiversity, and it is unclear whether that is for England or the UK. If it is for the latter, what will be the role of the devolved Administrations in delivering that target? Will they agree the UK target, and what proportion of it would be for England and would be delivered by the English nature recovery network? There is scope for greater thinking and clarity on how the Administrations might agree some kind of high-level objective, to which each of their individual targets and recovery processes would contribute.

Perhaps as a precedent, I would point you to a document that all four Governments agreed prior to passing separate marine legislation back in 2005 or 2006. The four Governments all signed a document on the high-level objectives for the marine environment. Subsequently, the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 was passed by this Parliament, the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 was passed by the Scottish Parliament and the Marine Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, each piece of legislation contributed to the agreed high-level objectives document.

It would be beneficial to environmental outcomes if the four Governments could sign up to similarly generic, high-level environmental objectives. It would not involve one Government telling another what to do; the document would be mutually agreed in the same way as the one on marine legislation. The Secretary of State’s targets would indicate what the English contribution to those high-level objectives would be, and Scottish Ministers would have their own process for the Scottish contribution—likewise for Wales and Northern Ireland.

John Bynorth: Anecdotally, I hear that the Scottish Government and civil servants talk quite regularly to DEFRA and other UK organisations—it would be stupid not to.

On air quality, we have two different strategies. The UK Government have the clean air strategy and Scotland has the “Cleaner Air for Scotland” strategy, which is currently subject to a review and will be refreshed and republished later this year. Within that, you have different sources of air pollution. The Scottish Government will be talking to DEFRA and there are continuous conversations, particularly about indoor air quality. Whether you are in Scotland or England, that does not change. Having different types of properties might affect indoor air quality, but it is fundamentally a national issue.

There is concern at the moment about the rise in ammonia from agriculture, particularly in Scotland. That is an issue where they will learn from what is happening down south with DEFRA. It is not just DEFRA; even though we have now left the EU, we should not shut the door. We have to keep the door open to the EU. There is a lot of really good work going on in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe that we can learn from. We need to keep the door open, although we have now gone and cannot do anything about that. Just keep the door open and learn from it.

There is close working, but it could always be better. Hopefully, the Environment Bill will improve that, as will Scotland’s environment strategy. We need to keep those conversations going.

Alison McNab: I do not have much to add to the comments that have been made already. There are perhaps two things that strike me, one of which relates to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee—perhaps there is a role there. It demonstrates quite good collaboration across the UK.

Looking a bit more widely, Lloyd touched on marine issues as an example. The joint fisheries statement set up in the Fisheries Bill has the four agencies—the Secretary of State and the devolved Administrations—coming together to talk about how they will achieve the objectives. That perhaps presents quite a good model for thinking further about other things in the environmental field.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I found this really interesting, actually. My general observation is that you are very keen on close co-operation, which is clearly something that this Government are very keen on, because there are no boundaries in the environment—in the air, as you have clearly explained, and water and all of those things. Would I be right in surmising that you would like as close co-operation as possible?

Lloyd Austin: You would be right, as long as it is co-operation. It is not for us to say where the boundaries of devolution or other constitutional arrangements should be.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No, I understand that.

Lloyd Austin: The marine examples that I quoted and the fisheries examples that Alison quoted are areas where things are mutually agreed, and as I tried to say earlier, that applies beyond the UK as well as within it.

As John indicated, we should not forget our European partners, both those within the EU and those such as Norway, the Faroes and Iceland to our north that are not in the EU, but interestingly are all in the European Environment Agency. In terms of data collation, data reporting and environmental science, we would very much like to see some continued association with that agency, which goes well beyond the EU members. Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Turkey, Belarus and lots of countries like that are partners in the EEA, engaging in simple sharing and publication of environmental data. It seems very short-sighted to pull out of the EEA when it has nothing to do with EU membership, so that is another form of co-operation that we would promote.

John Bynorth: Being in the EEA would be very good from an information and data sharing point of view, and for maintaining consistency of standards, so I definitely agree with that and support it. I go to a lot of conferences south of the border, just to find out what is going on down there regarding air quality and other environmental issues. Everyone is talking about similar things: transport emissions in urban areas, domestic burning—how we deal with wood-burning stoves and the problems they are causing with air quality—agriculture and industrial emissions. Those are all common issues, and there are nuances about the way you deal with them, but we can all learn from each other.

The Scottish Government might not be doing things right all the time, and the UK Government might not be doing things right. We should come together regularly to discuss these things and find out how we can improve and work together. We are still part of the UK, and it is very important that we do that.

Alison McNab: Strong collaboration between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations is essential. You have highlighted the transboundary effects of the environment, which are well recognised. Back in 2017, the Cabinet Office published a list of areas where EU law intersects with devolved powers. The revised list, which is from April of last year, highlights 21 remaining areas in which it is hoped that legislative common frameworks will be achieved. Seven of those 21 relate to environmental matters, so it is going to be crucial for there to be good collaboration between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations to achieve the desired aims regarding those matters.

Marco Longhi Portrait Marco Longhi
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Given what you know about the OEP’s governance framework and the concerns you have highlighted about divergence and risks—race to the bottom and that type of thing—I am trying to gauge what importance you would place on there being a structure in the devolved Administrations equivalent to the OEP here in England.

Lloyd Austin: From my point of view, I would say it is very important that the governance gap, as we called it soon after the referendum result, applies everywhere in the UK, and it should be filled everywhere in the UK, whether that is for devolved or reserved matters. We very much welcome the recent announcement by the Scottish Government that they will be establishing some form of body. We are yet to see the detail; we understand that detail will be published later this month. We are less clear on the proposal for Wales. Of course, this Bill addresses Northern Ireland in schedule 2. Wales is the area that still has the biggest question mark, but we would want the Scottish body to be as good as or better than the OEP.

John Bynorth: I would totally back that up. The Scottish Government’s environment strategy, which has only just been published, says that there will be robust governance to implement and enforce laws for their equivalent body. We do not know the detail of that—who will be leading it, and what sort of people will be on it and how they will be appointed, but it has got to be totally independent. You cannot have a body for the rest of the UK that has a different standard; they have to have the same standard and the same quality of people involved, and the same toughness to really crack down on people and organisations that breach the law. Our job as an independent and impartial organisation is to ensure that they are held to account on that, so once it is published and we know more details, we will be able to push on that.

I certainly think that having a strong figurehead for the two organisations is important—the OEP and whatever it will be called in Scotland. Personally, I think John Gummer, Lord Deben, does a brilliant job at the Committee on Climate Change. He has vast experience as a former Environment Minister, right at the top level of the UK Government. You need figures like that, who are also independent of politicians, so they can actually make decisions. Those sort of people inspire others to come on board. You need a strong staff who will stand up to organisations that flout the law—they have got to be very strong. It is up to us to ensure that whatever the Scottish Government produce is to that sort of standard. Hopefully, organisations similar to us down here will do the same with the OEP.

Alison McNab: I agree with the comments that have been made. It is clear that there is going to be a governance gap once we reach the end of the transition period, and it is important that there are provisions put in place to mitigate that. Whether that is done by way of a single body, as in the OEP, or by different bodies taking different roles, is a matter up for grabs. The Scottish Government have announced their intention to have a single body, which we presume will be similar to the OEP. I think what will be crucial is the way that those bodies work in terms of how they set their strategy. The OEP requirement to consult on the strategy is a good thing and will enable stakeholders to contribute to devising how that body is going to operate. I hope there will be similar opportunities for the body that is created in Scotland in terms of what direction it is going to take and how it will undertake its functions.

Environment Bill (Fifth sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Committee stage & Committee Debate: 5th sitting: House of Commons
Tuesday 17th March 2020

(4 years, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Environment Act 2021 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 17 March 2020 - (17 Mar 2020)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Environment Act 2021 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

I do not suggest that we should put a series of duties into the Bill, but we should look seriously at bringing forward proposals to alter the Bill’s wording as it goes through Parliament. I will not seek to divide the Committee on this point, because it is something that all of us need to take away and think about. I hope the Minister takes this away, thinks about it and comes back with proposals, perhaps on Report, to alter that wording, so that we can have full confidence that the Bill will become the Act that we all want it to be. I shall draw attention to these omissions and shortcomings as the Bill progresses, but the Committee will be delighted to know that I will not make this long a speech every time.
Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

But I might do if no consideration at all is given to this particular point.

I hope that the Minister will be able to come at least some way towards me in reshaping the Bill so that the confidence we both want to have in this legislation can be seen by the outside world, and so that we can ensure that what we say in this Committee actually gets done—not just by this Minister, but by subsequent Administrations. With that, I assure the Committee that that is the longest I am going to speak on this subject. I rest my case. I hope that the Minister has something positive on her piece of paper in this respect. We shall see how we go.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a huge pleasure to have you as our Chairman, Sir Roger. Hopefully we are all going to have a long and fruitful bonding experience over the next few weeks.

I thank the shadow Minister for his opening remarks and for describing this legislation as a “good Bill”; we all welcome that tone. I echo his general comments about wanting to do the right thing for the environment. I believe everyone on this Committee wants to do that, but I do in particular. I also thank him for his personal comments. I must actually throw some similar comments back at him. He and I have appeared many times in the same Committees, environmental all-party parliamentary groups and all that, so I know that he has a great deal of experience in this area. In many respects, we sing from the same hymn sheet. I welcome his involvement, as he brings a great deal of experience to the table.

Let me turn to the detail of the amendment. I understand the shadow Minister’s desire for there to be a duty on the Secretary of State to set targets. However, such a duty would remove the flexibility and discretion needed by the Secretary of State in relation to target setting. The Bill creates a power to set long-term, legally-binding environmental targets, and provides for such targets to be set in relation to any aspect of the natural environment or people’s enjoyment of it. It is very wide-ranging, so flexibility is required. It is entirely appropriate to give the Secretary of State flexibility as to when and how the power ought to be exercised. That is the beauty of this power.

As I am sure the shadow Minister knows, primary legislation consistently takes this approach to the balance between powers, which are “may”, and duties, which are “must”. I welcome the fact that the shadow Minister has raised this point, because I have been quizzing my own team about those two words and exactly what they do, and it is quite clear to me that this is the right approach. When the Government are under a clear requirement, the word “must” is used. This recognises that the circumstances, scenario and background to the use of the provision are clear.

In other scenarios, it might not be possible definitely to say that something must be done, due to factors outside our control—for example, if public consultation is still under way, and there will be a great deal of consultation as the statutory instruments are laid before Parliament.

The Secretary of State is already under a duty—that means “must”—to exercise this power to set “at least one” target in each of the Bill’s priority areas. That is in the next few lines of the Bill. They are also under a separate duty to set the PM2.5 target. That is a legal requirement and the Government cannot get out of that. The Bill’s statutory cycle of monitoring, planning and reporting ensures that the Government will take early regular steps to achieve the long-term targets and will be held accountable through regular scrutiny by the Office for Environmental Protection.

The shadow Minister asked whether the system would be robust. I assure him that it will be—that is its purpose. The need for new targets will be reviewed every five years through the significant improvement test that we will come on to later. That is also a legal requirement, and the Secretary of State will use the review’s outcome to decide whether to set new long-term environmental targets.

The significant improvement test provisions of the Bill will form part of environmental law, with the OEP—the body that will be set up to hold the Government to account—having oversight of the Government’s implementation of the provisions, as it will over all aspects of environmental law. That is my summary of the shadow Minister’s queries.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the Minister not accept that, as I pointed out in my analysis of the Energy Act 2013, if a number of obligations or “musts” in a clause are subservient to a fundamental “may”, they have no independent existence? That was exactly the case in that Act: the Minister had a number of musts to do, but they were all subject to the original may. As the original may turned out to be just a may, all the musts completely fell away. The Minister has given examples of some musts in the Bill, but unless we have a first must or duty—it might not be time-limited, so that the Minister has flexibility over when exactly to do it—those other things are not of any great significance. It is the first may or must that is key.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We are muddling a lot of “musts” and “mays” here—it is a good job that Theresa May is not still Prime Minister.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It could be Theresa Must.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is clear that there is flexibility in the power to set long-term targets by regulations, but clause 1(2) says that the Secretary of State “must exercise the power”. That brings in the duty, which is a legal requirement to set the targets. If there is a “must” provision—and there is: to set targets in those four key areas—it must be exercised. It is quite clear.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Mr Gale, I think you can gather that I am not terribly convinced. I do not doubt the Minister’s sincerity for a minute. Indeed, I wonder whether, had the Minister been in post during the Bill’s construction—I think this part was originally constructed in 2018—she would have gone along with that particular wording. I appreciate that she has a Bill in front of her with the wording as it is, and she has advice that the wording is as it is because that is how it should be.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I want to point out one other thing. The Office for Environmental Protection will be able to enforce against the Government if they do not set the targets. That indicates that the process and structure we are setting up are strong.

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None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you, Dr Whitehead. We will make a note, and whoever is in the Chair at the time that the new clauses are reached will take cognisance of what you have just said.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North West and the shadow Minister for their input, and I acknowledge the input of the Chairs of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee. I have a great deal of respect for both Committees, having been on both of them myself, as have some hon. Members here.

I thank hon. Members for the interest they have shown in part 1 of the Bill, which genuinely and openly talks about the new framework of environmental governance. I welcome their input and the fact that they want to look at the intention to ensure that the targets, the environmental improvement plans, the environmental principles and the Office for Environmental Protection work together to protect our natural environment.

As this was one of the specific points raised by the hon. Member for Leeds North West, I want to touch at the outset on driving significant environmental improvement and to reassure him that through the Bill the Government will set at least one new long-term target in each of the four priority areas of water, air quality, waste and resources, and biodiversity by 31 October 2022. Those targets will be set following a great deal of robust evidence-gathering, consultation and engagement with experts, advisers and the public, and they will have to be approved by Parliament through the affirmative process when the statutory instruments are set. People will have plenty of opportunity to engage.

I also want to reassure the hon. Gentleman, since he in particular raised this matter, about other targets. I think the witness from the RSPB raised that in our session last week. I want to offer reassurance that the target-setting process is an ongoing process. It is not a one-off thing, where we set one target and that is the end of that. That is why we will also need to consider what other targets might be needed to ensure that we can significantly improve the natural environment in England—in the area of biodiversity, for example, which he mentioned, because it is complicated and involves all sorts of areas linking into each other.

We will conduct that review at the same time as the first statutory review of the environmental improvement plan, and report to Parliament on its outcome by 31 January 2023. The first environmental improvement plan is the first plan of this Bill; it will help us to deliver what is in the 25-year improvement plan. I hope that reassures the hon. Gentleman that target setting is not a one-off thing, but will be a constant, flowing landscape.

I also want to reassure colleagues that a huge amount of thought has gone into the setting of this framework, so that it is a coherent framework for environmental protection and improvement. I would say to the shadow Minister that it does have an overarching purpose: it has the environmental principles. Those principles will work with all other areas of the Bill to improve the natural environment and environmental protection. It is a huge and wide commitment. The policy statement will explain how those principles will be applied to contribute to that environmental protection and to sustainable development. In my view, we have those objectives right there at the top of the Bill.

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Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I wonder if the Minister could help me. Let us take the example of a habitat in extremely poor condition and facing further decline. That habitat could be significantly improved simply by preventing further decline and intervening to bring the habitat up to a poor but improving condition. That would be a significant improvement, but it would not constitute a high-quality or healthy habitat. Does the Minister accept that that is a problem with the definition of significant improvement? Or does she think that other elements in the Bill would define significant improvement to make that definition of a poor environment improvement—[Interruption.] I see the Minister has been provided with inspiration. Does she think that other parts of the Bill would make that argument superfluous—namely, that significant improvement would equate to healthy, with the other elements of the Bill being in place? I am not sure it does.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. Before I read the inspiration that has been passed to me, let me say that the whole point of the significant improvement test, which is a legal requirement—we have other requirements to keep on checking, testing and monitoring targets through the environment improvement plan, which is also checked every five years —is that it is a holistic approach. The shadow Minister is picking one thing, but with the range of targets that will be set, that one thing will be constantly reported on and monitored. Later in the Bill, we will discuss the nature recovery networks and strategy. The point he raises will be addressed through those other measures in the Bill that, on the whole, will be the levers to raise all our biodiversity and ensure nature improvement.

We have a constant monitoring system in place where we raise up the holistic approach. Every five years the Government have to assess whether meeting the long-term targets set under the Bill’s framework, alongside the other statutory targets, would significantly improve the natural environment. That is all open and transparent; the Government have to respond to Parliament on their conclusions and, if they consider that the test is not met, set out how they plan to close the gap, setting other powers. There are many powers in the Bill for target setting, but also for reporting back. I hope that will give the hon. Gentleman some assurances that the things I believe he wants in the Bill will get into it through the levers provided in it.

Clause 22 sets a principal objective for the Office for Environmental Protection. It will ensure that the OEP contributes to environmental protection and the improvement of the natural environment in exercising its functions. Not only do we have measures for Government, we also have an overarching body checking and monitoring everything and saying what it thinks should or should not happen—whether there should be new targets or whether the targets are being addressed. All those measures are closely aligned; the idea is that they will work together to deliver the environmental protection mentioned in the amendments, concerning improvement and protection of the natural environment as well as the sustainable use of resources.

The shadow Minister said that the Bill had come and gone a few times and has grown a bit; I say it has grown better and stronger, and that we need lots of those measures. The framework now is coherent. I have done a flow-chart of how this all works together, because it is quite complicated. However, if the shadow Minister looks at all the measures together, they knit in with each other to give this holistic approach to what will happen for the environment and how we will care for it.

The hon. Member for Leeds North West and the shadow Minister mentioned this “healthy environment” wording. Clearly, there are many different views on what constitutes a healthy environment, and the Government could not assess what they needed to do to satisfy that new legal obligation, and nor could anyone else. The Government cannot support an amendment that creates such an obligation. It would create uncertainty to call just for a “healthy environment”, because everyone’s idea of that is different. The Government cannot support such a commitment, because the legal obligations are too uncertain. However, we support the overarching architecture of everything working together to create the holistic environment, and an approach where all the targets work together and we are on a trajectory towards a much better environment. The shadow Minister and I are in complete agreement with each other that that is the direction that we should be taking.

To sum up, the Government do not believe that amendment 103 or new clauses 1 and 6 are necessary. I ask hon. Members kindly to withdraw them.

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will not press the amendment to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

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In the context of those considerations, I hope the Minister will be well disposed towards assuring us, with chapter and verse quoted, that everything is okay, and that we have everything in the Bill that we need to ensure that the marine environment is properly considered and brought into play. Alternatively, she may say, “Hmm, hang on a minute. They might have a point.” She might then think about ways in which we can ensure that those environmental concerns are properly reflected in the Bill.
Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the shadow Minister for amendments 1 and 85, which would include specific reference to

“on land, and at sea”

in clauses 1 and 6. The Bill requires that at least one long-term target is set in each of the four priority areas, as has been explained. That provides clarity and certainty about the areas on which policy setting will focus between now and October 2022.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the power to set targets is not limited to those priority areas alone and can be used in respect of any matter relating to the natural environment. I give him absolute reassurances that the definition of the natural environment includes consideration of the marine environment. Indeed, I welcome this being raised. The fact that we are discussing it and getting that in writing will clarify the position. He is absolutely right to raise the issue. The marine environment will be included, and it is explicitly highlighted on page 57 of the explanatory notes. The shadow Minister is not alone in calling for that; the Natural Capital Committee also wanted clarification, and we gave it reassurances.

The Secretary of State will consider expected environmental improvement across all aspects—terrestrial and marine—of England’s natural environment when conducting the significant improvement test, which is a legal requirement. That involves assessing whether the natural environment as a whole, including the marine environment, will have improved significantly. Such an approach is aligned with comments made at the evidence session. The Committee may remember that Dr Richard Benwell, the chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, stated that

“the environment has to operate as a system.”—[Official Report, Environment Public Bill Committee, 12 March 2020; c. 116, Q157.]

Of course, the system has to include marine and land—all aspects. Furthermore, the Office for Environmental Protection has a key role, and if it believes that additional targets should be set, it can recommend that in its annual report on assessing the Government’s progress. The OEP could therefore comment on the marine environment specifically, and the Government must publish and lay before Parliament a response to the OEP’s report.

The process ensures that Parliament, supported by the OEP, can hold the Government to account on the sufficiency of measures to significantly improve the natural environment. I hope that provides clarification and reassurance about the word “marine” and references to “on land” and “on sea.” I therefore ask the hon. Member to withdraw the amendment.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As the Minister said, the fact that we are discussing these matters, and that our words are going on the record, is useful in buttressing what is in the legislation. I am grateful to her for her clarification, which is also on the record. On that basis, I happily beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have signed amendments 76 and 78 from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), but not amendment 77—that is an oversight, however, and I also fully support it. I will talk about two specific things relating to our global footprint in the Amazon and West Papua, and it is worth declaring that I am the chair of the all-party group on West Papua, although I have no pecuniary interests.

My hon. Friend and the shadow Minister made excellent cases, but I want to add a bit more detail. Three weeks ago, Chief Raoni, one of the indigenous leaders of the Amazon, came to the House and I met him, and last week, I hosted WWF Brazil’s chief executive here. They also met the Minister’s colleague, Lord Goldsmith, while they were here, and one of their key asks was that the UK Government are very clear about the import of goods from the Amazon. The range of goods is very broad. The dangers in the Amazon are live at the moment, with concerns that in just a matter of months, wildfires could rage in the Amazon as we saw last year, destroying millions of hectares of rainforest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East made good points about soya and cattle farming, but there is also extremely widespread mining—not just by large companies, but the wildcat mining, in which the family of the Brazilian President have traditionally been involved —for metals such as aluminium, iron, nickel and copper. The sourcing of the materials for many of the everyday products that people use involves deforestation and mining in the Amazon. That has further effects because activities such as farming and mining require infrastructure, such as roads right through the rainforest. The use of the river and of heavy diesel vehicles creates water and air degradation.

We spoke about biodiversity in the UK, but our biodiversity pales into insignificance compared with the biodiversity in the rainforests of the Amazon or West Papua. It is the Committee’s duty not to forget that the UK is a major importer of goods and a major world centre for resources and raw materials, which are traded in London and imported into the UK. That means that we have a much broader responsibility.

West Papua is a lesser-known area that is part of Indonesia and has one of the world’s largest mines, the Grasberg Freeport mine. There, beyond the loss of environmental habitat and the pollution of water and air, there are also human rights abuses. There is a well-documented history of extrajudicial killings around the operation of the mine. Offshore, BP—a British company—is involved in oil and gas resources. Our global footprint is huge and the Bill must focus on that. If we are to enshrine environmental protections in domestic law, we cannot close our borders and say, “We are doing sufficient things here,” while forgetting our global footprint and the effects of our markets, imports, production facilities and export investment in causing global environmental degradation.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank hon. Members for their contributions on this really key subject. I remind the Committee that the Bill gives us the power to set long-term legally binding targets on any matter relating to the natural environment.

I will pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Bristol East about the 25-year environment plan, which is of course the first environmental improvement plan under the Bill. That plan talks about “leaving a lighter footprint” and the whole of chapter 6 is about,

“Protecting and improving our global environment”.

That is there in writing and I assure the Committee that the power in the Bill to set long-term legally binding targets on any matter relating to the natural environment allows us to set targets on our global environmental footprint.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I know that the 25-year plan will be incorporated as the first environmental plan, but my point was that by adding amendment 76 and the fifth priority on the global footprint, we would ensure that the Bill specifies that global footprint targets would have to be set. Simply referring to the 25-year plan is just warm words rather than any clear commitment to action.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and I recognise all the work that she is doing on this issue; she speaks knowledgably and passionately about it. However, the amendment would go further by creating a legal obligation on the Government to set targets on our wider global footprint, including human rights aspects, and amendment 77 would require us not only to set a target but meet it by 31 December 2020.

Before accepting such obligations, a responsible Government, which I like to think we are, would need to be confident that we had or could develop reliable metrics and an established baseline for such targets, and a clear understanding of any potential perverse incentives that such targets could create. The proposal sounds very straightforward but, of course, there is a great deal involved in it. We are working to explore the feasibility and effectiveness of a global environment footprint indicator, which includes reviewing the existing methodologies of global impact indicators.

We cannot responsibly accept a commitment to set global footprint as a priority area, as that would entail us in setting at least one legally binding target in a timescale that does not reflect the need to build the solid foundations that are needed. However, the hon. Lady was right to draw our attention to the impact that our domestic consumption can have on our global footprint, and the shadow Minister also mentioned that. Indeed, I went berserk with my own children when I found a packet of Kenyan beans in the bottom of my fridge; that was in December, so they were not seasonal for us. Woe betide them if they ever do that again! I put said packet in the bottom of one of their Christmas stockings to make the point. Anyway, I digress.

This is such an important issue and many colleagues have touched on it. That is why it is really important that the UK establishes roundtables on palm oil and soya. Indeed, we have already done a great amount of work on some of these issues. For example, the UK achieved 77% certified sustainable palm oil in 2018, which is—staggeringly—up from just 16% in 2010. The UK has moved very fast on that issue. Eight of the UK’s largest supermarkets, representing a combined retail market share of 83%, have published new sourcing policies to deliver sustainable soya to the UK market. We will continue to work both with those businesses, through these roundtables on palm oil and soya, and with producer countries through our UK international climate finance projects to improve the sustainability of forest risk commodities.

The hon. Member for Leeds North West starkly highlighted the example of the Amazon and the impact that we have; we must take things very carefully. However, that is not to say that, in doing all this work, we should not then harness the power through the Bill to introduce a target on our global environmental footprint. That is something that we have the option to consider.

I will also touch on the Global Resource Initiative, which was set up last year to investigate what the UK can do overall to reduce its footprint. We are awaiting the GRI’s recommendations and we will consider them carefully before responding. Any recommendations for long-term, legally binding targets will need to identify the reliable metrics, baselines and targets that I have mentioned before. However, the Bill gives us the power to introduce a target on our global environmental footprint at any time, so such targets are definitely in the mix.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Our global environmental footprint abroad is very important and the hon. Member for Leeds North West made an interesting point in particular about our footprint in Indonesia. I happen to know about the BP investment at the Tangguh liquid natural gas project very well. It uses two offshore platforms, and there is an absolutely amazing social responsibility programme, which I have seen in detail. It is widely recognised as one of the best in the world, both by the people of West Papua and more widely in Indonesia.

It is worth noting that we have significant renewable energy projects there, including some interest in tidal stream—we brought a delegation from Indonesia to Scotland recently. Through the Department for International Development’s climate change unit, we have worked on making their timber production sustainable and are now looking at how we can help them make the palm oil industry sustainable. The Minister makes an important point about how we can build a strong environmental footprint abroad.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On a point of order, Sir Roger. Does the hon. Member for Gloucester have any interest to declare in relation to the statement he just made?

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am happy to say that my only interest to declare is as an unpaid, voluntary trade envoy in Indonesia for the last three Prime Ministers.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He speaks with a great deal of knowledge about worldwide issues, as he always does in the Chamber.

On the grounds of what I have said, I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will have to go back and read what the Minister said, because I am rather confused. She seems to be jumping around all over the place. On one hand, she says a global footprint target can be included in the Bill and cites some good things that have happened through volunteer initiatives and through companies—perhaps with a bit of Government pressure on them—to say that such things can be done. On the other hand, she says that we cannot possibly put it in the Bill.

I point out that amendment 77 is designed to ensure that there is an end-of-year target, which was previously a commitment. The Government have said in various different forums that they would achieve that, so it is a bit late now to say, “We need to worry about the metrics, and we need to be working on this, that and the other.”

I tried to intervene on the Minister because I wanted to ask her about the GRI recommendations, which will come forward on 30 March. If it recommends that the provision should be in the Environment Bill, will the Minister commit to table amendments that reflect the GRI recommendations? As she would not let me intervene to ask her about that, she is very welcome to intervene and tell me whether that is the case. It might affect whether I decide to push anything to a vote.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will intervene very briefly. I reiterate that we await the outcome of the recommendations and will consider them very carefully. Getting the metrics right is absolutely crucial, as is every target in the Bill. I said strongly that there is a power in the Bill to set targets on our global environmental footprint. I shall leave it there.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As I said, I want to revisit that, because I thought the Minister was making an argument against being able to pursue targets. She did not adequately make the case for not having the specific priority of a global footprint target, but we will return to that when we discuss new clause 5, which is a comprehensive clause about due diligence in the supply chain and how we enforce all this. We shall return to the debate then, rather than my pressing these issues to a vote now. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Environment Bill (Sixth sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Committee stage & Committee Debate: 6th sitting: House of Commons
Tuesday 17th March 2020

(4 years, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Environment Act 2021 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 17 March 2020 - (17 Mar 2020)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Environment Act 2021 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

For the elucidation of the Committee, I confirm that the intention of the Opposition is to get to the end of clause 6 in reasonably good order, so it will not be necessary, I hope, for the Chair to suspend proceedings, because we will already have gone home by then. We will see whether I manage to keep my remarks suitably brief, so that we can achieve that goal.

I barely started my remarks about the amendment this morning. I will first emphasise how important the amendment is to ensuring that the priority area targets are seen as targets with content, rather than targets in theory. That is important because of the frankly rather odd way in which subsection (2) is set out:

“The Secretary of State must exercise the power in subsection (1) so as to set a long-term target in respect of at least one matter within each priority area.”

That might suggest that the Secretary of State will have a lottery choice, and will say, “Well, I’ve got to set at least one target in each area, so what’s it going to be? If I go above my limit of one target per area, I might not be able to get targets in other areas,” or perhaps, “I haven’t got enough targets in this section, so I have to beef them up.”

In reality, targets are not one per customer; they are based on what targets should be set in each area. What are the themes that one would prioritise within each area in which a target might be set? What are the priorities regarding air quality, water, biodiversity and waste and resources that would cause us to say, “Perhaps in this area there should be three or four targets, and in that area two, or more than three”?

The Bill allows the Secretary of State to set more than one target, but it at least strongly suggests that it should be one target, and implies that that should be it. I hope we can be clear today that that certainly is not it, and that the Secretary of State will be charged with looking at each area and deciding, on the basis of what is needed, what the targets for those areas should be. They might or might not be numerous.

There is a rumour that there was discussion with the Treasury about how many targets might be allowed in each area, and the Treasury said, “Maybe keep it to one each. That will be okay.” I am sure that is untrue, but nevertheless the drafting of this part of part 1 seems a little odd.

In amendment 178, we have tried to say, “What would be the general priority areas?” One might say that it was our best go at answering that. If we have time to spare this afternoon, having got through our business, we could have a little roundtable and decide whether we think those are the absolute priorities, or whether we should put in others or change them around. It is an attempt, which I think is good enough to go into the legislation, to look at what the main areas are within each priority area that we could reasonably set targets on.

Within air quality, it would be good to have targets on average human exposure to PM2.5 and PM10, and annual emissions of nitrogen oxides, ammonia, the different PMs and non-methane volatile organic compounds. For water, the targets could be on abstraction rates,

“the chemical and biological status and monitoring of inland freshwater”

and, importantly, the marine environment, which we touched on this morning.

In the priority area of biodiversity, there could be targets on

“the abundance, diversity and extinction risk of species”

and

“the quality, extent and connectivity of habitats”.

Later in the Bill, we will talk about recreating habitats if necessary, and ensuring, through local plans, that habitats join up with each other, so that we do not have a series of island habitants with no relation to each other. Perhaps we should have a biodiversity target on ensuring that those habitats are connected.

In the priority area of waste and resources, there could be targets on

“overall material use and waste generation and pollution, including but not limited to plastics.”

As we will see later in our discussions, there could certainly be targets relating to the extent to which things are properly moved up the waste hierarchy. One of the concerns we have regarding the waste and resources part of the Bill is the extent to which there is, rightly, a concern for recycling, but not for going any further up the waste hierarchy than that.

Amendment 178 is the explanation that we would like to see after the very thin gruel served up in clause 1(3). It is by no means the last word, and we state in the amendment that the targets are not limited to those set out in it. Indeed, it would be a perfectly good idea if the Secretary of State or Minister said, “I don’t quite agree with the targets that you have set out here. There are other priority areas in these sectors, and we’d like to set targets on those instead.” We are not precious about that in any way.

I hope the Committee can accept the principle that it is not sufficient to set out single-word priority areas, particularly in clause 1(2). In the Bill, there needs to be some unpacking of the process, so that we can assure ourselves that we will get to grips with the sort of targets that we believe are necessary. That is a friendly proposal. I hope it is met with interest from Government Members, and that we can discuss how we get that right, having accepted the principle. We do not necessarily need the amendment to be accepted in its totality, but if we do not see any movement at all in its direction, we strongly feel that we ought to set down a marker to show that it is important that such a process be undertaken, and would therefore reluctantly seek to divide the Committee.

Rebecca Pow Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the shadow Minister for seeking to specify the targets that the Government should set within each priority area. He asked if what he said was met with interest. Of course it was. He recognises that the Bill includes a requirement, which I reiterate, to set at least one long-term legally binding target in each of four important areas: air quality; water; biodiversity; and resource efficiency and waste reduction. Those were chosen because they are the priority areas that reflect where we believe targets will drive long-lasting significant improvement in the natural environment, which is the aim of the Bill.

The four priority areas were chosen to complement the chapters of the Bill, to build on the vision in the 25-year environment plan—the first environment improvement plan in the Bill—and to facilitate the delivery of comprehensive measures, with an “s” on the end, across the natural environment; we are talking about not just one thing, but a whole raft of measures. The Bill’s framework allows long-term targets to be set on any aspect of the natural environment, or people’s enjoyment of it, beyond the four priority areas in order to drive significant improvement in the natural environment. Of course, all those things will be monitored, checked and reported on to ensure that the significant improvement is achieved, and if more targets are seen to be required, then more targets are what will happen.

I would like to reassure the shadow Minister that the Government will be able to determine the specific areas in which targets will be set via the robust and transparent target-setting process that I referred to this morning. Advice from independent experts will be sought in every case during the process. Stakeholders and the public will also have an opportunity to give input on targets. Indeed, just now in the Tea Room, one of our colleagues asked about giving input on the deposit return scheme. I said, “Yes, there will be a lot of engagement and a lot of consultation, through the Bill.” Targets will be based on robust, scientifically credible evidence, as well as economic analysis.

We do not want to prejudge which specific targets will emerge from the process, and the Office for Environmental Protection has a role in setting targets. If the OEP believes that additional targets should be set, it can say what it thinks should be done in its annual report when it is assessing the Government’s progress. It will do that every year. The Government then have to publish and lay before Parliament a response to the OEP’s call. Any long-term targets will be set via statutory instruments, which will be subject to the affirmative procedure. That means that Parliament can scrutinise, debate, and ultimately vote on them, so everyone gets their say. I hope that will please the shadow Minister, because he will very much be part of that. This process ensures that Parliament, supported by the OEP, can hold the Government to account for the targets they set.

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None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Does the Minister wish to comment on what has just been said before I go back to Dr Whitehead?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Very briefly, thank you, Sir Roger.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. He has hit the nail on the head in summing up the flexibility for the targets and the importance of getting and inputting the right expert advice and having the flexibility to move and change with the requirements. The environment is such a huge thing. There is no one thing; it is not a straightforward answer. There will be lots of different targets to consider. Specifically, however, we have a requirement to set at least one long-term target.

To pick on the point made by the hon. Member for Leeds North West on air quality, we have a clean air strategy already, which the World Health Organisation has held up as an example for the rest of the world to follow. We are already taking the lead on that and have committed £3.5 billion to delivering our clean air strategy and the measures within it. They are already operating and will work part and parcel with the Bill’s new measures to have an even more holistic and comprehensive approach to air quality.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

If the Bill were just a framework Bill, it would be about a quarter as long as it is. The fact that, in various parts, it has quite a lot of detail about the things that are required within the overall framework indicates that the Bill is more than that. It seeks to set out, guide and secure a whole series of advances in environmental standards and enhancements of the natural environment in a way that hopefully we can all be proud of.

That is why I call this particular section thin gruel. I was trying to see where we can go with the porridge analogy. Although its potential is not thin gruel, the way it is set out in the Bill appears to me to turn out something that is rather more thin gruel than good porridge. Some Government Members, meanwhile, are thinking “How can we make it flower out of its bowl with all sorts of things added to it?”

Our amendment does not stop Ministers coming up with new targets—wide targets, changeover time and so on—and go with the flow of circumstances as they unfold, but it prevents the porridge from being thinner than it might otherwise be. We want to see basic, good porridge with some fruit, raspberries—

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Division 1

Ayes: 5


Labour: 5

Noes: 9


Conservative: 9

--- Later in debate ---
Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Of course I recognise the shadow Minister’s desire to ensure that, when these targets are set, they are based on the highest possible standards of evidence, practice and advice. However, I believe that it is not necessary to make such explicit amendments as the one that we are considering, because we have already committed to setting targets under a robust, evidence-led process. We expect the best available evidence to inform this, including, of course, scientific data, models, historical datasets and assessment of what is feasible from a socioeconomic perspective. I can assure him that absolutely nothing will be conjured out of thin air, as he was suggesting; conducting ourselves in such a way would not be a correct way for Government to operate.

I am sure that the shadow Minister will be interested to be reminded that every two years, we will conduct a review of significant developments in international environmental legislation. I think that that was one of the new additions to the Bill that was inserted during the process that he was outlining earlier, about how the Bill came and went, and fell, and various other things. This is an extra addition that I believe will be useful and will address exactly what he is talking about, because it is right that we consider what is happening across the rest of the world, to make sure that we are aligned, whether we want to be or not, and consider what other people are doing, and make sure we keep abreast of developments in driving forward our environmental protection legislation.

Of course, we will publish that review and make sure that any relevant findings are factored into our environmental improvement plan, and considered with the environmental target-setting process. We will also seek and consider very carefully the advice of independent experts before setting the targets. Additionally, our target proposals will be subject to the affirmative procedure in Parliament; both Houses will have the opportunity to scrutinise, debate and ultimately vote on the details and the ambition of the targets. We also expect the Select Committees to take an interest in this process and they will have an opportunity to scrutinise the Government’s target proposals. They might choose to conduct their own inquiries or publish reports, which the Government would then respond to in the usual manner.

Having given that amount of detail, I hope that it provides some reassurance. The shadow Minister is obviously raising really important issues, but I hope that my response makes it clear that we are taking this matter very seriously. I therefore ask him to withdraw the amendment.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister has said exactly what I had anticipated she might say in the best of outcomes, and that is now on the record; indeed, our purpose principally was to ensure that that kind of statement about these targets was there for all to see. I am grateful to her for setting that out and I am much happier than I would have been if she had not said that. I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 28, in clause 1, page 2, line 15, leave out “the National Assembly for Wales” and insert “Senedd Cymru”.

This amendment reflects the renaming of the National Assembly for Wales as “Senedd Cymru” by the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020. Similar changes are made by Amendments 29, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47,48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 67, 72, and 73.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 29, 32 to 36, 67, 37 to 57, 72 and 73, and 58 to 64.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Section 2 of the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020 renames the National Assembly for Wales as the Welsh Parliament or Senedd Cymru. The changes will take effect from 6 May 2020. As a consequence, amendment 28 would replace references in the Bill to “the National Assembly for Wales” with “Senedd Cymru”, and replace references to “the Assembly” with “the Senedd”—I hope I have made that quite clear. This is consistent with the approach that the Welsh Government are taking to their own legislation.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Could the Minister clarify whether we are replacing “the National Assembly for Wales” with “Senedd Cymru” in all legislation or whether we are inserting both, as was implied in part of her statement, by saying, “the National Assembly for Wales/Senedd Cymru”? Does the National Assembly for Wales cease to exist completely, and are we always to refer to it as Senedd Cymru in all future parliamentary debates?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is a very perceptive question, which does not surprise me at all—my hon. Friend is always on the ball. The answer is no, the Welsh Assembly will remain. I will just add that the Government consulted the Welsh Government on how the Welsh legislature should be referred to in legislation moving forward, and using the Welsh title ensures there is a consistent approach across the statute book.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

For clarification, can I just confirm that we will refer to “the National Assembly for Wales” and to “Senedd Cymru” in the Bill, and that that is the format that Parliament and the Government will adopt for all legislation, and that we are not replacing “the National Assembly for Wales” with “Senedd Cymru” on every occasion?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The answer to the first part of his question is yes.

Amendment 28 agreed to.

Amendment made: 29, in clause 1, page 2, line 16, leave out “Assembly” and insert “Senedd”.—(Rebecca Pow.)

See Amendment 28.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

I am satisfied that clause 1 has been sufficiently debated, and I therefore do not propose to take a clause stand part debate.

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Environmental targets: particulate matter

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Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman saying that they are not connected. The two dates happen to be the same, so there is a connection. It is not like two bodies in different parts of the country. The key thing is that the guidelines for which he calls are there; the deadline for which he calls is a separate thing.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Government shares the shadow Minister’s desire to take ambitious action to reduce public exposure to air pollution and ensure that the latest evidence is taken into consideration when targets are reviewed. The Government take fine particulate matter, and air pollution as a whole, extremely seriously, and completely understand public concerns about this very serious health issue. That is why the Government are already taking action to improve air quality, backed by significant investment.

We have put in place a £3.5 billion plan to reduce harmful emissions from road transport. Last year, we published our world-leading clean air strategy, which sets out the comprehensive action required at all levels of Government and society to clean up our air. I reiterate that that strategy has been praised by the WHO as an example for the rest of the world to follow, so we are already leading on this agenda. That is not to say that there is not a great deal to do; there is, but the Government are taking it extremely seriously.

The Bill builds on the ambitious actions that we have already taken and delivers key parts of our strategy, including by creating a duty to set a legally binding target for PM2.5, in addition to the long-term air quality target. That size of particulate is considered particularly dangerous because it lodges in the lungs, and can cause all sorts of extra conditions. I have met with many health bodies to discuss that. It is a very serious issue and a problem for many people. However, we are showing our commitment to tackling it by stating in the Bill that we will have a legally binding target.

It is important that we get this right. We must set targets that are ambitious but achievable. Last week, Mayor Glanville, the representative from the Local Government Association, highlighted the importance of ambitious targets, but was at pains to emphasise the need for a clear pathway to achieve them. It would not be appropriate to adopt a level and achievement date, as proposed in amendments 23 and 185, without first completing a thorough and science-based consideration of our options.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Bearing in mind that the Minister has already quoted from last week’s evidence sessions, does she agree that Professor Lewis made it very clear that, once we reached the target level mentioned in the amendment, the United Kingdom would not be fully in control of the target, and it would therefore be dangerous to put such a target in the Bill?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was going to mention Professor Alastair Lewis. Members will remember that he is the chairman of the UK’s air quality expert group. He gave stark evidence. He is obviously an expert in his field, and it was really interesting to hear what he said. He stressed the technical challenges involved in setting a target for a pollutant as complex as PM2.5, which he explained is formed from diverse sources—the shadow Minister is right about that—and chemical reactions in the atmosphere. He was at pains to explain that a lot of PM2.5 comes from the continent, and it depends on the direction of the wind, the weather and the atmospheric conditions. My hon. Friend is right that those things are not totally within our control.

Professor Lewis explained the need to decide how we would measure progress towards the target, and that the process would be challenging and would take time. It is crucial to get it right. When developing the detail of the target, we will seek evidence from a wide range of sources and ensure we give due consideration to the health benefits of reducing pollution, as well as the measures required to meet the targets and the costs to business and taxpayers. It is really important that we bring them on board.

I want to refer quickly to the report that the shadow Minister mentioned. I thought he might bring up the DEFRA report published in July 2019, which demonstrated that significant progress would be made towards the current WHO guideline level of 2.5 by 2030. He is right about that. However, the analysis did not outline a pathway to achieve the WHO guideline level across the country or take into account the full economic viability or practical deliverability.

In setting our ambitions for achievable targets, it is essential that we give consideration to these matters—achievability and the measures required to meet it. That is very much what our witnesses said last week. If we set unrealistic targets, it could lead to actions that are neither cost effective nor proportionate. That is why we are committed to an evidence-based process using the best available science—something I know the shadow Minister is really keen we do—and advice from experts to set an ambitious and achievable PM2.5 air quality target.

I reiterate that it is crucial for public, Parliament and stakeholders that they have the opportunity to comment on this and have an input in the process of developing these targets. By taking the time to carry out this important work in engagement, we will ensure that targets are ambitious, credible and, crucially, supported by society. We have the significant improvement test, which is a legal requirement, outlined in the Bill. It will consider all relevant targets collectively and assess whether meeting them will significantly improve the natural environment of England as a whole. It is intended to capture the breadth and the amount of improvement. It is very much a holistic approach and it encompasses the impacts of air pollution on the natural environment and the associated effects on human health. All these things will be taken into account in assessing the journey to the targets. I therefore surmise that the proposal in amendment 25 is not necessary.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister is quite right in pointing out that the report we mentioned did not take into account within a scientific model the full economic viability or practical deliverability of that change. If she were to commission this group to go away and do that, would she commit to the WHO guidelines after that point?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The shadow Minister knows that I will make no such commitment here. This has to be evidence based. Get the right evidence, then the decisions can be made. That is how this Bill will operate. All the advice we took last week from the experts—the people we have to listen to—very much agreed that this was the direction that we need to take. Reviewing individual targets through the test, as proposed in amendments 26 and 27, would not be in line with the holistic approach of the Bill.

Furthermore, the fixed timetable for periodically conducting the significant improvement test provides much needed certainty and predictability to business and society. We have heard from many businesses that they want this surety. It would be inappropriate to determine the timescale for this test on the basis of one new piece of evidence. However, we recognise that the evidence will evolve as highlighted by amendments 26, 27 and 185. The Government will consider new evidence as it comes to light after targets have been set, as part of the five-yearly review of our environmental improvement plan and its annual progress report. The Office for Environmental Protection has a key role. If the OEP believes that additional targets should be set, as I have said before, or that an update to a target is necessary as a result of new evidence, it can recommend this in its annual report, assessing the Government’s progress.

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Division 2

Ayes: 5


Labour: 5

Noes: 9


Conservative: 9

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
--- Later in debate ---
It therefore specifies to an extent what the content of the advice sought by the independent body would look like, and how the body could be sure to shape its advice to be consistent with the intentions of the framers of the legislation. We think both changes would be good for and strengthen the Bill, and we hope that the Government will be interested in proceeding, if not along those exact lines, then along lines similar to those in the Climate Change Act, knowing that that procedure has stood the test of time well. It would certainly be robust for the future.
Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman for amendments 81 and 181. I hope he has already got the impression that we are absolutely committed to setting targets under a robust evidence-led process. Independent experts, the public, stakeholders and Parliament will all play a part in informing the scope and level of target development. The Government will carefully consider advice from independent experts before setting targets.

As the Bill progresses, we will continue to consider how the role of experts is best fulfilled. A number of witnesses last week referred to the need to use experts, and they will be used constantly and continuously. Such experts could include academics, scientists and practitioners within the four priority areas included in the Bill. The expert advice we receive to support the setting of both the target for PM2.5 and the further long-term air quality target will include that on how targets will reduce the harmful impacts of air pollution on human health. We will rely hugely on that expert advice.

Long-term targets will be subject to the affirmative procedure, so Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise and analyse the target proposals. That will, of course, include the shadow Minister, because both Houses will debate the statutory instruments that will set the targets. The Office for Environmental Protection will publish annual reports on the Government’s progress towards the targets, which may include recommendations for improving progress. As I have reiterated a number of times, the Government will be required to publish a response to the recommendations.

I want to stress that the Office for Environmental Protection can advise on targets, either through its duties related to environmental law or through its annual progress report on the environmental improvement plan. For example, it has a statutory power to advise on changes to environmental law, which enables it to comment on proposed legislation on long-term targets. It also has a statutory duty to monitor progress towards meeting targets as part of its annual progress report on the environmental improvement plan, which can include recommending how progress could be improved. So there is already a very strong mechanism.

Environmental law extends to all target provisions of the Bill—for example, procedural requirements on target setting and amendments, and the requirement to achieve targets. In addition, the Government will conduct the first significant improvement test—that is a legal requirement—and report to Parliament on its outcome, three months after the deadline for bringing forward the initial priority area targets.

The significant improvement test provisions of the Bill will form part of environmental law, which is why they will come under the OEP. That means that the OEP will have oversight of the provisions, as it does over all aspects of environmental law, and will have a key role in making sure that the Government meet the targets.

The shadow Minister rightly drew analogies with the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Committee on Climate Change. I am pleased that he recognises the similarities. In designing this framework, we have learned from the successful example of the Climate Change Act—for example, the strong duty to achieve long-term targets, the requirement to report on progress and scrutiny of progress by an independent, statutory body, in this case, the Office for Environmental Protection. That mirrors the CCA. We are confident that the framework is every bit as strong as the CCA framework and that it provides certainty to society that the Government will achieve the targets, delivering significant environmental improvements.

Ongoing stakeholder engagement, expert advice and public consultation will help to inform future target areas, as part of the robust, evidence-led, target-setting process. The Government will, as a matter of course, conduct a wide range of consultations for the first set of long-term targets. I hope that that is clear. We do not need the amendments suggested by the shadow Minister, and I ask him to withdraw them.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is all quite terrific, but it is not quite what it says in the Bill. That is the problem. The Minister has set out a robust and wide-ranging procedure for setting targets and I hope that all the steps she mentioned are going to be followed. If they are, we have a good arrangement. However, if we look at the Bill, there is fairly scattered evidence that that is the way we are going to conduct ourselves. On the contrary, it actually appears to give a great deal of leeway for somebody or some people not to do most of those things in setting the targets, if that is what they wanted to do.

We are perhaps back to some of the discussions we had this morning about the extent to which the Bill has to stand not just the test of time, but the potential test of malevolence. If a well-minded and dedicated Minister, such as the one we have before us this afternoon, were to conduct the procedure, that is exactly how she would conduct it, and I would expect nothing less of her, because that is the frame of mind in which she approaches the issue—but, in legislating, we have to consider that not everyone would have that positive frame of mind. I do not want to divide the Committee, but I am concerned that the procedure in the Bill is too sketchily set out for comfort. Maybe, when we draw up the regulations, we could flesh out some of the things that the Minister said this afternoon, to assure ourselves that that is what we will do, and do properly. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was not expecting to be called quite so soon, so I will move amendment 24 formally.

Amendment proposed: 24, in clause 3, page 3, line 20, leave out “31 October 2022” and insert “31 December 2020”.—(Alex Sobel.)

This amendment is intended to bring forward the deadline for laying regulations setting the PM2.5 target to December 2020.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I could cut my speech short and just say that I am very pleased the hon. Member has withdrawn his amendment.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

He has not withdrawn it; he has moved it formally.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will give my speech then, Sir Roger.

The amendment would undermine the intention to ensure that we set targets via an open consultation process that allows sufficient time for relevant evidence to be gathered, scrutinised and tested. As part of that process, we intend to seek evidence from a wide range of stakeholder interests, carry out good quality scientific socioeconomic analysis, take advice from independent experts and conduct a public consultation, alongside the parliamentary scrutiny of the target SIs that I have mentioned many times before.

It is important that we get that right rather than rushing to set targets, so we do not want to bring the deadline forward from 31 October 2022. We have heard strong support for that approach from stakeholders, who are all keen to have time and space to contribute meaningfully to target development. It is critical that there is certainty about what our targets are by the time we review our environmental improvement plan. That is essential for us to set out appropriate interim targets—the ones that will get us to the long-term target—and consider what measures may be required to achieve both the interim and long-term targets. The review of the plan must happen by 31 January 2023, so to that end, the target deadline of 31 October 2022 works well.

The Committee should also note that 31 October 2022 is a deadline. It does not prevent us from setting a target earlier where we have robust evidence and have received the necessary input from experts, stakeholders and the public.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Can the Minister reassure us that the 2022 deadline does not mean that progress on those issues will not be made or that we cannot have interim targets before we reach the deadline? The whole thing is not being kicked off until 2022; we should still be doing our best to tackle the problem of clean air between now and then.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The target deadline of 31 October 2022 works well for us to report back on our first environmental improvement plan three months later. We hope that some consultations will start during the process, so work will be under way to improve the environment, take advice, set targets and so on. Work will be under way to start the ball rolling.

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Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will be very brief. I entirely support what my hon. Friend says about the need for interim targets. We have seen how the carbon budgets work under the Climate Change Act. There is real concern that the timetable might be slipping and that we might not manage to meet the commitments in the next couple of carbon budgets, but at least there is a mechanism.

I know that we have the environmental improvement plans, and that there is a requirement to review them and potentially update them every five years. However, there are so many strategy documents and plans. If we look at peat, for example, my hon. Friend mentioned the fact that the target set in 2010 for ending the inclusion of peat in amateur garden products by the end of this year will be missed. I know that the Government have a peat strategy, and there are various other things kicking around that are mentioned every time we talk about peat. But there is a lack of focus, a lack of drive and a lack of certainty as to where the Government are heading on that issue. I feel that if we had legally binding interim targets in the Bill, that would give a sense of direction and it would be something against which we could hold the Government to account—more so than with what is currently proposed.

Regarding my last intervention on the Minister, I was trying to be helpful. I was just asking her to give a reassurance that all the efforts to clear up our air and to tackle air pollution are going on regardless; it is not just about setting this target and whether we set it for 2022 or 2020. That is one particular measure. All I am trying to say is that I am looking for reassurances that the Government will still be focused on cleaning up our air. All she has to do is say yes.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman for tabling this amendment. Very quickly, I can give assurances that of course work is ongoing to clean up our air, because we have our clean air strategy. A great many processes are being put in place through that strategy to tackle all the key pollutants that affect air quality. The measures in the Bill come on top of that. I hope that gives the reassurance that was sought.

It is of course critical that we achieve our long-term targets to deliver significant environmental improvement, and this framework provides strong assurances that we will do so. The Bill has this whole framework of robust statutory requirements for monitoring, reporting and reviewing, combined with the Office for Environmental Protection and parliamentary scrutiny, to ensure that meeting the interim targets is taken seriously, without the need for them to be legally binding.

Interim targets are there to help the trajectory towards meeting the long-term targets, to ensure that the Government are staying on track. We cannot simply set a long-term target for 2037 and forget about it. Through this cycle—the reporting requirement and the requirement to set out the interim target of up to five years—the Bill will ensure that the Government take early, regular steps to achieve the long-term targets and can be held to account. The OEP and Parliament will, of course, play their role too.

To be clear, we have a little mechanism called the triple lock, which is the key to driving short-term progress. The Government must have an environmental improvement plan, which sets out the steps they intend to take to improve the environment, and review it at least every five years. In step 2, the Government must report on progress towards achieving the targets every year. In step 3, the OEP will hold us to account on progress towards achieving the targets, and every year it can recommend how we could make better progress, if it thinks better progress needs to be made. The Government then have to respond.

If progress seems too slow, or is deemed to be too slow, the Government may need to develop new policies to make up for that when reviewing their EIPs. They will not wait until 2037 to do that; these things can be done as a continuous process, and that is important.

The shadow Minister rightly referred back to the Climate Change Act and the five-yearly carbon budgets, as did the hon. Member for Bristol East. He asked why, if the carbon budgets were legally binding, the interim targets are not. That is a good question, but of course the targets in the Environment Bill are quite different from carbon budgets. Carbon budgets relate to a single metric: the UK’s net greenhouse gas emissions. These targets will be set on several different aspects of the natural environment.

As I am sure hon. Members will understand, that is very complicated; it is an interconnected system that is subject to natural factors as well as to human activity. Additionally, aspects of the natural environment such as water quality or soil health might respond more quickly to some things and more slowly to others, even with ambitious interventions. It is possible that the Government could adopt extremely ambitious measures and still miss their interim targets due to external factors.

What is important, in this case, is that a missed interim target is recognised and that the Government consider what is needed to get back on track. I am convinced that the system that is there to recognising that—the reporting, analysis and so on—will highlight it. There will be reporting through the EIPs, the targets and the OEP scrutiny, and the incorporation of any new interim targets or measures; it can all be looked at in the five-yearly review of the EIP. I believe there is a strong framework there already.

Finally, of course, the OEP will have the power to bring legal proceedings if the Government breach their environmental law duties, including their duty to achieve long-term targets. Of course, we cannot reach the long-term targets unless we have achieved the interim targets first. I hope I have been clear on that; I feel strongly that we have the right process here, and I hope the shadow Minister will kindly withdraw his amendment.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I hope the Minister will not think I am being too unkind if I say that she is describing a triple lock process rather more like a triple bunch of flowers process. Yes, what she says about the process operating under positive circumstances is good. Indeed, if it happens as she has outlined, we will have a good process in place. It may well be that as time goes by and people have more confidence in how the process works, and if the Government of the day play ball with that process in its own right, the outcome will be good.

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Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 83, in clause 4, page 3, line 24, at end insert

“and,

(c) steps identified under section 5(5)(b) are taken.”

This amendment places a duty on the Secretary of State to do what they have said needs to be done in their report.

The amendment attempts to tidy up the procedures in clauses 4 and 5. Clause 5 talks about reporting duties, and it identifies the steps that are taken to make sure the Secretary of State does what they need to do according to their report. At present, the steps identified in clause 5 stand separate from the Secretary of State’s report, and the Secretary of State appears to report in isolation. Various things have to be done, but they are not tied in with the report.

The amendment would ensure that the

“steps identified under section 5(5)(b) are taken”,

which would mean that the Secretary of State’s report is not only a piece of paper. The amendment would impose a duty on the Secretary of State to do what their report says needs to be done, so the report would have real substance for future activity in this area.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the shadow Minister for tabling the amendment. I am sure he agrees that the most critical thing is the meeting of long-term targets in order to deliver significant environmental improvement, rather than the specific process of getting there. Our target framework provides strong assurance that the Government will achieve them, so the amendment is not necessary.

If a long-term target is missed, the Government’s remedial plan must set out the steps they intend to take towards meeting the missed target as soon as reasonably practicable. The Government will remain under an explicit duty to meet the target. The OEP will have a key role in holding the Government to account on the delivery of targets, both through the annual scrutiny of progress and through its enforcement functions. If a long-term target is missed, the OEP may decide to commence an investigation, which could ultimately lead to enforcement action. We expect the case for enforcement action to increase with time if the target keeps being missed, including if the Government fail to take the steps outlined in the remedial plan. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

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Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 84, in clause 5, page 4, line 1, at end insert—

“(c) include a timetable for adoption, implementation and review of the chosen measures, and the authorities responsible for their delivery, and

(d) an analysis of the options considered and their estimated impact on delivering progress against the relevant targets.”.

The amendment strengthens the Secretary of State’s reporting by including a timetable and analysis.

We now turn to clause 5, which sets out that the Secretary of State must

“set out the steps the Secretary of State has taken, or intends to take, to ensure the specified standard is achieved as soon as reasonably practicable.”

To give the clause a little more robustness, the amendment would add at the end that the Secretary of State’s report should

“(c) include a timetable for adoption, implementation and review of the chosen measures, and the authorities responsible for their delivery, and

(d) an analysis of the options considered and their estimated impact on delivering progress against the relevant targets.”

That sounds a little routine, but we think that without such shaping, the report could be pretty much anything. We could give the report considerable shape by requiring it to contain a timetable for the adoption, implementation and review of the chosen measures, to shape and specify them; to set out who will be responsible for doing those things; and to contain an analysis of the options that have been considered and their estimated impact. That might not necessarily be an impact assessment as we traditionally know them in legislation, but a background analysis of those options and how they would affect the delivery of progress against relevant targets would be a good net addition to the Bill. I anticipate that the Minister may think otherwise, but I am interested to hear what she has to say. I am interested to know whether she thinks that such a process, which would give reports a lot more shape, might be considered for future reports. That might be done by further secondary legislation, or by other means—not necessarily those that are laid out in the amendment.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman agrees that missing a legally binding target should lead to clear consequences and next steps. I do not believe that the amendment is necessary, however, because it does not strengthen the requirements that we are creating. The Bill requires the Government to publish a remedial plan to achieve the missed standard

“as soon as reasonably practicable”.

To draw up their remedial plan, the Government would therefore have to assess both what is practicable—feasible —and what is reasonable. That would include how long the chosen measures are expected to take to achieve the missed standard, how and by whom they would be implemented, and what alternatives had been considered. To show that they had met that standard, the Government would need to set out how they had selected the measures included in the remedial plan—I think that is what the shadow Minister was getting at—as part of sound policy making and to ensure transparency.

The OEP would have a key role to play. If, for example, the Government failed to publish a remedial plan that met the relevant statutory requirements, the OEP might decide to open an investigation, which ultimately could lead to enforcement action. There are already very strong measures to back up the remedial plan, and in case standards or targets are missed. I therefore ask the hon. Member to withdraw the amendment.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As I anticipated, I did not have an eager taker for my suggestion. Nevertheless, the Minister put on the record some of the anticipated structure following those reports. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Environmental targets: review

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Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I welcome the shadow Minister’s intention of ensuring that the Secretary of State looks at whether targets will achieve significant improvement in the natural environment as a whole, as well as in individual areas of it. I do not believe that the amendment is necessary. The shadow Minister will not be surprised to hear me say that, but even in our evidence session of last week, Dr Richard Benwell, chief executive officer of Wildlife and Countryside Link, stated that

“the environment has to operate as a system. If you choose one thing to focus on, you end up causing more problems to solve.”––[Official Report, Environment Public Bill Committee, 12 March 2020; c. 116, Q157.]

In line with that, the significant improvement test—a legal requirement in the Bill—is intended to consider both the breadth and the amount of improvement, with the aim of assessing whether England’s natural environment as a whole would significantly improve. It is a holistic approach, and the Bill’s definition of the natural environment is drafted to be broad enough to encompass all its elements, including the marine environment, which we discussed earlier. I believe the shadow Minister and I are thinking along the same lines, as I think he was intimating that he wants this all-encompassing approach, which is explicitly highlighted in the Bill’s explanatory notes.

The Secretary of State will consider expected environmental improvement across all aspects of England’s natural environment, both terrestrial and marine, when conducting the significant improvement test. The test involves assessing whether England’s natural environment would significantly improve as a result of collectively meeting the long-term targets, which are legally binding, under the Bill, alongside any other relevant legislative environmental targets to which we are also adhering. I hope that reassures the shadow Minister, and I ask him to withdraw amendment 183.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am interested to know what status the Minister thinks the explanatory notes have in these proceedings. I imagine they are rather more than insignificant, and rather less than completely significant. I read the explanatory notes to any piece of legislation. Sometimes, it occurs to me that they run very close to what is in the legislation, and sometimes they depart a little, yet they come before us in the same form on all occasions. They are a sort of concordance that goes along with the legislation so that we can understand the clauses more easily.

I am not sure whether there is a consistent production line technique for explanatory notes, and whether they have at least some legal significance in terms of seeking the Minister’s intention in presenting a piece of legislation or, indeed, a Committee’s intention in seeking to legislate.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The shadow Minister makes a very good point about the explanatory notes, although I always love having a look at them. Explanatory notes can obviously be used in the interpretation of the Bill and in legal proceedings, if necessary, as part of wider evidence.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is a very helpful intervention, and it is what I thought. It means that even if explanatory notes appear to stray a little from what one might read in the legislation, if one took it absolutely at face value, we can rely on them for clarification, for future reference. That is an important point, because this afternoon, in the Minister’s response to my inquiry, she relied on what the explanatory notes said about the Bill, rather than what the Bill said. I take her point. If we are to take on board what the explanatory notes say, then that is not a bad response to my point. I wonder whether it would have been a better idea to put that stuff in the legislation, but hey, no one is perfect. We probably have a reasonably good framework to proceed with, in the light of the Minister’s explanation. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Again, the Minister may well decide that the amendment is not exactly what she wants this afternoon, but she may have information that will allow me to think, “Well, the Government have thought about this, and have a method of making sure that the problems are solved by means other than this amendment.”
Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member. If I may say so, he tables slightly tortuous amendments and it is often a case of trying to get one’s head around them. I reassure him that this is not a creaking ship. This is a buoyant ship sailing towards a bright new blue environmentally enhanced horizon. As this is the last amendment today, I feel I can slip that in.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Perhaps I can clarify the issue. My understanding of the term “creaking ship” is that it is a ship that is under sail, flourishing and driving through the water, and whose timbers are creaking as it is propelled to new horizons.

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None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

I think the answer is, when you are in a hole, stop digging.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I feel a bit of backtracking going on here.

Amendment 86 would mean that the significant improvement test could be met only if any targets within the four priority areas that have expired have been replaced by new targets. I reassure the hon. Member that the Government would consider current targets—not expired targets—only when conducting the significant improvement test. That test involves assessing whether England’s natural environment would improve significantly as a result of meeting the longer-term legally binding targets. That has taken up a large part of today’s discussion and is set under the Bill, as well as any other relevant legislation relating to environmental targets.

If the test is not passed, the Government must set out how they plan to use their new target-setting powers to close that gap. In practice, that will most likely involve plans to modify existing targets, make them more ambitious, or set new targets. That helps the Government to focus on the most pressing environmental issues of our time, rather than simply replacing targets that have expired. Some expired targets might, for example, no longer be the key issues on which we should focus in our long-term goals.

The Office for Environmental Protection has a key role through the exercising of its scrutiny functions, and it could publish a report if it disagreed with the Government’s conclusions that the existing targets were sufficient to pass the significant improvement test. The Government would then have to respond to that OEP report, and that response must be published and laid before Parliament. That is a clear pathway. The process ensures that Parliament, supported by the OEP, can hold the Government to account on the sufficiency of their measures to significantly improve the natural environment. I hope that clarifies the situation, and I ask the hon. Member kindly to withdraw amendment 86.

Environment Bill (Seventh sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Committee stage & Committee Debate: 7th sitting: House of Commons
Thursday 19th March 2020

(4 years, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Environment Act 2021 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 19 March 2020 - (19 Mar 2020)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Environment Act 2021 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Rebecca Pow Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That, notwithstanding the Committee’s order of 10 March, the Committee, at the conclusion of proceedings at the sitting starting at 11.30 am on 19 March, do adjourn to a time and date to be fixed by the Chair.

Following cross-party discussions and in the light of recent events, it is appropriate that proceedings in Committee be postponed.

I thank all Members on both sides of the Committee—those here, and those not here today—for the wonderfully positive way in which they have approached their scrutiny of the Bill. The Committee knows that the Bill is landmark legislation, so we take it very seriously. I very much look forward to our resumption at an appropriate point. The motion provides for the Committee to adjourn until a later date, and it is right that we take such action in the light of what is happening nationally.

Environment Bill (Eighth sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Committee stage & Committee Debate: 8th sitting: House of Commons
Tuesday 3rd November 2020

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Environment Act 2021 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 3 November 2020 - (3 Nov 2020)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Environment Act 2021 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This is potentially an important amendment. What we would expect to happen in a Bill is that as the legislation moves through its narrative, one part of the narrative connects to the next one in a coherent way. One of our criticisms of this Bill, although we have said that it is a good Bill in its own right in what it seeks to achieve, is that it fails to add to its coherence as the narrative of the Bill proceeds. What I mean by that is that the Bill tends to set itself out in a number of chunks, a little like an early picaresque novel, rather than a more recent novel that includes the present, the past and the future. I am not suggesting that the Bill itself is a novel, but others may have views on that.

The amendment seeks to bridge the narrative gap in the Bill by ensuring that the measures in this clause relate back to the targets at the beginning of the Bill, which we discussed, as hon. Members with long memories will recall, when our proceedings started earlier this year. Those targets, which we agreed—indeed, we agreed not only the targets, but the mechanism by which they would be decided on—are very important in relation to the environmental improvement plan that will arise from the Bill. If we have an environmental improvement plan that does not relate to those targets and, indeed, has a narrative on environmental improvement that is actually a descriptive arrangement rather than an action arrangement, it is vital that the connection is properly made in the Bill itself and that the environmental improvement plan, essentially, is instructed to organise itself along lines that do relate to those targets in the first place.

As we discover when we go through this clause, an environmental improvement plan is, in effect, already in existence—or rather, this Bill will bring that environmental improvement plan into existence. The Bill describes the process by which an environmental improvement plan can be developed and put in place, and then the Bill says, “Oh and by the way, it so happens that there is an environmental improvement plan already in existence that we can adopt for the purpose of the Bill”—and that is “A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment”. People will see that, in the legislation, it is specifically referred to as being the present environmental improvement plan, the one in front of us.

However, that improvement plan—as, again, I am sure hon. Members will know—was actually adopted in 2018. To show people how far back that goes, I point out that it has a “Foreword from the Prime Minister”, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), and a “Foreword from the Secretary of State”, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). Neither of them is in the same role at the moment, so it is quite an old document. Among other things, it does not address itself to the structure of the Environment Bill; it says a lot of very interesting things, but it certainly does not address itself to how those things should take place. I want to talk later in the debate about some of the issues in the environment plan, “A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment”.

For the time being, suffice it to say that there appears to be a problem of connection, as far as the Bill is concerned. The amendment seeks to rectify that by clearly stating on the face of the Bill:

“The environmental improvement plan must include... measures which, taken together, are likely to achieve any targets set under sections 1 or 2 and will ensure that the next interim targets included in the plan are met”.

It therefore makes a direct connection between this part of the Bill and the first part. It states that the environmental improvement plan must include

“measures that each relevant central government department must carry out… measures to protect sensitive and vulnerable population groups… a timetable for adoption, implementation and review of the chosen measures… analysis of the options considered and their estimated impact on delivering progress… and measures to minimise, or where possible eliminate, the harmful impacts of pollution on human health and the environment”.

The amendment therefore comprehensively makes those connections.

I am sure the Minister will say that none of that is necessary, because everything is okay—it all works all right. However, I hope, at the very least, that, in explaining why that is the case, she will also explain why it is not necessary to make that link between this part of the Bill, the environmental improvement plan and the targets that we set out and agreed in previous sittings.

Rebecca Pow Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening words. It is an absolute privilege to be back with the Committee. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It is more than seven months since we had to adjourn, very unusually, and we all know why that occurred. Sadly, we are still in a tricky situation with the coronavirus pandemic, but I am pleased that we are able to carry on with this hugely important piece of legislation, which will change the way we think about our environment forever. We are all involved in a very significant piece of work, and it is a delight to have you in the chair, Mr Gray.

Despite the fact that we are in these very tricky times with the pandemic, we need to look ahead as a Government and as a country. As we build back, as the Prime Minister has said, we want to base the recovery on solid foundations, including a fairer, greener and more resilient global economy. I want to touch on a few of these issues before we carry on, because it has been such a long time since we reconvened.

On the points made by the shadow Minister, we took expert evidence before. Everyone is entitled to take their own evidence as we go along to inform anything that we do. Written evidence is also submitted to back up the Bill, and that is always welcomed. The hon. Gentleman mentioned planning issues, and I absolutely assure him that we will address those when we get to the right part of the Bill and particularly the nature chapter. I think the Chair covered the issue of a statement comprehensively, and I fully support your words, Chair.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Order. I think “Mr Gray” is the right thing; otherwise, we will get mixed up between Chair and Chairman. Also, in passing, I know you are all pleased to serve under my chairmanship, but you do not need to say so—[Laughter.]

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

But we love saying that, Mr Gray. Okay, I will try not to say it again.

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Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you Chair, I get your point and I beg your forgiveness. I will not include everything, but I wanted to update the Committee because so much has happened since we stopped our consideration of the Bill. People think we have gone on hold, but absolutely we have not.

We will be doing much more work, and we will discuss our statutory EIPs, which will drive up environmental improvement, in the next few days alone, as well as how we will continue to protect the environment from damage by embedding environmental principles at the heart of Government policy.

Turning to the amendments, which is what you really want me to do, Mr Gray, I appreciate the desire of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test to strengthen the EIPs—that is what clause 7 is all about. I am delighted that he has raised the 25-year environment plan because I was at the launch of that plan. Although colleagues who filled those important posts are in different roles now, I was there as Parliamentary Private Secretary in this Department.

I am utterly delighted to introduce this—perhaps the shadow Minister failed to address this—as the 25-year environment plan is actually the first EIP. That is what this is all about. What we are doing with the EIPs is triggering what is set out in the excellent plan. The Bill’s statutory cycle of monitoring, reporting and planning is designed to ensure that the Government take early, regular steps to achieve long-term targets and are held to account through regular scrutiny by the Office for Environmental Protection and by Parliament.

The Bill creates a statutory triple lock, which we will hear about a great deal as the Bill progresses, to drive short-term progress. First, the Government must have an environmental improvement plan setting out the steps they intend to take to improve the environment and to review it every five years. When reviewing it, they must consider whether further or different measures should be adopted to achieve interim—five yearly—targets and long-term targets. When we review the EIP in 2023 we will update it as necessary to include the steps that we intend to take to achieve the targets that we set. That will be five years after the launch of the first plan in 2018.

Secondly, the Government must report on progress towards achieving targets every year. Thirdly, the Office for Environmental Protection will hold us to account on progress towards achieving targets. Each year it will comment on the progress towards targets reported in the Government’s EIP annual report and can flag early on whether it believes there is a risk of the Government not meeting their long-term targets. It may make recommendations on how progress could be improved, and the Government have to respond. Ultimately, the OEP has the power to bring legal proceedings if the Government breach their environmental law duties, including the duty to achieve long-term targets.

In requiring that EIPs set measures to deal with pollution, amendment 88 would single out aspects of the environment ahead of others. EIPs are defined as plans significantly to increase the natural environment. Measures on air quality, with corresponding benefits to human health, are already within the scope of EIP, so it is not necessary to place duties on particular matters in the EIP, which could undermine consideration of other important environmental goals.

The Bill includes a duty to set a legally binding target for PM2.5, the air pollutant with the greatest impact on human health, in addition to a further long-term air quality target. The introduction of measures to meet the air quality target will reduce exposure to harmful pollutants and deliver significant improvements to human health. Other targets that meet the criteria set out in clause 6(8) already have their own statutory regimes, including any appropriate requirements to set out plans and measures to achieve them. It is therefore unnecessary to require that EIPs include measures to achieve them.

Amendment 112 would explicitly link the measures in the EIP to “meeting the environmental objectives”, and I address this with the assumption that the environmental objectives are to achieve and maintain a healthy and natural environment, as set out in new clause 1. The Bill’s provisions already ensure the delivery of the significant environmental improvements that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test seeks through the amendment and ensure that the Government can be held to account. Targets and EIPs have the objective under clauses 6 and 7 of delivering significant improvements to the natural environment, so I urge the hon. Gentleman not to press the amendment.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As you suggest, Mr Gray, I will not go through all the formalities. It is a pleasure to be on this Committee, although it is a little like the philosopher’s axe: which part of this Committee is still part of the preceding Committee? Many of us are new to this, and it has been a long-running process.

The Minister is notorious for her optimism—[Interruption]or has a reputation for optimism. When she talks about the 25-year improvement plan, I wonder whether that is 25 years forward or whether it is taking us 25 years back, because it is about filling the gaps left by our leaving the European Union and the protections that came from that membership. I fear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test explained earlier, that the heart has been ripped out of the Bill.

To turn to the amendment, as you directed Mr Gray, I listened closely to the Minister’s observations and I do not quite understand why she is not sympathetic to some of the amendment’s proposals. I particularly query her attitude to the natural environment. She will have seen the representations from the National Trust about including heritage within the ambit of natural environment, and that prompts a big question. There is no natural environment; we have been part of the environment as human beings for many, many years and we have had huge impact on it. I suspect we will pursue this matter in further discussions, but I would welcome her observations on why heritage is not included among the proposed protections.

In particular, I do not understand why the Minister does not favour the inclusion in the environmental improvement plans of proposed paragraph (b) in amendment 88, which calls for the reporting of

“measures that each relevant central government department must carry out”.

All of us involved in rural policy know that it is an endless issue, and that virtually every part of government touches on the environment of rural areas. Those policies must be included as an essential safeguard to ensure that the environmental improvement plans work properly.

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Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head: the natural environment is very complicated and complex. We have set out the Bill as it appears so that it takes an holistic approach to the environment, as I believe he will see as we proceed in our deliberations.

I believe that the hon. Gentleman was referring to rurality in particular, but the Bill covers everything about the environment, and not just one thing or another. It takes an holistic approach, and is a great deal more holistic than anything that the European Union has done. The environmental improvement plans are significant because there are no equivalents to them under EU law: member states were not required to maintain a comprehensive long-term plan to improve the environment significantly, but that is a key issue of the Bill. Nor was there any requirement on member states to report annually on progress towards any kind of significant improvement. EU law tends to require member states to prepare or publish plans to achieve particular targets, for example on air quality or water quality, but it does not offer the holistic approach of the Bill. By leaving the EU, we have an enormous opportunity to look at the environment in the round. I hope that helps Members.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am sorry, but I am just not convinced. I will consider clause 7 in further detail later, but the gap that we have identified in terms of the connection between this part of the Bill and the first six clauses is egregious, and does not appear to relate at all to what is in the 25-year environment plan, interesting though that plan may be in its own right.

The amendment is important because it addresses those shortcomings and it should not be set aside on the grounds that everything will be all right, and that the Bill is quite an holistic Bill after all. For that reason, I am afraid that we will seek to divide the Committee.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division 3

Ayes: 5


Labour: 5

Noes: 9


Conservative: 9

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Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am putting that to the Committee for its comfort and security. However, there is a continuing real issue in the Bill with the way in which it has been drafted with those “mays” and “musts”. While we have done part of our job by drawing attention to that and putting those amendments down, even though we are not going to pursue them in detail, it is within the powers of other members of the Committee—as happened this morning—to draw attention to the effect that a “may” instead of a “must” has on a passage as we go through the Bill. I fear that that will be, even without my intervention, a recurring leitmotif as we go through the Bill, and that hon. Members will be particularly concerned about that formation as it relates to a thing they are concerned with as the Bill goes through. They may raise that concern independent of our portmanteau amendments on “mays” and “musts”.

I hope the Minister will reflect on that. I observe that she has been assiduous in tabling amendments. It is unfortunate, that those amendments do not include any recognition that this is a particular problem with the Bill. There are amendments that could be put forward that would rectify that.

I hope the Minister will take from this exchange that there is a real concern about how that particular formulation works through the Bill, and especially in this instance. I hope she will consider, at least in some of the instances where those “mays” and “musts” collide, tabling some amendments later in the Bill’s passage to rectify or ameliorate those parts of the Bill. That piece of sunny optimism on my part perhaps goes with the Minister’s sunny optimism on many things. Let us see whose optimism gets the upper hand in this instance.

Finally, it might have been a little mischievous of us to seek to draw the hon. Member for Gloucester into supporting a vote on this clause. Out of sensitivity to his general circumstances in life, we will not seek to do that, because I think the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment. I think it illustrates, however, that this concern is held not only on this side, but across the Committee, so there is an additional onus on the Minister to think about whether there are instances where those “mays” and “musts” can cease colliding and can be amended for the better purposes of the Bill as a whole.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester for his excellent speech. He knows that I hold him in great respect and I always listen to what he says. He collars me many a time. I have given this a huge amount of thought and talked to a great many people about it, because it has been preying on my mind—he can be absolutely sure of that. He has explained a bit about my background, so he will know that I am not making that up.

My hon. Friend painted a lovely picture of life in the countryside, especially in his lovely constituency, including in the Robinswood Hill park, which I know because I briefly worked on rural and countryside issues in Gloucester many years ago. That was one of the places people revered even then.

I am dealing with the “may” as it relates to this amendment, which I think is the right thing to do.