Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I rise to speak to Motion F1, which would amend the government Motion F. I also support Motion G1, which we will come to shortly. The issue at stake with my amendment is simply this: does the Bill give the office for environmental protection sufficient independence to allow it to fulfil its function of holding public authorities, including Ministers, to account in relation to breaches of environmental law?

Clause 24 gives the Secretary of State wide-ranging powers to issue guidance to the OEP on the matters listed in Clause 23(6). These include whether a failure to comply with the law is “serious”, how the OEP determines

“whether damage to the … environment or to human health is serious”,

how the OEP exercises its enforcement functions

“in a way that respects the integrity of other statutory regimes”,

how the OEP intends to “avoid … overlap” with relevant ombudsmen and

“how the OEP intends to prioritise cases.”

The Bill also gives the Secretary of State powers to determine the budget of the OEP and to hire and fire the board, including the chair. Many of us feel that this does not add up to creating a truly independent watchdog.

Therefore, on Report, I moved an amendment, with support from across the House, to rewrite Clause 24 in order to ensure that it gave independence to the OEP in its enforcement role and budget. It also gave parliamentary oversight of both the budget and the hiring and firing of board members. This amendment was passed by a majority of 29. The Government proposed an alternative amendment that would have involved more consultation with Parliament but did not remove the guidance powers or change the substance of Clause 24. This amendment is essentially the same as Amendments 31A and 31B that we have in front of us today.

In the other place, on 20 October, my amendment was rejected, in spite of the fact that, according to my reading of Hansard, the speeches that referred to it strongly supported it. In her response, Minister Pow made three points. First, she said that paragraph 17 of Schedule 1 requires the Secretary of State to “have regard to” to the OEP’s independence. But we all know that “have regard to” is a weak requirement.

Secondly, she said that the Secretary of State cannot intervene on “specific … cases”. But by intervening on a category of cases—say, new nuclear power stations—the Secretary of State could, in theory, preclude the OEP from investigating a whole raft of individual cases within that category; for example, if it was advised that it is not a priority.

Thirdly, Minister Pow said:

“The OEP does not have to follow the guidance where it has clear reasons not to do so.”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/10/21; col. 823.]

It is a bit paradoxical to justify the existence of the guidance power by saying that the OEP does not have to take any notice of it. Furthermore, you could argue it would be a brave OEP that ignored the guidance from the individual who has the power to determine its budget and hire and fire the board, including the chair.

I am still not satisfied that the Bill will protect the independence of the OEP without further amendment. This new amendment—my Amendment 31C—is a genuine attempt at compromise, and I hope the Government will recognise this and therefore accept it. Let me briefly summarise. Subsection (1) sets out that the OEP has complete discretion in relation to its enforcement policy and functions and in preparing its budget. This would make it comparable to the Office for Budget Responsibility and the National Audit Office. Subsection (2), importantly, retains the guidance power for the Secretary of State but narrows its focus to certain strategic issues concerned with enforcement, as described in Clause 22(6)(c). Subsection (3) requires the OEP to have due regard to the guidance but allows for circumstances in which it may choose to disregard it. Subsections (4) and (5) refer to consultation and parliamentary scrutiny of the guidance, and subsection (6) involves the relevant parliamentary committees in the hiring and firing of board members.

The long-term success or failure of this Bill will in large part be measured by the effectiveness of the office for environmental protection. All the good intentions of the other parts of the Bill could come to naught without a fully independent watchman. We all had high confidence in and high regard for Dame Glenys Stacey, and for her board. We also have high regard for and confidence in the good intentions of current Defra Ministers. But I believe we have to prepare for the long term and that this amendment is fundamental to protecting the OEP’s independence in the long term.

Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Lab)
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My Lords, I will be brief, as this issue has been debated thoroughly at previous stages of the Environment Bill. I rise to move my Amendment 75C, under Motion N1, which would replace government Amendments 75A and 75B. This mirrors Amendment 31C, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and would achieve the same outcomes for the OEP’s independence in Northern Ireland as his would for the OEP in England.

My amendment would safeguard the OEP’s independence in the long term by amending the power of DAERA to guide how the OEP will hold Ministers to account on any environmental wrongdoings, to make it more targeted. It would also provide the OEP with complete discretion to undertake its activities in Northern Ireland and establish a role for the Assembly’s AERA Committee in overseeing the appointment of the Northern Ireland member on the OEP’s board. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said on Report:

“If the Government accept that the OEP should have complete discretion, surely a matter of this importance should be in the Bill.”—[Official Report, 18/9/21; col. 886.]

The recent DAERA consultation in Northern Ireland on environmental plans, principles and governance indicated strong support for the establishment of the OEP in Northern Ireland. I am in no doubt that that will be a huge boon for our environmental governance, but unless its independence is enshrined for the long term in this Bill, we will have missed a serious opportunity to ensure that this important new body is protected from future political whims. I say that with great reluctance, but we have to consider the political dynamics that exist in the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly. As the EFRA Committee chair Neil Parish MP said in the other place last week,

“we need to ensure that those offices are independent for all time.”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/10/21; col. 804.]

In summary, I disagree with the Government’s amendments in respect of the OEP in Northern Ireland and the need for it to be independent, and I hope the Minister will change his mind on this issue.

Lord Anderson of Ipswich Portrait Lord Anderson of Ipswich (CB)
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My Lords, in logical sequence, I will speak to Motion G1 and Amendment 33B, which concerns the conditions that must be satisfied before the High Court can grant a remedy to the OEP on an application for environmental review. Your Lordships will recall that as the Bill stands, in notable contrast to the normal position under judicial review, no remedy whatever may be granted on environmental review unless the court is satisfied that there is not likely to be any substantial prejudice or detriment to a developer, landowner or any other third party, and that there will be no detriment to good administration. So, the mechanism that appears to allow public authorities to be held to account for the non-performance of their environmental duties will in practice be ineffective in all cases where there are serious conflicting interests.

We accept that the interests of developers and landowners can and should be placed in the balance when courts are making decisions about remedies, but it is perverse and without precedent to suggest that those interests should automatically outweigh all other factors, including the public interest in a clean environment and having the law enforced. In any judicial system worth the name, the court must at least be able to have regard to those factors, which is our modest and limited objective.

We bent over backwards in Amendment 33 to accommodate the Government’s concerns, to the point where my noble and learned friend Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who signed the original amendment, said:

“I cannot see what greater protection any Government could legitimately seek.”—[Official Report, 8/9/21; col. 897.]

We have risen to my noble and learned friend’s challenge and, in response to the other place, imprecise though its comments were, we have been more accommodating still.

There are two additional reasons Amendment 33B should commend itself to the House. First, when listing the factors to which the court must have regard when deciding whether to grant a remedy, we have largely borrowed the list of factors used by the Government themselves for comparable purposes in Clause 1(8) of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which has its Second Reading in the other place today. Those factors specifically include the interests and expectations of developers, landowners and others who have relied—no doubt in good faith—on failures by a public authority to comply with environmental law.

Secondly, my noble friend Lord Krebs has conceded, in his linked Amendment 31C, that the Secretary of State may issue guidance to the OEP on the matters listed in Clause 22(6)(c): that is, the exercise of

“its enforcement functions in a way that respects the integrity of other statutory regimes (including statutory provision for appeals).”

Even if my noble friend’s amendment is accepted—and I hope it is—the Government will have every opportunity to ensure that environmental review, which we accept is designed to deal with systemic problems, is not used to circumvent the short statutory deadlines that apply in planning cases. That fundamentally changes the landscape in which my amendment features.

I am acutely aware that we have to tread delicately at this stage of a Bill, but make no apology for stressing the particular importance of this amendment. Arguments about the precise ambit of the environmental duties to be imposed on public authorities will be to little effect if those duties cannot be enforced in court in the normal way at the request of the body established for the purpose. If this in many ways admirable Bill cannot be made to achieve this, it will have a fundamental weakness at its core. For that reason, and unless the Minister can offer the necessary assurance, which I understand from our continuing dialogue may be unlikely at this stage, I propose to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 33B.