Debates between Lord Krebs and Lord Hope of Craighead during the 2019 Parliament

Mon 28th Jun 2021

Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill

Debate between Lord Krebs and Lord Hope of Craighead
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I added my name to Amendment 37 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock. I wish to say a few words about it and about the other amendments in this group, which I also support. First, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, that none of us in this Chamber doubts the commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, to environmental protection and supporting the cause that we all passionately believe in, and I congratulate him on his commitment to the environment.

However, we are nevertheless worried, for at least three reasons. First, not everybody in the Minister’s party necessarily shares his commitment to the environment. We all think back to a previous Tory Prime Minister, who referred to certain environmental protections as “green crap”. I am sorry if that offends noble Lords’ ears but those were the words that he was reported to have used. We are not sure that everybody will share that commitment.

We are also worried about the number of pieces of legislation that fall under Defra’s umbrella; the figure that I have been given is 1,781. That seems a bit of spurious precision given the earlier debate about the uncertainty in the number; although it was described as a catalogue, it is not actually a catalogue on the dashboard because it is incomplete. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has said, there is a lot of legislation that Defra has to deal with. Amendment 37 is just about a small sub-sample.

The third point that keeps our worry levels up is the continuing gap between rhetoric and reality. While a lot of warm words are said about environmental protection, the “greenest Government ever” and how we want to leave the environment in a better state than we found it, the reality is in many cases very different. Whether it is the quality of our rivers, sewage in other coastal zones, loss of biodiversity or air equality, in all those areas we are not doing as well on the ground as the rhetoric would lead us to believe. That was clearly brought home in the recent report of the Office for Environmental Protection, the watchdog that is meant to snap at the heels of government.

That is why we need some reassurance that environmental protections will not be lost down the back of the sofa. I will give a couple of examples. One— I thank Greener UK for it—concerns a current application for the Ashdown Business Park in Maresfield, at postcode TN22 2HN. It is on the edge of the Ashdown Forest special protection area and special area of conservation, so is an ecologically important area. The ecological impact assessment says that you would need an appropriate assessment under the habitats directive and the habitats regulations. That is the kind of warning light for the development. However, under the heading of “Current Uncertainty Regarding Planning Applications”, the report goes on to refer to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, saying that, at the same time, the UK government is pressing ahead to remove and replace European Union law on the British statute under its planned retained EU law Bill, currently at the amendment stage within Parliament.

What we are seeing there is concrete evidence that the uncertainty created by the Bill is already having an effect on, potentially, the protection of key habitats in this country that are currently protected under the habitats directive and regulations. That is why it is really important that the Government say, “No, we are not going to change those; no, we are not going to get rid of them. You still have to follow them.”

My second example refers to the fact that environmental protections are not just about tree hugging, red kites and dormice; they are about human health, because our health is intimately connected with that of the environment. The air that we breathe, the water in our rivers and the pesticides that are used on our farms can all impact on our health. We are talking here not about just about the environment but about human health. I am sure that most if not all members of the public would be horrified to think that there was any risk of diluting protections to their health as a result of the Bill.

I want to mention one concrete example that I heard about this morning. I put it in the form of a question to the Minister. He may not be able to answer it today because it is a bit of a curveball, but he may be able to write to us. It concerns environmental noise. The World Health Organization estimates that in Europe 100 million people suffer ill health as a result of environmental noise, and 1 million healthy life years are lost as a result of exposure to environmental noise. I was told this morning that there are EU regulations that require member states to map environmental noise in their country, which we are doing. However, since we left the EU, there is now an additional requirement to map the health impacts of environmental noise, but because we have left we are apparently not doing that. I would like the Minister to confirm or deny that assertion which I heard this morning. That would be a small example of how, as we slide away from EU standards, there is a danger that we will lower our protections for the environment and, importantly, for human health at the same time.

Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead (CB)
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My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, has found time to join us for the debate on this group of amendments. If he will permit me, I would like to take advantage of his presence here to ask him two questions.

The first relates to the dashboard, and I think he was present for at least some of the debate about that. One of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, in concluding was that there is no mention in the Defra section of the dashboard of any legislation relating to Scotland or Wales. She was not entirely right about that; I was looking at the dashboard today and I detected 30 entries that refer to Scotland and 15 to Wales, but they are all in the section of the Defra list that deals with agricultural policy. There are many other areas that Defra covers, but, so far as I can detect, none of the legislation from the devolved Administrations has yet been listed on the dashboard. Is Defra still making efforts to discover from the devolved Administrations whether they have legislation relating to the other areas for which it is responsible? It is very important that we have a complete list, at some point, of the legislation in the different policy areas.

My noble friend Lord Krebs suggested that the figure that he gave, which I think was 1,781, was slightly doubtful. The figure can be arrived at by simple arithmetic because each item in the list is given a number, and you can work down the list. The total list at the moment contains 3,746 items. I made the number of Defra items 1,780—although perhaps my arithmetic was a bit defective—so that is a major part of the list so far, which is why the Minister’s presence here is so important. Completing the list at some point is important, so is the Minister aware of other areas where the devolved Administrations are working to complete the list to include their legislation as well?

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, suggested the great pressures that Defra officials were under to achieve what they are being asked to achieve, but what she said applies equally to the devolved Administrations. I understand that for Scotland to try to grapple with the Defra area so far as it refers to it, its manpower—or its workforce, I should say, to avoid gender problems—is at most 10% of that which Defra enjoys, and they have pressures of their own. They have work already going on which is under extreme pressure. Now, on top of that, we find that they have to detect where the retained EU law measures are that have to be looked at, so there is an immense problem for them. My supplementary to the dashboard point is: is the noble Lord satisfied that the devolved Administrations can achieve what they need to in order to identify the legislation in the other policy areas, and in a reasonable time to achieve the sunset? My impression at the moment is that they are under such pressure that it is highly unlikely they will be unable to do that.

The second question is rather different and relates to common frameworks. The Minister may be aware that of the 32 common frameworks that the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee has been dealing with, under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, 14 are Defra-related. At least some of them seem to deal with areas that are within the list that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman has concocted—“concocted” is the wrong word; I should say “put together”—including chemicals and pesticides; animal health and welfare; fertilisation regulation, which of course affects water quality; and the whole area of organic farming, agricultural support and so on. Can the Minister identify for us which of the items on the noble Baroness’s list fall within a common framework?

We have amendments later dealing with the need for special treatment of common frameworks because of the way in which they are organised and the system that exists for amendments to frameworks that are achieved by consensus. It is important that we know what we are dealing with. At some point we will have to know which of the various regulations on the Defra list are within common frameworks and which are not. Is it possible for the noble Lord to conduct an exercise to look at his list to identify which are common frameworks-related and which are not? I do not expect him to be able to achieve that today, but it would be extremely helpful to us on the committee chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, to know what we are dealing with, particularly with regard to the amendments that we will discuss later on.

Environment Bill

Debate between Lord Krebs and Lord Hope of Craighead
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, before I turn to the amendments in this grouping, I refer to a comment that the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, made in relation to the grouping including Amendment 73 when he pointed out that the Minister had not actually answered my question. In his reply the Minister said he had answered it, but I will just repeat the question which he did not answer—I do not expect him to answer it right now but I hope he will at some point. I said: “Can the Minister explain why he considers the introduction of proportionality necessary, when the precautionary principle, according to the High Court, already includes proportionality?” I then went on to quote in detail the judgment of 28 May 2021 from the High Court. I therefore hope that at some point the Minister will respond to that question.

I support all the amendments in the group including Amendment 82 and I am especially grateful to my noble friends Lord Cameron of Dillington and Lady Boycott for leading us into what is perhaps the core debate of the Bill: the role and nature of the office for environmental protection. As has already been said, this is the first of a series of amendment groupings that we will discuss in the coming hours which deal with the independence and enforcement role of the OEP.

The Government promised us a strong and independent OEP and, as we have already heard, many of us feel that we have been short-changed. I remind your Lordships of a score line: 25-0. This is not the forecast for the England-Germany game tomorrow but the number of speakers at Second Reading who expressed concerns about the OEP not having enough independence or teeth—25—versus those who thought it had too much of both: zero. There is no doubt about the strength of feeling across the House on this matter. As others have already spoken with great force and clarity on the issues, I wish to add only one personal anecdote, relating to ministerial involvement in appointments. This is particularly relevant to Amendment 85 in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone.

A few years ago, when I was chair of the Adaptation Committee of the Climate Change Committee, I went through the standard appointments procedure to select two new committee members. The selection panel was chaired by a Defra senior civil servant and included the requisite independent member. The panel unanimously agreed on the two best candidates. The then Secretary of State rejected both candidates because she did not think they had the right profile to serve on the committee.

If we are to have confidence in the genuine independence of the office for environmental protection, there has to be some transparency and independence about the recruitment, not just of the chair but of board members, as proposed in Amendment 85. I therefore hope that the Minister will take that amendment and the other amendments in this grouping seriously and that he will respond appropriately.

Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead (CB) [V]
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My Lords, while I do not support every detail of Amendment 82 and tend to prefer Amendment 85, the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Cameron of Dillington makes a very important point of principle, which I support. The independence of the office for environmental protection is crucial if it is to have public confidence. As the Constitution Committee, of which I am a member, said in its report on the Bill:

“It is essential that such an important public body be independent of the government.”

It is true that paragraph 17 of Schedule 1 states:

“In exercising functions in respect of the OEP, the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to protect its independence.”

The question is whether the provision in Schedule 1 is sufficient and appropriate to ensure that independence. I very much doubt that it is sufficient, which is why I said what I said at the beginning of this intervention.

The amendment, which provides for the appointment of a commissioner who is to be the chief executive of the OEP, would be well worth considering as an additional safeguard for the composition of this very important body, as indeed the alternative suggestion in Amendment 85 would be.

The provisions of Clause 24 about guidance by the Secretary of State to which the OEP must have regard in

“preparing its enforcement policy, and … exercising its enforcement functions”

are worth bearing in mind, because they show how important it is that it should be seen to be independent when, as will so often happen, a government proposal raises environmental concerns. The words “have regard to” are not the same as “must follow”. They leave room for independent thought and judgment. It is that aspect of independence which is so important, and why the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Cameron is so well worth considering carefully in this debate.