All Lord Trees contributions to the Environment Bill 2021-22

Mon 7th June 2021
3 interactions (821 words)

Environment Bill

(2nd reading)
Lord Trees Excerpts
Monday 7th June 2021

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Garden of Frognal) (LD)
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The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has withdrawn, so I now call the noble Lord, Lord Trees.

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I very much welcome the Bill. I welcome the introduction of an office for environmental protection; the efforts to tackle waste and simplify recycling; to tackle littering, which is a national disgrace; the measures to improve and enhance nature, biodiversity and conservation; and many other aspects of the Bill. Others more qualified than I am will doubtless comment on these at great length—some already have.

I would like to discuss three issues. The first concerns antimicrobial resistance and the environment. The current pandemic has emphasised the catastrophic consequences of emerging infectious diseases, but globally we face another major health challenge, that of antimicrobial resistance, so ably championed by the former Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, and the subject of a major report led by my noble friend Lord O’Neill. As a result, this issue is now included in the UK national risk register.

This challenge is of course posed by existing known infections which can develop or have developed resistance to currently available drugs. In response to this major global threat, the Government have published a UK five-year national action plan on AMR for 2019-24. This plan includes a substantial section involving the environment: for example, to better understand how AMR spreads between and among humans, animals and the environment. The plan emphasises the need to minimise the spread of AMR through the environment, deepen our understanding about AMR in the environment and minimise antimicrobial contamination of the environment. Given such a fundamental threat to human and animal health which involves the environment, it is surprising that this extensive Bill, in all its 249 pages, does not mention AMR once.

One appreciates that the Bill has to cover a wide range of issues but perhaps this is a missed opportunity to highlight the importance this Government place on the threats posed by AMR. This has been highlighted by the APPG on Antibiotics in a letter to the Secretary of State for Defra from its chair, Julian Sturdy MP. I declare here an interest as an officer of that APPG. We are very grateful for a detailed response to that letter from Rebecca Pow MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. However, it appears that currently there is no mandatory routine surveillance required for antimicrobials in the aquatic environment, nor is there routine surveillance for antibiotic resistance among bacteria in that environment. These seem to be essential data-collection functions which would help enable the national action plan to deliver its objectives. Moreover, it is not clear who will be responsible for setting environmental quality standards for antimicrobial environmental contamination. I appreciate that the Bill leaves much detail to secondary legislation but, given the importance of AMR for environmental, human and animal health, will the Minister consider making specific reference in the Bill to actions to monitor and mitigate AMR?

There are two other issues I would like to raise. The first concerns Clause 133 and the amendment of REACH legislation, which concerns the safety of chemicals. In previous debates on Brexit and REACH, I and others were concerned that data derived from animal testing for the toxicity of chemicals should be shared between European and other competent authorities to minimise the use of animals in such toxicity experiments. Animal welfare is an important priority for this Government; avoiding the need to replicate animal experiments in different jurisdictions while protecting consumer safety would be an obvious way to demonstrate this commitment. Can the Minister assure the House that in any amendment to REACH legislation, this will be a significant consideration?

The last point I wish to raise is connected with Clause 109 on “forest risk commodities”, the principle of which I wholeheartedly welcome. I raise it in connection with food, especially the potential of livestock imports reared on areas recently deforested, or on soya bean or other feed crops grown on cut-down forest. The explanatory notes to Schedule 16 state that among forest risk commodities, beef is

“likely to be considered for inclusion”.

This I would welcome, but it is not explicit in the Bill. Moreover, the Bill currently refers only to illegal deforestation, but we know that in some jurisdictions deforestation is not illegal. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider extending this to encompass legal deforestation, as argued by many environmental NGOs and mentioned already by several noble Lords?

I would point out that according to the recently published Rangeland Atlas from the International Livestock Research Institute, 54% of the world’s land area is natural grassland. Consequently, there is no global excuse for destroying forest to create artificial grassland. The Bill requires suppliers of forest risk commodities to carry out due diligence on such commodities. My final questions to the Minister are: will he assure the House that beef will be included as a forest risk commodity, and who will ensure that due diligence is exercised by importers of beef? I welcome this Bill and look forward to the Minister responding to my questions, if need be by letter.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP) [V]
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My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Green Party since 1988. Our manifestos since that time have included almost every single issue that we have heard about today. There have been some excellent speeches. It seems that is partly because we have waited so long for this Bill. The Minister himself said that it is an important Bill and there has been a lot of anticipation around it; that is absolutely true. There is also the fact that your Lordships’ House has a level of expertise on so many diverse issues that will be relevant for the Bill.

During the time that we have waited for the Bill to arrive, there has been a huge strength of feeling among your Lordships about our natural environment and how to preserve it. That strength of feeling has translated into action: we have made legislative changes, for example, to what are now the Agriculture Act, the Fisheries Act and the EU withdrawal Acts. However, that strength of feeling and action have been hampered by the Government because we have had repeated assertions and promises that whatever we brought up was not appropriate for a particular Bill but would be appropriate for the Environment Bill. Although the Minister was not one of the Ministers making those promises, we will of course hold the Government to account for them—and sadly, he is going to be in the firing line. All these issues, whether about water, air pollution, forestry, biodiversity or farming, have been saved up for this Bill. I can imagine that there are going to be a lot of amendments. Quite honestly, I am excited about that and looking forward to it.

I am not going to argue that we have an environmental or ecological crisis, or a nature or planetary crisis, because for me those things are absolutely self-evident. What we have is a political crisis. We have a Government who simply do not want to enable us to do our job. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, had it absolutely right: if the Government want a safe and fast passage for the Bill, the best thing would be to accept some of the superb amendments that are going to come from your Lordships. Many more amendments are required if we are to face up to the scale of the damage that is happening to our planet, and to the human race.

The Bill has some ambition but falls far short of what is needed, not least because its fundamental mechanics are hooked on a duty for Ministers to merely have due regard to the environmental policy statements. This creates a very weak foundation that can be overridden by Ministers far too easily. In talking about the office for environmental protection the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford cited a lack of independence. That would actually make the OEP dysfunctional, even pointless, so that office really has to be bolstered by some good amendments.

Then there are the concerns raised by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. Many more noble and learned Lords able to articulate those issues will speak later in the debate, but the point is quite simple. The Government are creating a new system of environmental law that is almost undeserving of being called law because it is so full of loopholes and get-out clauses and allows unlawful acts to carry on unimpeded.

The Greens in your Lordships’ House will be incredibly helpful during the passage of the Bill; we will try to help the Government improve it as much as we can. However, none of this is from the Government themselves. They have promised to leave the environment in a better condition than we inherited it, and the Bill will not do that. The noble Lord, Lord Khan, described it as a step backwards, but in some places it is a full retreat. It is therefore incumbent on your Lordships in our House that we defeat the Government vigorously and repeatedly during the coming stages of the Bill. We have to do it for our own well-being but also for our children and grandchildren—and for the humans and species who will inherit the earth long after we have gone.

The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, talked about unpredictable nature. We have to be absolutely sure that what we are doing is the safest way forward. I believe that, although the Minister is very committed to the environmental agenda, the Government are not. They simply do not understand that the environment encompasses everything. It is not an issue on its own; it encompasses the economy, transport, education and social well-being. It is absolutely everything, and the Bill is our one opportunity to get it right.