Environment Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Philip DunneMain Page: Philip Dunne (Conservative - Ludlow)
Department Debates - View all Philip Dunne's debates with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Legislation Debates - View all Philip Dunne's contributions to the Environment Bill 2019-20
(1 year, 4 months ago)Commons Chamber
No, I am going to make some progress.
The Government have already strengthened the protections for ancient woodlands, veteran trees and irreplaceable habitats, and the Bill helps us to go further. Schedule 16 will help to combat illegal deforestation. We are also legislating to give communities a say when local authorities plan to remove treasured trees from urban and suburban streets.
I agree that volunteers getting involved in the fight against invasive species is very productive. There is an example in my own constituency, where a group is helping to remove invasive species from Pymmes Brook.
The Bill will strengthen and improve the duty on public authorities to make sure that the way they carry out their functions both conserves and enhances biodiversity and enables landowners to enter voluntary conservation covenants with responsible bodies, such as charities, that would bind subsequent owners of the land to sustainable stewardship long into the future. It also provides an important statutory underpinning for the nature recovery network we outlined in our 25-year plan—for example, by mandating the creation of local nature recovery strategies to map nature-rich habitats.
Break in Debate
Our environment is the most important resource that we have—no amount of money or social capital can replace the rivers on which we rely for irrigation and water, the soil that we need to grow food, and the air that gives us life. We need to get the Bill right if we want to look our children and grandchildren in the eye and truly say that we have left them with a better future through our actions.
Under this Bill, the Government could sit on their hands for three whole years before setting legally binding, long-term environmental targets that would be due at the very least 15 years after the target was set. Why is there a need for such a long delay? There is a need to get the targets right, but time is fleeting in the race to save our environment, and in many cases the earlier action is taken, the less work is needed overall to hit environmental goals in long-term strategies. Can the Minister confirm tonight that the Government plan to bring forward targets long before then, and certainly so that we are not left with no environmental targets when we leave the transition period?
Even if the Government miss their own targets, the enforcement method mooted to replace the EC in judging the Government on their environmental record is not fit for purpose. A letter from the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), who is not currently in her place, highlighted how little progress had been made to deal with the concerns raised by both the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the EAC about the lack of independence of the proposed Office for Environmental Protection and its legal enforcement powers. They are, in the words of Professor Maria Lee of University College London, “strikingly weak” for those who fall foul of protection of our environment.
Will this enforcement body have the tools necessary to carry out its functions? Given that a report by Unchecked highlighted the slashing of the Environment Agency budget by more than 60% under Lib Dem and Conservative austerity Governments resulting in an 80% drop in prosecutions, despite weekly serious pollution incidents, may I ask the Minister whether she shares the concerns of the Institute for Government and Prospect that the current funding mechanism could leave the proposed Office for Environmental Protection similarly vulnerable to underfunding by Governments who simply want to avoid environmental scrutiny? The Prime Minister promised a world-class watchdog to improve on current standards, but what we have is a lapdog and a Prime Minister who cannot be trusted to keep his promises, even when the livelihoods of the next generation depend upon it.
This is the latest in a long line of warm words from the Conservatives on the environment while we have seen the end of solar subsidies and support for biomass, no support for onshore wind, the sale of the Green Investment Bank, and the end of funding for the Swansea tidal lagoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield, who is no longer in her place, prevented those on the Government Benches and the Liberal Democrats from selling off our precious woodlands to the highest bidder. We have also moved away from revolutionary zero carbon homes.
We really do need a Government who will put the environment at the heart of everything that they do, not a Government who, sadly, see a cheap photo opportunity while they sell the prospects for prosperity of the next generation down the river.
I welcome this legislation, which is long overdue, but of course it is only necessary because this Government want to leave the European Union, which has for a long time been a force for good when it comes to environmental protection.
Environmental degradation is at an all-time high and we need to be bold to safeguard our natural world for our children and our children’s children. It is important to enshrine standards in law, especially if the EU legislation becomes no longer relevant. But the targets that this Bill sets out are deeply inadequate: 2037 is the first year that the Government would be required to meet their targets, which will not even be set until 2022. We are living through a climate emergency and we need climate action now, not in 18 years’ time.
The year 2037 is far too late to start holding the Government to account. We need to undertake a 10-year emergency emissions reduction programme, seeking to cut emissions as much as possible by 2030. The Liberal Democrats have a credible plan to cut most emissions by 2030 and get to net zero by 2045. Targets are meaningless on their own. We must ensure that local authorities, under the new Office for Environmental Protection, are empowered to hold the Government to account. If they are not, we risk this fundamentally important legislation being reduced to a Christmas wish list.
One of the key features of the legislation is the new Office for Environmental Protection, which seeks to replace the current protections we enjoy under EU bodies. This proposed organisation, however, has extremely limited independence, relying on central Government for funding, appointments and target setting. In addition, it lacks the power to fine Governments. It is a toothless version of our current provisions, which come from the EU and can hold the Government to account through hefty fines. This is exactly what happened with the air pollution problems. Only when ClientEarth came along and actually threatened to fine the Government did the Government finally act. This Government’s fixation on leaving the EU will cause untold damage. We are facing a true climate emergency and our environment is in the firing line. Now is not the time to abandon international co-operation.
The Government’s focus on plastics and clean air is welcome. However, the proposed actions once again fall short. Single-use plastics need to be part of a wider policy around recycling and waste. We need to improve recycling across the country by improving consistency, so that people can become familiar with how to separate waste and do not have to adjust to a new regime every time they move to another area. Local authorities should be able to set their policy, but they should be supported by the Government and manufacturers, which should make products easier to recycle. Our European neighbours set a very good example in this regard. For instance, Norway has only 18 different categories for recycling; this country has many, many more. Restricting the plastics we use is very important.
Clean air is a big priority for my constituents in Bath, and I am personally disappointed by the lack of ambition on these issues. We need a new legal limit for air quality that matches those set by the World Health Organisation; a duty on public bodies to do their part to tackle air pollution; and a right to clean air enshrined in domestic law.
We can all talk about wanting to do something about the environment and say, “Yes, there’s a climate emergency”, but it is ambition that matters and this piece of legislation definitely lacks ambition.