The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has released a report criticising the draft Environment Bill and is urging the Government to make “significant revisions” to the bill before presenting it to Parliament.
This draft Environment Bill was published in December 2018 and will form part of the wider Bill that is yet to be published. The Committee launched its inquiry following its publication.
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The draft Bill outlines how the Government plans to maintain environmental standards as the UK leaves the European Union.
After receiving a range of evidence from witnesses, the Committee has said that the draft Bill’s provisions do not match the current environmental protections that the EU membership offers.
The Government said: “We will not only maintain our current protections, but surpass them, taking new steps to ensure our environment is even better protected in future.”
From this, the Committee believes that for the Government to meet its own ambition for the environment, the current draft Bill needs significant revision.
The report published by the Committee has recommended that the Government:
- Set out a clear overarching objective for the UK’s future environmental governance and to ensure that environmental principles do not lose the legal status and priority they currently possess in European law
- Ensure that Ministers and all relevant public authorities act in accordance with environmental principles, rather than the weaker duty proposed in the draft Bill that Ministers must “have regard to” environmental principle
- Strengthen the Office for Environmental Protection’s (OEP) independence from Government by ensuring all decisions relating to the membership of its board require the consent of our Committee, and by committing to a multi-annual budgetary framework in the Bill
- “Sharpen the teeth” of the OEP’s proposed enforcement powers by providing it with further compliance tools beyond review in the courts, and empowering it to issue emergency and interim measures in urgent cases of environmental harm
- Provide the OEP with the necessary powers to enforce Government targets and objectives relating to climate change to ensure there is no governance gap after we leave the EU.
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Chair Neil Parish MP said: “Although the Government has made a real attempt to establish a robust framework for environmental governance, the draft Bill clearly fails to meet its own ambition to ‘ensure the environment is even better protected in future’ as we exit the EU. In some areas it actually marks a significant regression on current standards.
“There is also little point in setting up an environmental watchdog if it is unable to fulfil its essential function of holding the government to account. The new watchdog must not solely be a creature of Government but needs real independence.”
He added that to achieve real independence there needs to be a role for Parliament in all decisions relating to the membership of the OEP.
The Minister said: “Funding for the OEP must also not be solely at the whim of Defra ministers, as is currently the proposal. Sustained cuts to arm’s length bodies such as the Environment Agency and Natural England demonstrate the need for the OEP to have greater budgetary protection to guarantee genuine independence.
“The watchdog will also need sharper enforcement teeth. The Government must explore appropriate ways to ensure greater personal accountability for Ministers and public servants if they fail to uphold environmental law before presenting this Bill to Parliament. It is imperative to future generations that the Government does not squander its chance to get this right – it is unlikely they will get another any time soon.”