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Establishment of the Office for Environmental Protection

Volume 700: debated on Tuesday 7 September 2021

As the Environment Bill starts Report stage in the House of Lords today, I am making this statement on the actions taken and commitments made to establish the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) as an independent body, given the significant interest from Members of both Houses.

This Government were elected on a manifesto that committed to setting up a new independent environmental body in the OEP, which will help ensure that our high environmental standards are upheld.

OEP independence

The Environment Bill includes several provisions to enshrine the OEP’s independence in law. These include a specific duty on the Secretary of State when exercising his or her functions to have regard to the need to protect the OEP’s independence.

The Bill also states that the OEP must prepare its own strategy that sets out how it intends to exercise its functions. The OEP is required to lay this strategy before Parliament to allow for proper scrutiny and transparency. The Bill also requires the OEP to act objectively and impartially. In addition to the protections that the Bill provides, the Government have made several commitments to ensure the OEP’s operational independence.

OEP appointments

The Office for Environmental Protection will be included in the schedule to the Public Appointments Order in Council and non-executive members will be independently regulated by Her Majesty’s Commissioner for Public Appointments. The Bill also requires that the OEP Chair be consulted on all non-executive appointments.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission took a similar approach as its board members are appointed by Ministers. The Commission has had an “A” rating as a national human rights institution from the United Nations since 2009, based partly on its independence and autonomy from Government.

The appointments of the OEP chair designate and non-executive members designate have already been made, following a regulated public appointments process, which will also be followed for future appointments.

The Government took the necessary steps to ensure that the role of chair was listed as a significant appointment with the Commissioner for Public Appointments, providing an added level of scrutiny and independence in the recruitment process. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Environmental Audit Committees conducted a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing before the appointment of Dame Glenys Stacey as OEP chair designate. I am happy to confirm our intention that future chair appointments should follow a similar process, ensuring fairness, accountability and independence in the future.

The appointments that have already been made demonstrate that the OEP will have the relevant expertise it needs to operate as an effective independent body. As a further safeguard, Parliament can choose to call any member of the OEP board to provide evidence in relation to their suitability for appointment once they have taken up their post. The Bill also requires that the OEP chair be consulted on all non-executive appointments, and that the executive members be appointed by the OEP board alone, with the chief executive appointed by the non-executive members—or the chair in the case of the first chief executive—after consultation with the Secretary of State.

OEP finance

To give the OEP robust financial certainty over the coming years, the Government have committed to providing it with an indicative five-year budget which will be ringfenced within each spending review period. This approach follows the model of the Office for Budget Responsibility and is consistent with international best practice, strengthening institutional independence through delegated budgetary autonomy.

I have agreed with HM Treasury the budget for the OEP’s first year of operation. This will be reviewed after the first 18 months of operation, which will ensure an evidence-based approach to the future OEP budget. The OEP must also include an annual assessment in its annual report and statement of accounts whether it has received sufficient sums to carry out its functions, which must be laid before Parliament.

OEP guidance

The OEP has an unprecedented remit: its principal objective will be to contribute to environmental protection and the improvement of the natural environment, and it will be able to take enforcement action against all public authorities, including local authorities, regulators and central Government Departments. It is for this reason that the Government feels that a guidance power is necessary—the OEP must be impartial and independent, but not unaccountable.

This guidance power will not be used—indeed, it cannot be used—to intervene or direct the OEP in decision making about specific cases. Furthermore, recognising the strength of feeling from Parliament on this issue, we have introduced an amendment for Lords Report to enable additional parliamentary scrutiny of any draft guidance. Under the new amendment, the Secretary of State will be required to lay a draft of any guidance before Parliament and respond to any resolutions or recommendations made by either House and parliamentary Committees before producing the final guidance. This would supersede and strengthen the provision in clause 25(4), which currently requires the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament and publish any guidance.

This Government are committed to establishing the OEP as an independent body to contribute to environmental protection and hold public authorities to account. It will be a body built on international best practice and tailored to our domestic context, and we are committed to ensuring it can be legally established as soon as possible following Royal Assent, to begin delivering benefits for people and the environment.