Skip to main content

Environment Bill

Volume 701: debated on Wednesday 20 October 2021

Consideration of Lords amendments

I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendments 28, 40 and 59. If the House agrees to any of these Lords amendments, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.

Before Clause 1

Purpose and declaration of biodiversity and climate emergency

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Lords amendment 2, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 3, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 12, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 28, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 31, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.

Lords amendment 33, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 75, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.

Lords amendments 4 to 11, 13 to 27, 29, 30, 32, 34, 35, 64, 69 and 70.

I am delighted to be cracking on with the Environment Bill. It has dominated my whole life as an Environment Minister, but I hope we all agree that it has only got the stronger for it. Make no mistake that this is a landmark piece of legislation that will increase our resource efficiency and biodiversity, drive improvements in air and water quality, and put us on the sustainable trajectory for the future that I believe we all want and need.

Even though the Bill has not been before the House for some time, it has grown, developed and strengthened in that time. My officials have been working tirelessly with all others involved to bring forward a whole range of measures in the Bill. We have already launched five local nature recovery strategy pilots, we have appointed Dame Glenys Stacey as chair-designate of the office for environmental protection, and we have consulted on the extended producer responsibility, the deposit return scheme and consistent recycling collections in England.

The Bill is packed with positive measures, but I am delighted that the Government have improved it even further. [Interruption.] There is lots of agreement from the Opposition Benches—excellent. Lords amendment 4 and its consequential amendments will require the Secretary of State to set a new, historic, legally binding target to halt the decline of species by 2030. That is a bold, vital and world-leading commitment. It forms the core of the Government’s pledge to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.

In the same vein, the Government acknowledge that the climate and biodiversity situation is an emergency. I am very pleased to say that that was referenced by the Prime Minister himself, who pledged to

“meet the global climate emergency”

in his foreword to the net zero strategy, which was published just yesterday. However, addressing those twin challenges requires action rather than declarations, which is why the Government are acting now. We have committed to set a new historic legally binding target to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030.

I genuinely thank the Minister for all the incredible work she has done. She talks about the importance of biodiversity. Does she understand that I found it a little frustrating that the Government did not look in a better way and more closely at my amendment, which would have closed the loophole on sites of special scientific interest? Currently, the loophole allows an SSSI to effectively be concreted over, damaging the biodiversity she wishes to protect. Even at this late stage, will the Government look again at that SSSI amendment, please?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Obviously, we take SSSIs extremely seriously under their designations. There is a set pathway for SSSIs and for looking after them, but I think he will agree, if he listens to what I have to say, that the Bill contains some very strong measures on biodiversity, which are much needed and will help us to that trajectory of restoring nature.

I was saying that we have a legally binding target to halt the decline in species abundance. The UK was also the first economy to set a target of net zero emissions by 2050. Our target for the sixth carbon budget is world-leading. The “Net Zero Strategy” published yesterday builds on the 10-point plan, the energy White Paper, the transport decarbonisation plan, the hydrogen strategy, and the heat and building strategy, setting out our ambitious plans across all key sectors of the economy to reach net zero. This is an all-in approach.

Of course, it is not just our domestic approach that counts. Tackling climate change and biodiversity loss is our No. 1 international priority, which is why we are driving forward our COP26 presidency and playing a leading role in developing an ambitious post-2020 global biodiversity framework due to be adopted at the convention on biological diversity COP15. Therefore, putting the declaration in Lords amendment 1 in law, although well-intentioned, is not necessary.

Lords amendment 2 would require the Government to set a legally binding target on soil health. I would like to be clear with the House and the other place that we are currently considering how to develop the appropriate means of measuring soil health, which could be used to inform a future soils target. However, we do not yet have the reliable metrics needed to set a robust target by October next year and to measure its progress. If we accepted the amendment, we could be committing to doing something that we cannot deliver or might not even know if we have delivered. I am sure hon. Members and hon. Friends would agree that that is not a sensible approach.

I am a little concerned to hear the Minister say that they are still not ready to go ahead. From my recollection of the past few years, we talked about this issue in the Agriculture Public Bill Committee and when this Bill was in Committee. Has work actually started on this and how long does she think the programme of work will take? Why is it taking so long?

I am pleased that the hon. Member, like me, is deeply passionate about soil. I think I held the first ever debate on soil in Parliament when I was a Back Bencher. It is something that I am personally very keen on. We believe we cannot commit to set the actual target until we have that baseline of robust metrics. We consulted and are working very widely with experts and specialists. Indeed, a range of pilots, tests and trials are running related to soil. Instead, I can provide reassurance that the Government, as announced in the other place on Report, will be bringing forward a soil health action plan for England. It will provide a clear strategic direction to develop a healthy soil indicator, soil structure methodology and a soil health monitoring scheme. All those things are absolutely necessary before we can set the actual target, but there is a huge amount of work going on, on the soil agenda. I am personally pushing that forward, as is the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), with whom I am working very closely on this matter.

I know the Minister is personally committed to the soil agenda—I remember sitting with her on the Environmental Audit Committee—and I am sure she shares my concern about this being hugely delayed. She talks about the action plan, but the draft outline will not even be consulted on until spring next year. What can we do to try to speed that up? It is a massively serious issue, as she knows, yet the signals from the Government are that they are treating it with complacency.

I completely disagree with the hon. Lady, although I am listening to what she is saying. There is no complacency whatever on this. In fact, soil will be one of the top priorities in our new environmental land management and sustainable farming initiative schemes. So it will be prioritised. It is the stuff of life. All farmers and landowners understand that we have to get it right. The soil health action plan will absolutely drive that forward, as have action plans in many other areas, such as peat. We are now bringing that all into being, so I can categorically say that this will happen. I really hope that that gives her some reassurance.

I also urge Members to look at the written ministerial statement on this matter, which was published just yesterday. The plan and its actions will create a robust baseline from which we can monitor improvements in soil health, identify trends and support informed policy decisions, including any future environmental targets for soil health.

On Lords amendment 3, on air quality, the Government are committed to driving forward tangible and long-lasting improvements to the air we breathe. We will set ambitious air quality targets through the Bill, including a specific target on PM2.5 which is the air pollutant that has the most significant impact on human health. Delivering ambitious reductions in PM2.5 will require action from everyone: national Government, local government, businesses and individual citizens. The more ambitious the targets, the greater the level of intervention that will be required.

I thank the Minister for presenting the Bill. We really do need to get to this target quickly. We also have the situation whereby the World Health Organisation is reducing the amount of PM2.5 that can be in the atmosphere. Are the Government taking this very seriously—not only the target that we have had all along but the new target that the WHO is setting?

My hon. Friend takes a huge amount of interest in this issue and I know my officials met him very recently to discuss the detail.

I am just going to answer this question.

Yes, the WHO has already lowered what it thinks is the safe limit, which I think demonstrates how complicated the issue is. It would be wrong to set a number on the face of the Bill without being absolutely certain that it was the right one—as my hon. Friend understands. I have spent a great deal of time on this issue with academics and scientists, and I am happy to share with others if that is helpful. We must make sure we get this right before we set the target. To be clear, to achieve even the 10 micrograms per metre squared in our cities would require significant change in all our lives. It would likely introduce policies aimed at restricting traffic kilometres by as much as 50% or more, a total ban on solid fuel burning including wood, and significant changes to farming practices to reduce ammonia, which reacts in the air to form particulate matter.

In the spirit of what we all felt and discussed after the tragedy of last week, I feel passionate about all these issues but I am determined to be good-tempered and pleasant to everyone in the whole of the debate. Along those lines, I have a passionate interest in clean air and have worked in this area for 27 years—I started an organisation called the Westminster Commission for Road Air Quality 27 years ago. The fact of the matter is, however, that this is glacially slow movement. We are poisoning pregnant women, older people and children in every town and city. Why are we not committed to sustainable development goals? Why do we not have a sustainable development community in every town and city? It all seems so glacially slow. I can almost see the spectral vision of Lord Lawson at the back there—that is what really worries me.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and for all his work in this area. In the spirit of being friendly, I have a smile on my face, but I would say that we are not moving slowly. He did not even reference the clean air strategy, which the WHO commended as being a world-leading piece of legislation. That is already bringing in measures across the country. There is also the £3.6 billion in the nitrogen oxide programme. The new air quality Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill)—who is sitting here, has a very big health interest. We are taking this extremely seriously. We need to look at the wider context and the Bill will then set the two targets—not just the average target, but the population exposure target, which is really important.

Given that the World Health Organisation had a target of 10 micrograms per cubic metre, which we are asking for in this amendment, and it is now 5 micrograms, does that not show that the only direction is down? Ten micrograms is a minimum standard that we surely need to achieve both to save tens of thousands of lives and to tell the world, through COP26—8.7 million people are dying every year of air pollution—that global Britain means showcasing the fact that we are willing to provide legally binding targets to deliver on public health, care costs, productivity and a cleaner, greener, better world.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We have met many, many times and we share a common interest in this issue. We are not arguing about its importance—[Interruption.] He is encouraging me—I thank him, but I do not need any encouragement actually; we realise how serious this is. The point is that we will be setting the target and we will be showing the world. We will announce that target next October, but we will consult on it before that. It would be wrong to set, for example, a specific number, if, indeed, we found that that number should be lower. I will leave it there.

We have to have a public consultation on this issue and we will do so early next year. Members of the public will want to understand not only the health impacts, but what impacts the measures that will be taken will have on their life. But we will not be sitting around. The consultation will allow us to bring forward the final target in October, and we cannot miss that target.

I understand that the Minister wants a consultation. I see good sense in that if we are to take the public with us, and I understand that she may be concerned about setting targets now. However, in areas such as mine—not inner cities, but suburban constituencies—there is a real issue with particulate pollution. We have a real problem with hotspots. Even if we are having a consultation until October, for heaven’s sake, can we not have a hotspots policy specifically to target areas where particulates are clearly high already? At least if we were doing that, it would be a reassurance to many of my constituents.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but we already have our clean air strategy, as I said, and our local authority fund, which we have recently increased by millions. I urge him to have a look at that fund and I urge his authority to apply. Many authorities are already taking their own measures because they know, for example, where the hotspots are. He makes a very sound point and the exposure target will really help those hotspots, which is why it is so important.

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). Further to the point about air pollution and working with the public, is the Minister also aware of the potentially significant business opportunities for vehicle and, indeed, cycle manufacturers in shifting to a low-pollution approach? As the hon. Gentleman said, local authorities are natural partners, but there are also partners in the private sector that could benefit hugely if the Government were able to make a clearer statement and agree at an earlier point with the WHO’s target.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a keen runner and gets out and about, probably on his bicycle as well, and he makes a very good point. This is why our net zero strategy, our road to decarbonisation for transport and the £2 billion that we have invested in cycling and walkways are so important. All those funds are being incorporated when local authorities apply for their budgets to deal with their hotspots. The clean air zone areas, which we are bringing in across the country, take advantage of exactly the opportunities that he raises.

The Minister is being generous and kind in giving way again. Has she seen the experiment in the cities of Oxford and London, where air quality detectors are on every waste truck? Every week, waste trucks go to every house in every street in the country. If we put those on every waste truck—and it is cheap—we would know the hotspots and the British public would know very quickly what sort of atmosphere their children were growing up in and what air we are breathing. Will she have a serious look at that and, in the process, discuss it with Sir Stephen Holgate, who is such a magnificent expert on all that?

I would suggest a meeting with the new air quality Minister—actually, I meet Sir Stephen Holgate regularly, as he is one of our advisers. We are increasing monitoring across the country for exactly the purposes that the hon. Gentleman mentions: the better the data, the more we know what action we can take.

The targets that we are working on are being carefully approached with experts such as Sir Stephen Holgate, as well as others from Imperial College London and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. We have two expert panels: the air quality expert group, chaired by Professor Alastair Lewis, and the committee on the medical effects of air pollutants, chaired by Anna Hansell of the University of Leicester. That will ensure that we get the targets right and that they are informed by the latest atmospheric science and health evidence. We will, of course, share those findings with the World Health Organisation.

I am going to plough on for a bit, because I think I have been pretty generous so far. The two targets that we will set—a concentration target and a population exposure reduction target—will work together to both reduce PM2.5 in areas with the highest levels and drive the continuous improvement that we need. A focus on reducing population exposure, not just a concentration-based target, recognises that there is no safe level of PM2.5, and a scientific approach is absolutely the right way to go. We recognise that this will not be easy and that we need to engage with society to bring it along with us.

The Minister is a doughty champion on this issue so I rise with some degree of trepidation. May I ask her one question? The data is all going in one direction. Do the Government have the power, if they see something so pressing, not to have to engage with consultation, so they can just say, “On the face of this, it is absolutely clear that the time for action is now. We don’t have to consult—just get on and do it”? Is that within her arsenal?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, but I think we would have as many critics for not consulting as we did for consulting, so that is the right way to go because there are always other views. I think we have agreed how important it is by saying that we have to set a target. Not only are we setting one target, but we have agreed to set two, and there can be all sorts of other targets within that.

I was not criticising the decision that the Minister has taken to consult on this issue. I merely inquire, in a spirit of curiosity, whether she as the Minister or the Secretary of State have the power—to use at some point—to set aside any requirement for consultation and just to act? Theoretically, is that power there?

The method we choose is to consult and to take expert advice in everything we do, particularly in a Department such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is rooted in science. I will move on now, and I hope that I have made it very clear throughout all this discussion about air quality that, for the reasons I have laid out, we cannot support this amendment.

To turn to amendment 12, I would like to reiterate much of what Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park said in the other place. Our world-leading targets framework will drive action by successive Governments to protect and enhance our natural world. Introducing legally binding interim targets, as the amendment proposes, would be both unnecessary and detrimental to our targets framework and our environmental ambitions. The amendment would undermine the long-term nature of the targets framework: it would force us to meet legally binding targets every five years on complex environmental systems.

We have designed the targets clauses to look beyond the political cycle of any one Government, avoiding action focused on short-term quick wins. We would not want to have to deprioritise key aspects of the environment with longer recovery times just to meet a five-year target. As many hon. Members will know, anything to do with land and land use can take a long time to see results, so this is the right approach.

We are so delighted to see my hon. Friend in this role, taking the Bill through, but why does she think that there is a temptation for Parliament to legislate for targets, which the Government seem to find very unhelpful? Will she reflect on the fact that the public at large are getting very little hard data or measured metrics about how we are doing onr4321a achieving all these goals? Perhaps the answer is not to legislate for more targets, but for the Government to acknowledge that they need to do much better at accumulating data and presenting it to the public, so that the public are engaged and have more confidence in what the Government are doing.

Data is key, and science is key. As I mentioned—and I was slightly disparaged—that is why we want to do the soil health monitoring: to gather the data. When I talk later about storm sewage overflows, the House will hear that our approach is very much about getting the data. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the more we can explain things to the public, the better. Personally, I do not think that we do that enough. Perhaps the press could help us.

We were talking about interim targets. Certain habitats take a very long time to change or recover, such as peat bogs, native woodlands and the marine environment. Five years would potentially be too short to get a result. This should not be just a tick-box exercise towards a five-yearly target. The Bill’s very robust statutory cycle of monitoring, annual reporting and five-yearly reviews, combined with regular scrutiny from the office for environmental protection, will ensure that we meet the interim targets set in the environmental improvement plans.

Hon. Members who were on the Bill Committee will be well aware of the whole process of reporting, monitoring and feeding back, which is constant. It comes under scrutiny as well, so even though an interim target is not legally binding, we will still be held to account for meeting it and heading towards it. If it is not right or if we are not making enough progress, the OEP will certainly have something to say about it, and indeed so will Parliament when we come to report on it. I recognise the concerns raised by peers, but it is our view that the changes made in the other place would lead to a detrimental impact on the enhancement of the environment and should be reversed.

I turn to Lords amendment 28, which I have been informed by the parliamentary authorities invokes financial privilege, but on which I still wish to reiterate the Government’s position. The Bill embeds environmental principles that will guide future policy making to protect the environment. The Government firmly maintain that exempting some limited areas from the duty to have regard provides flexibility in relation to finances, defence and national security.

First, the exemption for the armed forces, defence and national security remains essential to provide vital flexibility to preserve the nation’s protection and security. Defence land and defence policy are fundamentally linked. If the duty were applied to defence policy or Ministry of Defence land, it could result in legal challenges that could slow our ability to respond to urgent threats.

Secondly, applying the duty to taxation would constrain Treasury Ministers’ ability to alter our financial position to respond to the changing needs of our public finances. The Treasury’s world-leading Green Book already mandates the consideration of environmental impacts, climate change and natural capital in spending. That applies to spending bids from Departments, including for a fiscal event.

Order. I am very conscious that a lot of Members want to speak and that the debate has to finish at 4.36 pm, so I think we need to bear that in mind.

Apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker; it is only my second intervention, and it will be my last for the moment.

On environmental principles, may I ask the Minister about the consultation on the policy statement? As I understand it, the Government’s response to it is still delayed. Can she tell us when we can expect to see it and why it has been delayed for so long?

I thank the hon. Member for that question. In true Government-speak, I will say “shortly” and move on.

I make it clear that the exemption for

“spending or the allocation of resources”

refers to central spending decisions only. Individual policies that involve spending by Departments will still need to have due regard to the policy statement. Spending review and fiscal event decisions must be taken with consideration to a wide range of policy priorities, including macroeconomic issues that are too remote from the environmental principles for those principles to be directly applicable. For example, principles such as “polluter pays” cannot be applied to the allocation of overall departmental budgets.

I turn to the office for environmental protection. Lords amendments 31 and 75 would remove, respectively, the power for the Secretary of State to offer guidance to the OEP and the equivalent power for Ministers in Northern Ireland. I reiterate the Government’s commitment to establishing the OEP as an independent body. However, as the Secretary of State is ultimately responsible to Parliament for the OEP, the guidance power is required to ensure that there is appropriate accountability and that the OEP continues to operate effectively.

I acknowledge the concerns that have been raised about the power for the Secretary of State to issue guidance for the OEP. Our Government amendment (b) will therefore reintroduce the additional provision, first added in the other place, to ensure that Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly can scrutinise draft guidance before it is issued. The Secretary of State must respond before final guidance can be laid and have effect. The guidance power is not a power of direction; it will simply ensure that there is appropriate accountability and that the OEP continues to operate effectively. That is why the Government believe that it should remain part of the Bill.

What would happen if the Northern Ireland Assembly said that it did not agree with the legislation proposed here? Would Westminster overrule it?

Northern Ireland is included in this, but it has to decide whether it wants to commence the powers. It is up to it to do so.

Lords amendment 33 relates to the OEP’s enforcement powers—a complex issue, but an important one. I want to be clear with the House about what the amendment would do: it would remove protections for third parties brought into the OEP’s process of environmental review that have been specifically designed in recognition of the unique nature of this type of legal challenge. That is unacceptable. The OEP will be able to bring cases to court, potentially long after the decisions in question have been taken and outside the standard judicial review limits. Impacts on third parties must therefore be considered.

To give an example, quashing planning permission or consent for a block of flats many months or years after the decision was taken, when significant building works might already have commenced, would result in substantial hardship. We need to ensure that the key principles of fairness and certainty are upheld for third parties who have acted in good faith on the basis of certain decisions. The amendment would offer no such protections for third parties, so we cannot accept it.

I will conclude by briefly mentioning other Government amendments made in the Lords in relation to devolution, which I hope this House will support. Those amendments will, among other things, promote co-operation between the OEP and devolved environmental governance bodies and create clarity and consistency on the use of the environmental principles across the Union.

I am pleased to be backing the Environment Bill

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts and Measure:

Health and Social Care Levy Act 2021

Compensation (London Capital & Finance plc and Fraud Compensation Fund) Act 2021

Safeguarding (Code of Practice) Measure 2021.