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Air, Water and Biodiversity: Statutory Deadlines

Volume 722: debated on Thursday 17 November 2022

8. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the Government failing to meet statutory deadlines on (a) air quality, (b) water quality and (c) biodiversity. (902210)

The Government already have existing legal targets driving ambitious action on air and water quality. As the hon. Lady will be aware, bio- diversity was included in the Environment Act 2021, so it is already in primary legislation. When I became Secretary of State, frankly, I was disappointed to discover that we were not in a place to publish these targets, but we are now working at pace, building on the work of my predecessors and the environmental implementation plan.

My constituents will continue to suffer from breathing toxic air because of the Government’s failure to meet the legal deadline to introduce targets under the Environment Act. The Government are also planning to water down standards by committing to cut PM2.5 only by 2040, not by 2030, the target that the EU has committed to, reneging on yet another pledge not to water down standards post Brexit. Will the Secretary of State provide a new date for the publication of environment targets and commit to a 2030 target?

I know that we are in a debating Chamber, but what the hon. Lady said at the beginning of her question is factually incorrect. It is important to say that legislation is already in place. We are actually seeing air quality improving right across the country. Indeed, I remind her that in her constituency, it is of course the Mayor of London who should be driving improvements in air quality. He has all the powers at his disposal to do so and it is up to him to deliver.

May I welcome the Secretary of State to her post? She has been in post for three weeks now, but the crisis of raw sewage turning England into an open sewer can be traced back to her time as an Environment Minister. To undo that damage, will she update the House on when she held a roundtable with all the water bosses and what the outcome of it was?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that warm welcome. It is great to be back at DEFRA, a Department in which I served for three years—I am pleased to be there. Let us be candid about this: we have seen some difficult situations with water companies. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), is already on the case in that regard. I have not yet prioritised the water companies specifically, because other Ministers are doing so and I am prioritising my work to achieve environmental targets to satisfy the legislation set out by Parliament, as well as the preparation we are doing for the Montreal conference. My hon. Friend has already set out to the House some of the work that is under way. We are taking proactive action on sewage spillage.

The Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), may only have been in office for just over a month, but even he met the water bosses for a roundtable on his first day in office. Why, for one of the biggest scandals in her Department, has she not seen that as a priority?

Moving on, in a stunning turn of events, ahead of COP27, the Secretary of State announced that the Government will breach their own self-imposed legal obligations to publish targets on air quality, clean water and biodiversity. How does she expect other countries to take us seriously at COP15 when we cannot even get our own house in order?

I was at the last COP on the convention on biological diversity, COP14, in Sharm El-Sheikh. I just got home from Sharm, from the climate COP, to come back in time for orals today. I assure the hon. Member that we continue to work with countries around the world to ensure that our outcomes in Montreal are as ambitious as they can be, including signing people up to the 30 by 30 coalition, and indeed the 10-point plan for biodiversity financing. I assure him that we are working at pace in the Department on the Environment Act, and the subsequent targets from it that we need to put into legislation, and I hope to update the House in the near future.