Skip to main content

Brexit: Environmental Enforcement Agency

Volume 788: debated on Monday 8 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to establish an independent environmental enforcement agency before the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

My Lords, on 12 November last year, the Secretary of State set out plans to consult on a new independent and statutory body to hold government, and potentially public authorities, to account on environmental commitments. We will carry out a consultation early this year on its remit and functions. I do not want to pre-empt the result of the consultation, and so at this stage cannot be definitive about timescales for establishing the new body.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but I am curious about the consultation. Will it be made public so that we have a chance to examine it in this House before the withdrawal Bill comes through, so that we are well informed about exactly what we are voting on?

My Lords, I assure your Lordships that it will be a full and proper consultation. We want to have detailed consideration with stakeholders and your Lordships so that we get the right decision because we recognise that something needs to be done to fill what we acknowledge is a governance gap. I am not sure about the precise timings, but the whole purpose of an early consultation is so that we can move this forward.

My Lords, this will be a powerful new organisation, which I understand will have the ability to fine or otherwise sanction other public bodies. In that case, is it the Government’s intention to produce primary legislation for the introduction of this body or are they still assuming that it will be dealt with in delegated legislation? My other question is: will this body have some jurisdiction in the remaining seven years of the present system of farm support in fulfilling the role of making sure that environmental standards are met by agricultural practitioners?

My Lords, the whole purpose of the detailed consideration and our consultation is to decide, and to have reflection from stakeholders, on the best way forward. That is why, at this stage, we have not made a firm decision as to the route because we think we should not pre-empt what is a serious consultation. As to the matter of agriculture, we have been very clear that we wish there to be a transitional phase. However, the arrangements in the withdrawal Bill are that existing EU law will be brought on to the UK statute book. What we are looking at is how we deal with the situation after we have left the European Union and, potentially, after an implementation period.

My Lords, will my noble friend explain to the House what the situation will be for EU directives that are currently being revised but which will be approved by the European Union before the point of departure? Will he also explain what the relationship will be between this statutory independent body and the existing Environment Agency?

My Lords, we will continue to implement EU legislation that is on the statute book. The whole purpose is to have certainty on the statute book. What we want with this new environmental body is to ensure that there is not a governance gap and that in our wish to enhance the environment, government and, potentially, other public bodies can be held to account. We think that that is very important indeed.

My Lords, will the Minister tell us what discussions are taking place with the devolved Administrations, such that the new body can be co-designed and owned by all four Governments, given the importance of these areas to devolved responsibilities?

My Lords, we are already working with devolved Administrations on which powers coming back from the EU should be devolved further. We want to explore whether Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland wish to take a different or a similar approach on this matter. If they wish to join what will be an English body, we would be pleased. On the other hand, they may decide to take a somewhat different approach. Our thrust in this is to collaborate so that if they wish to be part of this body, we would welcome that.

My Lords, the Government have said that the new environmental body must have teeth. Will the Minister say how the Government will ensure that this happens and what teeth they envisage it will need?

My Lords, again, I do not want to pre-empt the consultation. We want a wide consultation and stakeholders, your Lordships and others to participate in it. We need to fill the governance gap, particularly as we wish to enhance the environment. I hope that before too long we will publish the 25-year environment plan. We want to enhance the environment, and that is a step forward. I assure the noble Baroness that we wish to have a rigorous environmental body.

My Lords, the Minister pointed out that this measure is aimed at closing the governance gap. One of the major benefits of the EU enforcement mechanism was that it could enforce fines against the Government in infraction proceedings. I have not been able to find another UK independent regulator which has that power at the moment. Can the Minister tell us whether the new independent regulator will be able to enforce environment standards not only on public bodies but on the Government?

My Lords, I will be straightforward. We want to proceed with this because we think government and public bodies should be held to account. We have existing frameworks, regulators, judicial review processes and Parliament ensuring that the Executive are accountable to them and, ultimately, to the electorate. This is an important matter, and we are going to consult widely. We have not ruled anything in or out. We want a full consultation so that we can understand what stakeholders and other interested groups think is the best way forward in holding government and public bodies to account.

My Lords, Mr Gove, in his general approach to amendments in the law, has suggested that there will be a tightening up of slaughterhouse regulations through the use of CCTV cameras. Will the Minister comment on what is being proposed and when we might see legislation?

My Lords, it was in the Conservative manifesto that we wish to have CCTV in all slaughterhouses for all parts of their operations involving live animals. We will bring forward proposals for that because it is an important part of enhancing animal welfare. It will also assure consumers that animals are being treated in a humane manner at the point of dispatch. I look forward to introducing those legislative proposals.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House to whom this new agency will be accountable? Will it be accountable to government Ministers, whom it might criticise, or will it be accountable to Parliament?

My Lords, the whole basis of having a consultation is not to prejudge anything. I assure your Lordships that this is serious work on a serious subject in which, yes, government and public bodies need to be held to account. There could be a range of ways in which that can be secured. A number of your Lordships have mentioned fines, but it could be through the provision of advice or annual reports to Parliament. I do not want to rule anything in or out because we are having a genuine consultation.

My Lords, may I recommend to the Government that they devise principles on which to base this new body? You cannot have a new body that is entirely designed by the public. You need to have principles—for example, that the polluter pays—through which the Government can be held to account. You cannot devise a new, strong enforcement body without any principles underlying it.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness because part of my script is that we will be setting out plans to consult on a new policy statement precisely on the environmental principles that will apply post our exit. It is absolutely right that one principle in the current system of environmental legislation is that the polluter pays. In the proposed consultation we will explore the scope and content of a new statement on environmental principles.