Skip to main content

Environment Plan

Volume 794: debated on Thursday 29 November 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether their 25-year environment plan will be underpinned by legally binding targets.

My Lords, as announced in July, we will bring forward an ambitious environment Bill early in the second parliamentary Session, building on the vision of the 25-year environment plan. We are exploring possible wider legislative measures which could be included in that Bill. Furthermore, the Bill will establish a new independent statutory environment body to hold government to account on environmental standards. Draft legislation on environmental principles and governance will be published before Christmas.

I thank the Minister for that reply. However, can he explain the difference between the draft indicator framework—a horribly technical term—which currently seems to be being developed, and which seems to be about monitoring the current status of the environment, and, on the other hand, legally enforceable targets? Those are the only way to guarantee improvements in areas such as air and water quality, soil health, biodiversity gain and resource efficiency, which the plan indeed promises. Is there any truth in the press reports that, once again, the Treasury is blocking Michael Gove’s attempts to make those targets legally binding?

My Lords, the noble Baroness indicates the work that is going on with 100 experts from Defra and arm’s-length bodies on the framework, including the Natural Capital Committee, so that we have indicators from the plan that ensure both transparency and accountability. This will come forward as draft legislation, and I cannot pre-empt that, but there will obviously be pre-legislative scrutiny, and I very much hope that noble Lords will engage in that. That is precisely what we should be doing, because we want to advance the environment—the whole basis of the 25-year environment plan—and put it on a statutory basis.

My Lords, I understand, and hear very often, that this Government have a commitment to protect the environment and, indeed, to leave it in a better state than they found it. Can the Minister explain how he reconciles this ambition with the fact that the budget for the body charged with protecting habitats and species in England, Natural England, has been slashed by 45% during the last five years? According to its chairman, Andrew Sells, Natural England is now gagged by Defra so that it cannot make independent statements to the press. In case this is seen as part of overall austerity, I remind noble Lords that Defra has increased its own headcount by 1,300 staff.

My Lords, the 25-year environment plan will involve: environmental land management; an environmental net gain principle; a resources and waste strategy coming forward; a clean air strategy coming forward; a review of national parks already in place; and we are reducing plastic waste. These are just some examples of the Government’s intent, the strongest possible intent, that we shall be the first generation to enhance the environment. As for Natural England, it does a very good job. All public bodies have had to ensure that we find enough money for essential services during a very difficult time after 2008, and that has borne fruit. That is how the vulnerable, at a very difficult time, were cared for.

My Lords, as the Minister has indicated, the targets are due to be published shortly. Polling has consistently found a high public demand for targets in law to protect the environment, which is very dear to the public’s heart. Will there be public consultation on the targets and, if so, when, given that the targets are about to be published?

My Lords, after the draft legislation on the environmental principles and governance has been published, there will be a period of pre-legislative scrutiny. Indeed, there has already been consultation, and responses to that consultation, on the principles and governance. That will also be published; we are continuing to analyse the responses. There is a lot of work in process, and a lot of that will come forward so that there is pre-legislative scrutiny and, indeed, further public reflection.

My Lords, I would like a better answer if possible to the original Question. Legally binding targets are, quite honestly, non-negotiable for many of us here. Secondly, there is no point to those targets if we do not have a body with the powers to hold public and private organisations—the Government and, for example, car manufacturers—to account. Will the new body have those tough powers?

My Lords, I apologise that I am not in a position today to go beyond a certain point because I must not pre-empt what is coming forward. All I can say is that these are issues that have come forward and been aired in the consultation. We will bring forward proposals; Parliament will have time to look at them before Christmas, I hope. We will make sure it is possible for Parliament to reflect on this, and will ensure further observations too. We want to get this right. It is essential that we enhance the environment.

My Lords, will the Government welcome the present campaign called “Extinction Rebellion”? It is designed to give people time to reflect when they are stuck at traffic lights that they are sitting in a very polluting vehicle in the middle of a city. I do not know how many noble Lords have been held up by traffic. I understand the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, was held up for seven minutes and looked extremely happy to be reflecting. Is this not something we should be taking more seriously, to help implement the IPCC’s report, which came out last week, on global warming targets?

My Lords, the noble Lord has said something very important. The City of Westminster has also had a “stop idling your engine” policy. This is all about how we ensure that, whether near schools or traffic lights, wherever there are jams people switch their engines off. This is where we get the accumulations of pollution in particular. We need to think about it; I agree with the noble Lord. We need to be doing more ourselves to counter pollution.