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Office for Environmental Protection

Volume 797: debated on Wednesday 22 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect the Office for Environmental Protection to be operational; what its remit will be; and in the interim, which body will ensure compliance with environmental protection legislation and regulations.

My Lords, we are planning for the office for environmental protection to be operational from 1 January 2021. The OEP will be an independent statutory organisation established by the environment Bill. It will provide environmental scrutiny and advice, respond to complaints and take enforcement action. If necessary, we are ready with interim arrangements. These will provide an initial assessment of complaints, scrutiny of the 25-year environment plan and ad hoc advice until the OEP is established.

I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply, and I yield to no one in my admiration of his concern for the environment. The Government have committed, in the EU withdrawal Bill being brought forward by the Prime Minister, to enforcing environmental protections but, in the unfortunate position of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union with no deal, we will lose access to the European Commission and the European Court of Justice to enforce the principles of environmental protection to which we have subscribed. Does my noble friend share my sense of urgency about setting up the office for environmental protection before 2021 to ensure that we will have a mechanism in place for enforcing all the principles to which we have subscribed under the EU in the event that we leave with no deal?

My Lords, that is precisely why we have the interim arrangements and the establishment of a non-statutory secretariat for those circumstances. It would be headed by a distinguished environmental lawyer. All of this is to ensure that, before the operation of the OEP, there is a body up and running and thus ready to take action in terms of the functions that apply directly to central government and public bodies. When the OEP is set up, those functions will be passed on, so there will be no gap in terms of holding government and public bodies to account.

My Lords, is the Minister concerned about the criticisms made by the Commons EFRA Committee, whose Conservative chair said recently of the draft environment Bill:

“There is also little point in setting up an environmental watchdog if it is unable to fulfil its essential function of holding the government to account”.

Does he recognise that criticism and, if so, what is his department doing to address those shortcomings?

I can assure noble Lords that we work closely. The reports of the Environmental Audit Committee, the EFRA Committee and indeed of our own committee have been immensely valuable in responding to the draft environment (principles and governance) Bill. We will be considering the responses as positively as we can, but obviously the most important thing is to ensure that we enhance the environment and that we have the right legislation in place to do that.

My Lords, as the Minister will be aware, the two main concerns raised by the Environmental Audit Committee and the EFRA Select Committee in the other place—as well as the EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, of which I am a member, in your Lordships’ House—have been about the independence of the OEP and its enforcement powers. I hope the Minister will be able to confirm to the House that, in considering these three Select Committee reports, the Government will take steps to ensure that the OEP is fully independent and has enforcement powers comparable to those currently exercised by the Commission and the ECJ.

My Lords, I reply in the same vein to the noble Lord. We found the responses of the three committees very helpful. Referring to Clause 12(1) of the draft Bill, I can say that the OEP will set its own work plan independently of government. It is absolutely clear that this body must be independent from Defra. Ministers cannot set its programme of activity or improperly influence its decision-making, and it will be accountable to Parliament. The absolute intention of this is to ensure we have an independent body so that we can all be confident we are enhancing the environment.

My Lords, a new global review has concluded that the damage to human health from air pollution extends to all organs of the body. Southampton in my diocese is now among the top 20 UK cities already at the pollution-level limit of 10 micrograms per cubic metre. I therefore press the Minister to confirm what responsibility the office for environmental protection will have in holding the Government to account for implementing their commitment to the clean air strategy, which is internationally recognised by the WHO.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is absolutely right. Air quality and this whole arena will be part of the environment Bill, and it is clear that the improvement of air quality is part of ensuring we have an enhanced environment. Indeed, the Bill will give legal force to our clean air strategy, and we will work to ensure that we continuously improve air quality as part of environmental governance and its principles.

My Lords, can I pin the Minister down a little more? When the withdrawal agreement comes before this House, is he prepared to support any amendments that would ensure we have the same enforcement in the future as now?

My Lords, this is precisely why a rather considerable environment Bill will come before us in the second Session. It is important that all relevant committees have had sight of the draft Bill. Clearly, it will be for the other place and your Lordships to consider whether the provisions are suitable. I believe it is a strong example of the Government’s bona fides in wanting to enhance the environment and having the right principles and governance arrangements on the face of the Bill.

My Lords, what mechanisms are the UK Government proposing to put in place, in partnership with the devolved Administrations, to ensure that there is continued co-operation on governance across the UK after exit, including on transboundary issues?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right in inferring that none of these matters respects borders. This is why we want to work collaboratively with the devolved Administrations. We respect the devolution settlements but will clearly work with the devolved Administrations for the very reasons the noble Baroness has set out. It is important that we collaborate on the environment, but it is part of the devolved arrangements. The Bill will relate to all reserved environmental matters and to England.