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Environment Bill: Royal Assent

Volume 812: debated on Thursday 10 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend for the Environment Bill to be presented for Royal Assent before the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties commences on 1 November.

My Lords, our landmark Environment Bill was officially reintroduced in the Commons following the Queen’s Speech at the start of May. The Bill completed its passage through the Commons and entered the Lords at the end of May. First and Second Reading have been completed. We have publicly committed to Royal Assent by autumn as a key part of our domestic and international environment agenda ahead of COP 26.

My Lords, I thank the Minister. The Environment Bill is big and important, and Peers at Second Reading showed its need for amendment; it must be given adequate time. Does the Minister accept that the Bill would go a lot faster if sensible amendments for improvement were accepted by the Government in a collaborative spirit rather than routinely rejected as if by rote? Would he accept that it would pretty difficult for the Government to show global leadership at COP 15 and COP 26 if they passed a Bill that is watering down previous environmental commitments —for example, on the office for environmental protection and halting biodiversity, climate and habitat regulations?

My Lords, it is absolutely right that this House will want to subject the Bill to full and proper scrutiny, but I hope noble Lords will agree that it represents a giant step forward in environmental protection: whether through biodiversity net gain, record-breaking targets, local nature recovery strategies, conservation covenants or the office for environmental protection. There is a whole package of measures to take us towards a zero-waste society. Of course I will approach debate on the Bill with an open mind, as all Ministers should, but it is already an important piece of work.

The range of topics raised on Second Reading, coupled with the number of amendments tabled since, highlights the gap we have long identified between the Government’s promises and proposals. The Minister has been refreshingly honest about the challenges our climate and ecological system faces, but does he accept that to get this Bill passed in a timely manner and ensure it is fit for purpose, the Government will have to compromise?

My Lords, very few pieces of legislation enter the process in exactly the same form as they end it. To that end, a number of changes have been introduced already in the Commons on due diligence obligations—a world first—on dealing with our international footprint, and amendments on the organisation of the OEP and species conservation strategies. A number of amendments have been tabled in recent days for the remaining stages here in the Lords on species abundance targets, nature targets and much more besides. So, of course, the Bill will improve over time.

Part 2 of the Environment Bill deals with environmental governance in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister specify when the Northern Ireland member of the office for environmental protection will be appointed?

My Lords, environment policy is mostly a devolved matter. Although a small number of provisions are drafted for Northern Ireland and Wales only, only half the provisions in the Bill extend beyond England. I cannot answer the question of when that appointment will be made, but I will be sure to inform the noble Baroness as soon as I have that information.

My Lords, the Bill will be a success only if it ties in with existing legislation and the proposed planning Bill. Can my noble friend tell us whether there are any plans to introduce it or present a full picture of the jigsaw of environmental legislation, rather than piece by piece?

The noble Lord makes a very important point, but it is true of almost all legislation: no piece of legislation can be seen in isolation. The department I stand here representing today is closely involved in the formulation of any planning amendments and changes that are being made. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that the planning changes are completely consistent with the aspirations in the Environment Bill.

My Lords, Clause 24 of the Bill allows the Secretary of State to give guidance to the office for environmental protection that it must take into consideration when exercising its enforcement functions. This seems to completely undermine and take away the independence of the OEP. Will the Government rethink this clause during the Bill’s passage through the House?

My Lords, the Secretary of State will be able to issue guidance to the OEP to ensure that the organisation retains a focus on the key priorities, but the OEP is just as able to reject that advice. It retains independence, and that independence is confirmed through a number of mechanisms in the Bill that ensure that, whether with financial independence or decision-making independence, it is free from ministerial interference.

My Lords, “perfect legislation” is the ultimate oxymoron, but does my noble friend accept this is landmark legislation, so it must be as near perfection as possible? That means that an artificial deadline is far less important than thorough scrutiny? This House must have the chance to do that.

Again, the noble Lord makes a very important point, and of course the Bill must be subjected to full and proper scrutiny—as I believe it will in the days and hours that have been given for its scrutiny. We have seven days for Committee, and I have no doubt that that debate will be lively and that the results will be effective in helping us to ensure that it is as close to perfect as possible.

My Lords, as president of the CBI, I was privileged to chair the B7, which feeds into the G7 this weekend, which in turn will lead to the B20, the G20 and, eventually, COP 26. Is the Minister aware that one-third of the UK’s largest businesses— representing a market capitalisation of £650 billion—has already committed to net zero by 2050, leading the world in this transition? The UK Government are urging more businesses to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050 and build back greener ahead of COP 26 in Glasgow in November. Surely, the Government must lead by example and ensure that this crucial Bill is debated thoroughly and passed before then?

My Lords, it is absolutely our intention that the Bill be passed before COP 26. I note the comments of the noble Lord. Huge progress has been made since the UK assumed the role of president-designate. We have seen huge success at the G7 with all members committed to net zero and steep emissions reductions in the first part of that target—over the next nine years. We have had commitments on nature in the G7 the likes of which we have never seen before. Of course, we now have to turn those words into action.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment to a species abundance target. I regard this as even more important than tackling climate change, since the loss of species is irreversible. Will the Government commit to publishing clear tracking data on the reduction in species abundance and on individual species, and to do that in series going backwards as well as forwards, so we can see exactly what is happening and all the public can be properly aware of the significant declines in species in the UK?

My Lords, as the noble Lord says, we have seen significant declines in biodiversity in recent decades. For a target to be successful, there needs to be a strong element of bench- marking, and that will be a feature of the measures we bring in.

Given the priority that the Government have given this Bill and the fact that most of the detail will be in regulations, will my noble friend commit to publishing the regulations as the Bill is going through, so we have a better idea of the detail and can scrutinise it as we go along?

My Lords, I do not think I am in a position to make that commitment, but I will certainly commit to ensuring that the House is presented with as much information as is possible during the passage of the Bill in order that noble Lords can make informed decisions.

My Lords, there is quite a degree of concern about the new watchdog, the office for environmental protection, and a feeling that it should be strengthened, but it cannot exist as a legal entity until the Bill passes, which leaves a big gap in environmental law enforcement. Indeed, the chair designate, Dame Glenys Stacey, has called that delay “extremely disappointing”. Will the Minister outline what the Government are going to do about the delay? Also, in a spirit of collaboration, will the Government agree that they will not resist all noble Lords’ proposed changes to strengthen the OEP?

My Lords, it is unfortunate that the Bill was delayed. I think most will understand why it was delayed—we have had extraordinary circumstances—but during this pause we have seen a lot of progress, not least the appointment of Dame Glenys Stacey, in addition to the process of beginning to develop those long-term, legally binding environmental targets, as well as consulting on a number of changes, including the DRS. Of course, it is hard to comment on amendments until we see them, but the Government will approach this with an open mind.