House of Lords
Wednesday 30 June 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask all Members to respect social distancing and wear face coverings while in the Chamber, except when speaking. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House. Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them to no longer than 30 seconds and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Covid-19: Wuhan Institute of Virology
My Lords, with the increasing threat of zoonotic diseases crossing the animal-human divide, learning how Covid was transmitted to humans and is spread is absolutely crucial to preventing future pandemics. The much-delayed WHO-convened Covid origin study reported on phase 1 of its investigation in March. The report made recommendations for further studies. The Government’s belief is that it is vital that phase 2 of the investigation does not face the same delays and that it is given full access to the data necessary for the next part of its work.
I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Viruses like this have not been found near Wuhan in bats or any other animals. The closest relative to this virus was brought to Wuhan by scientists from 1,000 miles away to a laboratory that had been manipulating SARS-like viruses for 15 years. There it was sequenced in 2017 and 2018 in a biosecurity level 2 laboratory. Most of that information was found out by independent investigators, not volunteered by the Chinese authorities. Will my noble friend unequivocally condemn that lack of transparency and join other nations in calling for a full and independent investigation? Will he clarify who is in charge in the British Government of answering that question?
My Lords, I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed by my noble friend. We are absolutely calling for a timely, transparent and evidence-based phase 2 study, including further investigation in China, as recommended by the experts’ report. We agree with the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response that member states should give the WHO greater powers to investigate outbreaks of pathogens with pandemic potential within member states.
My Lords, I commend the Minister for an excellent reply to the noble Viscount’s Question—a reply obviously informed by the excellent staff at the Department of Health and Social Care. In the light of that, can I gently ask why, as a Minister, did he feel it necessary to have a parliamentary research assistant?
It is believed that given the slow rate of mutation of Covid viruses, Covid-19 would have taken around 35 years to evolve from its nearest known relative. What has been done to identify any intermediaries in which it may have lived during that period and any knowledge useful for preventing future pandemics that may arise from that knowledge?
I entirely agree with the noble Baroness. It is extremely frustrating that we do not know the steps of evolution that this virus went through. It has come to us completely out of the blue. That leaves us in a vulnerable state when we are preparing for the next pandemic. It is absolutely essential, as any epidemiologist will say, that one knows and understands where the virus came from—whether that is the water pump handle for an outbreak of cholera or a virus from China.
My Lords, the situation could not emphasise more clearly the need for genuine global participation in transparency in surveillance and pathogen sequencing to respond to future pandemics and epidemics. I was pleased to see the progress at the G7 on this but, if the global anti-pandemic action plan is to have any teeth, we will need to ensure that countries such as China contribute trustworthy data to global surveillance in the future. What steps does the Minister envisage to ensure that this happens?
I completely agree with my noble friend. The international health regulations need to be amended in that respect. It was one of the aspects of the pandemic preparedness treaty that was brought to Carbis Bay for the G7 earlier this year. We are working extremely hard, through our G7 chairmanship, to ensure that this relatively obscure but absolutely critical international treaty has the teeth it needs to do the work on genomic sequencing and pathogen identification that needs to be done.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that for a better understanding of the current pandemic and future pandemics, identification of the progenitor genome of SARS-CoV-2 is important? We need more data, despite having sequenced more than 1 million SARS-CoV-2 genomes. The escape of pathogens from labs is not new. Examples are smallpox and anthrax, and also SARS, which escaped from several labs in different countries in 2003. Does the Minister agree that we urgently need to address global regulation of labs that undertake gain of function experiments on pathogens?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord’s appeal for more data—but, candidly, as I know he knows, it is not just quantity of data that we need; it is the right data. Where we are struggling is in getting genomic sequencing of new mutations from the furthest reaches of the virus’s spread. We need a systematic programme around the world that shares the sequences of new mutations with academics who can study and assess them. Without such a systematic programme we are flying blind. That is why we are working on the new variant assessment platform and other pandemic preparedness projects.
My Lords, scientists are warning that we are in an era of pandemics, and that viruses more deadly, contagious or resistant to antibodies than Covid-19 could emerge. What steps are the Government taking to prepare themselves and the country for the next potential pandemic, and will the Minister commit to ensuring that future pandemic preparedness plans are independently assessed and reported to Parliament?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who is leading the pandemic preparedness work. He is doing an enormous amount both on the international treaties through our G7 chairmanship, and on the internal domestic re-envisaging of our healthcare system. We need to invest more in public health, and we also need the data, the diagnostics and the patient behaviours that support really rigorous tracking down of diseases when they arrive. The noble Baroness is entirely right: pandemics will come, sooner rather than later.
My Lords, with the greatest of respect to the noble Lord, I am not sure whether the pandemic that just hit us could have been solved by a committee, however august and impressive. We need a national response, and the national response to this pandemic came from the Prime Minister and the top of Government, and involved the entire nation. For that we are enormously grateful.
My Lords, in an article in the Financial Times in May, Sir Patrick Vallance said that the Prime Minister had asked him, ahead of the G7, to pull together relevant experts to start looking at how a future pandemic could be dealt with more swiftly—and, most importantly, on a global basis. Can the Minister advise us what progress has been made on this?
My Lords, I attended the presentation by Sir Patrick Vallance at the G7 health track in Oxford in June, which was received extremely well, both by Health Ministers from the G7 countries and by the chief executives of the major pharmaceutical companies that are partners in that work. We are using our chairmanship to nudge it along, and it will cover both the pharmaceutical and the demographic elements of pandemic response. This is an example of where Britain is showing leadership in the world to carve out a clear idea of how we can respond to pandemics better in the future.
My Lords, I return to the point made by the noble Viscount earlier. Who in the British Government is in direct touch with the US National Institutes of Health, and especially Professor Jesse Bloom, about the deletion of genomic sequences, which he said had no plausible scientific rationale? If it is proven that the virus came from the Wuhan laboratory and that that fact has been concealed by the Chinese Communist Party, does the Minister agree that Magnitsky-style sanctions against individual officials would be the beginnings of an appropriate response by our Government?
My Lords, specific official engagement with the investigation is done through PHE, and we have a PHE official sitting on the investigation. That is the right way of conducting a scientific dialogue. The DHSC and FCDO also have extremely active interests in this. As for the tone in which the noble Lord talked about how we should approach this challenge, I say that we have to work in partnership with other countries. There is no way in which we can demonise one country or another in this matter. Partnership is the only way ahead. What we can, I hope, bring to the party is a sense of urgency and a sense of focus.
My Lords, I know that the restrictions on singing are frustrating to large numbers of amateur choirs and performance groups across the country. Following the move to step 3 of the road map on 17 May, non-professional groups of up to six people can now sing indoors, while multiple groups of 30 can sing outdoors. We will continue to keep guidance and restrictions under review. Further details of step 4 will be set out as soon as possible.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a supporter patron of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which has more than 400 adults in its various amateur choirs. I can see no specific evidence to support the restriction on choirs. Indoor choirs are limited to six people, whereas last night at Wembley 40,000 people were singing, and the night before at Wimbledon the court was covered and people were cheering to the rafters. That apparently is allowed but indoor choirs, which can exercise proper social distancing, are not allowed. This is nonsense. The Government should reverse it immediately.
I am sure the noble Lord is aware that the events to which he refers are part of the events research programme, and particular public health measures are taken for all those attending. The evidence is clear that, sadly, singing increases the risks of transmission. Hence, we have the guidance we have been given.
My Lords, bearing in mind that on Monday in the other place the new Health Secretary said he hoped that church congregations would soon be able to sing together, could the Minister please give us some clarity on this and say what plans the Government have now to review the research on congregational singing with the use of face coverings, given that singing is not an add-on to worship but integral to it?
I absolutely recognise the right reverend Prelate’s final remarks about singing being integral to worship. We continue to be led by the science and the experts, and to follow the public health advice. As soon as that changes, we will of course update the guidance.
My Lords, the Chelmsford Singers, a flourishing group not far from Lexden in Essex, would like to know why the current guidance with its totally unexpected restrictions, promised by the Government on 27 April
“in advance of step 3”,
was in fact published after step 3, causing them and so many choirs throughout the country to cancel their first rehearsals for over a year at short notice and, in some cases, with severe financial penalties.
I can only apologise to my noble friend and the choir in Chelmsford for the disruption to their plans. As my noble friend is aware, guidance is now available on the GOV.UK website. It will be updated in time for step 4. When it is updated, it will be clear, practical and simply set out.
My Lords, it is completely illogical to say that a group of more than six professional singers can meet and sing but a group of amateurs cannot. It makes no sense at all. What does the Minister think people feel when they sit at home, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, and watch all these people getting together, singing, kissing, hugging and chanting?
The noble Lord’s tone expressed very well what many people feel. We absolutely hear that frustration. He will be aware that all ministerial and MPs’ inboxes are full of correspondence on this issue, so we are aware. We are also aware that some amateur groups perform in a professional context, as the noble Lord set out. As a department we cannot advise on individual events or activities. It is up to the organisers to operate in accordance with the published guidance.
I think all of us share considerable dismay about the answers we have just heard. Although we feel sorry for the Minister for her attempts to try to add a veneer of respectability to her responses, neither the science nor the reality of common sense back her up. As a member of the Parliament Choir, I want to meet with other members in a socially respectable way to sing the music that inspires us and to lead our lives as close to normality as we can. What we want is a road map and a timescale.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the board of governors and trustees of the Parliament Choir. Last year, the evidence that came to the Government said that singing was no different from speaking loudly or taking physical exercise indoors. With both of those now permitted—your Lordships will know that I can speak loudly, as can many other noble Lords—what is the evidence that says that speaking loudly in this Chamber is permitted but singing together in a Covid-compliant way is not permitted? Where is the evidence for that and will the Minister publish it?
There are references in recent research done, for the events research pilots in particular, that links to the evidence, but the decision has been based on three scientific studies: the NERVTAG Assessment of Transmission of Covid-19 through Musical Events study, the Public Health England paper Aerosol and Droplet Generation from Singing, Wind Instruments and Performance Activities, and the PERFORM study.
In both the county of my birth, Yorkshire, and the county of my home, Essex, there are great choral traditions. My noble friend will realise that these amateur choirs go beyond just singing; they are an important part of what makes the community tick. Given that she said that amateur choirs can rehearse indoors in a professional capacity, why not follow the science? If members of the choir have been double-jabbed and it is in a well-ventilated room, why should that not be permissible?
I absolutely agree with my noble friend that amateur choirs are an important part of communities. Indeed, I do not want to diminish in any way the frustration expressed by your Lordships, but we have seen remarkable performances by Zoom choirs and others. I can only repeat that we are following the Public Health England guidance.
My Lords, as we have heard today and on many other occasions, members of choirs and communities across the country are feeling both fed up and overlooked. Does the Minister personally feel comfortable with the fact—and can she offer an explanation for it—that so-called business VIPs are exempted from the range of Covid-19 restrictions while choirs, singers, actors and other artists who have endured over a year of hardship remain subject to a set of rules that, unlike in other areas of life, have remained absolutely static?
My Lords, the Royal Choral Society is a brilliant choir, but it is an amateur one. On 30 May it performed Handel’s “Messiah” at the Royal Albert Hall, with 117 singers producing a brilliant performance. I applaud its decision to go ahead, but could the Minister tell us what sanctions there are for those who break the regulations? I am sure the House and the country would like to know what sanctions there are.
My Lords, does not my noble friend understand that she has been trying valiantly to defend the totally indefensible? Does she not accept that the cultural life of this country rests to some degree on the continuance of amateur choirs? If she goes on repeating these answers and the Government do not show a proper degree of flexibility, many of these choirs will cease to exist.
The Government have acted incredibly powerfully to support the cultural life of this country. We absolutely recognise its importance in relation to amateur choirs and the whole spectrum of performing arts, which is why we are progressing with phase 3 of the more than £2 billion Culture Recovery Fund.
House of Lords Reform
My Lords, the Conservative manifesto committed to looking at the role of the House of Lords. That is the manifesto position. We are keeping these issues under consideration but have been clear that we do not want piecemeal reform.
My Lords, with respect to the Minister, I do not think that was much of an Answer. It was a pretty simple Question; a yes or no would probably have been acceptable. The Minister has been involved in these issues for a long time and will be aware of two proposals for reform that are strongly supported in all parts of the House. The first is to reduce the size of the House to around 600 Members. The second is to end these ridiculous by-elections for hereditary Peers. Given that these two reforms are simple and popular and would cost nothing and hurt no one, will he tell us whether the Government are prepared to support them and, if not, why not?
My Lords, on a cap on the size of the House, which we have frequently discussed, both the previous Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister have made it clear that it would require further consideration and wider engagement and have not accepted that proposal. As for the noble Lord’s repeated efforts to put forward his Bill, we look forward to discussing his Bill. I will ask him to explain, when he introduces it at Second Reading, why he supported the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, which reinforced and entrenched the position of hereditary Peer elections in this House.
My Lords, I think there might be general agreement that the reputation of this House has been enhanced by the way in which we were able to continue our business with the hybrid system over the last 15 months. The reputation of this House would surely further be enhanced if we brought ourselves from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries by backing my noble friend Lord Grocott’s Bill to abolish something that is clearly an anachronism.
My Lords, I always pay tribute to the noble Lord opposite, who has been a distinguished servant of this country, this House and the other House. When we are looking at the role, future and reform of your Lordships’ House, perhaps we need to look a little wider than the speck of dust to which the noble Lord referred.
The Minister has been in his Cabinet Office post since February 2020, so was it he who told the Prime Minister that it was perfectly okay to ignore the Burns committee report on the House of Lords, which was trying to reduce the size of this House? It was a two-out, one-in policy. Did he tell the Prime Minister it was okay to just keep on putting Peers here?
My Lords, it is perfectly reasonable, given the House’s membership—not least the fact that its average age is 70—for it to be refreshed from time to time. I repeat an answer I gave before: neither the previous Prime Minister nor this one has accepted that the House of Lords should be able to impose a cap on its own size.
First, does my noble friend the Minister agree with me that, now that the other place has agreed that it will stay at 650 Members, we can review our aspiration of 600 to 650? Secondly, we should recognise that unlike in the other place we are not salary men. We represent a wide pool of expertise and experience that needs to be deepened and strengthened. By admitting more Members to this House, we will counter the correct allegations of underrepresentation of minorities, women and businesspeople.
My Lords, my noble friend’s suggestions seem to arouse laughter on the other side. I strongly agree with him and suspect that many of the British people agree that this House needs refreshing from time to time. I will not get hung up on any number between 600 and 650. The membership should be appropriate to enable the House of Lords to carry out its role in a way that reflects that role and the primacy of the House of Commons as the elected Chamber.
My Lords, can the Minister explain why dedicated, public-spirited, widely respected people of high integrity should continue to serve on the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which is independent? The Prime Minister, Mr Johnson, seems determined to treat its recommendations with complete contempt.
My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord opposite’s assertion, which seems one of the most sweeping examples of the generalisation of a particular that I have ever heard. He may have a case in mind. The correspondence on that case has been published with proper transparency, and for my part I welcome the presence of that new Peer in this House.
My Lords, does my noble friend not realise that the best way of solving the problem presented by the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Blunkett, is to fulfil the promise—laid out in the Parliament Act 1911 and successive recent manifestos of the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and, indeed, the Liberal Democrats—to select this House on the basis of popular representation?
My Lords, as we look forward, clearly that is an option for considering reform. I do not note enormous enthusiasm for that in the many debates in your Lordships’ Chamber. My noble friend is absolutely right to say that everybody opposite campaigned in 2019 on the creation of an elected senate.
My Lords, the Minister is scathing about piecemeal reforms, but I would have thought that, this week in particular, the Government would be sensitive to issues of propriety and impartiality in the processes for public appointments. I make it clear that this is not a new or an ad hominem issue but one I have been raising for more than a decade. Will the Minister now accept that we need an independent, statutory House of Lords Appointments Commission to vet all appointments to your Lordships’ House on the grounds of both suitability and propriety?
My Lords, we have an advisory House of Lords Appointments Commission, whose advice is given careful and full weight. The constitutional position in this country is that the Prime Minister is responsible for advising Her Majesty on appointments to the House of Lords. I do not believe that that responsibility can be passed from a Minister, who is ultimately responsible to Parliament, to an extra-parliamentary statutory body.
My Lords, I am not really sure I understood the Minister’s answer on that point. The point that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, was making was that the commission’s advice on membership of your Lordships’ House at present is only advisory.
To reach a point of agreement, the Minister is quite right that this House needs to refresh its membership, but on his basis the House would just grow and grow until there were no room at all on the Benches for noble Lords to sit and debate issues. There has to be an optimum size range at which this House is most effective and does its work best. Piecemeal reform is not something to be dismissed and disregarded but a way of getting things done where there is broad consensus. There is broad consensus on the end of hereditary Peer by-elections and overwhelming consensus on a statutory body for appointments—not one the Prime Minister can ignore when it suits him.
My Lords, I will not repeat the answer I have just given. The commission is an independent, advisory, non-departmental body. It has an important role, but the sovereign, on the advice of the Prime Minister, formally confers all peerages. It is the Prime Minister who must advise on that. Ultimately, the Prime Minister is responsible for the way in which he conducts that duty.
My Lords, further to his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, the Minister will be aware that the reason the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, put forward by Lord Steel, did not include the abolition of by-elections for hereditary Peers was the threat of filibuster and of the tabling of hundreds of irrelevant and repetitive amendments to avoid this House being able to express its wish on the issue and allow the vote to go to the other place to consider it. Does the Minister consider that a legitimate tactic?
My Lords, reducing the size of the House is clearly the most urgent issue. That said, would the Minister agree that there has been a fall-off in the courtesies normally observed by the House, including in participants’ failure to attend the greater part of debates, the conventions of respect towards the Lord Speaker and Deputy Speakers and forgetfulness about registering relevant interests? Furthermore, does he agree that these issues contribute to the public’s negative view of the work of this House?
I would not agree with those generalised comments. I believe that all of us should be mindful of our manner of behaviour and our manner in referring to and engaging with each other. I do not believe that making comments in general terms about the weakness of this House necessarily improves its reputation. One of the most remarkable things about this House is that last night 467 of your Lordships were following and voting in a debate on the Republic of Cameroon, rather than watching the England and Germany match. Nothing can be wrong with a House with such a deep attachment to its public duty.
Unidentified Flying Objects
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, published on 25 June; and what data they hold on unidentified flying object sightings in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, the Ministry of Defence notes the content of the report. The department holds no reports on unidentified aerial phenomena but constantly monitors UK airspace to identify and respond to any credible threat to its integrity, and is confident in the existing measures in place to protect it.
My Lords, for decades, people who have been concerned with UFOs have been dismissed as fantasists, but now the US Director of National Intelligence, who oversees 17 intelligence agencies, has published a report saying that the data on UFOs is inconclusive. The report offers several possible explanations and does not rule out that these could be military aircraft with very advanced capabilities or even extraterrestrial phenomena. Either way, can the Minister reassure members of the public that the Ministry of Defence takes reports of unidentified flying objects in our airspace very seriously? Will she consider publishing a detailed assessment of the data that we hold?
The MoD deals with actual threats substantiated by evidence. The Government continue to take any potential threat to the UK seriously. The integrated review and the defence Command Paper published in March set out the MoD’s assessment of the threats we face and how we will meet them.
My Lords, unidentified does not mean suspicious. Does the Minister recognise that the US report referred to says that there is no clear indication that there is any non-terrestrial explanation for the 144 sightings that it specifies? The idea that, in an era of mobile phone cameras, drones and frequent travel, there could possibly be alien spaceships whizzing about undetected in our atmosphere on a regular basis is not very plausible. It is much more likely that these blurred images have boring explanations, alas. Does my noble friend agree?
The important point, on which I wish to reassure your Lordships, is that the UK air defence community detects and monitors all flying air systems 24 hours a day to provide an identified air picture as part of the UK’s national security posture and our commitment to the integrity of NATO airspace. That is supported by Typhoon aircraft at RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Coningsby, which are held at high readiness to intercept any threat to UK airspace.
My Lords, in 2008 the MoD began the process of releasing all its UFO files. In 2009 Sir Bob Ainsworth, the Secretary of State, accepted the advice that:
“In more than 50 years, no UFO sighting … has indicated the existence of any military threat to the UK; there is no defence benefit in … recording, collating, analysing, or investigating UFO sightings”
“the level of resources devoted to this task is … diverting staff from more valuable defence-related activities”,
and he closed the relevant unit. Does the US report reveal any evidence containing any reason to review that advice?
I simply say to the noble Lord that I seek to reassure him that, as I have indicated, we deal with actual threats substantiated by evidence. He is quite right about the closure of the UFO desk in 2009. I can confirm that the department holds no reports on unidentified aerial phenomena and that all relevant material created and held by the UFO desk has been passed to the National Archives.
My Lords, turning to identifiable flying objects, does my noble friend agree that the UK has a tremendous opportunity to develop its new space industry, not least in low-earth orbit, in the build, development, launch, operation, recovery and rebuild of small satellites for both positive-purpose defence and civil opportunities?
Given the subject, it is very reassuring to see the Minister here physically, not beamed in. The Pentagon has said that unidentified aerial phenomena are a serious national security threat. Notwithstanding what she has just said, does the Minister agree with the Pentagon’s analysis of the threat from unidentified aerial phenomena? Is the UK therefore suffering from a threat similar to that identified by the US? Given that the MoD abandoned its UFO desk in 2009, where are such sightings to be reported and to whom? The truth is out there and, we hope, in the Minister’s answer.
I endeavour to provide veracity to this Chamber on all occasions. Again, the underlying important point is the security of our airspace. I have already indicated how we address that potential threat and how we are well sustained and well provided to deal with any such potential threat. However, we regard threats as having to exist in the first place and to be substantiated by evidence because we need to know what we are addressing and how best we can address it. We are of course aware of the US assessment. The MoD has no plans to conduct its own report into UAP because, in over 50 years, no such reporting indicated the existence of any military threat to the UK.
The recent report from the United States task force dedicated to investigating UFOs has neither confirmed nor rejected the idea that such sightings could indicate alien visits to earth. I believe that Cardiff Bay is the alleged location of the Torchwood Institute, set up to deal with incidents of extraterrestrials. Indeed, the Ianto Jones shrine forms part of the tourist trail at Mermaid Quay. Seven decades after unidentified aerial phenomena first appeared on the radar, defence ministries around the world ought to know what they are. The recent report does not require us to accept the reality of alien visitation, but it does require us to take UFOs seriously. Therefore, how seriously do Her Majesty’s Government now take UFOs in the light of this report?
My Lords, is the Minister aware of the role that one of the largest single-dish telescopes in the southern hemisphere—in Parkes, New South Wales, the place of my birth—played in transmitting the TV footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing? More recently, it tracked NASA’s Curiosity rover during its descent over the surface of Mars in 2012. Might it be of assistance to the Government in helping to modify, monitor and assist any unidentified sightings?
I would say to my noble friend that the MoD and particularly our air defence community have the most sophisticated electronic surveillance. I myself witnessed how this operated when I visited RAF Coningsby. There is also the added support of visual identification, if that is thought to be necessary, by alerting a rapid reaction from our Typhoons, which are able to take on a visual inspection if there is any doubt about the nature or character of an alleged threat.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to read the report and the frankness with which it was written. Have the report’s contents yet been raised by Her Majesty’s Government with representatives of the United States Government? The Minister has said that our Government have no reports on this matter, but given the interest that it has generated around the world—and, indeed, perhaps other worlds—do Her Majesty’s Government now have plans to produce a similar document summarising any recent UAP or UFO sightings within UK borders and overseas territories?
As I indicated earlier, we have no opinion on the existence of extraterrestrial life and we no longer investigate reports of sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena. We have no plans to conduct our own report into UAP, because in over 50 years no such reporting has indicated the existence of any military threat to the UK.
Marriage Act 1949 (Amendment) Bill [HL]
A Bill to amend the Marriage Act 1949 to create an offence of purporting to solemnize an unregistered marriage.
The Bill was introduced by Baroness Cox [V], read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission
Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 28 June.
“As the House will be aware, a number of Ministry of Defence classified documents were lost by a senior official early last week. Upon realising the loss of documents, the individual self-reported on Tuesday 22 June. The documents lost included a paper that was marked “Secret UK Eyes Only”. The documents were found by a member of the public at a bus stop in Kent. The member of the public then handed the papers to the BBC. The Ministry of Defence has launched a full investigation. The papers have now been recovered from the BBC and are being assessed as I speak to check that all documents missing have been recovered and what mitigation actions might be necessary. The investigation will look at the actions of individuals, including the printing of the papers through to the management of the reported incident, and at the underlying processes for printing and carriage of papers in Defence. The investigation is expected to complete shortly. While the investigation is being conducted, the individual’s access to sensitive material has been suspended. It would be inappropriate to comment on the findings of the investigation while it is still under way.”
The Minister will know that this is the third known MoD security breach this year including documents marked “UK eyes only”, so it is no wonder that an investigation is needed. Can the Minister confirm that all the documents lost have been recovered? How can evidence of preparations for future Armed Forces conduct around the world have been leaked? Can she reassure our excellent Armed Forces personnel that there has been no jeopardy to current or future operations as a result of the breach? Will she also ensure, as was said in the other House, that the investigation is completed by early next week and the results are published as promised at that time? The public and the House need to be reassured that Ministers have taken all the necessary actions to stop this series of breaches.
I thank the noble Lord for his points. Let me make it clear that this was a most regrettable breach of security and is being taken extremely seriously by the department, hence the investigation to which he refers. I confirm to him that the BBC contacted MoD to say that it had the papers. MoD then worked with the BBC to ensure that nothing was reported which materially affected national security, and the papers have now been safely returned to MoD.
The investigating team will, of course, consider a wide range of circumstances—the breaches of protocol that seemed to surround the loss of the documents—and whether recommendations need to be made to improve procedures. However, I reassure your Lordships that very robust procedures already exist and documents of such a sensitive nature are accompanied by a very strict management regime. The investigatory team will be looking at all these issues. As to the timing of the investigation’s report, my understanding is that there is a desire to have some initial comment by next week. However, the noble Lord will understand that I am reluctant to be specific about a date, lest other material emerges which the team requires to investigate. But yes, it would be the intention of the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that the team’s conclusions and findings are made available to Parliament.
Anything other than full disclosure—always taking account, of course, of the national interest—would not be welcome, so I am grateful to hear the noble Baroness give that undertaking. I also understand the constraints she has to operate under at the moment, but noble Lords who have served on the Intelligence and Security Committee will recall that there was an absolute prohibition on any documents of any kind being taken out of the committee office. Can the Minister tell us what the policy was in the Ministry of Defence, and in what circumstances anyone was, by way of policy, entitled to remove documents from the main building?
It is within the rules to remove documents from the building in certain limited circumstances, so long as they are recorded and secured in the appropriate fashion. In short, as I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, there are policies and procedures in place that allow for the removal of classified information. It will be for the investigation team to determine whether these procedures were followed correctly.
This was indeed an important security breach and really quite concerning, but we bandy the word “secret” around without necessarily understanding what it means. There are different levels of classification, of which “secret” is just one. For example, “UK eyes only” is not a classification; it is a national caveat. However, if it genuinely was a secret document, why did it leave the building when it never should have? Does that imply that we should make this inquiry wider, looking at what exactly the procedures are, to ensure that this really does not happen again?
The loss of MoD documents of this classification is extremely rare and I reassure my noble friend that there has not been such a loss within the last 18 months. Despite that, we take the matter very seriously. We have launched a full and thorough investigation and will look at the actions of individuals, as well as the procedures, policies and processes in place. I reassure your Lordships that any recommendations or lessons identified by the investigation will be considered as a matter of urgency.
My Lords, General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, has said that incidents such as the recent confrontation with Russia in the Black Sea are “giving him sleepless nights” and could lead to a “miscalculation”. Can we assume that yet another MoD whistleblower leaked the documents because they felt that HMS “Defender” sailing so close to the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters was both provocative and dangerous? Can the Minister remind the House how many wars Russia has fought over the centuries to keep Sevastopol Russian, including the Crimean War of 1853?
I am not going to speculate on the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the documents or their ultimate transmission to the BBC; that is for the inquiry team to determine. I am also not going to discuss the content of the documents, for obvious reasons. As the noble Lord raises issues already in the public domain in relation to HMS “Defender”, and as he will be aware that there was a Written Ministerial Statement on 24 June, I can confirm that HMS “Defender” was proceeding entirely in accordance with international law, behaving entirely appropriately and conducting innocent passage through a stretch of water open to international navigation.
My Lords, breaches of security at such a high level are rightly of concern to members of the public and Members of this House. This Question has important implications regarding blackmail and breaches of the Official Secrets Act. Can the Minister clarify the circumstances in which the documents were found? Can she also say whether it is normal practice to hard copy security materials that can be handled digitally and securely? Will the identity of the negligent official eventually be made public?
As far as the noble Lord’s question relates to the process of investigation, he will appreciate that I am unable to comment on any details pertaining to that. As I have already indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, suitable IT platforms exist across government but it is within the rules to remove documents from the building in certain limited circumstances. However, very strict rules and procedures govern their removal. How the breach occurred is a matter for the investigating team to determine.
My Lords, in the aftermath of the discovery of the papers, the BBC—as the Minister noted—rightly protected operational matters that might have put servicepeople at risk. Its reporting focused on the debate around the decision to send HMS “Defender” on that route. Does the Minister agree that that is a reflection of public interest—in the most genuine sense of the term—in the route decision, which was apparently a subject of disagreement between the two departments concerned? Is it not the case that, while the right of innocent passage may need to have been asserted, the UK might not have been the right country and this might not have been the right way to do it?
Again, I have said that I am not going to comment on the content of the documents, but in so far as matters relating to HMS “Defender” are in the public domain, I will simply repeat to the noble Baroness that HMS “Defender” was acting in accordance with international law and that it was entirely appropriate and legal for the Royal Navy to sail this route; it is an internationally recognised shipping route. Importantly, it is the most direct route from Odessa to Batumi in Georgia. The United Kingdom does not recognise any Russian claim to these waters. The noble Baroness will be aware that, in the Black Sea at that time, there was not only a UK naval presence; allies were present as well.
My Lords, there has been a suggestion that some of the documents were printed on pink paper, indicating the sort of material that should not be removed from the MoD except under exceptional circumstances and according to strict procedures. What were those exceptional circumstances in this case and what are those strict procedures?
The noble Baroness is posing questions about issues that it will be for the investigation team to investigate and determine and, to which it will need to find answers. As I have said, the removal of documents from the building is not unprecedented and, in very strict and regulated circumstances, is permitted. It will be for the investigating team to ascertain in full detail what happened and whether appropriate policies, procedures and processes were duly complied with.
Committee (4th Day)
Relevant documents: 3rd Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 4th Report from the Constitution Committee
I will call Members to speak in the order listed. During the debate on each group, I invite Members, including those in the Chamber, to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister. I will call Members to speak in order of request. The groupings are binding. A participant who might wish to press an amendment other than the lead amendment in a group to a Division must give notice in debate or by emailing the clerk. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the Question, I will collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely wants their voice accounted for if the Question is put, they must make this clear when speaking on the group.
Clause 29: Advising on changes to environmental law etc
Debate on Amendment 103 resumed.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, explained her Amendment 103 extremely well. I will speak to my Amendment 109. We have Euro 2020, Wimbledon, the cricket and the Environment Bill—how much better could it be for all of us? There is so much pleasure in such a short time.
My Amendment 109 would introduce a new clause into the Bill that is intended to address some extensive governance gaps in environmental law that have arisen because of the UK’s departure from the EU. Amendment 109 places an obligation on the Secretary of State to report to the office for environmental protection “any information” that was previously required to be reported to the European Commission relating to environmental law and its application. This could include, for example, requirements to report on ambient air quality and pollutant emissions or on the implementation of key fisheries rules, both of which were previously required to be reported to the European Commission but are now no longer required under UK law. These are two helpful examples but reporting requirements were removed through EU exit statutory instruments across the whole spectrum of environmental policy areas. Without such a replacement, there will inevitably be a reduction in transparency and accountability, both of which are crucial to the effective implementation of environmental legislation.
To ensure that the amendment does not place an unnecessary burden on either the Secretary of State or the office for environmental protection, the latter must review these reporting requirements
“no later than two years”
after the Environment Bill has passed into law. If the OEP determines that an existing
“reporting requirement is no longer necessary to contribute to environmental protection or the improvement of the natural environment, it must arrange for a report setting out its reasons to be ... laid before Parliament, and ... published.”
The Secretary of State is then obliged to
“lay before Parliament, and publish, a copy of the response”
to the report within three months.
Why is this amendment necessary? The reporting of information relating to environmental law is absolutely vital to ensure transparency and accountability in environmental policy-making and ensure that government and stakeholders can identify and address environmental impacts. Continuity over time in the information being recorded and reported can also help to reveal trends and increase transparency.
However, several requirements for the Secretary of State to report information to the European Commission in relation to environmental law have been lost because of the UK’s departure from the EU and the subsequent adoption of new statutory instruments. This poses a serious threat to the effective application of environmental law in the UK—because we all know that there are quite a lot of people who try to evade these particular laws—and the Government’s ability to achieve their stated aim and manifesto promise of leaving the environment in a better state than that in which it was found.
My Lords, I will be brief. I put my name down to speak on this group expressly to support Amendment 103—because, given our earlier debates on the office for environmental protection and its independence, I want to test the extreme limits of Defra’s control, if there are any. I would have thought that it is a given that Amendment 103 should be accepted. If it is not, that tells us something about Defra’s controlling nature regarding the work of the office for environmental protection. That is the only point that I want to make.
A subsidiary point is that I also support Amendment 114, and, later today, I will also speak to Amendment 114A, which is effectively a fallback position for the amendment in this group.
My Lords, Amendment 114 operates in close relationship to Amendment 78, which we debated on Monday, to which I had attached my name. Both amendments address the relationship between the Armed Forces and the Treasury in the Bill and certain exemptions provided to them.
Amendment 78 and our debate on it talked about exemptions for action; Amendment 114 talks about removing exemptions for disclosure of or access to information. The arguments for the Government to hold their current position and not include this amendment are even weaker when we talk about information—because we are not talking about actual action.
However, it is worth going back to what the Minister said in the debate on Monday, which can help to inform this amendment. He said that including Amendment 78
“could restrict our response to urgent threats. Policy decisions concerning defence are often made rapidly, or even in real time”—[Official Report, 28/6/21; col. 579.]
due to “urgent … operational imperatives”. In that debate, we talked about a couple of interesting case studies: a new housing estate and, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mentioned, a pile being driven into a creek because it might assist in the mooring of submarines. Neither of these in any way fits the definition of urgent defence imperative.
However, I acknowledge that there are occasions on which there may be a need to, perhaps, put in some very urgent flood defences or build a pandemic hospital—the kinds of security threats that we are now facing on a regular basis—so it may be necessary to act urgently. However, I come back to that debate on Amendment 78, in which the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, cited some detailed legal material, saying that the precautionary principle, which those who are seeking to amend the Bill desire, “already includes proportionality”. Of course, if something is needed for an urgent matter of national defence, clearly it would be proportionate to act as necessary. It would not be unreasonable to then provide information about what damage had been done in terms of defence. I cannot think what one might conceivably claim regarding why information should not be provided about the damage that the Treasury might have had to do to the environment for whatever reason, if one can possibly imagine such a thing.
We are talking a lot today about openness and informing the public about what is being done to the environment. In that context, Amendment 114—I still stand by Amendment 78 in some combination when we get to Report—is essential.
The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, has withdrawn from this amendment, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone.
My Lords, I support Amendment 103 in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. Clause 27 attempts to delineate the OEP’s scrutiny and advice functions, but it is too tightly drawn. It is much to be welcomed that the OEP can monitor and report on environmental improvement plans and targets, and on the implementation of and changes to environmental law, but, for the avoidance of doubt, the amendment is necessary to enable the OEP to give advice on any other matter relating to the natural environment. It is a sweeping-up amendment so that if there is some environmental ghastliness that otherwise would not be within the OEP’s ambit, this provision would allow it to take up the issue and give advice. It is a sensible provision which enhances the OEP’s independence and flexibility, and I hope that the Minister can simply accept it.
I also support the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, requiring the Secretary of State to report to the OEP anything he used to report to the European Commission. I know that the Government do not want to carry on as if Brexit had never happened, and unnecessary reporting could be ceased provided that it was reviewed by the OEP and an adequate reason was given. However, several areas of data and reporting have already been lost as a result of their no longer being reported to the Commission, including issues of ambient air quality, pollutant emissions and the implementation of some key fisheries rules.
The issues lying behind Amendment 114 have already been aired in the debate on Amendment 78, so I shall not labour them. Environmental protection is indeed as vital as defence and security to our well-being and our very existence. The importance of issues of taxation and spending or the allocation of resources for the environment has already been demonstrated. The exclusions listed in Clause 45 cannot go forward without the OEP being debarred from some key areas. Subsection (1) must also be challenged. Environmental law is there defined as
“legislative provision … that … is mainly concerned with environmental protection”.
Many laws would be not be considered to be
“mainly concerned with environmental protection”,
but they have a big impact on the environment. There is a huge list—I think immediately about planning legislation, transport legislation, energy, agriculture, fisheries, housing and food. I could keep on listing, but your Lordships would be here all day. We need to press the Minister on whether he truly believes that the OEP should be able to consider these issues and not just what is in the tightly prescribed provision in the Bill.
My Lords, I was pleased to put my name to the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady Parminter. It seems obvious, as many noble Lords have said, that for the OEP to have the stature that the Government want it should be able to give advice as it sees fit without constraint. Clearly, it will be constrained anyway in terms of its budget, its resources and its capacity so, like any similar authority, it is going to be careful about what it concentrates its resources and time on. That is quite a sufficient constraint on the OEP’s work and what it does. As the legislation says, if the Minister or the Secretary of State want advice in certain areas, it can give it, whatever that area is, yet it is strongly constrained in terms of reports on its own initiative. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, laid out that long list of areas where it would invaluable for the OEP on occasion to give its own opinion unprompted by the Secretary of State. As we have said many times before, the Climate Change Committee, which is respected nationally and internationally, is able to do that, and it uses that power well, responsibly and to effect. I see no reason why the OEP should not be able to do that as well.
On my noble friend’s second amendment, it seems to be one of those cut-and-paste exercises by civil servants and government, where they think, “What clause do we put in to constrain power here?”, so the Treasury, the Armed Forces and the other areas are pasted into the legislation. I see no reason for this. If it was a matter of national security, I guess that we would all immediately agree but it is not. These are important areas, not least “allocation of resources”—that is everything in government, for goodness’ sake; that is what government is about. For it to be excluded is wrong and, again, it demotes the OEP to something that is not independent. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is absolutely right: this is another litmus test of that independence.
I was very interested by the explanation given by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, of her amendment. I must admit that I had rather lazily assumed that, in terms of rollover of EU legislation, this sort of information still had to be given. I am very pleased that she has put me right on that and I would be keen to hear from the Minister how he sees it. Clearly, such information should be reported into the OEP. It needs to be a body that has the respect not just of Ministers and of this Parliament but of the public and institutions such as the Environment Agency, the police, local authorities, Natural England and the MMO—all those organisations that have to enforce environmental law and need to be checked out by the OEP.
As I said, this is another litmus test for the independence of the OEP, for how it will be perceived internationally and for its stature in how it interacts with government and this Parliament.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. I shall speak to Amendments 103 and 114 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and Amendment 109 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb—whose final reply in the earlier debate on Monday was very candid.
In normal times, one would hope that something like Amendment 103 would not be needed. As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and my noble friend Lord Rooker said, it should be accepted; it is a given. The ability of experts to advise Ministers should be central to how government functions each and every day. However, it seems that expert advice does not carry the same weight with certain Ministers as it once did. Amendment 103 is therefore most welcome.
While the OEP will have a specific remit given to it by the Bill, it appears entirely reasonable that it should also act as a general champion for the natural environment. Amendment 103 would clarify that the OEP is empowered also to give advice to Ministers on other natural environment matters. The amendment would broaden the reach of Clause 29(3) by increasing the discretion afforded to the OEP on how it exercises its advisory powers and enable it to advise Ministers on a fuller ranger of matters, improving the evidence-gathering and assessment process on important policy decisions. When the body was first announced, we were told that it would be given licence to engage with and freely challenge Ministers. The amendment would be one means of giving statutory backing to that commitment.
Amendment 109 returns to an issue that has been discussed at length. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, made clear, it is about accountability and transparency. The issue was discussed at length during debates on EU exit statutory instruments under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, where references to the European Commission in domestic law and retained EU law were to be replaced by supposedly suitable domestic alternatives. However, in some cases, this has left Secretaries of State reporting to themselves or to bodies over which they have responsibility or, in some cases, not having to report at all. We reluctantly accepted this as a short-term logistical fix, in part because assurances were given that as domestic bodies were established, they would begin to take on some responsibilities previously held by the Commission. Given the challenges to retained EU law, we are not certain that this amendment would function exactly as hoped, although it enables the Minister to clarify how Defra plans to meet its previous commitments and whether it has any plans to allow the OEP to undertake the kind of review envisaged in subsection (2) of the proposed new clause.
Finally, Amendment 114 would remove the “Excluded matters” list in Clause 45 to ensure that the term “environmental law” has the broadest possible application.
We strongly welcome the tabling of this amendment. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, whom we wish well, as she has been “pinged” today. We appreciate the case she made at the beginning of this debate.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions. Before I start, I would like to wish my noble friend a very happy birthday and thank her for spending it with me on these Benches. That is very kind.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for tabling Amendment 103 and for her compelling speech on Monday. I appreciate the amendment’s intention. The concern is that it could be duplicative, and I would like to direct her to Clause 19, which already places requirements on the OEP to give advice, on request, to Ministers on any matter relating to the natural environment and, on request or on its own initiative, on any proposed changes to environmental law. It builds on Clause 28(2), which gives the OEP the power to report on
“any matter concerned with the implementation of environmental law.”
It is in these areas that the OEP will have the greatest expertise, and that its advisory and reporting roles should be focused. To be clear, this will include planning legislation where it relates to the environment, including environmental impact assessments, strategic environmental assessments and all the measures in the Bill relating to planning. Other bodies, such as Natural England and others, have functions to advise government on matters concerning the natural environment. Amendment 34 would risk duplicating this and directing the OEP away from its core functions.
Turning to Amendment 114, also tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, Clause 45 is vital in defining and establishing the OEP’s remit, and each of these exemptions serves important purposes. Clause 45(2)(a) excludes the
“disclosure of or access to information”
from the OEP’s remit in order to avoid overlap with the remit of the Information Commissioner’s Office. The exclusion of legislative provisions concerning the Armed Forces and national security is important to the protection of the country. Such legislation would concern highly sensitive matters and it is therefore appropriate to restrict the OEP’s oversight and access to information in such areas.
However, public authorities such as the MoD would not be exempt from scrutiny by the OEP in respect of their implementation of environmental law, including in respect of SSSIs and the MoD’s statutory duties in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. It is clear to us—this is a point made by a number of noble Lords—that the MoD, as one of the country’s biggest landowners, has a direct impact on the natural environment. We will need to be absolutely confident that the exemptions do not in any way loosen the MoD’s responsibilities for managing those natural assets.
Turning to Clause 45(2)(c), legislation regarding
“taxation, spending or the allocation of resources”
is developed by HMT and needs to be developed with the flexibility to meet the nation’s revenue requirements. However, the spending of government resources may well be a relevant consideration in the OEP’s review of the implementation of environmental law, and it may refer to this in its scrutiny and advice reports to government. Additionally, legislation relating to regulatory schemes such as the plastic bag levy is not part of the exclusion and is within the OEP’s remit.
Turning to Amendment 109, following EU exit, Defra’s secondary legislation programme ensured that reporting requirements in EU legislation were generally converted into a requirement to publish environmental information online, meaning that information about the environment will be publicly available.
Additionally, when we left the EU our domestic legislation was updated to meet domestic rather than EU objectives. For example, where EU law required the UK to report to the European Commission on pesticides residue monitoring, our domestic legislation now provides for an equivalent national report to be published online and, therefore, to be made public.
I should add that if the Government wished to seek the OEP’s advice on matters relating to environmental law, including on reporting arrangements, it could do so under provisions made in Clause 29.
I hope that this goes some way to reassuring noble Lords that the amendment is therefore not needed. It could serve to blur the lines or even distract the OEP from the core functions it will be required to undertake. I ask therefore that the amendment be withdrawn.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his remarks and all those who have spoken in this short debate for their universal support for my Amendments 103 and 114.
I listened carefully to the Minister but I have to say that I still do not think he has quite answered the question raised by Amendment 103. He said that the OEP can give advice on matters such as planning—if it is asked. The point behind my amendment is that, as it stands, the OEP cannot give advice on those matters if it is not asked.
When we were debating this amendment late on Monday, I did not make the point—I will make it now—that Environmental Standards Scotland can make recommendations to any other body on matters relevant to its function. It can go right across the piece but, importantly, the OEP cannot, so its powers are narrower than those currently given to the parallel Scottish body. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that this is an indication of Defra’s controlling nature, and I am afraid that I am not satisfied by what the Minister has said. Nor is he prepared to accept the broad thrust of my argument as set out in Amendment 114: the massive carve-out in terms of disclosure of information on the MoD’s spending.
The Minister has not responded satisfactorily to the concerns raised by Members here today or to those raised in the linked amendment, 78, which we also discussed on Monday and to which the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, referred. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, but we will be returning to this issue on Report.
Amendment 103 withdrawn.
Clause 29 agreed.
Clauses 30 to 36 agreed.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 104. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
104: After Clause 36, insert the following new Clause—
(1) If the OEP is satisfied that a public authority has failed to comply with a decision notice, the OEP may by written notice (a “penalty notice”) require the public authority to pay to the OEP an amount in sterling specified in the notice.(2) A penalty notice may not be issued before the earlier of—(a) the end of the period within which the authority must respond to the decision notice in accordance with section 35(3), and(b) the date on which the OEP receives the authority’s response to that notice.(2) When deciding whether to give a penalty notice to a public authority and determining the amount of the penalty, the OEP must have regard to the matters listed in subsection (3).(3) Those matters are—(a) the nature, gravity and duration of the failure;(b) the intentional or negligent character of the failure;(c) any relevant previous failures by the public authority;(d) the degree of co-operation with the Commissioner, in order to remedy the failure and mitigate the possible adverse effects of the failure;(e) the manner in which the infringement became known to the OEP, including whether, and if so to what extent, the public authority notified the OEP of the failure;(f) the extent to which the public authority has complied with previous enforcement notices or penalty notices;(g) whether the penalty would be effective, proportionate and dissuasive.(4) Once collected, penalties must be distributed to the NHS, Mayors for combined authority areas and local authorities for the treatment and research of illnesses related to air pollution.(5) The Secretary of State must, by regulations, set the minimum and maximum amount of penalty.(6) Regulations under this section are subject to the affirmative procedure.”
It is my pleasure to open the debate on this group. It includes some amendments from some very esteemed noble Lords which I will no doubt comment on at the end. While all these amendments take different approaches, what is common is that we all recognise that this Bill will fall far short of what is needed without some significant changes to the enforcement mechanisms. I would not dare to disagree with a group of noble Lords that includes the noble Lords, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, Lord Krebs and Lord Duncan of Springbank, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd.
These amendments can meld into something extremely positive. For example, the proposals by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, will significantly improve the judicial process for environmental review. In particular, they remove from the Bill the absurd provision whereby an adverse ruling does not affect the validity of a government decision.
My amendment and Amendment 107A, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, take enforcement one step further. Our amendments recognise that there is a whole realm of conduct that goes further than a judge giving the Government a strong telling off, and which may require actual penalties to be issued. Amendment 104 would enable penalties to be issued, taking into account a whole host of factors such as the gravity of the failure, any intention of negligence, and previous failures by the authority. The inclusion of the principles of effectiveness and proportionality makes my amendment wholly reasonable, and is necessary for ensuring that the ambition in this Bill is not trashed by poorly governed public authorities.
Finally, my Amendment 104 would use these penalties to fund the NHS. This is an absolutely crucial point and, I have to admit, the issue of air pollution is one of my pet topics. Very few people seem to understand what a public health hazard it is. Here, I am saying we should fund the NHS and local authorities to reduce the harms of air pollution and treat the associated illnesses, which very much affect children as well as adults. I admit this is my pet project, but it is one of the gravest examples of where politicians are failing us. It has become more visible recently that air pollution is a killer and also reduces well-being in many people, particularly children of course. So I believe it is a worthwhile destination for these penalty fines. I beg to move.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, whom it is a pleasure to follow, that the risk of penalty fines concentrates the mind wonderfully. When I used to defend Defra from the attentions of the European Commission in urban waste-water cases, I suspect the prospect was quite useful in concentrating the mind of the Treasury when money was requested for the Thames super-sewer and other mitigations. The Minister will say that no fining mechanism is necessary when the OEP has at its disposal a sufficiently intimidating set of judicially enforceable remedies. In the abstract, he may have a point, but, when looking at the Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank, said at Second Reading, it is important not to confuse a full set of teeth with a flashy set of dentures. My Amendments 105 to 108 seek, in particular, to equip environmental review, the only route generally available to the OEP, not with dentures but with teeth.
The crucial amendment, to which the noble Baroness has already referred, is Amendment 107. In any case likely to prove contentious, it will be worthwhile for the OEP to pursue environmental review only if strong and enforceable remedies—notably, the power to quash unlawful decisions—are available at the end of the road. Clause 37(8), which is without precedent in any Act of Parliament, removes the court’s power to grant such remedies, no matter how much or little time may have elapsed, and no matter how serious the damage to the environment or public health, unless the court can satisfy itself that the grant of a remedy would not be likely to cause substantial hardship to, or substantially prejudice the rights of, any person. This is, though disguised in the drafting, a rebuttable presumption against the grant of any remedy at all.
There is a yet further hurdle: the court would have to be satisfied also, before granting a remedy, that a remedy would not be “detrimental to good administration”—although how good administration could be founded on policies and decisions that are unlawful is certainly an interesting conundrum. Take the example of an air quality case: just the sort of systemic issue of national importance that is identified in Clause 22(7) as particularly suitable for the OEP. Let us say that the court hearing an environmental review finds that a public authority has failed to produce legally compliant air quality plans and, to ensure that the law is enforced, wishes to require it to do so. Clause 37(8) would stop it from doing so unless the court was satisfied that no one would be likely to suffer substantial hardship or prejudice as a result. The evidence of one taxi driver who had recently sunk his savings in a non-compliant vehicle would be not only relevant but determinative of the issue, no matter serious the breach of law and no matter how many lives might be saved by a compliant plan. Indeed, even if there were no such evidence, the court could still not grant a remedy without, in effect, proving a negative: that there is nobody out there who could suffer the requisite substantial hardship or prejudice.
Similarly, an unlawful failure to designate a nitrate-vulnerable zone could not be corrected unless the court could be sure that no affected landowner would meet those thresholds. An unlawful permit for an oil refinery would have to stand if the owner had invested on the strength of it, whether in good faith or otherwise. A future judgment that new gas boilers are incompatible with statutory net-zero obligations would be unenforceable too. Irrespective of the benefits, there always would be people with something substantial to lose. In short, the more significant the issue and its environmental impact, and the more it is capable of impacting on private or even administrative interests, the more likely it is that the grant of any remedy will be automatically excluded by this clause.
Of course there will be cases, including some cases decided long after the event, in which a private interest is so strong, and the environmental interest so relatively weak, that a court would be justified in refusing a remedy in respect of unlawful conduct. That is precisely why the grant of remedies by courts of judicial review is, and always has been, discretionary and flexible. Amendment 107 would do no more than replicate that orthodox and unobjectionable position in the context of environmental review. It does not even require the normal remedy of damages to be available. Clause 37(8) places private and bureaucratic interests in the perpetuation of unlawful decisions on one side of the balance, and decrees that even the heaviest public interests will never outweigh them. The twin attributes of justice are her scales and her sword; Clause 37(8) would remove them both. All we ask if that she should be allowed to keep them, so that public authorities can be kept to their legal obligations in this most vital area.
Amendment 108 would give the OEP an alternative to environmental review by opening up a wider range of cases in which the OEP could pursue the established route of judicial review. Clause 38(1) uniquely handicaps the OEP as a claimant in judicial review by requiring it to surmount two extra hurdles of seriousness and urgency—nobody else faces those. By removing at least the second of those hurdles, which was only inserted in the Commons, we would go some way towards redressing the OEP’s disadvantage and putting it on the same footing as any other interested group or individual.
Amendments 105 and 106 address further points on environmental review. The point of 105 is to reduce the scope for procedural game-playing by lawyers. It is the nature of things that unlawful practices may spread, or be repeated, during the course of the OEP investigation that is a precondition for the commencement of environmental review. It is surely sensible that the scope of any environmental review should not be frozen at the time, months or even years earlier, when the investigation began. If later conduct raises the same issues, there should be no obstacle to putting it before the court. I hope the Minister will agree with that, and also that Clause 37(2) is too narrowly drafted for this subject to be adequately dealt with by assurances from the Dispatch Box.
Amendment 106 focuses on the statement of non-compliance, a concept introduced to the law by Clause 37. As the department has accepted in its FAQs, published on Monday, such statements may have reputational or political effects but are not in themselves a legal remedy. So they are not a prize to which the OEP is likely to feel justified in devoting its limited resources. This amendment would remove the most obvious statement of their legal powerlessness—that they do not affect the validity of the conduct in respect of which they are given—but would not, I freely accept, be a substitute for the remedies whose full application would be restored by Amendment 107.
Finally, and in response to a concern I raised at Second Reading and in person, the Minister has been good enough to write in an all-Peers letter that it is the Government’s view that OEP complaints and enforcement functions will not affect the rights of other persons to bring legal challenges against public authorities by way of judicial review. It would be the final irony if the imperfect mechanisms of environmental review were to be advanced in the courts by public authorities as a reason for withholding access to what remains, at least for now, the gold standard of judicial review. I accept that such decisions are ultimately for the courts, but the Government’s view is significant and I would be grateful if the Minister could repeat his assurance from the Dispatch Box so that it appears in the official record.
I am delighted to follow the noble Lord. I support the amendments in this group. I join my noble friend the Minister in congratulating my noble friend Lady Bloomfield on her birthday; I am sure there is nowhere she would rather be celebrating her birthday than with us this afternoon. Her support on the Bill is greatly appreciated.
My starting point is what my noble friend has said on a number of occasions: that we are seeking to achieve a regime whereby we replicate, as closely and as effectively as possible, the regime to which we signed up with the European Union. I go back to Britain in the 1980s, when I was working as an adviser; an A-grade woman, and a woman administrator in the Conservative group in the European Parliament, was quite a thing in those days. Noble Lords may recall—the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, recalls only too well—that the United Kingdom had a terrible reputation as the dirty man of Europe, with the dirtiest waters, some of the dirtiest rivers and some of the dirtiest beaches. Many maintain that change came not just by signing up to high-reaching directives, such as the EU water directive—I pay tribute to the Secretaries of State for the Environment at the time—but also the massive investments that water companies made over successive years and, obviously, the sterling efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, who made sure that he held the water companies’ feet to the fire.
I am concerned that there will be no real teeth. I hate using that word because I went to the dentist recently and it brings back too many memories of that, but I think it is a good word to use. I believe that one reason why the European regime has been so successful in holding water companies, chemical companies and agricultural processes to the fire is because it had very real sanctions. I therefore pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, for their amendments. Mine, as the noble Baroness said, goes a little further. It says:
“In the event of a severe breach of environmental law, financial penalties may be imposed.”
This echoes a lot of the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich.
The offending subsections of Clause 37 include subsection (7), which states:
“A statement of non-compliance does not affect the validity of the conduct in respect of which it is given.”
They also include subsection (8) in particular, which goes further:
“Where the court makes a statement of non-compliance it may grant any remedy that could be granted by it on a judicial review other than damages, but only if satisfied that granting the remedy would not … be likely to cause substantial hardship to, or substantially prejudice the rights of, any person other than the authority, or … be detrimental to good administration.”
My noble friend the Minister has to put our minds at rest this afternoon and show that it should not really be just the courts that are left to impose the penalty. If the OEP is to be worth its weight in gold, which I hope it will be, it has to have the power to implement the decisions that have to be taken when holding public bodies to account—it is extending to public authorities for the first time—and would mirror the powers that currently exist under the European Commission, which is the body that we are told the OEP is meant to replicate in fulfilling our environmental sanctions post Brexit.
I am grateful to the Bar Council for its help in preparing my amendment. As I have said before:
“The requirement that the breach be severe to justify a financial penalty is noted. It is assumed that this is to ensure that a financial penalty be the exception rather than the rule”.
So, it should not just be a minor infraction; it should be a major infraction and a severe breach. Also, this is
“in the context that the OEP’s power to apply for an environmental review is already on the condition that it considers the authority’s failure to comply to be serious. To that end, it might be less open for debate as to whether it is severe or serious if the court’s discretion were wider, and therefore based upon all the circumstances of the case, but to be exercised where those circumstances are exceptional.”—[Official Report, 28/6/21; cols. 562-63.]
In making an argument to reject Amendment 107A, my noble friend has to give us the alternative that there will be very real and immediate powers. As I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, will say, if the OEP were to impose a penalty, it would be more or less instantaneous. Going to court means that there will inevitably be a delay, so the spillage and the damage could take more effect than if we had the OEP imposing the penalty, which is my preferred route. I hope that I will get the support of the House for Amendment 107A.
My Lords, I support Amendments 105, 106, 107 and 108 in this group. Indeed, I raised the issue of Clauses 37(7) and 37(8) at Second Reading and made it clear that I, as a non-lawyer, was relying on the Bingham Centre’s rule of law analysis of this part of the Bill. I am going to leave the experts—we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Anderson—to deal with the legal flaws. I just want to give a couple of examples that Second Reading did not allow because of the time limits.
The first is the culling of sea-birds in the Ribble estuary. The case of RSPB v Secretary of State in 2015 concerned the decision by the Secretary of State to grant permission for a cull of sea-birds. The Court of Appeal ruled that the direction to cull was not consistent with the objectives of managing their population. Under this Bill, the statement of non-compliance would declare such a cull not in compliance with environmental law but it would not stop the cull. What would be the use of such a declaration? A paper remedy is no remedy at all.
A second, more recent example, concerns Manston Airport. Permission to use Manston Airport was given by way of a particular kind of statutory instrument: a development consent order, or DCO. The DCO was contested and the Secretary of State conceded that it had been made unlawfully. The planning court quashed the DCO, meaning that it had no legal effect. Under Clause 37(7), notwithstanding it was unlawful, the DCO would remain valid.
The third example, which I will not go into in detail, concerns the case of Dover District Council v CPRE Kent. This regarded a proposed development in an area of outstanding natural beauty. The Supreme Court quashed the permission. Under Clause 37(7), there would be nothing to prevent it going ahead.
Clause 37(8) also presents problems with the rule of law, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said. A local authority could give a developer the right to clear woodland to build houses. In so doing, the local authority could be breaching environmental law. The developer will have spent money on paperwork and planning. It may become non-compliant at an environmental review but, because the developer has spent money and expects to profit from the development, the development must go ahead. This is absolutely crazy. According to the Bingham Centre, this introduces
“a new ‘polluter doesn’t pay’ principle into environmental law.”
This is a new normal: unlawful actions by a public authority remain valid; it restricts the awards of a remedy by the court; it requires a court to endorse unlawful action if quashing that action would hurt a person who stands to benefit from it. The Minister must have some really good, detailed answers to these points and the others he is going to hear this afternoon—far more satisfactory than what he has managed to conjure up so far on the Bill. He must appreciate that there will be chaos on Report as the Bill gets torn apart.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and speak to the same amendments.
If the Bill is to be effective and to work, there are two main areas that need change. The first is clarity in relation to all the duties imposed because without clear duties, interlocking targets, interim targets and environmental plans, there is no effective concrete law that can be applied.
The second area where it has changed is enforcement. On Monday we had a useful debate on the independence of the OEP. Today, we turn to a second aspect of enforcement: the remedies that must be available if court proceedings are required. I very much hope that the independent strength and force of the OEP, together with clear duties set out in the Bill, will mean that recourse to courts is rarely necessary. However, that may be a pious hope because it is obvious that in this area there are immense conflicts of interest between those looking at the long term and those who seek to protect short-term or other interests. It seems to me, therefore, that an amount of litigation and enforcement action taken through the courts is inevitable.
I believe that view must be shared by the Government because why, otherwise, would they seek to constrain two important aspects of our common-law tradition? The first is to curtail the judicial function and the second is to curtail the discretion of the enforcer. I will deal with each aspect in turn but, unless changes are made to this part of the Bill, I entirely agree with everyone who has spoken about teeth. I will not attempt to describe the kind of teeth required, only to say that they must ensure that the Bill is not a long series of statements but will actually work for future generations.
I will now deal with each amendment in turn. I will deal with them briefly and in the order in which they are set out, not as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, did, but I entirely agree with him that the critical amendment is Amendment 107. Amendment 105 changes the provision in the Bill that seeks to stop proceedings at a particular point in time being brought together. I find this very difficult to fathom. It is a very inefficient way of dealing with things, apart from being unjust. A court always likes to have all the relevant cases in front of it so that it can do justice. I ask the Minister: why do the Government wish to impede justice in this respect?
Amendments 106 and 107 can be taken together because they deal with the consequences of a decision by the court that what has happened has not been lawful. It seems to me very difficult to understand how a Government who believe in the rule of law—and I believe this Government firmly believe in the rule of law—wish to say that there are to be no consequences of a failure to comply with the law. That is very difficult to understand. However, much more serious, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and others have pointed out, is the restriction on remedies. I have no doubt that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and its very able lawyers are well aware that, from time to time, in several cases, judges have to deal with circumstances where the rights of other people are affected or there is a question about good administration. A judge then takes, for example, the prejudice to the rights of certain people on the one hand and balances it against the considerations on the other. That is an ordinary judicial function.
The Bill seeks to take that function away from a judge by imposing a restriction that requires a judge to be satisfied that if one single person would suffer hardship or prejudice to his rights, that means the court cannot do justice. I ask why. To my mind, it is a very undesirable attack on the way in which traditionally in this country we have approached matters of judicial review of government action. Until now, the judges have been trusted. It is a remarkable fact that, although there are complaints from time to time that far too many decisions are overturned on judicial review, the general effect of judicial review and the knowledge of the consequences of the remedies has been to improve good administration. The Government are successful in the overwhelming number—a percentage in the high 90s—of cases. I therefore wonder: what is driving the Government in this case to curtail the doing of justice by judges? It seems to me that there is no reason whatever for it. Surely, they can trust the judges on this aspect.
The last of these amendments is to the provision that seeks to curtail the right of the OEP to bring judicial review. Why take away its discretion? Do the Government not trust it? Surely, with an agency that is independent and to be chaired by a person of the calibre of the chairman designate, it is very difficult to understand why a Government wish to restrict its discretion for the future in bringing cases. They must also appreciate that if a judicial review has brought late, the judge can refuse a remedy. There is the lock of the discretion of the trusted OEP, with judicial discretion as a backstop. Why do the Government need more? We should trust our common-law traditions and leave matters to the discretion of the judiciary and to the discretion of the enforcer.
My Lords, it is a great please to follow my noble and learned friend Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. I have put my name to Amendments 105, 106, 107 and 108, together with my noble friend Lord Anderson of Ipswich, my noble and learned friend Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd and the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank. As a mere lay man on legal matters, I have little to add to the points made so beautifully by my noble friend and my noble and learned friend. However, it would be hard to argue against the view that the OEP, if it is to be an effective enforcement body, needs to be able to wield a big stick, even if the stick is rarely used. As it stands, the Bill gives the OEP a stick more akin to a matchstick than a knobkerrie, cudgel or shillelagh.
I am very grateful to the members of the Defra Bill team for having spent two sessions with my noble friend Lord Anderson and me trying to explain why Clause 37(8) biases the scales of justice against protecting the environment and in favour of commercial interests that might harm it. Three arguments were put forward. First, environmental review will take some time to reach the court stage as it passes through the two earlier stages of an information notice and a decision notice. Therefore, a third party may have already committed a great deal of resource to a project before it comes to court and it would be then unfair to stop the project in its tracks. Secondly, it was said that the OEP has wider powers than those covered by the European Commission and court and therefore needs to have its teeth blunted. Thirdly, in some cases, for instance planning approvals, giving environmental protection too much weight might cut across other government priorities.
I do not find these arguments at all persuasive. For instance, the argument that the environmental review process is so slow that a third party could be heavily committed begs the question of whether the design of the whole process needs to be reconsidered, as Amendment 108 proposes, rather than using Clause 37(8) as a sticking plaster to rectify the problem. As it stands, it is a bit like a manufacturer making a chair with legs that are too long and then selling it with a requirement that the customer cuts the legs down before use.
Defra officials have also produced a very helpful note summarising their arguments for this part of the Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, referred to a few minutes ago. The note makes it clear that one of the Government’s concerns, perhaps even a major concern, is that the OEP might get in the way of the planning system. My noble friend Lady Boycott referred in earlier debates to instances where housing developments could cause serious harm to valuable habitats. Perhaps a powerful OEP would be able to discourage or stop these developments—but if it did, would that be a bad thing? It certainly would not be for the species that depend on those habitats for their survival.
It is not uncommon for developers or individuals to face financial consequences in the form of fines for environmental harms, such as cutting down trees that have tree preservation orders, or for failing to carry out due diligence, such as proper environmental impact assessments. Clause 37(8) seems to go too far in protecting public authorities from failing to carry out due diligence, with consequent adverse effects on third parties. As it stands, who will bear the burden of bad decisions? The environment that the Bill claims to protect.
As others have explained, Amendments 105, 106 and 108 also seek to strengthen the OEP’s hand by increasing the efficiency of process, removing the oddity that non-compliance does not affect the validity of an action, and broadening the conditions under which the OEP can seek judicial review. Amendment 104 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and Amendment 107A in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, introduce the option of financial penalties. In Monday’s debate, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was most eloquent in describing how the threat of fines by the European court galvanised the Government into action. I realise that that may be a step too far, but Amendments 105 to 108 are much more modest and should surely be accepted by the Government if they are serious about protecting the environment. If the Bill is not amended, the OEP will be a bit like a contestant entering a marathon with their shoelaces tied together.
My Lords, before I speak to the amendments, I apologise to my noble friend the Minister for including his name in what I said about the Forestry Commission on Monday. It was quite of wrong of me to do so, and I apologise to him for that. He has confirmed that he does not agree with me, in any case.
As I turn to the amendments, there is now very little for me to say. The Bill has been savaged by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, a former Lord Chief Justice. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern will doubtless similarly savage the existing wording.
My concern is that the OEP must be not only independent but seen as such, and it must be authoritative. If it is not, it is not going to work; it will get into disrepute. The Bill as it stands does not help in seeking to achieve the goals that we all want. This takes me, finally, on to the question of financial penalties. I know how effective the threat of financial penalties has been on the Government, but I actually see little point in the OEP being able to fine the Government, because it comes out of one pocket and goes straight back into another pocket to be recycled. It is not the threat that the Europeans had of a financial penalty on the Government. There has to be a better way of making certain that the OEP’s decisions have the cudgel that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, referred to.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has withdrawn, so I call the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead.
My Lords, I wish to speak in support of Amendments 105 to 108 and to endorse all that the noble Lords, Lord Anderson of Ipswich and Lord Krebs, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said about them.
Rolling up multiple instances of misconduct into a single application, as Amendment 105 seeks to permit, makes obvious sense. There are limits to the extent that rules of court may go to promote that objective, although this is certainly something that the courts would like to do. Amending Clause 37 in this way will significantly improve the process, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, said in introducing this group, and it will also avoid abuses. Therefore, I warmly endorse this amendment.
Clause 37(8), which seeks to restrict the discretion of the court to grant a remedy, raises the threshold on what the court may do too far. Removing that restriction is what Amendment 107—the crucial amendment, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said—is all about. Along with others who have worked with judicial review in practice, I regret what the Government are proposing. I understand the points made in the Defra note about innocent third parties and the effects of delay in some cases when issues come to court, but the courts themselves have no difficulty in taking points of that kind on board and making allowances for them. The flexibility of judicial review, which is one of its strengths and ought also to be part of environmental review, must be preserved.
Clause 38(3) about the urgency condition, which Amendment 108 seeks to remove, is another fetter on the jurisdiction of the courts which is hard to justify, as others have said.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said to me one day years ago, I think shortly after he entered this House as Lord Advocate and began to see what Governments can achieve by legislation, “legislation is a blunt instrument”. I have never forgotten that remark. All too often legislation has unforeseen consequences. His wise remark serves as a warning to legislators not to trespass too readily into areas of law and practice which depend on the exercise of judicial discretion, and this is such an area. The point is that while legislation lays down rules, only other legislation can change those rules, and they are rules which the court must obey. By contrast, the common law which judges apply can and does adapt itself as case law develops. That is its strength and what judicial review has been doing for decades. That is why it is much more sensitive to the demands of each case and the kinds of problems that the Defra note refers to. It should not be impeded in the way that the Government are seeking to do in these clauses, and that is why I support these amendments.
Although she is in her place, I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, is not participating in this debate, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone.
My Lords, when amendments are supported by noble Lords of the calibre of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, a renowned scientist and environmentalist in the shape of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and a former Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank—if I were the Minister, I would roll over and accept them. I hope he will do just that. I cannot add to the lucid case made in support of Amendments 105 to 108 by those noble Lords I have mentioned, other than, in layman’s terms, to add my voice of concern about the proposed restrictions on judicial discretion to grant remedies when it is found that there has been a breach of environmental law on an environmental review and the limitations on the OEP’s powers to bring judicial review proceedings.
The proposed statement of non-compliance is risible, since the public body can publish a response but carry on regardless, with whatever it has done wrongly remaining valid and in place. This is not a toothless remedy; it is no remedy at all and will bring the OEP immediately into disrepute. To make matters worse, a judge cannot issue a stronger remedy if it would
“be likely to cause substantial hardship to, or substantially prejudice the rights of, any person”
“be detrimental to good administration.”
We have heard cases from across the environmental spectrum from previous speakers. Can the Minister tell the Committee how this provision can possibly work, as there is bound to be an individual or group who could be shown to have suffered some adverse impact? It is called life, I think.
Environmental review is supposed to complement rather than replace judicial review, but the Bill allows the OEP to use judicial review only where an urgency condition has been met:
“to prevent or mitigate serious damage to the natural environment or to human health.”
Other similar bodies have access to judicial review at their discretion, and that cannot be denied to the OEP without it becoming ineffective in its enforcement role.
Amendments 106 to 108 would enable the OEP to exercise at least some effective powers to hold government and public bodies to account for compliance with environmental law. Personally, I would also give the OEP whacking great powers, as outlined in Amendment 105 from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. There is nothing like an eye-watering fine of the scale that the European Commission used to apply as a last resort to change the mind of a government department or an agency that has gone off-piste.
I have chaired a regulatory body that attempted to regulate government bodies and the Government themselves, and I tell the Committee that it is not easy. If you do it with rigour and toughness, the Government hate you and take revenge. If you do it in a toothless way, the public lose confidence in you and take revenge. It is difficult enough with a full set of tools in the toolkit. Unless these amendments are passed, the OEP’s toolkit will be significantly bare.
My Lords, I add my voice in support of Amendments 105 and 107, and I shall speak to those amendments together. My right reverend friend the Lord Bishop of Oxford would have spoken to them, but is unable to be here, so I am glad to be able to speak and endorse what other noble Lords have said.
From this Bench, we welcome much of the content of the Bill, and we believe deeply in the importance of the good stewardship of creation. We recognise the need for global solutions to an international challenge and that any solutions will take leadership and require harmonising regulation on a global scale. As others have said, it is essential that the new OEP be given the appropriate teeth—not dentures, perhaps jaws—to hold business and government at all levels, national, regional and local, to account.
As drafted, the Bill centralises power and control into the Government’s hands rather than entrusting the powers to the regulator. If we truly want to be taken seriously as an international trailblazer for environmental legislation, we ought not to be afraid of creating a robust regulator. It would be a signal of confidence by the Government in their own programme to equip the regulator with the powers it needs to be properly effective. Although I recognise and applaud the passion with which the Minister has championed the Bill so far, if the Government are not prepared to support these amendments, I should like to hear more from him about how the OEP will be so equipped. Simply stating that it will be independent does not make it so. Given that the new OEP’s resources will be significantly less than its predecessor body, the new regulator will need to be more targeted and strategic about its activities. However, Clause 37 will significantly restrict the power of the courts to grant remedies, and I believe that the powers detailed in Amendment 107 will be essential for the OEP to do its job effectively.
In the year we are hosting COP 26, we should be showing the world that, even if we are to miss our climate goals, as the Committee on Climate Change has suggested we will, we have put in place a body that can genuinely help us to get the rest of the way to the target and beyond—especially when facing the tricky balance between competing commitments made in trade deals, environmental protection and agricultural production.
We know that the window to make a meaningful impact on climate change is closing. We need the Bill to be as fit for purpose as possible from the very beginning. I hope that the Minister will agree that an independent and effective OEP needs to have proper powers to hold to account, and I hope that the Government will support these amendments.
My Lords, I support the amendments and support in detail all that has been said by noble Lords, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. I want to ask a rather fundamental question. The environmental review can be taken on only where the OEP considers that, on the balance of probability,
“the authority has failed to comply with environmental law, and … it considers that the failure”
is “serious.” That is the start: a failure
“to comply with environmental law.”
Subsection (6) states:
“If the court finds that the authority has failed to comply with environmental law, it must make a statement to that effect (a ‘statement of non-compliance’).”
That is to say that the court has held that the authority in question
“has failed to comply with environmental law”.
It goes on to state:
“A statement of non-compliance does not affect the validity of the conduct in respect of which it is given.”
What does that mean? That means that the conduct in question cannot be a breach of the law. It is a failure of environmental law, yet it is not a breach of the law. Is that another way of saying that environmental law is not a law at all, and that planning law must prevail? Is that really what this is saying, or can my noble friend explain to me how you can have a law which has been breached yet the conduct is not regarded as improper?
It is a simple question that supports all these amendments, if answered properly. There is an underlying feeling that environmental law is to be a grade below some other laws so that, although you fail to comply with it, you can still be all right. That does not accord with our understanding of law—certainly not mine for a considerable period. I do not see how it can work that you can have a piece of legislation that describes something as law—environmental law—yet it is not law that, where you breach it, renders your conduct wrong.
My Lords, it is a delight to follow my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who is in many ways the embodiment of wisdom in your Lordships’ House. How good it is to have him back with us and speaking as vigorously and to the point as he always does.
I cannot begin to rival the expertise or knowledge of the noble and learned Lords who have spoken, but shall give my noble friend the Minister a secular analogy. When we enter this Chamber from the Prince’s Chamber, we have in front of us that great classical sculpture by John Gibson of Queen Victoria. It is flanked on either side by the figures of Justice and Mercy. The figure of Justice holds in her hands, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, reminded us earlier, the sword and the scales.
Would my noble friend Lord Goldsmith seriously think, as he entered the Chamber, of removing that sword and those scales? Because that, metaphorically, is what he is proposing to do this afternoon if he does not accept the spirit of these amendments. It is palpably absurd—I refer to the interesting contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker—to have an Environment Bill that has as one of its slogans, “The polluter need not pay”. It is absurd. Can my noble friend not recognise that absurdity?
I have said before in these debates that it is essential that an environmental Bill should command the support of Members in all parts of your Lordships’ House, particularly one that is meant to stand the test of not just some time but generations. We cannot have a Bill enacted that, in effect, does what my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay has just said and contradicts one of the fundamentals of English law.
I hope that my noble friend Lord Goldsmith will do what I urged him to do when speaking to an amendment on Monday. I said that because it was so important that the Bill should command the support of your Lordships in all parts of the House, he should convene some sort of round table and talk to us all. There is an answer to all these conundrums and problems that we are highlighting, because we all support the basic premise of the Bill. However, if we support that premise and intention, we cannot allow the Bill to go on to the statute book so fundamentally flawed as it is at the moment. So I say to him again, “Please talk to those of us who wish you well, who wish the Bill well, but who can never lend support on Report to a Bill that is so riddled with absurdity”.
My Lords, I begin by drawing attention to my interests in the register, notably the chairmanship of the National Forest.
I was pleased to put my name to Amendments 105 to 108, because they are necessary and they make the Bill better. We have heard echoed by a number of noble Lords how that can be achieved and I hope that the Government hear that. In many ways, this clause is like a Monet painting. It looks fine from a distance, but the closer you get the more the detail seems to disappear. What we need now is clarity and for that detail to be recognisable. Non-compliance must affect validity. That is a simple statement of fact. The beneficiary of an environmental deterrent or damage cannot escape sanction because he is materially affected by the sanction. That cannot be a useful way of moving forward. The remedies available must be a deterrent. If they are not, the system will be gamed. Individuals will find ways through, between and under, and they will be able to make a mockery of what should be a very important institution.
The OEP is a successor to a body that was able by its threats to bring about fundamental change in how environmental laws were enforced—and it made the environment better, safer and healthier by doing that. The successor body must be able to do the same and have available to it each of the elements that can allow it to achieve that outcome. That is why I was very pleased to put my name to these amendments.
My Lords, we on these Benches thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, for these amendments, which expose the fundamental flaws in the proposed enforcement powers of the environmental watchdog. We support all the amendments, particularly Amendment 107. As others have said, lawyers in this Chamber have eloquently made the case, so I will merely reflect on two points.
First, the Government have said that they want the OEP to be world-beating in its role. Yet a cursory review of its remit, as opposed to that of the body in Scotland, Environmental Standards Scotland, suggests that that is absolutely not the case and that the powers of the OEP are far more prescriptive than those of Environmental Standards Scotland, which has the power to take the steps that it considers appropriate—I repeat, the steps that “it” considers appropriate—to secure public authorities’ compliance with environmental law and how it is implemented or applied. So, if the Government want the OEP to be a world-beating watchdog, they need to look at the options rather more carefully in order to ensure that that is delivered.
Secondly, on Amendment 107, which seeks to remove the restriction on the ability of the court to grant remedies, such as squashing orders, where that could cause severe hardship, we agree very much with the noble and learned Lord, Lords Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who said that we should trust the judges. As it stands, the Bill fetters the discretion of the judiciary and radically alters the balance of power in favour of the Executive.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, asked: who bears the brunt of this weight in the change in the balance of power? He rightly reflected that it is nature—but, equally, it is the people of our country. It has been a fundamental cornerstone of British democracy that people have a right to environmental justice and to hold the Government to account. It is also a right guaranteed to the British public, given that we are signatories to the Aarhus convention. Therefore, as it stands, unless these amendments are accepted, we the British public will have weaker rights to environmental justice than we had previously under the European Union. We therefore urge the Government to accept these amendments and to ensure that the OEP has the robust powers that it needs in order to be—and, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said, to be seen to be—an effective and robust environmental watchdog.
My Lords, first, I am grateful to the noble Lady, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, for tabling Amendment 104. It enables us to have a discussion about what penalties are appropriate to ensure compliance with environmental law and to ensure that breaches are dealt with appropriately.
We agree that, as the Bill is currently worded, issuing decision notices has nothing like the impact that we previously enjoyed in the EU, whereby Governments could incur substantial fines. As the Bill stands, decision notices are not binding and it is not clear that these would be an effective way in which to remedy failures to comply with environmental law. We believe that the OEP should have much broader powers to make judgments, case by case, about what an appropriate remedy should be, including making amends and repairs and, in some cases, paying a financial penalty. I rather liked the rather creative proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that the revenue from those fines could then go to the NHS.
A more substantial point about financial penalties is made in the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. She gave an excellent insight into why these are necessary. We also agree with her that these decisions need to be enforceable and to send a clear message that would dissuade other public bodies from similarly breaching the law. The remedy should also require the public body to make a public declaration of the steps that it will take to put the matter right.
I know that the Government have consistently argued that financial penalties are not appropriate within the UK, as that would simply transfer money from one government pot of money to another. But we have to face the fact that it was a considerable deterrent in EU law and that nothing yet proposed in this Bill has anything like the same deterrent effect. As the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said, penalty fines concentrate minds. Meanwhile, he and other noble Lords have all, in a powerfully co-ordinated way, taken apart the judicial processes in the Bill and exposed their weaknesses. They have made the case much better than I ever could. I am grateful to the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and the legal analysis offered from ClientEarth for setting out in some detail the failings in the judicial clauses of the Bill.
How can Clauses 37(7) and 37(8) be allowed to remain in the Bill? How can we sign up to the premise that a statement of non-compliance issued by a court does not affect the validity of the conduct in the first place? This is a contradiction of all legal processes, which presume that if the judgment goes against you then you are in the wrong. It introduces an anomaly of the unlawful act now becoming lawful, and as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, said, it is almost as though environmental law is considered to be a grade below other laws.
As noble Lords have said, the caveats in Clause 37(8), that a remedy cannot be granted if it would cause substantial hardship to any person or would be detrimental to good administration, make a mockery of any judgment. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, provided some colourful examples illustrating why this provision is a nonsense, and my noble friend Lord Rooker similarly gave vivid examples of the farce in which court decisions could be ignored and any damage to the environment could be allowed to proceed regardless. It takes away the court’s discretion in determining what is fair and just in a particular case and renders the environmental review process largely ineffective. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, made clear, the Bill as worded impedes justice. Courts and judges are routinely expected to balance interests and exercise discretion. The Bill takes away this discretion—a point also powerfully made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope.
Also, as has been said, this introduces a “polluter doesn’t pay” principle into environmental law. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, demolished the rather unconvincing arguments already put forward by the Government as to why these caveats might be necessary. I am grateful to the ClientEarth legal advice that draws our attention to the impact assessment, which concludes that one of the advantages of these clauses will be:
“a reduction in third-party Judicial Reviews resulting in cost savings on legal proceedings by public authorities”.
In other words, this is all about saving money, not about making good law.
We also very much support Amendment 105, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, which would allow the OEP to apply for an environmental review in relation to multiple instances of alleged misconduct where the incidences are similar or related. This makes perfect sense and would enable the OEP to be more agile and efficient. It would also ensure that cases could be demonstrated to be serious, so that small but systemic breaches could be bundled up to make the case for an environmental review.
We very much support the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, today. I know that the Minister has been in discussion with the noble Lord and with other noble Lords. I hope very much that these discussions will continue and find a way to resolve what is a completely unacceptable wording in its current form. As my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone said, given the weight of argument against it, if the Minister has any sense, he will roll over now and accept the amendments. If this cannot be resolved at this stage, we give the Minister our absolute assurance that we will follow through with these amendments at the next stage of the Bill.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions and assure them that the Government are committed to establishing the OEP to effectively hold public authorities to account, and have provided for an enforcement framework which will allow it to do so in a manner appropriate to our domestic context.
I shall begin with Amendments 104 and 107A, tabled respectively by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. In our domestic legal system, provision for a system of fines is unnecessary because of the strict requirement for public authorities to comply with court judgments and the stronger legal remedies available. I will come back to this in a moment. Fines play an important role at the EU level, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, explained, because the Court of Justice of the European Union has no other tool by which to bring about compliance with its judgments. Unlike our courts, it does not have the ability to impose mandatory court orders directly on public authorities. If a member state does not comply, the Commission can only bring the case back to court some years later and seek a financial penalty against the member state.
Incidentally, financial penalties under the EU framework were pushed as a compliance mechanism by the UK Government when the UK was a member of the EU. Given the nature of the European framework, we felt that it was necessary at the time to ensure that no member state could simply ignore the judgments of the Court of Justice of the European Union.
By contrast, under our proposed framework, if a public authority took the extraordinary step of failing to comply with the stronger remedy of a binding court order, the OEP would be able to bring contempt of court proceedings. Being held in contempt would have serious implications and could not be ignored, as noble Lords know. There are clear requirements in the Ministerial Code for Ministers to comply with the law, including court orders. I emphasise this point. Having heard my noble friend Lord Cormack, I think that this may be an area that he has perhaps not fully understood. The prospect of a fine pales in comparison with the risk of being held in contempt of court.
I also note that the amendments would go further even than allowing the court to impose a fine where an earlier judgment had not been complied with. One amendment would grant a power to the OEP itself to impose fines, and the other would grant the court a power to issue fines, effectively as a punitive step. The Government consider that both of these options would be inappropriate. Amendment 104 would in effect allow the OEP to superimpose its own decisions in place of those made by authorities appointed by Parliament itself. The OEP would be able to prematurely sanction public authorities, without reference to the courts, and with no appeals mechanism through which this decision could then be challenged.
Incidentally, the European Commission cannot directly fine member states, public bodies, or private bodies for environmental infractions, as a number of noble Lords have implied. Only the Court of Justice of the European Union has this power, and only if a member state has failed to comply with an earlier judgment.
Additionally, Amendment 107A would grant the court a power to issue fines, effectively as a punitive step rather than to bring about compliance. This is not the role of environmental review or the OEP.
Turning to the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, I thank him for his conversations on this subject with myself and my officials. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, I would be very keen to continue those discussions if he is willing, as I hope noble Lords will appreciate I have been throughout this process. Before I go into the specifics of his amendments, I will explain why we have designed the OEP’s enforcement framework in the way that we have, and why it is so important.
The OEP’s enforcement framework must be considered in the round. It delivers numerous benefits as an additional—not a replacement—route through which alleged instances of non-compliance will be addressed. Our proposals increase access to justice by allowing anyone who has been affected by, or is aware of, an alleged breach of environmental law by a public authority to make a complaint to the OEP free of charge. Notwithstanding the comments by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, this matters, given the costs of action outside of this proposal and outside of this new system.
By liaising directly with public authorities to investigate and resolve alleged serious breaches of environmental law in a targeted manner, the OEP will be able to drive systemic environmental improvements. Wherever possible, this will be without the need to resort to costly and time-consuming litigation. In many ways, therefore, the OEP will be fulfilling a similar role to that carried out by the European Commission in the EU infractions process, but with a significantly wider remit and the ability to act directly against public authorities.
The vast majority of EU infraction cases are resolved in a similar way to how we expect the OEP’s enforcement framework to operate: through dialogue, not in front of the Court of Justice of the European Union. The cases taken by the EU Commission are also intended to drive systemic environmental improvements by clarifying the law and dealing with ongoing failures, and this is the role that we have in mind for the OEP. Our new framework will lead to better outcomes for complainants, the public and the environment. It is right that as many cases as possible are resolved through this route.
There has been a great deal of discussion of Clause 37(8) in this debate, but it must also be right that we have adopted an approach which ensures fairness and certainty in these provisions. This is entirely consistent with other forms of legal challenge in our domestic justice system, where, for instance, provision for strict judicial review time limits demonstrates that relying on judicial discretion alone is not sufficient.
Turning to the detail of Amendment 105, the court should be asked to examine issues only where the OEP has given the public authority adequate opportunity to respond. That is only right and appropriate. Active discussion with a view to resolving the issue would take place in the course of an investigation and through the service of an information notice. Where necessary, this would then be followed by a decision notice. Amendment 105 from the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, would therefore circumvent this process, limiting the benefits that this new system could deliver. Noble Lords will note that it would still be possible for the OEP to put evidence to the court regarding actions by a public authority related to conduct described in a decision notice. The court would then have the flexibility to consider this in relation to remedies.
Turning to Amendment 106, the OEP’s enforcement framework will drive systemic environmental improvements and deliver better outcomes for the public and the environment. It will allow the OEP the time and space to resolve issues directly with public authorities through investigations and its notice processes. Litigation will, of course, sometimes be necessary, but as a last resort rather than as the default or the norm. This is entirely consistent with the approach taken in EU environmental infractions, which is focused on addressing ongoing non-compliance, not trying to overturn decisions years later that have been reasonably relied on by individuals. It is as a direct result of this extended enforcement process that some safeguards are required to avoid the negative effects of decisions being undone potentially many months after they have been taken. Clause 37(7) does this.
However, a statement of non-compliance is none the less an important means by which the court can clarify the law for future cases. Given that the court will have ruled on the correct interpretation of the law, this will ensure that public authorities avoid future breaches and will prevent any ongoing non-compliance, which is ultimately the aim of the OEP. The EU infractions process is also exactly that: it seeks to address ongoing non-compliance, rather than undo specific local decisions made years previously. We want the OEP to be a forward-looking organisation, driving better environmental outcomes for the future.
In response to comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and others, I want also to reassure noble Lords that the existence of the statement of non-compliance does not in any way limit the granting of remedies by the court. A statement of non-compliance is not itself considered a remedy. Subject to the important protections in Clause 37(8), the court will have full discretion to grant normal judicial review remedies. This includes quashing orders, prohibiting orders, mandatory orders and declarations.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, is reassured that we have carefully considered how best to balance this provision to ensure that the OEP and environmental review will be able to drive meaningful environmental improvements, while also ensuring that there is not an open-ended ability to overturn decisions potentially years after they are made. As such, we do not believe that this amendment is necessary.
Turning to Amendment 107, environmental review by its nature allows time for information and decision notice stages. This will enable the court to make orders outside of the normal judicial review time limits. Judicial review time limits are to ensure certainty and provide a fair process that protects the rights of third parties who act reasonably on the decisions of public authorities. These very strict time limits are set out in the Civil Procedure Rules at Part 54. Rule 54.5 specifically provides that these time limits may not be extended, even by agreement between the parties. If judicial discretion alone were sufficient to protect fairness and ensure certainty, why, then, would these time limits be necessary?
The Government consider it entirely necessary to recognise the unique context in which environmental reviews will occur and protect third parties in this way, just as others did in the past when establishing the judicial review procedure in law. It is not a novel approach to protect such rights in legislation. Indeed, this provision is an extension of the position for existing challenges: under Section 31(6) of the Senior Courts Act 1981 and Sections 16(4) and (5) of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, the court has a discretion to refuse relief in such circumstances.
The protections in Clause 37(8) make it possible for the OEP to have a more collaborative, but potentially extended, process of investigation and notices, which will enable issues to be resolved more effectively in the interests of the public and the environment. But to be clear, it is also not the case that these safeguards will be triggered in all cases. Indeed, the Bill steers the OEP to prioritise cases with national implications, so individual local planning decisions affecting third parties are unlikely to be considered. The safeguards provided by Clause 37(8) will not be relevant to most cases that the OEP will pursue. A requirement to change future policy or how legislation is to be interpreted will not trigger the safeguard. After all, no-one is entitled to demand that government policy be fixed for ever more.
To take an example, the OEP could bring an environmental review regarding an alleged breach by government of legally binding limit values for a pollutant. That example has already been given today. If the court had issued a statement of non-compliance, it could consider granting a mandatory order requiring the Government to develop a new plan in order to reduce pollutant levels. Although this may have some impact on third parties, such as the example given by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, of a taxi business, there is no reason why this would amount to substantial hardship or prejudice. An individual or business must reasonably expect some changes in circumstances in an evolving regulatory environment, so such a case is different from the question of the status of an existing planning permission, where there is a greater legitimate expectation of certainty. As such, the court would be able to grant the necessary remedies.
Removing Clause 37(8), as proposed in the noble Lord’s amendment, could cause significant uncertainty for third parties. It is an essential component of this bespoke enforcement procedure, which I hope the noble Lord is persuaded will drive significant environmental improvement.
Finally, regarding Amendment 108, the power to apply directly to judicial review is intended to be supplementary to the OEP’s core enforcement mechanism. The Government recognise that there will be exceptional cases where it will be necessary for the OEP to seek a more urgent court judgment—for example, if serious damage would have already happened by the time that the normal enforcement procedure reached the court. However, it is important that this is reserved only for such exceptional cases. This amendment would cause uncertainty about the route that the OEP should take in any given case and risk diverting cases away from a core framework that has the potential to drive systemic improvements in the longer term.
Before I end, I will directly address the challenge laid down by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson. Although I do not have a copy of the letter in front of me and therefore cannot repeat it word for word, I assure him that it is the Government’s view that the OEP’s complaints and enforcement functions would not affect the rights of other persons to bring legal challenges against public authorities by way of a judicial review. However, it is within the court’s jurisdiction to hear and decide cases as it sees fit. I hope that addresses his final challenge. I hope this reassures all noble Lords, and I therefore beg them not to press their amendments.
I have received requests to speak after the Minister from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh.
My Lords, I have listened very carefully to this debate, particularly to the many noble and learned Lords who gave very powerful arguments in support of the amendments we have been discussing. I certainly believe that they have made some very strong cases. I was particularly interested in the comment from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, about the two levels of law, environmental and other ones. That is pretty fundamental. We have had a lot of discussion about penalties, enforcement, fines and the relationship with the ECJ, and whether fines are important or whether reputational damage is perhaps worse. There is also judicial review, which I will not go into now.
I am sad that it appears that the Minister has rejected all the arguments in these amendments. If they get through in Report, they will make a much better Bill than we have at the moment. I was really impressed with the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that there needs to be much more round-table discussion on this before the next phase. If not, I foresee big problems on Report. The most important thing is that the House and Members from all sides achieve something that we can all be proud of. From listening today, I certainly am not proud of it at the moment, but I hope that the Minister will reflect on this and organise something before the next stage.
I thank the noble Lord for his comments. It is absolutely not the case that I or the Government have rejected all the arguments put forward today, or indeed in any of the debates we have had. This is a lengthy process of scrutiny, discussion and debate and, as I have said many times, it is unlikely that a Bill that begins this process will end it in exactly the same form. I am as keen as anyone in this Committee—probably keener than most people in this Committee—to ensure that the Bill is as good and strong as it possibly can be. That is why I am very keen to continue discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and many other noble Lords on their areas of expertise.
The environmental review is a bespoke and additional jurisdiction, not a replacement vehicle. This is additional—for the court to hear claims outside the usual time limit for judicial review or statutory review. As I said during my speech, the court retains all available remedies where decisions are challenged by way of judicial review within the existing time limits, including, where appropriate, by the OEP. I hope that addresses the noble Lord’s concern.
Given the strength of feeling in the Committee this afternoon, I hope my noble friend might agree to meet the authors of the amendments before us. I come back to the point that many have referred to from my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. We are left with the impression that an environmental law is set out before us in the Bill but that a breach of that environmental law does not amount to a breach of the law. That is unsatisfactory.
I also press my noble friend on his comment that rather than have a fine, which would be punitive, it is better to have a compliance effect such as holding the company—it could be a chemical company or a water company—to be in breach through the OEP applying for contempt of court. I am just trying to think how long those proceedings would take after the horse has bolted and the stable door is left open for the damage to carry on. I would still prefer the options in either Amendment 104 or, ideally, Amendment 107A of leaving financial penalties on the table.
I thank my noble friend for her comments. I hope I addressed fines and why the prospect of being held in contempt of court is a far greater concern for a Minister than the prospect of the department that Minister belongs to being fined by a Government and the money being recycled through the same Government.
I reiterate that the system we are replacing is not one that can fine those chemical companies or even local authorities—it can deal only directly with member states—so the remit here is far greater than the remit of the system being replaced. I understand that we may have to agree to disagree, but I refer my noble friend to my argument in relation to fines earlier in the discussion.
On her first point, I am of course very happy to have meetings with any number of noble Lords to discuss these issues, as I have throughout this process.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comments, especially about continuing dialogue and revisiting this; that is incredibly important. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed. It is obvious that we all think there are problems with the Bill. I hope that not just the Minister is listening but the Government, and that they understand the depth of concern we are expressing here.
The noble Lord, Lord Khan, called my previous summing-up speech “candid”. At first I thought that was a compliment, but then I thought that it actually sounds like something out of “Yes Minister”, when the civil servant says: “Yes, very brave, Minister—very candid.” I hope I am candid, but at the same time I try not to be rude—I do not always succeed.
I welcome the support of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, however tentative, and thank him for his examples. Quite honestly, I wish I had asked him to present my Amendment 104. I think he would have made a superb job of it, and I look forward to him using his teeth on Report. Quite honestly, if it comes to a challenge between the Government and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, my money is on him. He has my full backing.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering—I sympathise with her visit to the dentist and hope she is feeling better—is right to say that our amendments take things forward. I will be keen to push this on Report.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, used an extremely good phrase about working for future generations that I wish I had used. That is absolutely crucial when we are dealing with this Bill. It is not just for now, the next six months or the next few years but for future generations. He was also quite generous when he said that the Government believe in the rule of law. I have huge respect for the noble and learned Lord, but I am not sure that is true. I think the Government talk about the rule of law but do not actually observe it; that is my observation of how they behave. We must trust the judges, as he says.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for whom I have huge respect, said that the office for environmental protection has to wield a big stick. That is absolutely right; it has to have the authority and the power to achieve all sorts of things. He also felt that Amendments 104 and 107A were a step too far, but I do not see why that is a valid argument. Quite honestly, giving up money hurts, and somehow we have to make it punitive.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said that the OEP has to be independent and authoritative; that is absolutely right. He also said that financial penalties can be effective but then suggested that, because the money was recycled, perhaps it was not that effective. Again, I disagree. It is not only the pain of the penalty but a visible example of the fact that the Government are wrong.
I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for his support. He emphasised the value of case law—something that was used a lot when we were in the EU—where the Government are really held to account.
The lay woman’s view from the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is extremely valid and very cogent. I thank her for her support.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester talked about leadership and COP 26. The fact is that we need an Environment Bill that will look good on the statute books when we get to COP 26, or our Government will be seriously embarrassed. The fact that the OEP will have fewer resources than the preceding body is a matter of huge concern. She also said that the window for action was closing, which is absolutely true, not just of this Bill but of all our actions on the climate emergency. At the moment we are seeing endless examples of very unusual weather patterns, whether in Canada or over much of Africa. We have to understand that we have to act urgently.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, pointed out the illogicality of the Bill—I really enjoyed that—and the fact that environmental law is seen as a grade below other law. That is absolutely true. I think Defra has much lower status than other parts of the Government, and that is a terrible shame. It should be involved in absolutely every part of government.
I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, with his customary common sense, support the polluter pays rule. Of course polluters have to pay and the Bill has to stand the test of time. He said that it is “riddled with absurdity”. I wish I had said all this; it is much tougher than what I said.
The noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank, freed from the shackles of collective responsibility of his ministerial post, has joined our forces—I welcome him—and spoke strongly about the need to give real teeth to the new system of environmental protection. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for her support of Amendment 104. She made the very valid point that the Scottish body is more powerful. Why would we do less than our Scottish cousins? The idea that the Government are using the term “world-beating” alongside the words “office for environmental protection” here in England is ridiculous.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, supported Amendment 104 on the grounds that it gives us the opportunity to discuss what penalties are appropriate, and that is a very valid area to discuss. She described the idea of giving the money to the NHS as “creative”. We all know that the NHS needs a lot of money—but, certainly, as the noble Baroness said, the OEP needs broad powers.
An interesting point in the Minister’s response was when he explained that within the EU the UK had actually argued for financial penalties, but that this was not the case here. So financial penalties are good enough for the EU but not good enough here. I am sure that the Minister will explain that in other ways. As the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, there will be problems on Report if the Government do not give way on some of these issues. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 104 withdrawn.
Amendments 105 to 107A not moved.
Clause 37 agreed.
Clause 38: Judicial review: powers to apply in urgent cases and to intervene
Amendment 108 not moved.
Clause 38 agreed.
Clauses 39 to 41 agreed.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 108A. Anyone wishing to press this, or anything else in this group, to a Division, must make that clear in debate.
Clause 42: Confidentiality of proceedings
108A: Clause 42, page 25, line 23, leave out “26(1) or”
Member’s explanatory statement
The amendment would exclude from the prohibition on disclosure in Clause 42(1)(a) information obtained by the Office for Environmental Protection under Clause 26(1).
In moving Amendment 108A, I will speak also to the other amendments in this group, all originally tabled in the name of my noble friend Lord Wills, who regrets that he is unable to be with us today. The first four refer to Clause 42, and the final one to Clause 45.
My main concern is the effect of Clause 42 on the right of access to environmental information under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004—the EIR. Clause 42(1) prohibits the disclosure of several classes of information by the office for environmental protection. These are: information provided to the OEP to assist it with its functions by a body with public functions under Clause 26(1); and specified information about OEP enforcement action, including any information notice or decision notice it serves, any related correspondence with an authority, and information provided to it by the authority.
Clause 42(2) describes the circumstances in which disclosure to the public will be permitted. These are: if the body supplying the information, the OEP or authority, consents—but this does not apply to an information notice or a decision notice—or if the OEP has concluded that it intends to take no further steps in relation to the matter. That is set out in subsection (2)(h).
Clause 42(3) prohibits disclosure of certain information by public authorities, particularly those which are the subject of OEP enforcement action. Clause 42(4) provides exceptions to the prohibition. None of the exceptions to the prohibitions under Clause 42 permits disclosure for the purpose of complying with the EIR or the Freedom of Information Act.
However, the Explanatory Notes set out an entirely different view. Paragraph 365 says that Clause 42
“does not override the EIR which will still apply to the OEP and other public bodies. The OEP will be required to consider requests for disclosure of information made under the EIR on a case by case basis, including assessing whether any appropriate exception will apply.”
Paragraph 366 adds:
“This clause will also not override or disapply other existing legislative provision on public access to information such as the Freedom of Information Act 2000”.
This second statement is plainly wrong. Section 44(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act exempts from access any information whose disclosure
“is prohibited by or under any enactment”.
This is an absolute exemption to which the Freedom of Information Act’s public interest test does not apply. Any statutory prohibition which applies to the information overrides the FoI right of access.
The position under the EIR is more complicated. Regulation 5(6) of the EIR states:
“Any enactment or rule of law that would prevent the disclosure of information in accordance with these Regulations shall not apply.”
Prior to Brexit, that would have guaranteed that a statutory prohibition could not undermine the EIR right of access, as the regulations implement an EU directive. The supremacy of EU law meant that it could not be set aside by domestic law. That principle no longer applies.
The EIR are now retained EU law. As I understand the position, from various briefings and from our own discussions, it is that, following the implementation period—IP—completion day:
“The principle of the supremacy of EU law does not apply to any enactment or rule of law passed or made on or after exit day.”
That is in Section 5(1) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.
“So domestic law passed after IP completion day will trump provisions in retained EU law that are of EU origin and which would have benefited from the principle of supremacy before IP completion day”—
that is the legal opinion given out by firms such as Gowling WLG.
The Bill’s prohibitions on disclosure postdate the implementation period and are clearly incompatible with the EIR rights of access. So long as the prohibitions apply, they appear to override the EIR right of access to the information concerned. Let us take an example. The OEP will be prohibited from disclosing any information supplied to it by a body with public functions under Clause 26(1). This requires such a body to provide information to the OEP if it asks for it in connection with its functions. Substantial classes of information could be affected, given the OEP’s broad functions. These, of course, include monitoring progress towards improving the environment, meeting environmental targets and implementing environmental legislation, as well as advising Ministers and investigating failures by public authorities to comply with environmental law.
Let us suppose that the OEP receives a request for the underlying data on which it has based a statement about air or water quality. If that information has come from a body with public functions, it will be subject to the prohibition. The OEP could disclose this after it had decided to take no further steps about the matter—but when would that happen? Monitoring is an ongoing process. The publication of an annual monitoring report under Clause 27(7)—which is unlikely to contain the complete monitoring data—will not mark the end of the OEP’s involvement. The problem revealed by the monitoring may persist for years, endangering human health or the environment. The OEP may need to advise the Minister, perhaps repeatedly, to address the matter. It may need to investigate any failure to comply with environmental law. The more serious the problem, the longer the prohibition will continue to prevent disclosure—an absurd situation.
The information, of course, might be disclosed if the body supplying it consents; but it may not do so, particularly if the information shows that the problem is the result of its own failings. The withholding of such information would be a serious blow to the public’s right to know, to informed public debate and to public confidence in the OEP. It is almost inconceivable that such data could be withheld under the EIR. To do so, an authority would have to show that disclosure would “adversely affect” a specified interest, consider whether the public interest required disclosure, and apply
“a presumption in favour of disclosure”.
If the information concerned emissions, significant EIR exceptions, such as those for commercial confidentiality or the interests of a person supplying information voluntarily, would be disapplied altogether. How does a blanket prohibition on disclosure, which takes no account of the public interest, advance environmental protection? And by the way, I realise that a member of the public could go with an FOI request direct to the body concerned, but how do they know what the body is going to be? That is the point: we will not know unless people are told.
The same obstacle would apply to information which an authority had supplied to the OEP in the course an OEP investigation. It could be disclosed only when the OEP had decided to take no further action or the body supplying the information consented. Again, this contrasts this with the EIR approach. EIR regulation 12(5)(b) allows an authority to withhold information if disclosure would
“adversely affect the course of justice, the ability of a person to receive a fair trial or the ability of a public authority to conduct an inquiry of a criminal or disciplinary nature”.
The Information Commissioner’s guidance highlights the “very wide” scope of the “course of justice” limb of this exception, which it says applies to information about law enforcement investigations or proceedings and civil and criminal investigations and proceedings. This is how information the disclosure of which might undermine law enforcement is protected by other regulators, including the Environment Agency, local authorities, the Health and Safety Executive and the police. To withhold information, they must show that disclosure would adversely affect the course of justice and that, on balance, the public interest favours confidentiality.
In 2017, the tribunal that deals with EIR and FOI appeals ruled on a request relating to a factory at which a fatal explosion had occurred. It held that a request for the findings of an earlier investigation into the factory should be denied because the information was likely to form part of the prosecution case, and media coverage of that investigation would have compromised the remaining police interviews and risked jeopardising a fair trial. However, in a 2007 decision involving a fatal outbreak of food poisoning, the tribunal found that disclosure in that case would not affect the trial. It commented:
“A blanket refusal to disclose all potentially relevant information may well not be justified. A public authority … ought to give careful consideration to the potential effect on the criminal proceedings of the particular information being requested ... but if, on a sensible reading of the documentation in question, its disclosure would not adversely affect the prospects of a fair trial, then the fact that the information has some connection with the subject matter of a prosecution will not be sufficient justification for nondisclosure ... on the special facts of this case, the disclosure ... would not have adversely affected the accused’s ability to have a fair trial.”
Amendment 108A would remove the reference to Clause 26(1) from Clause 42(1)(a). Information provided to the OEP by bodies with public functions could then be disclosed on request, subject to the EIR exceptions. Amendments 108B and 108C would permit disclosure for the purpose of complying with the EIR or FOI Act or subject access under data protection legislation. This is what the Explanatory Notes say is already the position. If so, the Government should have no objection to stating that on the face of the Bill. If the prohibitions in fact override EIR right of access, the UK will be in breach of Article 4 of the Aarhus convention, which requires the UK to provide a statutory right of access to environmental information. It does not permit information to be withheld on a class basis. The public interest in disclosure must be taken into account and exemptions applied in a “restrictive way”.
Clause 42(7) addresses a separate issue. It refers to the information to which Clauses 42(1) and 42(3) would apply, disregarding the exceptions to these prohibitions. The clause provides that, where information is “environmental information”, it will be considered to be held
“in connection with confidential proceedings”.
This would bring it within the range of an exception in EIR Regulation 12(5)(d), which states that
“a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that its disclosure would adversely affect ... the confidentiality of the proceedings of that or any other public authority where such confidentiality is provided by law”.
Clause 42(7) would establish that whatever was done with the information would be treated as involving confidential proceedings for the purpose of this exception. This would increase the chances of such information being withheld under this exception under the EIR. I assume this could only occur once the prohibition was lifted and the EIR right of access became available. However, paragraph 364 of the Explanatory Notes says that this would occur while
“enforcement proceedings by the OEP are ongoing”.
If the EIR right of access in fact continues while enforcement proceedings are under way, perhaps the Minister could explain what other disclosures the prohibition is meant to prevent. The OEP would still have to show that disclosure would “adversely affect” the confidentiality of those proceedings. This might not be difficult, as the disclosure of information in confidential proceedings is very likely to undermine the confidentiality of the proceedings. However, this provision is subject to the EIR public interest test.
The consideration of some of this information—for example, on monitoring—would probably not normally be regarded as a confidential proceeding. However, it would become one as a result of Clause 42(7) making it easier to withhold data, but such information is precisely what should be made public under the EIR. Amendment 108D would omit Clause 42(7).
In conclusion, Clause 45(1) defines the term “environmental law” but Clause 45(2) excludes matters relating to
“disclosure of or access to information”
from that definition. The Explanatory Notes say that the provision is intended to avoid overlap between the OEP’s role in dealing with serious failures to comply with environmental law and Information Commissioner’s Office investigations into failure to comply with the EIR. However, the exclusion is much wider than is necessary for that purpose. It would apply to matters for which the Information Commissioner has no responsibility, such as the public registers of information required under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 on air pollution, waste disposal, contaminated land, street litter, genetically modified organisms and waste disposal at sea. The OEP should be able to investigate serious failures relating to these requirements: doing so could not possibly tread on the Information Commissioner’s toes. My Amendment 114A would limit this exclusion to the functions of the Information Commissioner under the EIR and apply only to the OEP’s law enforcement functions. For everything else, access to information would remain within the definition of environmental law.
I much regret the length of time that I have had to spend on the details of quite a technical part of the Bill. The Bill is 250 pages, and I can assure your Lordships that my first draft of this speech was considerably longer than the one that I have delivered. I am incredibly grateful for the help of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which has looked forensically at this part of the Bill. Freedom of information is at risk and I hope for a detailed response from the Minister to show why I am wrong. I beg to move.
My Lords, I entirely share the concerns expressed with such clarity by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I am a total devotee of freedom of information; indeed, I managed to get a Second Reading of my Freedom of Information Bill in the House of Lords on 10 February 1999, rather in advance of the Government’s own. As the Minister knows from our previous discussions, I am also a total devotee of openness. Both those concerns of mine are engaged by the Bill as it is now written.
When it comes to environmental information, we ought to be more open, not less. Environmental information is so much a public matter and of such widespread individual public concern that we should not be looking, simply for the convenience of the system, to hide it away. I very much look forward to the Minister’s explanation of why the Bill is written as it is.
My Lords, I hope to speak quite briefly on this issue. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Rooker for spelling out the case so thoroughly and for raising the important question of transparency. He has rightly underlined the importance of open government and of the OEP being seen to act in the public interest. That is particularly true on environmental matters, where in the past there has been a tendency to cover up environmental damage and pollution, and those accused have deliberately drawn out proceedings to delay prosecution.
As it stands, the Bill contains two prohibitions on disclosure of information. The first appears to override the existing right of access to information under the environmental information regulations. The second appears to contravene the Aarhus convention, the international treaty that underpins the EIR.
Under the Bill, the OEP has a clear obligation to monitor progress in environmental protection and investigate complaints of serious failure by public bodies, but it seems that the OEP could not disclose information obtained for these purposes unless the supplier of the information consented. Similarly, information obtained during the OEP’s enforcement activity would be kept secret until the OEP decided to take no further action. That appears to be much more of a blanket ban than the current provision of the EIR, which limits disclosure only if it would
“adversely affect the course of justice”.
The Explanatory Notes take a different view, claiming that Clause 42 is compliant with the Aarhus convention, but it creates a caveat based on a “confidentiality of proceedings” exception. It is not clear how that will be defined.
To avoid any confusion on the important issue of public access to information, and to protect the OEP from accusations of unnecessary secrecy, it makes sense to clarify in the Bill that the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and connected freedom of information Acts take precedence. We therefore welcome the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Wills that have been ably moved by my noble friend Lord Rooker. I hope the Minister will see the sense in these amendments, which would provide useful clarification of our obligations under national and international law.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for his introduction. He is right to emphasise the importance of transparency, a point made equally well by my noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones.
I reiterate the position on information disclosure for the OEP. The Government have been clear that the environmental information regulations and the Freedom of Information Act will apply to information held by the OEP and public authorities. The Bill does not in any sense override that legislation. The OEP would have to consider any request against the relevant legislation on a case-by-case basis.
The OEP will assess whether any exemption or exception to the relevant regime applies to the information. If so, it will consider whether a public interest weighing exercise is required under that exemption. If a public interest test is required, it will carry out a balancing exercise before deciding whether the public interest requires that the information should be disclosed or withheld.
Turning to Amendments 108A to 108D, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, although I agree that it is important that the OEP operates transparently, it must be allowed the discretion necessary to operate effectively. The OEP’s enforcement framework has been designed to resolve issues as effectively and efficiently as possible. To do so, it is important to have a safe space where public authorities can confidently share information and allow the OEP to explore potential pragmatic solutions before issuing formal notices. The noble Lord’s proposals would effectively remove that forum, meaning that public authorities might prefer to advance to more formal stages where information disclosure exemptions may apply due to confidentiality of proceedings. That would undermine the framework and result in slower resolution and poorer value from public funds.
On Amendment 114A, Clause 45(2)(a) excludes the disclosure of or access to information from the OEP’s remit. These matters are explicitly excluded in order to avoid overlap between the remit of the OEP and that of the Information Commissioner’s Office. This is further clarified in paragraph 383 of the Bill’s Explanatory Notes. The existing drafting of this provision allows greater flexibility to ensure that overlaps are avoided. Not only does it allow the OEP and courts to decide on the meaning of the exemption to the OEP’s remit on a case-by-case basis; it accounts for any future changes to relevant legislation that may cause overlap between the two bodies. The Information Commissioner’s Office will still have the remit to uphold information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals.
I hope that answers the noble Lord’s questions and I ask that he withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, the Minister has spent just three minutes on this crucial part of the Bill. I will not try to respond now; I will take advice on what he said, but we will no doubt come back to this issue on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 108A withdrawn.
Amendments 108B to 108D not moved.
Clause 42 agreed.
Amendment 109 not moved.
We come to the group beginning with Amendment 110. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in the group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
Clause 43: Meaning of “natural environment”
110: Clause 43, page 26, line 41, after “habitats” insert “(including the soil)”
My Lords, we change topics. We leave behind the OEP, important though that was, and move on to Chapter 3, “Interpretation of Part 1”, which is equally crucial to the success of the Bill. I am extremely grateful for the support for my Amendment 110 from my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury and the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.
Clause 43 relates to the meaning of “natural environment”. It begins by saying:
“In this Part the ‘natural environment’ means”
and it lists various things, but there is a glaring loophole or error in the Bill because it misses out the soil. My Amendment 110 seeks to insert, after “habitats” in Clause 43(b), the words “including the soil”. Habitats depend totally on the soil. It was the 32nd President of the United States of America, Franklin Roosevelt, who wrote to all the state governors, after the terrible Dust Bowl there, that:
“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
The destruction of soil is a worldwide problem but it also affects the UK. Many countries in the world have the same problem. We have not looked after our soil in the way that we should and we are now paying the price for that.
The ability of our topsoil to support nature, food production and habitats for biodiversity is now seriously questioned. As my noble friend the Minister will know, there are now a limited number of harvests in East Anglia and the east side of England because of the loss of topsoil. Anybody who has looked at the pictures of the flooding in the West Country in the last few days will have seen how powerful water is when it rushes over the countryside. This was not in a farmer’s field, where the topsoil is loose, friable and ready to be washed away; it was in the middle of a town. The water pulled up tarmac and concrete, causing a huge amount of damage.
With our increasingly changing climate and the increasing frequency of heavy and severe downpours, it is therefore imperative that we look after our soil better than we have done. At the moment, we lose about 3 million tonnes of topsoil each year. No country can afford that, least of all a small island such as the United Kingdom. It is not just the loss of that topsoil which matters to the land; the effect of that topsoil is also felt in the riverine and estuarial habitats. There is an enormous loss of organic C—carbon—from the soil bank due to erosion.
Farming practices have not helped in this. This happened under the common agricultural policy, but I firmly believe that the future ELMS structure for farmers will help reduce the staggering loss of topsoil going on at the moment. It is not only in farmers’ fields. It happens when one clear fells forestry; there is always run-off from that, which causes huge problems for rivers, particularly on hilly ground, with blocked drains and with washing nutrients away. We start from the premise that a healthy soil is an economic asset. That is what we need to achieve and that is the point of this amendment: it puts it firmly in the Bill.
Before I go on, I would like to ask my noble friend the Minister a question. Could he update us on the research into the feasibility of reconstructed soil? Nature takes hundreds of years to produce topsoil and, even then, it needs to be weathered down to create the topsoil we take for granted now. I know research is going on in this area; could the Minister update us?
The 25-year environment plan aspires to sustainable management by 2030. I therefore wonder why the waste strategy for England ignores soil in its landfill sites. Up to 55% of landfill sites are soil, yet no account is being taken in the waste strategy of the problems this is causing throughout the country. It is also in contradiction to the environmental plan.
Many of your Lordships will recall that we managed to get soil inserted into the Agriculture Act when it was going through this House. I said at Second Reading that it is hugely important that the Environment Bill and the Agriculture Act tie up and correlate. If we have got soil in the Agriculture Act, we must have soil in this Bill. That is why I am moving Amendment 110.
I also have Amendment 113B in this group. This is a simple amendment and I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for preparing it for me. That does not mean that he will accept it, but he certainly gave me the wording. It followed a discussion we had on the meaning of biodiversity earlier in Committee. He read out a meaning of biodiversity and it is important that that is in the Bill. I have used his exact words, so I hope he will able to accept it. I beg to move Amendment 110.
It is always a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Caithness. In many ways, my Amendment 112, which I am speaking to, echoes exactly what his is and in some respects may be regarded as superfluous.
My amendment is a simple one that merely adds the word “soil” to what the natural environment means. As we know, the Bill currently states that
“the ‘natural environment’ means—(a) plants, wild animals and other living organisms, (b) their habitats, (c) land … air and water, and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact”.
As we have just heard so eloquently from my noble friend Lord Caithness, however, it misses out what I—and I am sure many other noble Lords—feel is the very core of our natural environment. Too often soil, which is pivotal to biodiversity and a functioning environment, is considered as an afterthought or as an inert substrate. It needs to be specifically referenced to ensure that targets and set policies are developed and funding applied. The lack of such an approach means that we may not deal with issues such as soil health, which is generally acknowledged to be in pretty poor shape, as we have just heard.
Soil health problems in the UK’s 700-plus soils vary across types, regions, geography and weather. No clear figure exists for the health of the UK’s soils, but a 2020 review estimated that only 30% to 40% of Europe’s soils are healthy. We can be confident that soil degradation is a huge problem across the UK and that urgent action is needed. Average organic matter levels are declining, especially in arable soils. As my noble friend Lord Caithness said, soil was inserted into the Agriculture Act and it is very important that we put it in this Bill too, because it is critical for agriculture, biodiversity and other reasons.
Organic matter is critical to soil health, biodiversity, productivity and carbon storage. UK soils store an estimated 10 billion tonnes of carbon, dwarfing the 0.2 billion tonnes stored in UK vegetation. In 2013, soil carbon loss was estimated to amount to 4% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, higher than for many industrial and energy sources combined. Losses appear highest from peat and arable soils.
Soil erosion remains a critical problem. A 2020 review of studies found that 16% of arable farms had soil erosion so high that it was a threat to future food production. Increases in growing maize is a major problem. A survey of over 3,000 maize-growing sites in south-west England found that 75% of fields could not let rainwater in deeper than the upper soil layers, such that a heavy rainfall could wash the soil away. Sedimentation—linked to soil erosion on land—is a major problem in 5% of UK rivers.
We must not forget that peat soils are widely damaged. Around 8% of deep peat soils in the UK are being wasted, eroding or are bare. Upland peat soils are damaged from nitrogen deposition, overgrazing, drainage and, of course, burning. Lowland peat soils suffer rapid erosion from extraction and pump drainage for cultivation. Cultivated deep peat in the lowland fens, where a third of England’s fresh vegetables are grown, is also rapidly eroding. As peat soils have dried out, the land has sunk, exposing it to flooding from rising sea levels caused by the climate crisis. Many peat topsoils will disappear within decades unless they are rewetted so that peat formation can rapidly build them up again. Soil life has suffered.
Unlike terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, our soil life has not been well monitored. However, we know that many of the chemical actives applied to farm soils negatively affect soil microbial functions and biochemical processes, altering soil communities and diversity. Combined with ploughing, reducing crop diversity, acidification and losses in organic matter—a key source of food—soil life is being impacted. Research suggests that reduced soil life can affect crop growth, development and disease incidence, potentially resulting in a negative cycle of more agrochemicals being needed.
Only today, in a timely contribution, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee, under the chairmanship of my right honourable friend Philip Dunne, published its report Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust? The report highlights the importance of soil in its summary, where it states as one of its recommendations:
“We support the recommendations of the Natural Capital Committee that the development of soil indicators should be fast-tracked; that a shadow target for soil health should be established urgently; and that a legally-binding target for soil health ought to be established as soon as monitoring data allows. Healthy soils should be a priority outcome for the Environmental Land Management Schemes, so as to encourage farmers to adopt beneficial agri-environmental practices.”
The simple addition of a word would ensure that soil is properly considered as a priority alongside air, water and biodiversity within environmental plans, and of course by the OEP.
The amendment from my noble friend Lord Caithness is probably superior to mine, but I am not fussed about that. I am rather simple; I just like one word here and there. But, whatever it is, the Government have to take serious note and insert “soil” into the Bill.
Finally, before I metaphorically sit down, I also support Amendment 113, which has yet to be spoken to by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. It would ensure that the marine environment is included. I have a slight difficulty on whether it is necessary when talking about marine wildlife to particularly include marine mammals. I think they should be included anyway in the whole general thing, but I will leave that for others to discuss. I hope that we can insert “soil” into this Bill.
I am delighted to follow my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge and I am grateful to him for his support in principle for Amendment 113. I pay huge tribute to his work and his interest in birds—of the feathered variety—whereas I have to confess that water is my element. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for their support for Amendment 113. I thank the Marine Conservation Society for its support and briefing as well.
Why is Amendment 113 necessary? The Bill at present makes only a passing reference to the marine environment. I wonder why that is the case, particularly as our seas represent over 50% of the environment of England. Anyone who has even a passing interest in the work of David Attenborough on plastics in our seas and oceans will realise how it has captured the public imagination, in this regard.
My noble friend Lord Caithness spoke eloquently on why soil should be included, as did my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge. In his Amendment 113B, my noble friend Lord Caithness goes on to say why
“terrestrial … marine, and … other aquatic ecosystems”
should be included. I believe that Part 1, and indeed the Bill in its entirety, is relevant to the marine environment, and I would welcome the greater clarity of putting “the marine environment” into the Bill, in this regard.
I also acknowledge that, in replying to a Parliamentary Oral Question either a week or 10 days ago, my noble friend Lord Goldsmith acknowledged that there is a “tension”, to use his word, between inshore fisheries and offshore wind farms. So my question to him is: how will that tension be eased and resolved if we do not place, as I have chosen to phrase it here,
“the sea, the marine environment and maritime wildlife, sea mammals, flora and fauna”
on the face of the Bill?
I will address the point made by my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge on whether sea mammals should be included here. Under the very able chairmanship of my friend the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, the EU Environment Sub-committee—within the greater family of European committees under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, who is in the chair now—did some work on this earlier this year and took evidence. I think it was on 17 March that, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, we took evidence on North Sea ecology.
One of our witnesses was Trudi Wakelin, the director of licensing for marine planning et cetera at the MMO. In response to a question from me she said that there were unaddressed “cumulative impacts” from not just the construction but the operation of wind turbines that may be causing sea mammals such as dolphins, porpoises and whales to bank in increasing numbers on our shores. That is a source of great concern to me and we will go on to look at it in a later amendment on wind farms. It will probably surprise noble Lords to know that no research has been done on this, yet we are going to urbanise our waters even more by rolling out wind farms in future.
Another witness on the same day, Professor Melanie Austen, the professor of ocean and society at the University of Plymouth, told us that
“by urbanising the sea and offshoring our problem of energy generation, there will be casualties”.
As others have argued, I argue today that we should exercise here the precautionary principle, at sea and on land, by halting or pausing our offshore wind farms and other activities that may be harming
“the sea, the marine environment and maritime wildlife, sea mammals, flora and fauna”.
I will end with a question to my noble friend the Minister. Does he agree that it would be in the interests of greater clarity to put my proposed sub-paragraph (d) into Clause 43? Why has the marine environment been left out from the specific remit of the Bill as it stands?
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, the noble Lord, Lord Randall, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, because they have proposed additions to the definition of the natural environment. When I started looking at this, I thought, “Well, everything’s covered anyway”. In debates on many previous Bills, Ministers have always said that they do not like lists because you always leave something out of lists, and that is serious. But the arguments from the three noble Lords who have spoken indicate an obvious concern that water and soil are not in fact included in this definition. I hope that the Minister, when he responds, will confirm that they are, and maybe even add them in.
My small addition is to suggest that “ecosystem” should be included as well because it covers everything that is in paragraphs (a) to (c) of Clause 43 but also soil and the maritime area—I shall come on to water later—and, I think, it goes wider. On the role of ecosystems, the definition that I found included this:
“A community is created when living and nonliving components in an environment are in conjunction with each other.”
The components, including “biotic and abiotic components”, “interact as a system” to form an ecosystem. So, the word “ecosystem” covers everything. I am not suggesting that the Minister should leave out anything that is there at the moment or not include soil or water, but I think that there is an argument for having something that talks about the conjunction between them and the way they work together. I am interested in hearing the Minister’s comments on that.
I also want to speak briefly to Amendments 194AB and 194AC in this group, which are in my name. They also cover the issue of ecosystems but relate to the condition of planning permissions in Clause 92. I think that “water” should also be included in the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and maybe “rivers” as well. That is something we should discuss.
A week or two ago, I came across an example that illustrates why this is quite important. I understood that the Port of London Authority had applied to extend the jurisdiction—that is, ownership of or responsibility for—of its water, as I suppose it is, by changing the definition from a limit of mean high water to mean high water springs. Many noble Lords may think, “Well, what does that matter?” In terms of the maritime definition, it is actually a height difference of about 50 centimetres. When you have a river wall, like we have out here, 50 centimetres is probably neither here nor there, but I am told that the extent of the River Thames—the tidal part of it—covers 190 miles of riverbank. On the bits that are pretty flat, as opposed to vertical walls, the extension would have allowed the PLA to extend its planning development potential quite dramatically. There was a big campaign against this at the last general meeting of the PLA; in the end, it withdrew it. Obviously, I welcome that, but it does indicate the difference between and the challenge of biodiversity and ecosystems and the planning condition.
I have one more example. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, talked about offshore wind farms and things like that. A similar debate, which occasionally I get involved in, goes on regarding the role of marine conservation zones and what the boating and yachting community think that it wants. One is environment and the other is leisure. I got quite involved in debates about whether it is possible to have a marine conservation zone in the south-west, or even around the Isles of Scilly, to prevent any ships going there unless somebody had changed the route. This was all resolved, but it is an example of the importance of keeping biodiversity and ecosystems in mind when it comes to planning issues.
I am sure that we will talk about that much more, but this has been a very useful little debate. I hope that, when he comes to respond, the Minister will add in some of these extra suggestions to what we have in paragraphs (a) to (c) at the moment. I also hope that, if he says that he cannot do so, he will tell us why.
My Lords, I would like to say a word or two on behalf of soil and in support of Amendment 110 from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness.
We are often told how much of the earth’s surface is covered by water and how we must take care of it—and so we must. However, we are told less often that the remainder of the world is covered largely by soil—or was, until we decided to spread concrete and tarmac over huge sections of it. That includes motorways, airports, houses and factories—even putting slabs over our own front gardens so that we can park our car. This has taken huge quantities of soil out of commission, with deeply damaging effects on the environment. A layer of concrete not only creates drainage problems by removing the soil’s ability to absorb water, causing the massive problems of run-off and flooding; it also sterilises the soil, cutting off oxygen from all living organisms beneath it. Nobody has yet tried to measure what the cumulative effect of this is but it will be huge.
Soil that has remained untouched for long periods of time is hugely beneficial to all kinds of flora and fauna. Sadly, it is all too rare. This is why our ancient woodlands are so very precious. Although it may not look it at first glance, soil structure is relatively fragile, ranging as it does from heavy clay through loams to sandy soils, and from acid to alkaline. Its health is valuable not just for growing crops and grass to graze but for supporting countless other organisms, some beneficial and some less so. All were held in a natural balance before man’s intervention.
Soil’s value to agriculture and the importance of keeping it in good health were first recognised formally by the great agricultural reformers of the 17th and 18th centuries, most notably Turnip Townshend and Coke of Holkham. The Norfolk four-course rotation was introduced; it varied the types of crops grown over a four-year cycle, sometimes allowing land to lie fallow. The practice of nurturing the land persisted until relatively recently when the pressures to produce more and more from the same acreage grew, with spectacular results. Some cereal crops have increased fourfold, but with this intensification has come a change of attitude to the soil. It is simply—and to some extent understandably, with modern technology—seen purely as a medium for growing crops. Systematic rotation has long since gone. The same crop is sometimes taken off the same land year after year. Spraying against pests and diseases has become regular and routine. To turn the clock back would be very difficult, although some organic farmers are now trying.
Food is essential but many would argue that it is much too cheap. A bottle of milk can still cost less than a bottle of fizzy water. Supermarkets, incidentally, have a crucial role to play in this regard. The proportion of our income that we spend on feeding ourselves has dropped hugely. The old links that customers made between production and consumption have long since been broken, although locally grown produce is increasingly popular. New government environmental policies are forecast to take 21% of land out of agriculture. Arable land and grazing, once carefully drained and cultivated, is going to be turned into marsh and swamp. Where the food lost will come from, nobody has yet told us.
These are very difficult issues requiring much thought, but they will have to be faced one day. Otherwise, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said, our soils will simply, through infertility, disease or flooding, no longer be able to provide what we expect and have too long taken for granted. If I may, I, too, wish to quote what President Roosevelt said in 1937 in response to the huge dust-bowls that had been created in America; the noble Earl has already done so, but I think that it sums up the situation. He said:
“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
That says it all.
My Lords, I once again refer to my interests: I chair the Cawood group, which has laboratories and analyses raw materials, including soil, and I am a trustee of Clinton Devon Estates.
Amendments 110 and 112 propose that “soil” is included in the meaning of the “natural environment” in Clause 43. I fully support the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, the noble Lord, Lord Randall, and the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, who has just spoken. I do not mind which amendment is adopted, but, in my view, the positioning in Amendment 112 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall, flows more naturally in the text, following the listing of “air and water”.
The key issue is that “soil” is listed as a key component of the “natural environment”, and it is unbelievable that it is not already included in this definition. How can
“plants, wild animals and other living organisms”
be included, when they cannot exist without depending on soil? Soil is as crucial as air and water and fundamental to support life on earth. The natural world depends on it.
When the Minister responded to Amendment 11 in an earlier debate, he rejected its call to have “soil quality” as a priority area within the Bill on the basis that to do so would involve setting a target and that the definition and descriptor of “soil quality” were still not resolved and were a work in progress. It would not be the first time that the definitions underpinning a Bill were incomplete, and that is no reason not to have it included. A definition of satisfactory soil quality that supports sustainable food production, identifies the essential microbial organisms and life within the soil, and determines the level of organic matter to optimise carbon sequestration will be agreed. This will be resolved.
From current analysis by Cawood, I know that the level of sequestered carbon varies enormously from field to field, never mind farm to farm or region to region. It is essential that we address this opportunity and realise the carbon storage potential that the soil offers. Indeed, in the light of climate change, we would be failing in our responsibility if we did not do so. I encourage the Minister to seriously consider introducing an amendment on this topic before Report to save time, in view of the weight of opinion in support of this subject.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose.
My Lords, it is a great honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Curry, with his deep scientific knowledge of agriculture and soils. I declare my interests: my family runs a livestock farm and owns a series of SSSIs in two areas of nature reserves.
In this clause, we get to define the extent and, where necessary, the boundaries of what we want the Bill to influence. On soils, I support my noble friend Lord Caithness’s Amendment 110, which is necessary because the government strategy for carbon sequestration is considerably dependent on the soil and peat. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will respond positively to either of these amendments.
I will produce a quote from a rather different angle: 300 years ago, in Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift expressed the old saying that
“whoever could make ... two blades of grass … grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”
That was in his day. This has inspired our farmers for 300 years. To me, it is an environmental principle, but in the Bill the Government have given us as their environmental principles a set of prohibitions, protections and penalties.
The judgment, from the measures contained in the Bill, is that that earlier principle has now gone too far. The protections listed will be necessary, but we need to be sure that our purpose is not simply to put all the processes of the countryside into decline. It would be nice if someone could come up with a phrase that would draw all our aspirations together and point the way forward. The outcome will hang on the wording in these clauses and what we interpret as the meaning of “natural environment”.
I support Amendment 113, in the name of my noble friend Lady McIntosh and the others who have signed it. This draws our attention to the whole marine biosphere, an area that is under great threat at the moment. It is essential that this is not overlooked. The various marine organisations are still drawing up their inventories of what is in the natural environment at present, and a great deal of expense and research will have to be dedicated to that area. I too served on the EU Environment Sub-Committee that my noble friend Lady McIntosh mentioned, and I contributed to the work that was put in. There are huge areas where we have hardly any information.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh spoke of the importance of the marine area to the UK. In December, Scotland published its latest marine assessment report, which has to be updated every three years and which, in turn, covers an area six times greater than the Scottish landmass—so biodiversity is a very important field for that Administration.
At the same time, the Bill will incorporate the policies of species abundance and the encouragement of biodiversity. We have spent so much time discussing targets. Given the role that mankind has taken upon itself over the centuries, targets are necessary. The Secretary of State can introduce almost unlimited targets under the Bill, but Clause 3 has a number of subsections that must be observed if the Secretary of State wishes to reduce them.
However, there is no requirement for the Secretary of State to pay any attention to taking actions if a crisis develops when one element becomes prolific or threatening and the need to cull numbers requires some urgency. The nearest experience that I have had did not have the urgency in question: it was decided that the deer population in the huge Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, which is next door to me, was well above what was good for forestry purposes and that it should be reduced to four deer per square kilometre. They then set about culling 4,000 deer out of this area, which is not something that I would readily support, but it was a necessary management action and is an indication of what might be required if proliferation becomes extreme. In the spirit of the Bill, it will always be preferable to employ nature-based solutions, but, if diseases or threats to biodiversity occur, we must be prepared to act in whatever way will be effective.
My noble friend Lord Caithness’s second amendment raises the important question of defining biodiversity. “Biodiversity” in the Bill seems limited to the abundance of species, particularly in Amendment 22, moved by my noble friend the Minister on day 2 of our deliberations. Amendment 113B would mean that attention could be given to how far biodiversity should be supported.
My Lords, I rise to offer the Green group’s support for all the amendments in this group, which have given us the opportunity of an important debate about what we are trying to save, what we are trying to protect and what we are trying to improve.
Amendment 110, in the names of the noble Earls, Lord Caithness and Lord Shrewsbury, and my noble friend Lady Jones and myself, proposes that soil be regarded as a habitat. I will address it with Amendment 112 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, that it perhaps does not matter so much where “soil” appears; it needs to appear somewhere. I would suggest that a very simple solution which the department could implement easily would be to go through the Bill and look everywhere where “water” and “air” appear and add “soil”. I doubt that there would be many problems when one looked at the result. We are of course revisiting our debate on day 1 of this Committee—which now feels like quite a long time ago—about Clause 1 and an amendment in my name which would have added soil as an important target. It needs to be in all these places.
I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, will forgive me if I pre-empt a little what she is perhaps going to say, but it is so important that it needs to be highlighted. I saw that she was speaking to the Secretary of State at Groundswell. During that discussion, it was said that soil health was perhaps the most important thing and would be the focus of the sustainable farming initiative. Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us more about that; it would be very interesting. The Government themselves identify soil as a huge priority. As the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and many others have said, we are talking about how the Agriculture Act and the Environment Bill fit together. The Agriculture Act provides directions on the methods of action; this Bill judges how successful it has been.
I have circulated to a number of noble Lords—I realise that I neglected to circulate it to the Minister, for which I apologise and I will fix it shortly—a briefing paper that I received from a number of farmers, academics and farm advisers on the difficulty of being paid for results in managing soil health. It makes an argument for payment for practice instead, with the three key things identified as minimising soil disturbance, maximising soil cover and maximising diversity of cover. All are clearly good things to work towards, but we need to measure how the results come out, and that has to be in the Bill.
Following the coverage from Groundswell, there was a lot of discussion and excitement about work done on worms. There is perhaps an argument for the number of worms per square metre being a very good measure. I am not putting that forward entirely as a serious proposal although it is certainly something to look at, but I would point the Minister to the publication last week of a volume entitled Advances in Measuring Soil Health, edited by Professor Wilfred Otten from Cranfield University. It is a real sign of how much this field is moving forward. That brings me back to our discussion on Clause 1, when the Minister, in arguing why soil should not be included in the clause, said that
“the Government are working collaboratively with technical experts to identify appropriate soil health metrics … it is a complicated business”—[Official Report, 21/6/21; cols. 94-95.]
and that they were looking to develop a healthy soils indicator as part of the 25-year environment plan. This is a matter of extreme urgency and focus, as identified by the Secretary of State; it cannot wait for something off into the far distance. A great deal of new work is available now; a great deal of ideas are available now. The first metric that we end up with may not be perfect, but we need a metric, and if that needs to be improved in future, so be it. It could be dealt with by regulation, as the Government so like to tell us.
Amendment 113 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and signed by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, my noble friend and me, again takes us back to some of our debates on Clause 1. We are talking about including the marine environment. I want to cite just one, apparently small but very illustrative case study. I thank Dr Alexander Lees at Manchester Metropolitan University for drawing it to my attention. It is simply a photo—a very sad photo of a bundle of sodden feathers. This was a black-browed albatross. We can see coming from its mouth a ribbon that indicates that it almost certainly died from ingesting a balloon. It is a magnificent creature that could have lived for seven decades—seven decades of a life of freedom—and it was cut short for a balloon. The noble Lord and I have engaged in debate, and I am sure we will do so in the coming groups, about extended producer responsibility and plastics. I would question how any form of extended producer responsibility would cover the cost of that albatross and its loss of life.
It is important to include marine because we need to stress that there is no such thing as “away”—we cannot throw things away. Very often, we have regarded the marine environment as the space where we throw away. If we do not include that, we shall not be taking proper account of the impacts of our actions.
I commend the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, on some very nimble drafting for Amendment 113B—this, again, goes back to our debates on Clause 1 and an amendment I put down then about the state of nature. I made a rough first attempt at defining biodiversity. The noble Earl has struck on something by working on the Minister’s response and coming up with this amendment. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to his own words.
The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, would add “ecosystems” in a number of places. Again, we come back to the definition of biodiversity. We can protect plants, animals and fungi—the three kingdoms—and look at them in isolation, but it is the relationship between them that makes up the natural world and the natural environment. It is terribly important that the Bill recognises that. The noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, talked about how rare the wonderful, irreplaceable soils underneath ancient forests are, and how little of that we have left. Adding “ecosystems” would help draw attention to the utter fallacy of biodiversity offsetting and the idea of something that I have seen first-hand: that we can just transplant the bits of an ancient forest, shove them into an arable field and assume that they are going to get back together somehow or other. Adding “ecosystems” here would be very useful.
I support the amendments in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, as well as that in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall, about soil, that in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, about ecosystems, and that in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, about the oceans.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is absolutely right: I did interview the Secretary of State last week, who talked extensively about how the Government saw soil as a key part of future strategy and as being at the heart of both the Agriculture Act and the Environment Bill.
The thing about soil is that it is very small in our eyes, but in the soil’s eyes it is of course a factory and it has been described as a factory. In a tea-spoon of soil, you will probably get some thousands of species, some millions of individuals and about 100 metres of fungal thread. This is a world of major complexity and, every second that we are alive, this factory is performing a function that none of us could do. No scientist could take sunlight, air and all the nutrients in the soil and produce leaves, which produce trees. Look around this Chamber: everything in here, apart from the quarried stone, has come from a plant, has come from the soil. This leather has come from an animal that has fed on a plant; the carpet, probably from Axminster, and some sheep; my clothes; everything. Yet we call it “the dirt beneath our feet” and we stomp on it.
Once I got the image of a factory into my head, and the notion that there are all these people pulling levers and rushing up and down hills, it struck me that it was like being in a city, but a city on a completely different scale to how we live, so of course we ignore it. What has gone so tragically wrong with the soil in recent years is not so much the tinkering around but the deep ploughing and then the addition of heavy chemicals. It strikes me that you could think about it as like living in Homs or somewhere like that. Your buildings get bombed every other day or, in the case of the soil, two or three times a year. We have decided, since the green revolution of the 1950s, that deep ploughing was a really good idea because it let in the air. It was extremely fallacious science that is now completely accepted not to be right.
Look at agroecology. Where I was with the Secretary of State last week, we saw new devices that slice through the soil like pizza cutters, dropping in individual seeds, making minimal disruption and, as a consequence, needing minimal fertilisers and producing strong, healthy plants that also support biodiversity. We have done so many things wrong it is quite impossible to start to count them: the monocrops that kill the culture; the deep ploughing; the addition of chemicals—it is really astonishing—but the soil is truly phenomenal. It is the most amazing stuff. Give it a break, and it will come charging back with great health. I have to say to whichever noble Lord it was who said how long it takes to regrow, it really does not; it is really amazing. It will knit itself together, start co-operating and start not only giving us back the goods and services we want, but at the same time taking down the carbon.
As the noble Lord, Lord Curry, said, it seems quite astonishing that soil is not in the Bill, along with air and water; it should be. History is littered with examples. I do not know whether any noble Lord has been to Leptis Magna. It is a desert, but it is not that long ago, in the big history of things, that the Romans used to get three harvests a year from Leptis Magna. That is why they wanted north Africa. They had the most sophisticated systems for bringing water from the mountains; they had an amazing market with marble and they kept the water in tanks underneath to keep the vegetables cool and then they overfarmed it. But it was fine then, because they just packed their trunks—I do not know whether they had trunks then—and got on their oxen and went somewhere else, because there was always somewhere else. There is not anywhere else now. It is the same as when the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, says, “There is no such place as away.” You throw it away: where is that away? As Greenpeace says, we throw away our plastic and it ends up in Turkey. We throw away something and it ends up in that awful albatross. That makes my heart break too. We have to respect and adore these particular things.
The thing about the soil is that there are a lot of “don’ts”. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, says, “Don’t deep plough”, “Don’t put fertiliser on it”, “Keep cover crops on it.” Soil wants that; soil wants to work. We have to find intelligent ways to pay for this; we cannot just expect people to do it and not get anything back. They will get it back in advanced crops without having to pay for chemicals, but that will take a bit of time. Yes, indeed, people are using earthworms as a measure, but it is still a bit clumsy and a bit inexact. It is kind of fun, but there are some more sophisticated things that we can do.
I want to quickly address the necessity of understanding things as ecosystems. I do not know how many noble Lords know of Dr Suzanne Simard, but she is a Canadian forestry professor at British Columbia University. She grew up in the forest, became a logger and a forestry expert and at the age of 20 she was put to work by a forestry company in the north-west and her job was to clear-fell and then plant pine. After a bit, she looked at it and thought, “Why are these things dying over huge acres?” That was when we thought, “Survival of the fittest: get rid of everything else and everything will grow”, but in fact they died. They did not do well, they sort of struggled and some of them just fell apart. What she realised, and what she has now written about and become the world expert on, is that there is an extraordinary interconnection that goes on underground. We are only just beginning to learn about it. A tree will help out another tree if it is in trouble. It will send extra nutrients. It is quite magical. In the same way that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, was moved about the albatross, I am extremely moved about the power of the soil. I feel very strongly that it has to be at the heart of the Bill.
Finally, on the question of the oceans, not only did I see the Secretary of State last week, but the week before I saw the Minister for Food and Farming. We were in the West Country at an event and she was on her way to Brixham. She said to me, “This is going to be tricky, but 80% of the fish that comes in comes from bottom trawling.” Bottom trawling is just like ploughing: it is smashing through someone else’s home with absolutely no regard for those who live there. We would not smash through a field of cattle, just wipe them out and throw them all over the place; that is what we do every day. Some in this Chamber will have seen “Seaspiracy”. It is not a pleasant watch. You get the sense of how many fish get sacrificed in the by-catch. Please, Minister, find a way to put the sense of ecosystems and soil absolutely at the heart of how we assess our environment and take care of it, because we will fail otherwise.
It is a very real privilege, and I mean it, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. Hers was a splendid speech—one of many we have heard this afternoon—and she was so right in her references to bottom trawling. I may be the only Member of your Lordships’ House who sailed, in the old days, in a deep-sea trawler. I was the candidate for Grimsby at the time, in 1965, and I went up to the north coast of Norway in a trawler. That was proper fishing. It was fascinating, and the men who were there were among the bravest I have ever known. I represented a mining constituency later. That is another tough and appalling job, but at least the miner went home to his bed each night. The trawler-man was out for 18, 21 or 24 days, and it was extraordinary. That was what convinced me, and I have always been convinced, that we must look after our marine environment.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who has put his name to my noble friend’s amendment and who will be winding up on it for his party, is bound to be sympathetic and enthusiastic. Of course, he chaired that session of the EU Environment Sub-Committee to which my noble friend Lady McIntosh referred in her speech. We heard some fairly disturbing things that day. Anybody who has watched “Blue Planet” knows that the isolated, moving incident of the albatross, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, referred, is just one of a million examples. It was a very graphic and good example, but there are so many—all of them caused by the careless distribution of our detritus across the world.
I am sure many noble Lords will know about Operation Neptune, where the National Trust sought to buy many miles of our coastline. It has been an operation that has lasted for some half a century now and has been extraordinarily successful. It has succeeded in preserving some of the most beautiful of our coastal areas—many of which, incidentally, were rather badly despoiled during the pandemic by careless visitors and worse than careless visitors. If we want to preserve our coastline, we must also preserve our marine environment, so I very much hope that my noble friend Lord Goldsmith will accept this amendment with enthusiastic alacrity or, if not, call a meeting to devise an amendment that he can accept with enthusiastic alacrity, because this, again, will come back on Report and we need to get it right.
I turn to my noble friend Lord Caithness, who moved his amendment about soil very splendidly; I completely agree, of course. I was interested in my noble friend Lord Framlingham’s speech, in which he quoted Jonathan Swift and the two blades of grass. As he was referring to that, I could not help but think of TS Eliot who, towards the end of the last century, wrote that if we are not careful our legacy will be
“the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”
It is very important indeed that soil—the good earth, as I would prefer to call it, although obviously, soil is a better word for our Bill—be included in the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, in her splendid speech referred to deep ploughing and made the analogy with deep trawling. Much damage has been done and nobody can look back on the 1960s and 1970s, when so many hedgerows were ripped up across our country, and not feel that that was an era of desecration. I referred to it in a book I wrote at the time, and lamented it. I am glad to say that hedgerows are, to a small degree, coming back; but we will never have the hedgerows and wildflower meadows we had. We must, at the very least, keep what we have got and add to it.
I hope that my noble friend, who has not been terribly good at accepting amendments, will turn over a new leaf this afternoon and show that he really, desperately cares about what we care about and accept at least the spirit of these amendments.
My Lords, I declare two interests—one as a member of the Commission on Food, Farming and the Countryside, and the other in the mental well-being of the Minister. We are picking on him and I feel deeply sorry for him, because he is between a rock and a hard place. This is another example of an amendment that, in a normal world, he would simply accept and we could all go home happy.
I support Amendments 110 and 112, which rightly specifically include “soil” in the definition of the natural environment. As other noble Lords have said, we have already touched on the importance of soils during our debate on a previous amendment. Indeed, many of our older Members of the House will remember Kenneth Williams who, in character, used to say in response to any question at all, “Arr, the answer lies in the soil.” He was right. However, for a period, with the exception of the organic movement, soil came to be regarded as nothing more than a handy medium for holding plants up, especially crops. It was nothing more complex. Of course, the pendulum has now swung and it is generally acknowledged that soils are complex ecosystems with huge importance for a whole range of things such as carbon storage, flood alleviation, crop health, biodiversity and water quality. Other noble Lords have gone through these.
It is true to say—the Commission on Food, Farming and the Countryside very much supports this—that agroecology and restorative agriculture, which focus on the importance of soils, are going to be vital components of the future of farming and food production. Of course, the mycorrhizal elements of soils are the telegraph systems for trees and plants and are capable of warning colleague trees and plants many metres away of attack by something nasty, so that they can prepare to repel boarders. Basically, soil is pretty cunning stuff. However, it has been the poor relation in terms of environmental action and safeguarding in the past, and more than one-third of the world’s soils are degraded. That is no less the case in this country, with factors such as erosion, sealing, compaction and contamination causing this deterioration.
I very much welcome the 25-year environment plan highlighting the need to manage all the UK’s soils sustainably by 2030. Signalling the importance of soils in environmental protection ought to be the purpose of including soil in the definition of the natural environment in this Bill. It is not just a practical step; it is a signalling step of the fundamental importance of soil.
The noble Lord, Lord Curry, reminded us that one of the reasons given by the Minister for not including soil was that to include it would require a target and the science was not there yet to do that. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, said that we need a soil metric now and it does not need to be perfect. I very much agree with that. Indeed, that has been endorsed today by the report from the Environmental Audit Committee in the Commons, which stressed the need for the rapid development of soil indicators and for a shadow target to be established urgently in the meantime.
We are going to need soil metrics for a whole variety of purposes, not least because soil is going to be fundamental to the environmental land management schemes. Let us get on with it and establish a metric. It will not be right but it will be something, and it will be a huge signal of the importance of soils in this section of the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is not taking part in the debate so I call the noble Duke, Lord Wellington.
My Lords, I wish to speak briefly to Amendment 112, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. As other noble Lords have said, Amendment 110 has very much the same purpose.
In Clause 43, in defining what is meant by “natural environment”, mention is made of “land”, “air” and “water”, but I really do think that the Bill would be much improved by including “soil”. All scientists tell us how much the quality of soil has been degraded in this country in recent years. There is an increasing risk of erosion from flooding. There is an increasing occurrence of compaction caused by the regular passing of heavy agricultural machinery. There is a decline in organic matter in the soil, brought about by modern farming methods and the use of chemical fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides. I am sure that the new environmental land management schemes will indeed encourage farming methods that will avoid this steady and continuous degradation. Let us hope they will go further and encourage and support farming systems that restore soil quality. However, in the meantime, I encourage the Minister to accept either Amendment 112 or Amendment 110, which would demonstrate that the Government intend to take very seriously the question of soil quality and to include it in the various proposals to improve the natural environment.
I turn briefly to Amendment 194AC in this same group, which deals with biodiversity gain in planning. Of course, I would be minded to support any improvement in biodiversity in rivers and lakes as a result of any new planning application. I must say that I am doubtful whether it can really be practical to place on all developers an obligation to demonstrate on each occasion a biodiversity gain in water. Surely, connection to a wastewater system that will not create any increased risk of sewage discharges in the adjacent river system should be a condition for all developers. The most important point for improving aquatic biodiversity is to reduce in the short term and eventually eliminate discharges that pollute our rivers. Therefore, although I know it is well intentioned, I personally could not support Amendment 194AC.
My Lords, we have had some really good literary contributions. My favourite was probably about Kenneth Williams from the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone; we also had a number of others. When the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, talked about the dust-bowl, I thought of when I was quite young—an A-level student, I think—and I read John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Even today, that brings back an image. I could see that novel as a movie in my mind about that dust-bowl during the depression of the 1930s in middle America where, because of soil erosion and degradation caused by wind, there was a huge exodus in the United States to urban areas and a failure of the farming system and those ecosystems. That is a lesson for us.
One of the things that struck me when the 25-year environment plan came out—that was what, five years ago?—was that, at that moment, it seemed the Government had suddenly discovered soil for the first time. The great advocate at that time, who particularly seemed to have discovered soil, was Michael Gove, the then Environment Secretary. I ask my Liberal Democrat colleagues to put their ear muffs on for a moment: I thought that Michael Gove was an absolutely excellent Secretary of State for the Environment because he brought all these issues to the fore. He had guts, he was bold and I am sure that, if he were still in the position, we would have rather a bolder Bill than we have before us at the moment. Needless to say, I was less keen on the rest of his career, so I will stop there.
The noble Lord, Lord Randall, was absolutely right about the breadth of what we mean by soil. Piedmont soils are something we have to be incredibly careful about in this country. I was privileged, two or three weeks ago, to see peat restoration on Bodmin Moor, which was brought about by a consortium of organisations—public and private sector and water companies—as part of bringing back a huge area of peatland to hydrate that whole area. I always thought we had enough rain in Cornwall to keep the whole of the ecosystem going, but you could see the degradation there. That team had worked in Dartmoor and further north and west as well. This is really important. Whether the Minister says soil is somehow included in these definitions, it is absolutely clear that it is right to give it the emphasis by including it within these definitions. I was thinking of the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, and Gulliver’s Travels, which I had not noticed, I must admit.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, used the word “urgent”. The 25-year environment plan is brilliant in terms of laying out the issues and what we need to do but the implementation of so many of these things has not been good, as the Audit Commission pointed out strongly. Urgency is something that we can maybe put back into this Bill now. Many Members—including the noble Lord, Lord Curry, who is well known for his agricultural knowledge and experience—have come out strongly on the need to do that.
I was pleased to put my name to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. A number of my amendments will come in Committee about the marine. I believe that, despite the Minister trying to persuade me that the definition of “England” includes the marine area, this Bill sees marine as an appendix or an afterthought—and a small addition at that. It is covered but never focused on. That is why it is so important we include, as the noble Baroness’s amendment says,
“the sea, the marine environment and maritime wildlife, sea mammals, flora and fauna.”
That needs to be stated in this Bill, because, as I was reminded by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, in an earlier amendment, land and marine are interconnected; they are dependent on each other but different, and that difference needs to be mentioned strongly.
I agree particularly with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about the way in which we fish the seas. I have an amendment later on, which I am trying to bring forward urgently, on the higher level of marine conservation areas. At the moment, our marine conservation areas do not do the job they need to, and we need to find a way forward with the fishing industry to protect the bottom of our territorial seas and the seas of the EEZ.
I have also put my name to Amendment 113B in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness—although I did not get it down in time for it to be on the latest list of amendments—because defining biodiversity is important. I was very pleased that there was an emphasis on marine and other aquatic ecosystems.
How can one disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, on “ecosystems” being in there? Whenever I mention ecosystems in another context, I am always told off because I do not include “ecosystem services” as well, but I know exactly what the noble Lord means.
It seems that there is unanimity that soil is fundamental to ecosystems. It is an ecosystem service in itself. It is usually described that way; for example, the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, described it as a “factory”. Because of that importance, looking at the history of the United States and our own soils—this is where we need naturally based solutions to stop fast water run-off—we need to make sure that we retain soil quality. These Benches are fully behind that proposition.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. It has clearly demonstrated the strength of feeling about the need to improve Clause 43 to resolve the omissions in the definition of the natural environment, which we have all been looking at. In many ways, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, summed it up when she said that we need to decide what we are trying to save, what we are trying to protect and what we are trying to improve. She gave a very moving example of why this really matters.
When the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, introduced his amendment he talked about the glaring hole in the Bill. I think everyone would agree with him, and with the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. Both amendments talk about the need to include soil in the definition of “natural environment”. Headlines have warned us that the state of our soil is now a serious threat to the environment and to our ability to grow crops, but we also know that good-quality soil can help to save the planet. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, just mentioned Michael Gove, who, when he was Defra Secretary of State back in 2017, said that
“no country can withstand the loss of its soil and fertility.”
He was correct.
The noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, talked about the huge importance of the health of our soil, and how it is critical for our biodiversity and the future of our agriculture, because we fundamentally rely on it. Soil produces 95% of our food, be it the crops we eat or the grasses and other plants that feed our animals. It also stores an extraordinary amount of carbon —three times the amount in the atmosphere and twice the amount in trees and forests. Although soil can store—or sequester—carbon, we also know that it can lose it when it is degraded. The loss of carbon in poor soils contributes to the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which we know is one of the main causes of climate change.
It has been estimated that there could be 50,000 species of microorganism in just 1 gram of soil. Crucially, this rich “soil web” of underground life creates an open structure. It allows rainwater to seep into the ground, storing moisture for plants and crops to grow well, even in times of drought. It also prevents flooding, which is an important function of global warming. Further extreme and uncertain rainfall is becoming more prevalent in the UK. As someone who lives in Cumbria, I am all too well aware of this.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, talked about the amount of topsoil we lose every year—3 million tonnes. He rightly said that we simply cannot afford to continue in the way we are. He also made the important point, as did other noble Lords, that the Environment Bill and the Agriculture Act need to work together to get the outcomes we need.
As we have heard, the Environment Bill currently lists land, air and water, and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact, but there is no specific mention of soil. We on this side of the Committee believe that this is an important omission, so we support the amendments in the names of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, to specifically include soil in the Bill.
We have also been debating the extent to which the marine environment is provided for in the Bill and how it is not clear enough. The marine environment must be seen as an integral part of the process of environmental conservation. Our legislation includes substantial activity to enable environmental protection and conservation to take place in these zones, but, as other noble Lords have said, this is not always effective enough. So, in addition to the need for the marine environment to be included in the Bill’s scope, Clause 43 needs to be amended to make it explicit that the “natural environment” includes the marine environment.
Amendment 113 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, would expand this definition. I thank the noble Baroness for her clear explanation of why the amendment is needed. The contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, was also very powerful as to why we need to look after our marine environment. The Explanatory Notes indicate that the definition extends to the marine environment, as well as to terrestrial and water environments, but although Explanatory Notes are often helpful for providing information as to intention, they add nothing whatever to, or take nothing away from, the actual legislation in front of us. For legal clarity, we believe that this should be stated in the Bill. For this reason, we support Amendment 113.
My noble friend Lord Berkeley talked about why biodiversity gains should also include water. The links between the water sector and biodiversity involve the impacts of the sector on biodiversity and the benefits the sector can receive from the ecosystem services—I say to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, that I have now said “ecosystem services”—provided by biodiversity. The water sector really should have a direct interest in safeguarding biodiversity both for its own use and for that of others. Well-functioning ecosystems—forests, grasslands, soils, rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands, aquifers; I could go on—all influence the availability of water and its quality. They are also vital to meet water management goals such as water storage and flow regulation, filtering, and flood and drought protection, among others.
I am sure that the Minister has heard the strong support for the amendments, particularly for the inclusion of soil, although the marine environment is just as important. I look forward to hearing from him.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this important debate. This first definition of the natural environment is deliberately broad, and includes both the living, such as plants and wild animals, and non-living, such as land, air and water, elements of the environment. To be comprehensive, it also includes the natural systems, cycles and processes through which the elements of the natural environment interact. The difficulty is that if we were to add to the Bill matters already covered by the definition it would cast into doubt anything not specifically included. However, I hope that I can provide reassurance on all the points raised by noble Lords.
I agree with the intent behind Amendments 113A, 113C to 113E, 194AB and 194AC from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. Clearly, our environmental governance framework must protect the ecosystems that make up our natural environment. Clause 43 makes it clear that the systems, cycles and processes through which the elements listed in paragraphs (a) to (c) interact are a fundamental part of the natural environment. This definition therefore already includes ecosystems, as referenced in the Explanatory Notes at paragraph 371, page 59. Regarding Amendments 113C to 113E, as the Bill’s definition of environmental protection refers back to the definition of the natural environment, it is also not necessary to specifically mention ecosystems in Clause 44.
Regarding Amendments 110 and 112 from my noble friends Lord Caithness and Lord Randall respectively, the Government of course recognise the fundamental importance of healthy soils to a thriving natural environment. Both my noble friends made powerful cases. It may not be the most glamorous of environmental subjects, but it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of soil. I was struck by the teaspoon factory analogy from the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, which I have no doubt will stick with me.
I will make a couple of points. Outside of the Bill, a number of big levers are being introduced that will have a direct bearing on the health of our soil. A number of noble Lords mentioned the environmental land management system—a shift away from, in effect, subsidising the conversion of land to farmable land, no matter the value of that land beforehand, to a system where all payments are conditional on the delivery of public goods, such as restoration of the soil and good management generally of ecosystems.
In addition, our tree action plan is backed up by the £640 million Nature for Climate fund, a major part of which will be encouraging landowners, through very generous incentives, to either plant up or naturally regenerate land either side of England’s waterways, with a view to boosting the biodiversity value of these already biodiverse and valuable places, but also to slowing water and cleaning the water that eventually makes it into our waterways in numerous different magical ways. In addition, we have our peatland plan, which we will debate at another point.
My noble friend Lord Caithness asked me to answer his question about the research being conducted by Defra into soil reconstruction. Although I cannot give him a detailed answer now—I will ask my colleague, Rebecca Pow, to write to him with a proper answer—I can say that today we are publishing details of the first options under the sustainable farming incentive, which will be open to farmers eligible for the basic payment scheme. We have decided to start with soil health since, as so many noble Lords said, that is where everything connected with successful farming begins.
Regarding the Environmental Audit Committee report—I apologise, I cannot remember which noble Lord mentioned it—we are developing a healthy soils indicator, a soil structure monitoring method and a soil health monitoring scheme to help land managers and farmers track the health of our soils over time and the impact of some of the policies I just mentioned.
The definition of “natural environment” in Clause 43 already includes soil; Clause 43(c) includes “land”. As is clarified in paragraph 370 of the Bill’s Explanatory Notes, I can confirm that this already includes soils, as well as geological strata and other features. In any event, soils would also already be captured to the extent that they formed a habitat for plants, wild animals and other living organisms, as habitats are included regardless of their location.
I turn to Amendment 113, tabled by my noble friend Lady McIntosh. I completely agree that it is essential that the marine environment is included in the environmental governance provisions of the Bill. I was also struck by the palpable anger and sadness expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, in her very powerful speech as she described the effects of plastic pollution on the noble albatross. The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, also expressed concerns—shared by most of the Committee, I suspect—about the devastating impacts of mindless bottom trawling. As she says, it is a bit like clear-felling rainforests; it is just not visible to most of us.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has been around long enough to know that it is not Committee but rather Report that is the business end of legislation. I have said many times that I consider all input and all amendments to be fair game and valid, and I will be looking through them in great detail over the coming weeks. He asked that I demonstrate my seriousness on this issue, which is slightly annoying, I have to say. I have committed and devoted every day of my life as far back as I remember—since I was a five year-old—to the environment, and I will continue to do so. Being a Minister for the Environment is a mere step in that process. I might ask him to square his own suspiciously hollow laments about the stupidity of plastic waste with his daily insistence on wearing these absurd throwaway masks, which really are unforgivable, as far as I can see.
I reassure the Committee that the marine environment is already included in these provisions, as we have noted on pages 23 and 59 of the Explanatory Notes. The definition of the natural environment explicitly covers “water”, which includes seawater. It also covers “land”, which includes the seabed, intertidal zones and coastal floodplains. Any plant, wild animal, living organism or habitat is also included in the definition, irrespective of where it is located. The Bill therefore includes the marine environment within the definition.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about the tensions between wind farms and the marine environment, which I think we discussed in a previous debate. She is right: there is undoubtedly a tension there. It is a concern that is very much shared by my colleague in the other place, Rebecca Pow, who is looking into this and talking to stakeholders, with a view to developing an answer. I am afraid I am not able to give an answer; I do not think there is one at this point, but I absolutely recognise the need for the Government to deliver one.
In Amendment 113B my noble friend Lord Caithness proposes a globally recognised definition of biodiversity from the Convention on Biological Diversity. Because the definition is necessarily broad, the risk is that it could be unhelpful to some of the specific measures in the Bill. For example, under the broad definition of the CBD, the exotic fauna of a new safari park could be argued to contribute to biodiversity net gain, despite doing very little to support local wildlife or ecology. So, where necessary, setting out definitions which are context-specific will help users fulfil their duties without ambiguity. That is why we have, for example, defined the actions which may be taken to further the biodiversity duty in Clause 95 without defining biodiversity itself.
On Amendments 194AB and 194AC, while I agree that we cannot enhance biodiversity without also enhancing the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in which it exists, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, that the biodiversity net gain approach does already take these into account. The biodiversity metric used for biodiversity net gain takes account of habitat quality by looking at a range of properties, such as plant communities and geology. The biodiversity gains resulting from these clauses will therefore be broad gains in ecosystems, not just gains in or for the charismatic and rare species which can dominate biodiversity discourse.
I hope I have answered the questions put to me today and provided some reassurance. I ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.