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Environmental Targets

Volume 825: debated on Monday 31 October 2022

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they intend to publish their environmental targets to comply with the legal requirements under the Environment Act 2021.

My Lords, in asking a Question of which I have given private notice, I draw attention to my conservation interests as set out in the register.

My Lords, as set out in the Written Ministerial Statement I laid on 28 October, we will continue to work at pace to lay draft statutory instruments as soon as practicable. Our next steps include agreeing the final targets across government and scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. His Majesty’s Government remain committed to our future targets to halt the decline in species by 2030 and to bring forward the wider suite of targets specified under the Environment Act as soon as practicable.

I thank my noble friend for his Answer. I congratulate him on not only his reinstatement in the department but his elevation to Minister of State; it reassures me that this Government are reaffirming their commitment to their manifesto promises on the environment.

It is of course disappointing that we have not met these targets by the due date. However, can we use this delay to increase, for example, our target for the protection of terrestrial sites, which would be very helpful in encouraging into domestic law our 30by30 commitment, and our species abundance target? I urge the Government not only to do this as fast as possible but to ensure that, by the time we attend COP 15 in Montreal, these targets are in place—and remember, they are just targets; what we really want is action.

I am grateful to my noble friend for his kind words. I share his and other noble Lords’ disappointment that we have not been able to fulfil the perhaps over-ambitious target date set out in the Act. However, I am confident that we will be able to show that we have meaningful evidence-based targets that will deliver on our overriding commitment to see a reversal in the decline of species by 2030. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of sites, and the protection of rare and special habitats within them, as part of our 30by30 commitment. We are absolutely determined to achieve this not just for our own domestic benefit but, importantly, so we can say to other countries in the CBD, “We are doing it; so should you”.

My Lords, the Minister will know that the Office for Environmental Protection has also taken this failure seriously. In its latest letter to the Secretary of State, it has pointed out that this is not the only failure to comply with statutory legislation—it has also kindly included an annexe of other failures to comply. It is a non-exhaustive list and, as it says, a pattern is beginning to develop. Can the Minister assure us that Defra is addressing these issues? These are not just policies; they are statutory requirements that have been missed time and again. Can the Minister tell us what the department is doing to get back on track on these issues?

One reason why we will be publishing these targets later than we would have liked, and later than the Act required, is that we had over 180,000 responses to our consultation. It is important that we listen to those, because these targets affect people whose interests are not directly affected by Defra; they could be right across the whole gamut of what government does and how it regulates. It is important that we get this right.

I would hate for any noble Lord to believe that this is the one area of the Environment Act that really matters. It covers a whole range of other issues: storm overflows, our environmental principles, biodiversity net gain, waste, illegal deforestation, the establishment of the Office for Environmental Protection, and local nature recovery strategies. Work on all those are under way, and they were written into the Environment Act, which is what makes it such a world-beating piece of legislation that we want to see implemented.

My Lords, the Minister will be getting used to answering questions on the targets, which should, legally, have flowed from the Environment Act by now. Yet here we are, on 31 October, and no targets are forthcoming. With COP 27 approaching, is there any point at all in the Government sending any representatives when they have so woefully fallen short in setting targets, never mind meeting any?

That would be an absolutely extraordinary thing to do. The United Kingdom is a global leader on the environment. We are one of the leaders of the High Ambition Coalition, which is seeking to get countries right across the world to fulfil really demanding targets to protect nature, which has suffered depletion of such staggering quantity in recent decades. It is absolutely right that we continue to do this. I can tell the noble Baroness that the United Kingdom is revered abroad for the leadership we took at Glasgow and the leadership we are taking in the CBD. To diminish what we are trying to do internationally is quite extraordinary.

My Lords, will the Government commit to not repeating the missing of dates when it comes to the 557 pieces of environmental legislation that are about to disappear next year under the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill?

My Lords, I think there is a collective clunk of realisation of what it would actually take to replace that. That legislation was created for an environment that goes from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. I am sure she understands, being the expert that she is, that it is a bit clunky when it comes to dealing with the bespoke environment of these islands. It can be improved, but in a way that is at least no worse for nature, and which preferably improves it.

My Lords, that “collective clunk” took hours of time of the Minister’s department and both Houses of Parliament. Is he saying that, at the stroke of a pen, the Government are going to write off all the environmental protections that we spent hours in this place writing into retained EU law?

No, that is not what we are saying at all. Most of the protections we have are written into law in the Climate Change Act, the Environment Act and many other provisions that no Administration in recent months—of any form—have talked about trying to tamper with. The habitats directive and other measures are very important; we will not be able to hit our 2030 target for no net loss of biodiversity if we were somehow to sweep those away.

So, if we are going to get rid of them, we have got to replace them with something that is meaningful and bespoke for these islands, and that cannot be done overnight. The Government want to hit our target for 2030, our 30by30 target and many other measures that are written into the Environment Act. The directives we have transposed into UK law have got to be dealt with carefully and in a way that results in no net loss of benefit for the environment, preferably improving it.

My Lords, I remind your Lordships’ House that the Environment Bill was introduced in July 2018. However, lengthy delays caused not just by consultation responses but by Conservative Party divisions meant that it became law only last November. During its passage, concerns were raised about the lack of targets, and the then Minister assured your Lordships’ House that they would appear by today’s deadline. My noble friend Lady Jones referred to the repeated missed deadlines, and the Government have again failed to deliver. The future of our environment is one of the most pressing issues we face, so why have the Government again broken their promise?

We will be publishing these targets and they will be very much linked to the areas we consulted on: halting the decline of species by 2030; reducing exposure to PM2.5, benefiting health, as the noble Baroness knows it will; helping restore water bodies to their natural state; increasing woodland cover; protecting marine habitats; and setting a clear direction of travel in reducing the amount of waste per person. These are the measures we want to see implemented, and they will be rigorous targets we can meet, not just for this Government but for future Governments. In line with the Act, they will mean that this country is respected for its protection of the environment above all others.

My Lords, the Minister talks of ambitious targets. Is it too ambitious to use his position in the department to persuade the Prime Minister to attend COP 27?

I would say to the noble Viscount the words “over pay and grade”, but I do appreciate the point he makes.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned storm overflows. I wonder if he shares my and many others’ frustration that the water companies continue to discharge dreadful quantities of sewage into our rivers and the sea, using as an excuse the fact that they are storm overflows. What are the Government going to do about that?

As the noble Duke knows, the Environment Act places several duties on government and water companies to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows. The Government have now launched the most ambitious plan to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows in water company history. Our new strict targets will see the toughest crackdown on sewage spills and will require water companies to secure the largest infrastructure programme in water company history: £56 billion of capital investment over the next 25 years. Our plan will protect biodiversity, the ecology of our rivers and seas, and the public health of our water users for generations to come.

My Lords, in answering the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, the Minister appeared rather powerfully to make the case for the Prime Minister’s going to COP 27, so we can only hope that he was listening. I want to go back to an earlier answer from the Minister. He said that the delay occurred because it was important to listen to public concern. Did the response to this consultation really come as a surprise to the department? As the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and many others in this House highlighted, there was enormous public concern about these issues. Why did the department not put enough resources into handling these responses in a timely manner—or does the department not have enough resources to do its job?

Every department could do with more resources. As I said at the beginning, the Government regret not being able to hit this target. Perhaps we were overambitious in thinking it could be done to the timescale we had. There is no point in holding a consultation if you do not listen to the consultees’ replies, and more than 180,000 is at the maximum end of the response to most consultations. That requires that this House and the other place make sure that we are putting in place statutory instruments that really do the job. It is a complex process, and I regret that we have not done it by now, but we will do it as soon as we can.

My Lords, what note have the Government taken of Sir Partha Dasgupta’s report The Economics of Biodiversity, released by Cambridge University, and are they acting on its recommendations? Secondly, why are they not encouraging His Majesty King Charles to attend COP 27? He was ahead of the game by decades.

The Dasgupta review was extraordinary in so many ways: first, because it was the first piece of work on the economics of biodiversity commissioned by a finance department in any country. The Treasury having commissioned it makes it a very powerful tool. It shows that we are talking about not just species that the noble Lord and I have grown up appreciating but the economic future of this country. It is fundamental to what we are talking about; that is why we want evidence-based targets. On the other matter, I refer the noble Lord to the answer I gave to the noble Viscount opposite.

My Lords, the Government seem worried that too many people have responded to this consultation. This deadline was put in at the insistence of Parliament so that Ministers would be held to account. There is another deadline today in the Department for Transport—nothing to do with the Minister—so that is two deadlines missed. All that Ministers can say is, “We’ll ask them to extend the deadline.” That is not good enough. Surely, we have to get a grip on these things; if a Government commit to a deadline, they should keep to it.

I entirely accept that point. I would be treating your Lordships with disrespect if I did not mention the elephant in the room: a bit of mid-air turbulence in recent weeks, which may have somewhat contributed to some of the wheels of government not being correctly oiled. However, I assure the noble Lord that we are determined to deliver proper, meaningful targets as soon as we can.