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Office for Environmental Protection

Volume 835: debated on Tuesday 23 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the second annual progress report of the Office for Environmental Protection, published on 18 January.

My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register. This Government are committed to leaving the environment in a better state than we found it. The Office for Environmental Protection’s report covers the period from 1 April 2022 to 31 March 2023. This includes the first two months of the 2023 environmental improvement plan and our new long-term environmental targets. The OEP’s 200-page report recognises the scale of ambition in the EIP 2023, including our challenging interim targets. We will study it carefully and respond in due course.

I thank the Minister for his response. When Dame Glenys Stacey, the chair of the OEP, launched her report last week, she said that the OEP’s job was to hold up a mirror to the Government for them to assess their progress. I am afraid to say that the view in the mirror was not a pretty sight. As was mentioned in yesterday’s Oral Question, the OEP concludes that the Government are largely failing to meet the statutory and other targets they have set for environmental improvement. The Government’s response seems to be either to reject or to reinterpret what the OEP said. Would it not be better to acknowledge what the OEP has said, recognise that things are not necessarily going as well as they should, learn lessons and try to adopt a different tack?

I absolutely concur with the noble Lord in that we treat anything that comes from the OEP very seriously. I seek to reassure noble Lords that it is not our position to dismiss it in any way. As I said in my original Answer, the report refers to just two months of the environmental improvement plan, which sets out some very demanding targets and holds the Government to account for them. The noble Lord and I are meeting next week, when I will set out some of the things we are doing as a result of the EIP and other measures. I think he will be reassured that the report that looks at a full year of the EIP’s implementation will show the Government’s ambition and how we are responding to reasoned criticism and being held to account by a very well-led organisation.

My Lords, I commend the report from the Office for Environmental Protection. I quote from it:

“The current state of the water environment is not satisfactory … the pace of change has now stalled”.

Will the Minister and his ministerial colleagues consider setting up a review of the way the water companies are regulated? Regulation is currently divided between Ofwat, as the financial regulator, and the Environment Agency, as the environmental regulator. Would it not be better to have a single regulator?

I thank the noble Duke for his question. The report the OEP produced was for the year up to the end of March last year. In April we published our plan for water, which addresses many of the points the OEP raised. Of course, since then we have had the announcement of the large investment in water quality that we are requiring water companies to make. His point is interesting, and I have considered over many years whether we could have a better landscape of regulation of our water industry. What I want to urge is that there is an urgency about trying to tackle the problems. We have set ourselves very important targets, and if government were to indulge in navel-gazing over many months in trying to create a new body, we would miss our really important 2030 target, which Ministers are concentrating on.

My Lords, we all have huge respect for the Minister—even I do —but he keeps repeating the same thing from the Government. Clearly, the report is not happy. It says that this is deeply concerning, adverse environmental trends continue and:

“Government must speed up … its efforts”.

Are the Government going to speed up their efforts?

We have a real sense of urgency in the department; it does not just stop at Ministers but goes right down through the agencies that are the delivery bodies for this. We could double the size of Natural England and the Environment Agency and we still would not hit the targets if we were not weaponising the most important people in terms of improving the environment: the people who control and manage the land. Completely changing how we support farming, from an area-based system to one that is improving nature and incentivising and rewarding farmers, is just one part of what we are doing. I have great respect for the noble Baroness as well, so I say to her: come in to Defra and sit down. I will take her through the most ambitious plan for our environment that this country has ever seen.

In answering a recent question in this House, the Minister introduced us to a very interesting category of person, and he has just done it again: the weaponised land manager. Looking at my register of interests, I think I might be one, and therefore I will put a question to him. I spent last month bouncing back and forth between officials who deal with Countryside Stewardship and the sustainable farming initiative, both worthy causes. There is a great deal of passing back and forth, confusion and lack of unity. When will we get a unified scheme so that environmental warriors such as me can actually deliver?

The noble Lord is a weapons-grade guardian of the countryside, and I want to make sure that people like him find it really simple and straight- forward to apply for the sustainable farming incentive. It is probably the best 20 to 40 minutes of a farmer’s year, and it compares and contrasts so well with the complications of systems in the past. It is fairer: more than 50% of area payments went to the biggest 10% of farmers; these are systems that improve smaller farmers as well. We are also unifying, to use his word, the system that allows people to apply for Countryside Stewardship and sustainable farming incentives, and the RPA is doing that today.

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, I recognise the Minister’s personal commitment to protecting the natural environment, but yesterday he rightly observed that you cannot meet 2030 targets if you start acting only in 2029. He has talked about important schemes that have already got off the ground, but yesterday the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, provided a lengthy list of examples of where there has been little or no visible progress. Can the Minister provide a timetable for the announcements of regulations that are going to be brought forward during the remainder of this Session, so that both this House and the OEP can see where and when this progress is going to be made?

The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, raised the issue of peat. The England Peat Action Plan committed us to restoring 35,000 hectares of peat-land by 2025—which is fairly soon—through the nature for climate fund. Through the net-zero strategy we are also committed to restoring 280,000 hectares of peat by 2050. We will bring forward legislation this year to ban the use of peat in horticulture. That is just one area that the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, raised. I also draw her attention to our 34 new landscape recovery projects, which show that we are on track to have 70% of land in environmental land management schemes by 2028. This is progress and has real benefits to our environment on the ground.

My Lords, launching the annual assessment, the chair of the OEP said that

“government’s plans must stack up. Government must be clear itself and set out transparently how it will change the nation’s trajectory to the extent now needed, in good time”.

We do not yet have that clarity or transparency. What action will now be taken to meet the key delivery plans, the interim targets, and to implement an effective monitoring and evaluation learning framework?

The noble Earl probably missed what I said earlier about the fact that this report covers just two months since the announcement last January—a year ago—of the environmental improvement plan. In a year’s time, he will be able to see how we are doing against that through the next report, in the summer. Through the Environment Act, noble Lords on all sides were rightly keen to ensure that there is an accurate monitoring and reporting system. These are not state secrets; this is 800 pages of data that we can share that underpin the targets that we produce in that plan. We are committed, through parliamentary processes and through the OEP, to report on those monitoring methods. We will continue to do so in an open and transparent way.