MPs Slam Environment Bill As Falling “Woefully Short”

The Government’s proposed Environment Bill falls “woefully short” of its vision to protect the environment when the UK leaves the European Union, according to scrutiny by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

The EAC says it has identified “serious concerns” with proposed legislation to protect the environment when the UK leaves the European Union. 

The Report describes the bill as lacking coherence, with many Government Departments exempted from their environmental responsibilities.

The Bill sets out to create a “pioneering” new system of green governance, placing the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan on a statutory footing. Among the draft clauses for the Environment Bill, Government has said it will establish an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which is aimed at filling the regulatory gap resulting from the UK’s exit from the EU.

MPs say the environmental principles within the Bill have been “severely downgraded”.

It says a legal requirement for policy and public bodies to seek to ensure a high level of environmental protection has been omitted from the list of principles in the Bill.

Evidence to the Committee described this absence as “striking and surprising”.

The EAC had called for the Bill to require that “all public bodies to act in accordance with the principles” and consider it “troubling” that the Government has ignored this recommendation.

“Purposefully Excluded”

Among its assessment it also says there is no Government agency with responsibility to enforce climate change mitigation measures. MPs believe enforcement of climate change mitigation has been “purposefully excluded” from the scope of the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP).

Environmental Audit Committee Chair Mary Creagh MP said: “If we want to be a world-leader in environmental protection, we need a world-leading body to protect it. The Government promised to create a new body for governance that would go beyond standards set by the European Union. The Bill, so far, falls woefully short of this vision.

Environmental Audit Committee Chair Mary Creagh MP – “The Government promised to create a new body for governance that would go beyond standards set by the European Union. The Bill, so far, falls woefully short of this vision.”

“Far from creating a body which is independent, free to criticise the Government and hold it to account, this Bill would reduce action to meet environmental standards to a tick-box exercise, limit scrutiny, and pass the buck for environmental failings to local authorities.

“It’s shocking that enforcement to act on climate change has been deliberately left out of the remit of the OEP.

“The draft Bill means that if we leave the EU we will have weaker environmental principles, less monitoring and weaker enforcement, and no threat of fines to force government action.”

Office for Environmental Protection 

The Committee heard evidence from the National Audit Office, which warned of potential risks to the OEP’s independence in practice or in perception because it was funded by Defra, and its chair appointed by Defra’s Secretary of State.

The MPs report also found that the Government has failed to provide enough evidence that it will give the OEP the independence it needs. The EAC says the OEP should report to Parliament and that a Parliamentary Committee should have a veto over the appointment of the OEP’s Chief Executive or Chair.

It also says the OEP enforcement powers are limited to administrative compliance rather than achieving environmental standards – which it says is a departure from the enforcement procedure of the European Commission. 

On failures by public authorities to comply with environmental law, the scope for enforcement action was “very tightly drawn”, it says, leaving the OEP with “little to get its teeth into”. 

Under these provisions, the threshold for failure would be “dominated by questions of procedural lawfulness”, it says.

Unlike the approach of the European Commission, the Bill shifts responsibility for failing to comply with environmental law to individual public authorities, rather than the whole of Government, the EAC found.

MPs also criticised the scope of the Bill, which it says is largely limited to England, as disappointing. It says UK-wide cooperation would enable more “efficient and coordinated action”. 

Withdrawal Agreement

Should the Withdrawal Agreement be passed, the UK will conform to EU legislation on customs, taxation, the environment, labour law, state aid and competition. 

This includes a non-regression clause on the environment, meaning that environmental protection will not be weakened from current EU standards. 

The Government has confirmed that the Bill’s proposals do not yet meet the non-regression clause and it will consider the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement before it publishes the final Bill.

The report calls for a significant upgrading in the Bill to meet the non-regression requirements of the Northern Ireland protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement and would require cooperation with the other Devolved Administrations. 

MPs conclude that without implementing the recommendations already presented in this report, on independence, funding, the principles and enforcement, the Government will fail to meet its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement.

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