I have been contacted by many constituents about the Environment Bill.
The Bill provides for environmental targets, environmental principles and a new environmental watchdog (the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP)), and changes and new legal requirements covering air pollution, water resources, water management and quality, waste and recycling, biodiversity, nature recovery and conservation covenants.
We are in a climate and ecological emergency. Wildlife and habitats in Britain are on a downward spiral and now that we have left the European Union, it is vital that we do all we can to maintain the highest standard of environmental standards. That is why I moved an amendment seeking to establish a state of nature target – see below – so we can enhance biodiversity and our enjoyment of it while walking in the countryside. The Bill also gives us an opportunity to do something about animal testing and the terrible problem of plastics pollution.
This Bill replaces the EU’s comprehensive framework of environmental protections with four simple long-term targets which the Secretary of State has near complete discretion to change at any time. Unfortunately, the Government is resisting firm protection. Changes to REACH chemical regulation will give ministers complete discretion over its design and scope, opening the door to people and animals being exposed to increased levels of chemical pollutants. And the Government is ducking its responsibilities by ensuring that any legally binding targets will not have effect for nearly two decades.
At committee stage, Labour proposed a range of amendments that sought to protect and enhance the powers of the OEP, aimed to write the WHO targets on air quality into the Bill and highlight the need for comprehensive action on waste and recycling. All these amendments were unfortunately defeated by the Government.
The Government has decided to split consideration of the report stage of the Bill in two halves. The first day was held on Tuesday 26th January when we considered amendments relating to the OEP, waste and resource efficiency, air quality and environmental recall, water, and regulation of chemicals (REACH).
No date has been set yet for day 2 of Report Stage which will cover nature and biodiversity (including due diligence, trees and deforestation), conservation covenants, and amendments relating to the rest of the Bill (including Labour’s amendment on fracking). The business motion provides for the Bill to be carried over to the next Parliamentary session, should day 2 of the remaining stages debate not be completed before Parliament is prorogued ahead of the next Queen’s Speech.
Labour moved a number of amendments on day 1 including to:
- require anyone with duties under the Bill to comply with an environmental objective to achieve and maintain biodiversity, support for human health and well-being and sustainable use of resources, and with specified environmental commitments that have been made by the Government, including the UN Leaders’ Pledge for Nature of September 2020, and under the Climate Change Act;
- ensure that the PM2.5 (particulate matter) target for air quality will be at least as strict as the 2005 WHO guidelines, with a deadline to achieve this of 2030 at the latest;
- allow Parliamentary scrutiny of exemptions granted to allow plant protection products banned under retained EU law (such as neonicotinoid pesticides), where they are likely to impact bees and other species covered by an environmental improvement plan; and
- delete clause 24, which was added by the Government in Committee to allow the Secretary of State to give guidance to the Office of Environmental Protection. Deleting this clause is important to ensure the independence of the OEP.
There were also other amendments to:
- put a duty on public authorities to ‘act in accordance with’ the environmental principles (not just to ‘have due regard to’);
- remove the current defence and taxation exemptions from the duty on ministers to ‘have due regard to’ the environmental principles; and
- place a duty on the Secretary of State to set and meet a state of nature target to begin to reverse the loss of biodiversity in England no later than 2030.
This was an amendment that I submitted and you can watch my speech here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWzP17EDMnw&feature=youtu.be or read it here:
Unfortunately, none of the amendments that were put to the vote on day 1 were carried.
When we eventually get to day 2 of the report stage, there are likely to be amendments to:
- require the Secretary of State to take account of the waste hierarchy starting with the priority action of prevention;
- amend the provisions on chemical regulation (REACH) in Schedule 20 to set a minimum of environmental protections under REACH and remove the possibility that a Secretary of State might lower standards than are in place currently, whilst reserving the right for them to set higher standards should they choose;
- require the Secretary of State to publish an annual report on air quality, which includes indoor air quality, and public authorities and Government departments working together to improve it;
- require the Secretary of State to set targets for the reduction and replacement of animal testing for the purposes of chemicals regulation; and
- require the Secretary of State to make regulations to prohibit the application and pollution of chemical pesticides near buildings and spaces used by residents and members of the public, with the aim of improving air quality and protecting human health and the environment in rural areas.
The Environment Bill does contain some welcome policies which I support, but it could be so much better than it is at the moment and I can assure you that we will keep up the fight as the Bill continues with its progress through Parliament.
Hilary Benn MP