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Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:21 pm on 28th October 2019.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 8:21 pm, 28th October 2019

I, too, hope that I will be able to serve on the Bill Committee.

I welcome the direction of travel and the fact that we are discussing these issues in such detail. However, given that we have only a short amount of time, I want to focus on a few concerns about the Bill. The first is that, as others have said, there is no commitment to non-regression in environmental standards. We are being asked to take the Government’s word for it that they will not lower standards in any future trade deal. I am sorry to say that I just do not believe that. The Government took non-regression out of the withdrawal agreement, and a recent leaked DEFRA briefing stated that the Department for International Trade would be putting it under significant pressure to lower standards. I served on the Public Bill Committee for the Agriculture Bill and tabled new clause 1 on Report, but we know from the reaction we got when we tried to get something put in writing, that, frankly, if you like it, you gotta put a ring on it—as Beyoncé once said. I just do not accept the oral assurances. That measure needs to be enshrined in the Bill.

The environmental principles are not enshrined in law in the Bill either. Instead, Ministers only have to have due regard to them, which is a significant step backwards compared with the current EU arrangement. Long-term targets do not need to be set until 2022 and might not be enforced for almost two decades. We must have shorter-term milestones, perhaps in the same way that we have carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act 2008, because we need to know. There is no point getting almost to the deadline and realising that we have failed hopelessly to meet the targets. There has to be a way of monitoring progress more quickly.

I very much welcome the fact that the Office of Environmental Protection will be based in Bristol. I welcome the jobs that will come, but it needs the resources. We know from the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee —I am a member of both—that the Environment Agency struggles to do its job in enforcing the laws that exist because it simply does not have the resources; the waste hierarchy, for example, is just not enforced. Everything becomes meaningless unless there is adequate staffing, resources and expertise, and the Office of Environmental Protection will also need the independence to act.

The EU water framework directive was agreed 20 years ago, and I am concerned that time is running out for the Government to meet their targets. The final deadline for the UK’s rivers and streams to be in good condition—to achieve good ecological status—is 2027. At the moment, we are at 14%, which compares with an average of 40% in the EU. I am not convinced that this Bill alone will be enough to bring us up to scratch by the 2027 deadline.

Finally, the Bill is very much about what we are doing in this country. It does not address the role that the UK is playing in driving the destruction of nature overseas, which is something that we have discussed in Westminster Hall, both earlier today and in the debate a few weeks ago on the deforestation of the Amazon. We must look at reducing our international footprint, too. I completely support calls by the World Wide Fund for Nature and Global Witness to amend the Bill to provide for a due diligence obligation requiring businesses to assess what is happening through their supply chains and investment activities in other countries, and to take appropriate action to avoid and mitigate any negative environmental impacts. If they cannot avoid those negative environmental impacts, they ought to cease operations and investments in those countries. We cannot have UK companies paying lip service to the need to protect our environment at home, yet supporting the deforestation of the Amazon and all sorts of other environmental destruction in other countries.