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Our environment is the most important resource that we have—no amount of money or social capital can replace the rivers on which we rely for irrigation and water, the soil that we need to grow food, and the air that gives us life. We need to get the Bill right if we want to look our children and grandchildren in the eye and truly say that we have left them with a better future through our actions.
Under this Bill, the Government could sit on their hands for three whole years before setting legally binding, long-term environmental targets that would be due at the very least 15 years after the target was set. Why is there a need for such a long delay? There is a need to get the targets right, but time is fleeting in the race to save our environment, and in many cases the earlier action is taken, the less work is needed overall to hit environmental goals in long-term strategies. Can the Minister confirm tonight that the Government plan to bring forward targets long before then, and certainly so that we are not left with no environmental targets when we leave the transition period?
Even if the Government miss their own targets, the enforcement method mooted to replace the EC in judging the Government on their environmental record is not fit for purpose. A letter from the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, my hon. Friend Mary Creagh, who is not currently in her place, highlighted how little progress had been made to deal with the concerns raised by both the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the EAC about the lack of independence of the proposed Office for Environmental Protection and its legal enforcement powers. They are, in the words of Professor Maria Lee of University College London, “strikingly weak” for those who fall foul of protection of our environment.
Will this enforcement body have the tools necessary to carry out its functions? Given that a report by Unchecked highlighted the slashing of the Environment Agency budget by more than 60% under Lib Dem and Conservative austerity Governments resulting in an 80% drop in prosecutions, despite weekly serious pollution incidents, may I ask the Minister whether she shares the concerns of the Institute for Government and Prospect that the current funding mechanism could leave the proposed Office for Environmental Protection similarly vulnerable to underfunding by Governments who simply want to avoid environmental scrutiny? The Prime Minister promised a world-class watchdog to improve on current standards, but what we have is a lapdog and a Prime Minister who cannot be trusted to keep his promises, even when the livelihoods of the next generation depend upon it.
This is the latest in a long line of warm words from the Conservatives on the environment while we have seen the end of solar subsidies and support for biomass, no support for onshore wind, the sale of the Green Investment Bank, and the end of funding for the Swansea tidal lagoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield, who is no longer in her place, prevented those on the Government Benches and the Liberal Democrats from selling off our precious woodlands to the highest bidder. We have also moved away from revolutionary zero carbon homes.
We really do need a Government who will put the environment at the heart of everything that they do, not a Government who, sadly, see a cheap photo opportunity while they sell the prospects for prosperity of the next generation down the river.