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Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:39 pm on 28th October 2019.

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Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Shadow Minister (Waste and Recycling) 9:39 pm, 28th October 2019

Members have made many excellent speeches. Unfortunately, time has been far too short for everybody to say everything they wanted, but I want to highlight a few of the points that were made. Neil Parish questioned how the Office for Environmental Protection would hold the Government or other public bodies to account, and that sentiment was shared by Mr Dunne and the hon. Members for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous).

My hon. Friend Mary Creagh described how far we have come as a member of the European Union and talked about the danger of regression from EU standards. My hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy pointed out that having due regard to standards does not constitute accountability. Sarah Newton talked about the need for objective information, which is so important if people are going to make these provisions stick. My hon. Friend Ruth Jones talked about the need for more powers and resources for councils. Richard Graham talked about it being time to drop fracking, with which I strongly agree.

We have had less than three hours to debate the Second Reading of this mammoth Bill. It is a Bill that covers so many areas in which radical change is needed if we are to deal with the climate crisis and hand on to our children an environment that is fit to live in. The Government have been promising an environment Bill for years, and we have been demanding it for years. I hope everyone recognises the vital importance of enshrining the environmental protections that we currently enjoy as part of the EU in a British legislative framework that will safeguard that protection when we leave. As the Bill stands, however, it does not afford the environment the protection that it will need if and when we leave the EU, let alone provide a course towards sustainability and net zero emissions, which are critical if we are to survive. There are huge omissions to be filled and huge inconsistencies to be ironed out if it is to have the effect for which so many campaigners and hon. Members have been hoping.

The basic premise underlying the Bill—that we can and must replace the external arbiter of the EU with our own Office for Environmental Protection—depends on the OEP having the independence and the powers to hold the Government of this country to account, to prevent our law and our institutions from undermining our environment, to rule out actions that the Government might want to take and to impose fines for breaches. How can that be done by an OEP that has been appointed by the very Secretary of State that it is meant to be holding to account, without any meaningful involvement from anyone else?

Before EU regulations started to change the practice in this country, we were the dirty man of Europe. It was only because the Labour Government went beyond what EU regulations required that we now have protections that may sometimes go further than other European countries. It is a matter of regret that we will no longer be able to lead on EU environmental protection once we are no longer a member. How much of that protection will survive in the face of demands from US agriculture or multinational chemicals giants while we try in desperation to agree one-sided trade deals with much larger economic blocs?

Timing is another issue. Far too much in the Bill envisages decisions that will not take effect for years. How can we secure clean air for our children when many of the proposed measures will take 15 years to have any effect? There is no indication of the powers or resources that will be needed to take fossil fuel vehicles off our roads, but some 35,000 to 40,000 of our citizens die prematurely every year. This is an emergency, and rapid and radical action needs to be taken now.

On waste, where is the mechanism to end the export of plastic waste to countries that do not have the facilities to deal with it? Where is the commitment to resource our local authorities to enable the recyclable materials collections envisaged in the Bill? Where is the Government commitment to invest in recycling and composting infrastructure in this country? Where is the commitment to reducing waste in the first place? All the initiatives proposed in the Bill appear to depend on the private sector providing the finance, the investment, the facilities and even the administrators and scheme enforcement. Have the Government learned nothing from the fiasco of packaging recovery notes, which have done nothing to reduce waste or boost recycling?

Part 5, on water, makes no firm commitments to reduce water consumption or the carbon use of the water industry. Mr Goodwill talked about the improvements made in our water services since privatisation, but there has been a massive increase in the amount of money that households pay for their water since privatisation. Clearly some of that has gone into improving the water infrastructure, but a great deal has gone into profits for shareholders and massive pay cheques for executives.

Any Government that view the profit motive, rather than the best interests of people, as the most effective driver of policy is likely to see lower environmental standards. Without proper investment in the public sector, we will not achieve the step change that we need in tree planting, protection of our wildlife habitats, waste and resource efficiency, reducing the impact of water consumption or protection from chemical pollution. This Government do not have a good track record in investment in the public sector. They are introducing this Bill because they realise that they have to be seen to be doing something. We will hold them to what they say and use this opportunity to push for amendments that we believe could strengthen the Bill and make it genuinely effective. For that reason, we will not oppose Second Reading.