Environment Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:47 pm on 26th January 2021.
‘(1) A public authority, must, when exercising their functions (including the making of policy and legislation), act in accordance with the environmental principles currently in effect.
(2) The duty in subsection (1) does not apply to policy relating to Wales.
(3) In this section, “legislation” means—
(a) an Act of Parliament; and
(b) subordinate legislation.’—(Caroline Lucas.)
This new clause would require public authorities to act in accordance with environmental principles when exercising their functions.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 5—State of nature target—
‘(1) It is the duty of the Secretary of State to set a target to halt and begin to reverse the decline in the state of nature in England as soon as reasonably practicable and no later than 2030.
(2) The target in subsection (1) shall be known as the state of nature target.
(3) The Secretary of State must ensure that the state of nature target is met.
(4) A draft statutory instrument containing regulations that make provision for how progress toward the state of nature target will be measured must be laid before Parliament at least one month before the fifteenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
(5) Before laying before Parliament a draft of a statutory instrument under this section, the Secretary of State must obtain, publish and take into account the advice of relevant experts, including—
(b) Natural England;
(c) The Office for Environment Protection; and
(d) The Joint Nature Conservation Committee.
(6) In this section—
(a) the abundance and distribution of species;
(b) the risk of extinction; and
(c) the extent and condition of priority habitats.’
This new clause would place a duty on the Secretary of State to set and meet a target to begin to reverse the loss of biodiversity in England no later than 2030. This timetable would align with the new Convention on Biological Diversity goals that are due to be agreed in 2021.
New clause 9—Environmental objective and commitments—
‘(1) In interpreting and applying this Act, any party with duties, responsibilities, obligations or discretions under or relating to it must comply with—
(a) the environmental objective in subsection (2); and
(b) the commitments in subsection (3).
(2) The environmental objective is to achieve and maintain—
(a) a healthy, resilient and biodiverse natural environment;
(b) an environment that supports human health and well-being for everyone; and
(c) sustainable use of resources.
(3) The commitments are—
(a) all commitments given by Her Majesty’s Government in the United Nations Leaders’ Pledge for Nature of
(b) any enhanced commitments given by Her Majesty’s Government pursuant to that pledge, any other pledge, and any international agreement; and
(c) all relevant domestic legislation, including, but not limited to, the Climate Change Act 2008, as amended from time to time.
(4) Without prejudice to the generality of the requirement in subsection (1), that requirement applies to—
(a) the Secretary of State in setting, amending and ensuring compliance with the environmental targets; preparing, amending and implementing environmental improvement plans; and performing all their obligations and exercising all their discretions under this Act;
(b) the Office for Environmental Protection and the Upper Tribunal in performing their respective obligations and exercising any applicable discretions; and
(c) all other persons and bodies with obligations and discretions under, or in connection with, the subject matter of this Act.’
New clause 11—Environmental targets: plastic pollution—
‘(1) The Secretary of State must by regulations set targets (“the plastics reduction targets”) in respect of the reduction of plastic pollution and to reduce the volume of non-essential single-use plastic products sold.
(2) The plastics reduction targets may, but need not, be long-term.
(3) The duty in subsection (1) is in addition to (and does not discharge) the duty in section 1(2) to set a long-term target in relation to resource efficiency and waste reduction.
(4) Section 1(4) to (9) applies to the plastics reduction targets and to regulations under this section as it applies to targets set under section 1 and to regulations under that section.
(5) In this section—
(a) the term “plastics pollution” means the introduction of plastic materials or plastic-containing products into the environment, and
(b) the term “non-essential single-use plastic products” means products intended to be used once then disposed of where their use is not essential for medical, environmental, health and safety, national security or other essential purposes as defined by the Secretary of State.’
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to set targets to reduce plastic pollution and reduce the volume of non-essential single-use plastic products sold.
New clause 14—OEP function to consider housing targets—
‘(1) The OEP will have the power to consider appeals on housing targets set by public authorities in England.
(2) An individual affected by the targets in subsection (1) will have the right of appeal to the OEP.
(3) In determining an appeal under subsection (1) the OEP may either—
(a) reject; or
(b) reduce the housing target set by the public authority.
(4) In dealing with the appeal set out in subsection (1) the OEP must have regard to the impacts the housing targets will have on compliance with the UK’s environmental targets.’
New clause 15—Net zero carbon target as condition of planning permission—
‘(1) The Town and Country Planning Act 1990 is amended as set out in section (2).
(2) After section 70(2), insert—
“(2A) Any grants of planning permission for residential development in England must be subject to a condition to secure that a net zero-carbon target objective during construction and ongoing occupation of the building is achieved.”’
New clause 17—Strategy for new economic goals to deliver environmental protection and societal wellbeing—
‘(1) Her Majesty’s Government must prepare a strategy for the adoption of new economic goals to deliver environmental protection and societal wellbeing.
(2) “Environmental protection” in subsection (1) means the protection of humans and the natural environment from the impacts of human activity as defined in Clause 44.
(3) The new economic goals must address—
(a) the environmental targets in this Act,
(b) the Climate Change Act 2008,
(c) the UK’s commitments under international environmental agreements, laws and treaties,
(d) the wellbeing of future generations,
(e) the overseas environmental impacts of UK consumption and economic activity, and
(f) the contribution of the UK’s consumption and production to the state of the global environment, in relation to nine planetary boundaries—
(i) Stratospheric ozone depletion,
(ii) Loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinctions),
(iii) Chemical pollution and the release of novel entities,
(iv) Climate change,
(v) Ocean acidification,
(vi) Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle,
(vii) Land system change,
(viii) Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans, and
(ix) Atmospheric aerosol loading.
(4) The strategy must—
(a) set out how the new economic goals will replace growth in gross domestic product as the principal measure of national economic progress,
(b) set out a vision for how the economy can be designed to serve the wellbeing of humans and protect the natural environment,
(c) include a set of indicators for each new economic goal, and
(d) set out plans for the application of new economic goals and indicators to central and local government decision-making processes including but not limited to Central Government Guidance on Appraisal and Evaluation produced by HM Treasury (The Green Book).
(5) In drawing up the strategy, Her Majesty’s Government must obtain, publish and take into account the advice of—
(a) experts in the field of ecological economics,
(b) a nationally representative citizens assembly,
(c) trades unions,
(e) statutory agencies,
(f) representatives of local and regional government, and
(g) any persons the Secretary of State considers to be independent and to have relevant expertise.
(6) The strategy must be laid before Parliament within 12 months of this Act receiving Royal Assent.
(7) The Government must lay before Parliament an annual report on progress towards meeting the new economic goals and their efficacy in delivering environmental protection and societal wellbeing.
(8) A Minister of the Crown must, not later than one month after the report has been laid before Parliament, move a Motion in the House of Commons in relation to that report.’
This new clause requires the Government to prepare a strategy for the adoption of new economic goals that are designed to deliver environmental protection and societal wellbeing and to report annually on these goals.
Amendment 21, in clause 1, page 2, line 4, at end insert—
‘(e) Public access to and enjoyment of the natural environment.’
This amendment is designed to require the Government to set legally-binding, long-term targets to increase public access to, and enjoyment of the natural environment.
Amendment 40, page 2, line 20, at end insert—
‘(10) In setting a target, the Secretary of State must take into account any targets set by Senedd Cymru.
(11) If the UK Government seeks to spend funds from the Shared Prosperity Fund on infrastructure in Wales, an impact assessment must be carried out and published on the effect of the infrastructure project on the target set by Senedd Cymru.
(12) If the impact assessment under subsection (11) finds that the infrastructure project would have a negative effect on the achievement of the target set by Senedd Cymru, the Secretary of State must seek and receive the consent of Senedd Cymru to that infrastructure spending.’
This amendment would ensure that the consent of Senedd Cyrmu would be required before the UK Government could use the financial assistance powers in the UK Internal Market Bill to spend via the Shared Prosperity Fund on infrastructure projects in Wales which would undermine environmental targets set by Senedd Cymru.
Amendment 2, in clause 2, page 2, line 24, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
‘(2) The PM2.5 air quality target must—
(a) be less than or equal to air quality guidelines established by the World Health Organization in 2005; and
(b) have an attainment deadline on or before
This amendment is intended to set parameters on the face of the Bill to ensure that the PM2.5 target will be at least as strict as the 2005 WHO guidelines, with an attainment deadline of 2030 at the latest.
Amendment 25, page 2, line 24, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
‘(2) The PM2.5 air quality target must—
(a) be less than or equal to 10µg/m3;
(b) follow World Health Organisation guidelines; and
(c) have an attainment deadline on or before
This amendment is intended to set parameters on the face of the Bill to ensure that the PM2.5 target will be at least as strict as the 2005 WHO guidelines, with an attainment deadline of 2030 at the latest.
Amendment 5, in clause 4, page 3, line 31, at end insert
(c) interim targets are met.’
This amendment places a duty on the Secretary of State to meet the interim targets they set.
Government amendment 6.
Amendment 28, in clause 7, page 5, line 12, leave out “may” and insert “must”
This amendment would require the Government to include steps to improve people’s enjoyment of the natural environment in its Environmental Plan.
Amendment 39, page 5, line 21, at end insert—
‘(7A) If an exemption is granted under Article 53 of Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council, concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market, which is likely to affect species covered by an environmental improvement plan—
(a) a report must be laid before Parliament within one month of the exemption decision on the likely effects of the exemption on populations of—
(ii) other pollinators, and
(iii) other species,
(b) the scientific advice given to ministers relating to the exemption must be published as an addendum to the report, and
(c) a Minister of the Crown must, not later than one month after the report is laid before Parliament under paragraph (8), move a Motion in the House of Commons in relation to the report.
(7B) The requirement in subsection (7A) shall apply retrospectively to exemptions granted within the last 12 months of the coming into force of this Act.’
This amendment places requirements on Ministers to 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.
Amendment 4, in clause 16, page 10, line 15, at end insert—
‘(3A) When applying the precautionary principle, the policy statement must comply with the provisions of the regulator’s code and must include—
(a) a procedure for identifying and recording risk; and
(b) a procedure for identifying and recording the social, economic and cultural impacts of action and inaction.
(3B) The policy statement in subsection (3A) must also include instructions for taking into account all activities with an environmental impact on any area of land under consideration and a procedure for ensuring that any action taken—
(a) is proportionate to the risk posed by each activity on the land being considered; and
(b) balances short term impacts against the achievement of the land’s conservation objectives.
(3C) The precautionary principle should only apply in response to risks that are—
(a) more than hypothetical in nature; and
(b) serious and irreversible.’
This amendment sets out the definition of the precautionary principle when it is used in accordance with the provisions of this Bill.
Amendment 1, in clause 18, page 11, line 20, leave out from “benefit” to end of clause and insert—
‘(3) Subsection (1) does not apply to policy so far as relating to Wales.’
This amendment removes the proportionality limitation and the exceptions for armed forces, defence policy, tax, spending and resources from the requirement to have due regard to the policy statement on environmental principles.
Amendment 43, page 11, line 24, leave out paragraphs (b) and (c).
This amendment removes the exceptions for armed forces, defence and national security policy from the requirement to have due regard to the policy statement on environmental principles. It also removes the exceptions for tax, spending and allocation of resources.
Amendment 23, page 14, line 29, leave out Clause 24.
Government amendment 31.
Amendment 44, in clause 45, page 27, line 15, leave out paragraphs (b) and (c).
This amendment removes the exceptions for armed forces, defence and national security policy and the exceptions for tax, spending and allocation of resources from the definition of environmental law.
Government amendments 9 to 20.
I am pleased to move new clause 1. This Bill could not be more important. It is 25 years since the last dedicated Environment Act was passed. During that time, the speed and scale of environmental destruction has increased dramatically. The UK is now one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, and Ministers simply are not rising to that challenge. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Government are failing to meet fully 17 out of 20 UN biodiversity targets.
Despite the Government’s aim to be
“the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it”,
this Bill has languished in Parliament for more than 200 days before Committee resumed. As a consequence, there is now a governance gap, with only interim measures in place where a fully-fledged Office for Environmental Protection should have been. Worse, we now hear that the Bill is to be delayed by at least six months, because Ministers have apparently run out of time to pass it in Parliament.
Of course we understand the pressures that covid has put on the parliamentary timetable, but the Government have had more than four years since the referendum, two years since the draft Bill was published and one year since the UK left the EU to get these plans in place. Their failure to do so is utterly incompetent. Will the Minister give us a precise date for both the next Report stage and the missing policy statement that is linked to the environmental principles? It is to those principles that I now turn, because my new clause 1 and amendment 1 are on the environmental principles, and I plan to push new clause 1 to a vote.
Ministers promised that, post Brexit, environmental standards would be not only maintained but enhanced, yet this Bill does not even come close to making up for what we have lost by leaving the EU. It sets out five important principles, including prevention, precaution and polluter pays. Under EU law, it is a requirement that those are actually applied when law making and that they cover all public bodies, not just Ministers. However, the Bill significantly weakens their legal status because they do not apply to public bodies, and there is no such duty on Ministers to act in accordance with the principles. Instead, there is only a duty to “have due regard” to a policy statement that the Government have not even bothered to published yet.
The Minister has tried to persuade us that “due regard” is at least as strong as “in accordance with”, yet her case simply does not stand up to scrutiny. In 2018, the Lords Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 found that the duty to “have regard” to contained in that Act was
“weak, unenforceable and lacks clear meaning.”
Adding the word “due” in front of “regard” does not change that. There are plenty of examples of other legislation in which public authorities are required by statute to act in accordance with or to take actions to comply with—for example, the Marine Strategy Regulations 2010 or the Planning Act 2008.
We can only conclude that, in this instance, the Government deliberately intend to weaken these provisions and, as a consequence, to drive a coach and horses through fundamental EU protections. New clause 1 would extend the duty to all public authorities and broaden the scope of the principles. Crucially, it would strengthen the duty from “have due regard” to “act in accordance with”, and it would apply directly to the principles, rather than a non-existent policy statement.
Amendment 1 addresses further absurdities in the Bill—in this case, the exclusion of the Ministry of Defence, the Treasury, and indeed anyone spending resources within Government, from having to consider the principles at all. That really is ludicrous. My amendment therefore removes the proportionality limitation from the environmental principles, as well as the exclusions for the MOD and the Treasury.
New clause 17 is vital because it recognises that even if we do succeed in strengthening this Bill, efforts to protect and restore nature will ultimately fail unless we also address the underlying economic drivers of biodiversity and ecosystem destruction. The new clause therefore requires the Government to prepare a strategy for the adoption of new economic goals so that social and environmental gains sit at the heart of the Government’s economic plans and measurements. If we stick with the current economic rulebook, we will continue to see the hard work of DEFRA undermined by the overriding short-term economic priorities of the Treasury, and above all the pursuit of infinite GDP growth on a planet of finite resources. For decades, we have seen Ministers commit to environmental goals and targets only for those goals to be missed time and again. Nature’s dangerous decline continues apace, at a high cost to current and future generations. This time we need to do things differently. Some major business voices are also urging Government to do the same. Consider this from the Business for Nature coalition, which says:
“Governments, companies and financial organizations would take better decisions if they used information ‘beyond short-term profit and GDP’ that includes impacts and dependencies on nature, as well as synergies and trade-offs informed by science and planetary boundaries.”
New clause 17 is all about better, more consistent decision making across Government so that the environmental ambition in this Bill is not undermined by conflicting goals of other, more powerful Departments. While I will not be pressing it to a vote, I do hope that the Minister will commit to taking this forward with the urgency it requires.
Turning to amendment 21, green space has become more important than ever over the past 10 months, yet access to nature is far from equal. My amendment seeks to address that. Some 2.6 million people in the UK have no publicly accessible green space within walking distance, and one in eight British households has no access to a garden—an inequality that disproportionately affects those in black and minority ethnic communities. Currently the Bill states:
The Secretary of State may…set long-term targets” on
“people’s enjoyment of the natural environment.”
However, because this is not a priority area, it risks being overlooked, with funding and resources being diverted elsewhere. My amendment remedies this omission by promoting access to and enjoyment of nature as a priority area for long-term targets. This change not only has the potential to equalise access to nature but would also come with wider benefits to physical and mental health.
Finally, I would like to indicate support for a number of other amendments, including amendment 23 on the Office for Environmental Protection. When it comes to enforcement, the OEP is being presented as a new, independent watchdog. In reality, it is more like a ministerial lapdog kept on a tight leash, with Ministers given the power to steer it by offering so-called guidance that the OEP is bound to consider. Since Ministers also control its budget and its board, it is entirely likely that such guidance will actually be felt, in practice, rather more as an instruction. The Minister has argued that the Government already routinely offer guidance to other non-departmental public bodies. While it is true that they do to some, they certainly do not have power to issue guidance in relation to bodies charged principally or partly with enforcing potential breaches of the law by other public bodies. That is a crucial difference. That is why I support the amendment that would delete this guidance, which was added to the Bill at a very late stage.
I also support amendments that intend to ensure that interim targets are legally binding. There are strong amendments to improve air quality, and to align our state of nature targets with those from the convention on biological diversity and with the objectives of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, which I introduced into Parliament last year.
This is a hugely important Bill. It is unbelievable that we are seeing, yet again, a delay to its coming forward. The Minister must now undertake that in the extra time she is going to achieve, she will strengthen the Bill to make it fit for purpose so that it comes close to some of the aspirations that she and her fellow Ministers have expressed before.
Before I call the Minister, let me say that, as I have indicated, there is a four-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. The vast majority of contributions will be via videolink. Can I say to those who are contributing via videolink that there is a clock on the device you are using, so please keep an eye on it? There are no interventions on you, so it should be straightforward as to when you finish your contribution. If you try to exceed that time, you will be automatically cut off. For those contributing in the Chamber, the clocks will be working in the usual fashion.
I would like to begin by setting out why this Environment Bill is so important. Members on all sides of the House agree that on the whole—despite, I must just say, some notable successes where farmers, Government and conservationists are working together—the desperate decline of our natural environment and biodiversity has gone on for far too long. We need to act to improve the quality and the quantity of habitats for our fellow species across the board, and we need to re-establish the equilibrium of the habitats and ecosystems.
Our UK indicator for farmland birds shows that we have had a decline of 50% in those birds since 1970. The lapwings I grew up with on the farm at home are no longer there, nor are the yellowhammers. Insect pollinators have declined by 30% since 1980, so in place of that hazy buzz we were all so used to there is now, in many places, silence. This matters not only because people treasure our species and habitats—and, goodness, we have really appreciated that in lockdown during the pandemic, have we not?—but because they underpin vital processes such as carbon storage or pollination. That is why we are laying the foundations for nature’s recovery through this Bill, delivering the tools needed to drive the change we want to see.
Legally binding targets for environmental improvement across at least four priority areas must be set. Our ambitious targets across air quality, water, waste and biodiversity will drive long-term action. Through this Government now and future Governments, we will be held accountable by Parliament if progress lags. I know the House will also be particularly interested to hear that we will set not one but two legally binding targets to tackle harmful air pollution across the country. The Bill will require current and future Governments to produce an environmental improvement plan, which must be reviewed and reported on regularly. The Bill creates a tough new independent Office for Environmental Protection to hold all public authorities—from local authorities to central Government—to account on reaching these goals. It will enforce the delivery of all environmental law, including, for example, our net zero target.
First, will the Minister congratulate year 4 from Christ Church primary, who have sent me 100 different essays on exactly the topic she is talking about and on deforestation? Secondly, what does she say to our own Chemical Industries Association, which bemoans our leaving REACH—the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals regulation—saying that it opens the door to harmful chemical pollution potentially to animals and humans, because it is the Government who are responsible for the replacement?
Of course, I would be absolutely delighted to welcome those essays from Christ Church primary school. Indeed, if the hon. Member would like me to send a letter from the Environment Minister, I would be delighted to do so. I am always very pleased to speak to our students and young children about what we are doing on the environment, and they are our future generations whom we are doing all this for, so I thank her for that. We are going to talk about REACH later—I engage very closely with the industry—so we will discuss that in the second grouping of amendments today.
Just before that intervention, I mentioned the new independent Office for Environmental Protection, and I would like to take this opportunity to provide the House with an update on the OEP. We want to ensure that this is located in a good long-term place and, trust me, there were an awful lot of contenders. After considering wider locations, we have decided that Worcester will be an excellent location for the headquarters of the OEP. This is part of the Government’s commitment to ensuring that opportunities are spread fairly across the country. My heart goes out to people in the area who may have been flooded this week, but I hope the OEP’s being based in Worcester gives a little bit of good news.
As the Prime Minister set out in the Government’s 10-point plan to net zero, protection, restoration and enhancement of our natural environment are crucial. The Bill will play a key part in that mission. I thank Caroline Lucas for opening the debate by raising some important points on the environmental principles. The environmental principles will work together to protect the environment from damage by making environmental considerations central to the policy development process across Government. I am keen to hear views from across the House, and there are many references to the environmental principles in some of the other amendments, so I shall respond in more detail to some of her points on the principles and other important issues at the end of the debate. I reassure her, though, that we are working at pace: during the break between the two Report sessions, we will continue unstintingly to deliver measures in the Bill.
Before I go any further, let me mention some Government amendments, some of which make relatively technical changes that will improve and enhance the Bill. Government amendment 6, tabled by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, clarifies that both the terrestrial and the marine aspects of England’s natural environment will be considered when conducting the significant improvement test in clause 6. That has always been our intention, as I explained in Committee, but the amendment puts it beyond doubt. I am delighted that the amendment spells out that marine is absolutely part and parcel of what we mean when we talk about the environment.
With regard to the Office for Environmental Protection, Government amendment 31, also tabled by the Secretary of State, is a technical amendment that simply serves to clarify that section 31(2A) of the Senior Courts Act 1981 does not apply on an environmental review, providing the courts with a full range of remedies for the OEP environmental review procedure. Government amendments 9 to 20, also tabled by the Secretary of State, align the clauses relating to the OEP’s Northern Ireland enforcement functions with the amended part 1 provisions. Those amendments were personally requested by Northern Ireland Ministers.
I welcome the opportunity to hear from hon. Friends and Members on both sides of the House on this vital Bill, and I look forward to responding at the end of the debate.
I rise to speak to new clause 9 and amendments 25, 39 and 23 in my name and those of my hon. Friends.
Parliament declared a climate and ecological emergency on
“the living world is on course to tip and collapse. Indeed, it has already begun to do so”.
This Bill is a cobbled-together set of disparate actions that is sinking under the weight of greenwash that has been applied by Ministers. It does not take the urgent action that is so desperately needed.
This legislation is not perfect by any means, but the Bill should already be law. The deliberate pausing of Report stage after today means that some amendments will not be debated by MPs until May, the Bill will not be in the House of Lords until just before the summer, and it risks not being on the statute book until the autumn. That means we could be waiting over six months more for an environmental watchdog, for powers to stop our children breathing unsafe air, and to regulate Ministers’ actions. The Minister said that she did not want to see a delay in the Bill, while she was moving a motion to delay the Bill. That simply is not good enough. What a terrible message to send to the world in the year we are hosting COP26. It was supposed to be in law before Britain left the Brexit transition period and it is not. It was supposed to be bold and world-leading because of the urgency of the climate crisis and it is not.
This is a go-slow Government when it comes to environmental action. If we could solve the climate crisis with press releases then the planet would have nothing to worry about, but it is actions, not words, that we need. We need faster action to create the well-paid green jobs our communities need, and we need bolder action on improving standards and protecting habitats and species, so we can strengthen our economy and rebuild our country. If building back better after the pandemic is to be genuine, and not a smash and grab on the language of the environmental left, it must be underpinned by bold policy.
The Bill has a number of important issues, so let me deal with some of the main ones—first, air quality. The whole House remembers Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl who tragically died following an asthma attack in London seven years ago. The coroner’s court found that air pollution made a material contribution to Ella’s death. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Vicky Foxcroft for working with Ella’s mum Rosamund in demanding bolder action. This Sunday would have been Ella’s 17th birthday. As her mum wrote in The Sun on Sunday:
“Had WHO air pollution limits been in place and enforced then, according to the Coroner’s report, she would still be here today.”
Air quality is a matter of social justice, of equality and of poverty and requires fundamental change in the way we do business.
There are three amendments on air quality in the names of my Devon colleague the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Neil Parish, and my hon. Friend Geraint Davies and in my own name. All the amendments seek real action on air pollution. Labour will back all of them if they are put to the vote. According to figures published by NHS England, on average 5% of deaths in those over 30 can be attributed to PM2.5 air pollution. What that means is 40,000 deaths a year are caused by poor air—40,000 deaths. The Confederation of British Industry estimates that a £1.6 billion economic benefit to the UK could be released if we met WHO guidelines.
It is frankly bizarre that, faced with such mounting evidence of the unnecessary deaths caused by poor air, Ministers still refuse to put WHO air quality standards into law. I want to see the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs step up and hold Ministers’ feet to the fire. That means taking the case for the toughest WHO air quality targets to force the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and other Departments to radically up their game. If Ministers still refuse to accept our amendments, can the Minister confirm she will use the powers in the Bill to adopt WHO targets and exceed them if she can whenever the Bill eventually gets on the statute book? A Labour Government would adopt WHO targets because it is simply the right thing to do, so that everyone in all our communities has clean air to breathe.
I will not for time’s sake.
You cannot build back better if you are struggling to breathe.
Secondly, let me to turn to the Office for Environmental Protection. The Bill should have been passed by the end of the Brexit transition period, and the OEP should be up and running now. Labour offered to work with Ministers to ensure that that happened, but here we are with that date passed and the Bill still unlikely to become law until autumn, which is a year too late. That means the UK is now without an environmental watchdog, as the OEP has not yet been set up. We are concerned that it will be a weak watchdog with no real teeth. Calling it tough will in itself not make it tough. The OEP needs to be vigorously independent. That is why our amendment would delete a clause that would allow the Secretary of State to give guidance to the OEP and effectively let the Government mark their own homework. It is backed by the cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which concluded that we should make sure that
“every step is taken to ensure the Office for Environmental Protection is as independent from the Government as possible”.
Although I think many of us would have preferred an out-and-out environmentalist to be leading the OEP, the appointment of Dame Glenys Stacey is welcome and I hope the board members she is now recruiting will look a tad greener. But I must say to the Minister that, as a south-west Member of Parliament, I am deeply concerned that the Government have just robbed the south-west of the Office for Environmental Protection. She will know it was announced in October 2019 that it would be going to Bristol. She knows that the expectation was that this would be a south-west-based regulator and she knows of the anger—the anger—that this will cause in the south-west on finding out it has been sent to somewhere that she claims is near Bristol. Worcester is nowhere near Bristol and that promise is nowhere near being met. The south-west has been robbed of a regulator and I think that is deeply, deeply worrying.
Let me turn briefly to bees and Labour’s amendment to prevent the Government from lifting the ban on bee-killing chemicals. I am a fan of bees; my family keeps bees on a farm in Cornwall. Since 1900, the UK has lost 13 out of 35 native bee species. Bees are essential to the future of our planet, to pollenating our crops and to our rich tapestry of biodiversity, so bee health is non-negotiable. That is what MPs on both sides of the House say in good times, so I expect them to say it now. Labour’s amendment would oppose the Conservative plan to lift the ban on bee-killing pesticides. If bee health really is non-negotiable, the ban must not be set aside just because it is convenient to do so now. There is no doubt that sugar beet farmers have been hit hard by crop blight, but lifting the ban is not the solution. Improved sugar contracts, compensation and accelerating blight-resistant varieties are a much better answer.
Labour backs our British farmers. We stood with them against the Government over food standards, and we do so again in relation to the risk to small family farms from the new farm payment support scheme. Conservative Members will no doubt talk about how many European nations have also sought to lift the ban on bee-killing chemicals, but this is about England. It is about what we do as a country and whether we take the tough calls to address the ecological crisis or make excuses about going backwards. Today, Labour MPs will vote to save the bees, and the Government will whip Conservative MPs to allow the ban on bee-killing pesticides to be lifted. In the year that Britain hosts COP26, when we should be a showcase for environmental best practice and shine as a force for good—a beacon nation—we will be allowing more bees and pollinators to be killed by neonicotinoid pesticides. We should save the bees and back amendment 39.
Labour will not vote against the Bill today. We will not do anything to frustrate our fight against the climate and nature emergency. Even go-slow action is better than no action at all, but we will push our amendments to a vote because the Bill really should have been better and bolder. It should embed an insatiable drive and a green passion at the very heart of the Government, but it does not. I am proudly red on the outside and green on the inside. Instead of being a deep green, the Bill is merely a bland beige—necessary and needed, but pedestrian in its ambition. It needs more focus and priority than the Government have offered to date.
Labour will also be supporting amendments from my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn on the state of nature and Caroline Lucas, with whom we have common cause in the climate and ecological emergency. The Bill does not do enough, and neither is it fast enough. I genuinely want us to build back better, but if the Bill was insufficient before the pandemic, it is wholly inadequate now that the pandemic’s horrors have been laid bare. I encourage the House of Lords to get the Bill to where it should be, and I urge Members of this House to put our planet, our precious habitats and our vulnerable species first and to vote for the amendments.
With a four-minute limit, I call Neil Parish via video link.
I thank DEFRA Ministers for their hard work on the Bill.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has looked at the Environment Bill over the past few years. We have given it pre-legislative scrutiny and looked at the Office for Environmental Protection and issues such as plastic waste, tree planting and air quality. The Bill has come back to Parliament in several shapes and sizes, and I think that might be about to happen again. I hope that the Government are carrying over the Bill to the next Session because they want to amend it to include all my amendments on deforestation and air quality.
The Amazon is losing an area twice the size of Devon every year to deforestation. Government amendments to ban sales from illegal deforestation go some way, but we can go further still and target the finance behind that. I will speak about air quality in the second debate today; there is an environmental and public health emergency that needs swift action. I appreciate the Government’s argument that we need more time to do work on the science, but we have known about the seriousness of the situation for many years, so it cannot be put off much longer.
We also need to ensure that the Bill comes back quickly in the summer, because we currently have an environmental governance gap. The Government and public authorities are not being adequately held to account over their compliance with environmental law, and it is not the best look. The court of public opinion is ultimately our judge, so I gently suggest that the Bill should be brought back immediately in the next Session to demonstrate its importance.
Now that we are outside the EU, we do not have the Commission to fine us and hold us to account. We are rating ourselves and we need a strong protection in domestic law in this Environment Bill. We also need a strong Office for Environmental Protection, and I welcome the appointment of Dame Glenys Stacey as chairman of the OEP. Through this process, I have called for the chair to have independence from Government. Dame Glenys Stacey’s track record as an effective regulator through using both carrot and stick to hold public bodies to account means I have faith in her achieving that independence, but in common with other Government agencies the OEP needs resources and teeth to bite. The OEP will not be independent if it is constantly worrying about its budget. The Government and Ministers have excellent environmental credentials and I do not think they will water down protection in any way, but we need to act more quickly and should be a little bit braver when it comes to scrutiny.
We also have a duty now to set the right environmental laws and framework for the future Governments and generations. The Prime Minister is taking up the green recovery and DEFRA Ministers also believe in a better environment, as do many in this House and across the country. We are fortunate to be hosting COP26 later this year; it is an exciting time for environmental policy in this country. Outside the EU we have a real opportunity do better and show global leadership on issues of global importance; whether in air quality, water quality, soil health, tree planting, plastic waste or species protection, we should be ambitious with our environment policy.
This Environment Bill is a landmark Bill and the Government have put great effort into it over several years. With a few more tweaks and a firm commitment to bring the Bill back early in the next Session we can set a great example to the rest of the world and have a modern Environment Act of which we can all be proud.
We now go to a video link, and it is a Front-Bench contribution from Deirdre Brock; happy Australia Day, Deirdre.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I shall speak to Scottish National party amendments 43 and 44. This Bill concerns England in the main; most of these policy areas are devolved and Scotland has its own environmental legislation, which, frankly, is light years ahead. This Bill has made its way rather painfully through the process, and it has seemed for far too much of that time that it was more about the UK Government trying to hide the fact that they have no real environmental ambition to speak of.
Only a few months after stepping in to overturn a council’s planning permission for an opencast mine, the Government have chosen to stay out of the planning process for a deep coalmine near Whitehaven in Cumbria. Less trusting folk than me have suggested that that might have something to do with what happened in that constituency in December 2019, but such cynicism is surely unfounded.
The UK has made little or no progress in tackling the really big-ticket items—carbon emissions, air and water pollution, tree planting, and so on. In fact, one of the area’s explicitly excluded from this Bill, the military, is one of the worst offenders. I have talked at great length about the environmental impacts that we know of, particularly the historical dumping of unwanted explosives, ammunition, ordnance, radioactive waste and so on into the sea, and we know that the area around Beaufort’s Dyke between Scotland and Ireland has millions of tonnes of unsavoury stuff littering the sea floor, but we do not know what is down there, because the dump records have been mislaid and the Ministry of Defence appears to have no intention of seeking to clean it up.
Similarly, I have been told that the MOD has done environmental impact studies on its land estates, but they have not been shared. There was a report in May, however, by Scientists for Global Responsibility, which found that the carbon footprint of British military spending was around 11 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent, some of it relating to arms exports but most of it from MOD operations.
That is not all: not one single nuclear submarine has been dismantled since the first one was decommissioned more than 40 years ago; four decades on and the UK has more redundant nuclear subs in storage than it has in use. I should add, too, the hundreds of nuclear safety breaches at the naval bases on the Clyde that I discovered through written questions, which are interestingly not matched by similar figures elsewhere.
It is clear that the environmental impact of military operations is more than substantial, even if it is not officially acknowledged. I would have thought that any Government who wanted to—in the Prime Minister’s words—
“do extraordinary things on the environment” would want to do something about that, so I assume that it was an error that led someone in Government to exempt defence, national security and the armed forces from the requirement to have due regard to the policy statement on environmental provisions, and from any consideration of environmental issues on tax, spending and allocation of resources.
I raised this issue in Committee, so Ministers have had plenty of time to consider it, and they should consider reversing their position. The procedural oddities of this place will not allow for everything to be considered, so this issue has taken a back seat for the moment to allow Labour’s amendment on neonicotinoids to be voted on. That is a devolved issue and treated differently in Scotland, but it is of course important for England.
We have 10 months until COP26 takes place in Glasgow —pandemics permitting—and the UK Government really have to step up to the plate and start showing some real leadership. Talking about it is not enough. Painting the fence green is not enough. The Government actually have to become green, become environmentally friendly, and work for the future of the planet and of the human race. In the past year, we have seen how a virus can disrupt our world, but that would be nothing compared to the devastation that the climate crisis threatens. We all have a role to play in addressing that challenge, but there is little point in individual households doing what they can while the Government fail to do what they are capable of.
I think that this Bill will go down as a missed opportunity, but that does not mean that the Government are powerless to act. I look forward to a change in priorities and a move to action. This is not a time to delay, defer and dissemble; it is a time to move forward purposefully. The question for the Government is not whether they win or lose their battles today, but whether they really decide to lead over the next year and the coming years.
The four-minute limit is now imposed again for all further Back-Bench contributions.
I will speak to my amendment 4. The precautionary principle is a whole new way for the Government to legislate on environmental matters which can be applied to a huge range of environmental principles. It could be used in the extreme—for example, to introduce policies such as stopping people from driving motor cars on the basis that they damage the environment. In an increasingly legislative field, my amendment is so important in ensuring that the Government can clearly define the purposes for use of the precautionary principle, beyond those in the mere principles statements outlined in clauses 16 to 18.
The Minister said in a letter to me this morning: “I can confirm that Ministers of the Crown are only required to have due regard to the policy statement when making policy by virtue of clause 18(1). The environmental principles duty is not designed to apply to individual decisions or other public bodies.” In other words, the statement of principles is pretty nearly toothless.
My amendment would clearly constrain when and where the precautionary principle can be used. I ask the Minister, when she sums up, to go further than just going into the principles; I ask her to include some of my amendment in the Bill. A particularly important part is subsection (3C), which says:
“The precautionary principle should only apply in response to risks that are…more than hypothetical in nature;
and…serious and irreversible.”
I cannot see any reason at all why that should not be in the Bill. If the Minister is not inclined to include it, I hope that their lordships will pick it up when the Bill goes to the House of Lords.
The precautionary principle is not consistently applied to different activity; it is frequently used to constrain certain activities where any impacts are deemed to be unacceptable. For example, Natural England is currently seeking to restrict game shooting around European protected sites. Due to evidence of damage in only five—a mere 1.5% of all sites—it wants to introduce a licensing system.
In summing up, can the Minister please bear in mind all the constraints that are in my amendments? Otherwise, this principle could well become oppressive to people’s freedom in the future, and we may well rue the day that we put the provision in the Bill. I am looking to the Minister to tell me why some or all of my constraints cannot be included in the Bill, because that is where they should be. The statement of principles, as written in the Bill, is pretty nearly toothless, and the precautionary principle gives the Minister, or any future Minister, a huge overwhelming power, which we may well live to regret.
I wish to speak to new clause 5 on the state of nature target.
There are few things that can lift our spirits as much as time spent with nature. Who does not feel a sense of awe and wonder at the astonishing biodiversity of our landscape, its creatures and its plants. As well as ensuring that that same sense of awe and wonder can be enjoyed by future generations, it should be self-preservation, frankly, that urges us to confront the threat of biodiversity and habitat loss. We should have respect for the soil from which we came—the soil that has given us everything that we can see around us: food; fuel; raw materials; medicines; and the ability to capture carbo. It is the soil to which we will, one day, all return—a reminder of our place in the natural order of things.
The truth is that we can no longer take all this for granted. Why? It is because we are destroying our natural world at an alarming rate. In the words of the Minister’s own Department:
“Much of England’s wildlife-rich habitat has been lost over the last century…and there has been widespread species loss.”
The latest state of nature report records a decline of 13% in the abundance of UK species since 1970. Some 15% of UK species are now endangered, including the red squirrel, the water vole, the ghost orchid, and the meadow clary. The number of moths has decreased significantly in the past 50 years and a third of British wild bees and hoverflies are in decline. A total of 97% of our wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930s. This is a crisis caused by agricultural practices, pollution, urbanisation, habitat loss and climate change, and it requires action, and that is what this new clause seeks to do.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to binding targets, but I think that it can be strengthened to make a good Bill better by including a target to halt and begin to reverse the decline of habitats and species by 2030. That should not be too difficult in principle for the Minister, because this is exactly what the United Kingdom called for in drawing up the leaders’ pledge for nature, which commits to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030. But, of course, to reverse loss, one must first halt it. The problem is that the Bill’s timetable for setting targets does not fit in with the 2030 biodiversity pledge, so the new clause would place a requirement on Ministers to draw up, before the Conference of the Parties later on this year, a 2030 state of nature target to halt and begin to reverse the decline in species and habitats and to set out a plan to do so, including how the target would be measured. It would need to cover the abundance of species, their risk of extinction and the extent and condition of habitats, bearing in mind that widely accepted and reliable sets of indicators already exist to enable us to assess these things.
I accept that the target is ambitious, but if we are not going to be ambitious now, when will we be ambitious for the state of nature? It is not as if we do not know what works to bring about change for the better. We do. We just need a lot more of it. The truth is this: we have always known that the natural environment sustains our souls, but we have now come to understand that it also sustains our very existence. That is why it matters and that is why we should do now what we know in our hearts to be right. I hope the House will vote for the new clause.
I am pleased to be able to make a brief contribution to this important debate. It is a great relief to see the Bill come back to this House, but equally it is a great disappointment to learn that it will be back just for today and we will have to wait until the next parliamentary Session begins after Easter for the second allocated day. When the Minister responds to the debate, will she give some indication that she intends to ensure that the Bill receives Royal Assent as soon as possible and that procedures in the Lords conclude before the summer recess? We must go into the COP26 conference in November with clarity that this ground-breaking piece of legislation is on the statute book.
I wish to speak about two aspects of the Bill, the first of which is the Office for Environmental Protection. I am delighted to welcome the Minister’s announcement today that the OEP headquarters will be in Worcester in the west midlands, near my constituency. Worcester is, of course, on the River Severn, which is the largest river in the country and has recently been in flood through my constituency. The whole Severn catchment area requires considerable attention and will get greater focus thanks to Dame Glenys Stacey’s presence at the headquarters from time to time, in her new role.
Alongside the EFRA Committee, the Environmental Audit Committee did pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, and we called for a greater degree of independence for the OEP. Having met Dame Glenys at our pre-appointment hearing in December, we took some comfort from our opinion that she is the right person to lead the organisation, but we are concerned that she has sufficient budget to recruit the number of people required and the experts she needs, and to reflect the OEP’s responsibilities in helping to deliver the 25-year plan.
When the Environmental Audit Committee did pre-legislative scrutiny, we were also concerned about the environmental improvement plans. We felt that the OEP should advise the Government on the establishment of targets, as was the case under the previous regulatory regime through the European Commission. We welcome the fact that targets are enshrined in the Bill but think it important that the body that will have part of the responsibility to monitor compliance with those targets is also involved in setting them. We would very much like to see confirmation from the Minister that the date for establishing the environmental targets can be confirmed with a statement of intent ahead of COP26.
The second aspect I wish to speak about is amendment 28, tabled by my hon. Friend Richard Graham. It would require the Government to include in the environmental plan steps to improve people’s enjoyment of the natural environment. As part of our inquiry into biodiversity and ecosystems, my Committee has repeatedly heard that central to restoring our greatly depleted natural environment—about which we have heard from other speakers—is building a better relationship between people and nature. It was called for in the Glover review; we would like to see it enshrined in the Bill and urge the Government to support amendment 28.
I speak in favour of amendment 2, which was tabled by the Chair of the EFRA Committee, Neil Parish, and would put into law the World Health Organisation air quality limits.
I speak as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution. I introduced my own clean air Bill four years ago, in 2017, at which time the Royal College of Physicians had already reported that 40,000 people in Britain were dying prematurely every year, at a cost of £20 billion. The figure is now thought to be 64,000 people. Air pollution affects people’s brains, hearts and lungs. The mental and physical health of unborn children is affected, as is young children’s concentration. It can also affect people in terms of depression, anxiety and dementia—so the list goes on. In fact, the number of covid deaths is up 8% for each microgram of PM2.5.
DEFRA claims that overall pollution has come down in the past 10 years, but the reason for that is that we have closed down our coal-fired power stations and exported our manufacturing. In urban environments, the deaths and the pollution are going up, and that is why we need these limits to be imposed universally. It is the poorest and most diverse neighbourhoods that are suffering most from the pollution and hence from the greatest levels of covid deaths. It is no good the Government saying that they will have average concentrations, where they average the amounts of concentration in a rural environment with those in a toxic urban environment. Those limits would not have saved the life of Ella Kissi- Debrah, who tragically died. The coroner’s inquest heard that the cause of death was the levels of air pollution that caused her asthma, which caused her to go into hospital 28 times in just three years before her tragic death. We want World Health Organisation universal limits applied so that thousands of children can be saved and protected.
It is everyone’s right to have clean air, and it is the Government’s duty to deliver that right. We therefore need amendment 2, which is a guiding light around which other targets can coalesce. It requires PM2.5 to be 10 micrograms per cubic metre by 2030. We need all Government Departments and public bodies to work together to achieve this, as set out in new clause 6. Unfortunately, the Government are just saying that they will have targets in 2022. Those targets will not be legally enforceable and they will be able to be changed. That simply is not good enough. For Ella’s sake, for the sake of thousands of children up and down Britain, and for all of us, we need World Health Organisation standards in legislation, and I hope that that will be agreed today.
Finally, I turn to new clause 11, tabled by Chris Loder. I sponsored a plastics Bill in 2018. The fact is that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. UK supermarkets alone produce 114 billion pieces a year. We need the producers and the polluters to pay a tax on virgin plastic. I would certainly support that, because millions of birds and animals are dying. We are ingesting the microplastics that get into fish and inhaling plastic that is in our clothes and washing machines. In a nutshell, as we approach COP26 we should be showing leadership to the world in stopping our oceans choking, stopping our children choking, protecting our air, protecting our oceans and protecting our environment.
This is a ground-breaking Bill. There is much of merit in it, although you would not believe it to listen to some of the contributions from the Opposition Benches. There are many good amendments, and I would single out new clauses 14 and 15 from my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers about linking housing targets and planning permissions.
In the limited time available, I want to talk about my amendment 5 on interim targets. Setting targets is easy. Governments like to set headline-grabbing targets, but too often the small print belies the ambition of the target, and the target date is in the dim and distant future. That can instil complacency and lethargy, because there is plenty of time to hit the mark and there is therefore no need to panic. When it comes to climate change, however, there is every need, if not to panic, at least to put our foot on the gas, metaphorically, and to act with urgency and immediacy.
The 2050 net zero target is almost 30 years away, and it should be a “last possible date by which”. It should be subject to a constant audit as to how quickly and by how far we can constantly bring that end date forward. It must also be an end date for a clearly set out progression to reducing harmful emissions and creating a net carbon environmentally benefiting economy. We need things to show a marked improvement from today, and so it should be with the natural environmental improvement targets in this Bill. My amendment is simple. It adds just four words in an additional subsection to clause 4, making it the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that “interim targets are met.” That amendment would guarantee continuous incremental improvements in the natural environment, helping to keep all things environmental high up the Government’s list of priorities. It would bring the Environment Bill target framework into line with the approach of the Climate Change Act 2008, where there are five-yearly legally binding targets as milestones to the long-term legally binding target of net zero by 2050.
At the moment, the only recourse for the Office for Environmental Protection, if the Government miss an interim target, will be to criticise them in its annual report. That could of course be ignored by Ministers and Governments until the long-term target was missed, when enforcement action would actually kick in. Frankly, the power of policing this has to have more teeth than the ability of the environmental policemen to shout, “Stop, or I’ll shout ‘stop’ again!” Friends of the Earth has said:
“If these targets are not binding upon the Secretary of State it would be a huge missed opportunity to ensure the EIP system drives sustained, tangible environmental improvement—and would undermine the rationale for setting such goals in the first instance.”
I do not think so, but my hon. Friend is very kind. It is only because Madam Deputy Speaker is looking daggers at me.
Five-yearly interim targets also need to be set in the environmental improvement plans. However, the environmental improvement plans are not legally binding—they are simply policy documents—and all the plans need to be reviewed and potentially updated every five years and reported on every year. This is not the same as legal accountability.
There are many cases, I am afraid, where targets have not been met. The target set in 2010 for ending the inclusion of peat in amateur gardening products by 2020 will be missed. The targets set in 2011 for DEFRA to conserve 50% of England’s sites of special scientific interest by 2020 have been abandoned, so it is really important that interim targets must be legally binding to guarantee that they will be delivered on. It is vital that there is a robust legal framework in place that actually holds the Government and public authorities to account in the short term. Binding interim targets can provide near-term certainty for business, creating the sort of stable environment that encourages investment in the workforce and in green products and services. They would focus businesses on planning the trajectory towards long-term targets and help to drive innovation in the business model.
I am pleased to have business support for this amendment. I am particularly grateful to the Aldersgate Group for the supporting letter from a group of businesses published today. Clear, binding, interim targets that are legally enforceable can be good for certainty, good for business and good for the environment. Let us pass this amendment.
Diolch, Madam Deputy Speaker; it is a pleasure to speak briefly in this debate to the amendment in my name and in support of the many excellent amendments tabled by colleagues from across the House.
While they were open, my visits to schools were able to continue over Zoom; it has been one of the pleasures during this difficult lockdown. The common theme in these sessions is always questions about the climate crisis. The sense of urgency among young people is palpable, yet I fear that in decades to come, they will look back at the decision makers of today and ask why, despite all the warning signs, we did not do more when we had the chance. I want Wales to seize that chance and use our natural resources and innovation to fuel our recovery and transition to a sustainable economy. We have the capacity and capability to do it, but too often, our efforts are being hampered by Westminster. There has been the refusal to support the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, the pitiful track record on rail investment, and a flat refusal to empower the Welsh Government with powers over energy policy or meaningful economic levers.
I fear greatly that the latest power grab will see any climate ambitions set by the Senedd actively undermined by Westminster. I am talking, of course, of the powers grabbed via the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 to spend in devolved areas, which the British state intends to use to deliver the shared prosperity fund. It takes very little imagination to picture a scenario in which the British Government bypass the will of our democratically elected Senedd and pursue their Union Jack-plastered pet project in Wales without any regard for the environmental consequences.
Amendment 40 in my name seeks to defend Wales from Westminster intrusion. It would require that an impact assessment is carried out on the effect on environmental targets set by the Senedd of any infrastructure project that the British dare to seek to deliver in Wales via the shared prosperity fund or any other mechanism. Where the effect is found to be a negative one, my amendment would give the Senedd a veto on the project.
While I will not push this amendment to a vote this evening, I seek reassurances from the British Government. I want a guarantee that Wales will be free to not only set, but achieve more ambitious targets on achieving net zero, improving air quality and reducing plastic waste, without any interference from Westminster. By introducing the Bill, the British Government have rightly made much of the importance of setting long-term environmental targets and establishing lines of accountability. Is not it only right that the Welsh Government are fully accountable for any decisions that affect Wales’s environmental targets?
I briefly pledge my support for new clause 17, which would require the UK Government to deliver a strategy setting out how the economic recovery can be designed to improve our wellbeing and environment. I also support new clause 9, which would ensure that anyone with responsibility under this legislation must comply with the commitment to achieving a healthy, resilient, biodiverse natural environment. I welcome amendments that seek to strengthen, and hold the Government to account on, the promise to combat global deforestation, and to set targets for the reduction and replacement of animal testing for the purposes of chemicals regulation.
We do have an opportunity to make a difference, and the next time I talk to young people in my constituency, I want to be able to show them that we are taking it. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
I start by welcoming this Bill and praising the Government for bringing it before the House. I know it is disappointing that the Bill will not make it into law until the next Session, but it is a world-leading piece of legislation. Whether it is because of the scientific warnings about climate change, the loss of biodiversity, air quality issues, or the need to create a better environment around us all, the measures in this Bill represent a major step forward. Although there will be a lot of debate about whether the Bill should be enhanced and how, I hope that all who propose changes to it recognise what an important measure it is.
I shall seek to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, when the Bill reaches the second day of Report, to move my amendment on the protection of the hedgehog and to speak about forest protection. Today, though, I want to focus on the first part of the Bill, particularly the requirements to prepare an environmental improvement plan and to set targets for improvements. The 25-year environment plan that the Government produced two years ago provides an essential and world-leading blueprint for the kind of change that is needed. It covers a whole range of issues, but in particular I want targets and updates of the plan to focus on habitat restoration and protection here, and I want tangible measures to incentivise and support the restoration and protection of habitats in other parts of the world. We have to be world leaders in protecting our species and encouraging other people to do the same.
The loss of biodiversity in the UK has been tragic. Whether we are talking about the disappearance of birds from our gardens and hedgerows, the decline in the numbers of much-loved species such as the hedgehog, or the challenges of our marine environment, it is the job of this generation to start to turn the tide. The decline is even more tragic in other parts of the world, with large numbers of iconic species in real danger of disappearing and with habitat being lost at an alarming rate. The implementation of this Bill, the targets that are set and the ongoing improvement plan must tackle this disaster in our country, and help to do so for our planet.
In other parts of the world, deforestation is a key part of the problem, and this Bill must play a part in ensuring that the UK says to the world, “Enough is enough.” We will come back to that next time. Here, the issue is not deforestation—we have more trees today than we have had for centuries, and we have ambitions to plant more—but we have intense development pressures. We do need new homes and we need to tackle some of our infrastructure challenges, but new developments must have a smart strategy for environmental protection alongside them, particularly to avoid the unnecessary destruction of habitats.
We need to grow more food here and stop importing so much from around the world, so we need a bigger and stronger farming sector, but it must protect biodiversity. The measures to do so in this Bill and in the Agriculture Act 2020 are very welcome. We need to take some tough decisions about invasive species, because we have to stop outsiders multiplying in a way that drives our native species to extinction. The targets set under this Bill must put biodiversity at the heart of our strategy, and the duties that it places on local communities must also strengthen biodiversity.
In the coming weeks, we will hear a lot of thoughts and ideas about additional things that could be done to improve our environment, but we must give the Government credit. This Bill can and will make a difference, and I look forward to it becoming law. Given the delay, however, the need to act on biodiversity starts now. Although I know that we must wait for the Bill to pass into statute, I want Ministers to make this a central part of their work now. The powers in this Bill will help them to do so in the future, but protecting our species and protecting biodiversity here, and encouraging others around the world to do the same, must start right now.
I rise to support my new clauses 14 and 15. The core principle of the Bill is that safeguarding the environment should be at the heart of decision making right across Government, and that must include the planning system. New clauses 14 and 15 would give the OEP the power to veto or reduce housing targets and require new developments to be consistent with our net zero carbon target. Of course, the environmental net gain provisions in the Bill will generate, via the planning system, a welcome flow of investment into nature. I also welcome the Government’s recent abandonment of their housing target algorithm, which generated impossibly high numbers, but for London, that threat remains for the longer term. We also have a planning Bill due soon.
My fear is that the Government’s determination to “build, build, build” could compromise the environmental ambition of the Bill that we are considering. Let us face it, nothing has a greater physical impact on the landscape than the buildings we construct. Successive generations have been judged by the legacy of the built environment they have left behind. By giving environmental and climate concerns a greater weight in the housing and planning system, my new clauses are an appeal to Ministers not to repeat the mistakes of the ’60s and ’70s, which their algorithm makes me fear that they will.
Even with Ministers’ change of heart on the algorithm, the housing targets remain very high. That could mean a drive for ever denser, ever higher blocks consuming ever more of the green spaces we value so much, and never more so than in a time of covid. Local input into the planning system provides a formidable defence for the environment, and I ask the Government to drop their White Paper proposals to remove local decision making for areas designated for growth.
Despite the measures that I would like to see added to the Bill, Members should be in no doubt of my strong support for this legislation, which I introduced as DEFRA Secretary in its first iteration in the last Parliament. The Bill will mark a historic turning point as we establish a demanding and rigorous framework of legally binding targets, improvement plans and measures to protect biodiversity and crack down on waste and plastics pollution.
As many Members have said, we are at a crisis point for nature and for climate. We need urgent action to arrest the decline in habitats and the threat posed to thousands of species both here and overseas. We hold this earth in trust for those who come after us. If we are to have any chance of being the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it, we need to make big changes to the way we do things in this country, and I am confident that this Bill will help us do that.
The ecological and climate crises will be the defining issues of the 21st century. In a few short years, climate breakdown is likely to transform the way we live. The floods that devastated communities across England last week provided a stark reminder of how incredibly high the stakes are. Now the heavy responsibility falls on those of us who serve in this place to ensure that future generations inherit a liveable planet. Through taking bold and decisive action now and driving forward change on the international stage, we can roll back the ecological crisis and build a fairer, greener economy in its wake, but I am afraid that the Government’s ambitions fail to meet the scale of the challenge.
The Prime Minister has called for a green Brexit, but at the same time he is replacing the EU’s comprehensive package of environmental protections with four simple targets that the Environment Secretary can change at will. That is why I urge Members across the House to support new clause 9, which would oblige anyone exercising responsibilities in relation to the Environment Bill to adhere to broader commitments such as the Climate Change Act 2008 and the United Nations leaders’ pledge for nature.
I also support amendment 39, which would guarantee parliamentary scrutiny when the Government want to allow the use of plant protection products that endanger bees and other pollinators. I know that I was not alone in being concerned by the Environment Secretary’s decision to temporarily lift the ban on bee-killing pesticides. That decision flies in the face of the Government’s own commitment to fight biodiversity loss and was made without consulting Parliament. Of course we all sympathise with farmers who are currently wrestling with crop blight, but those pesticides pose an existential threat to bee populations and other pollinator species, which play such a vital role in pollinating 70% of the crops we eat. I do not think it is hyperbolic to say that our future depends on bees.
I warmly thank my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn for tabling new clause 5, which would commit the Environment Secretary to tackling and reversing biodiversity loss in England by 2030. While I welcome the proposals to establish an Office of Environmental Protection, I am deeply concerned that it would lack the necessary powers and independence to truly do its job. I will therefore be supporting amendment 23.
The Government had the opportunity to use their Bill to put the environment at the heart of their policy making. The Bill fails even to maintain existing environmental standards, let alone make the UK a world leader in environmental policy. The fact that the Bill will now be delayed until later this year is yet another dispiriting sign that the Government, for all their rhetoric, simply are not serious about tackling the climate change and ecological emergencies.
I want to try to accommodate everybody on the speaking list, so after the next speaker I will reduce the time limit to three minutes.
The amendment in my name—amendment 28 to this important Bill, which has so much to celebrate—is supported by the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne, Caroline Lucas and many others from different parties across this House. It would oblige the Government to include steps to improve people’s enjoyment of the natural environment in their environmental plan, rather than simply give them the option to do so. It substitutes for a “may” a “must”—an addition of one letter to recognise the vital importance of green spaces to all our constituents. That is especially true during the pandemic and lockdown, when our parks, big or small, have literally kept many of us sane. The numbers of visitors is up sharply and some inequalities of access—such as for those living in cities, and many ethnic minorities—have been exposed.
It is estimated that for every £1 spent in a park, an extra £7 of value to wellbeing, health and environment is created. Eight out of 10 adults agree that visiting the countryside is good for physical fitness and mental wellbeing. People spending time in green spaces can help reduce heart disease and obesity, cancer and also stress, and in this time of lockdown we need all those things more than ever.
Many people in green spaces can and should also be a good thing, not a bad thing, for the environment. For example, in my constituency of Gloucester, we have the joy of a wonderful green space right in the heart of the city, the Robinswood Hill country park, which gives an opportunity for every child to have the experience of sitting on their mother or father’s shoulders and watching for the first time, on the top of the hill, the sunset over the River Severn in the summer—one of the most beautiful things that anyone can do. That in turn stimulates enjoyment of our green places and also environmentally friendly behaviour, encouraging litter picking, as well as bringing more people into the parks.
In this short space of time, may I highlight the support of the Ramblers, who understand so clearly the importance of our enjoyment of green spaces, and highlight that the amendment is not purely about benefiting urban dwellers? For example, the National Trust estimates that people across Britain are missing out on 500 million park visits a year because of poorly equipped facilities. Basic upgrades, from loos and income-generating cafés to play areas, can hugely help accessibility. Natural England has reported that insufficient footpaths in the presence of busy or dangerous roads can easily prevent access and deter the use of parks. So there are aspects of the amendment that would benefit both those living in the countryside and those living in the towns.
The Environment Secretary has always been supportive of many of these aims, and has said himself:
“Studies across the spectrum…remind us that it is in our best interests to look after nature. We know that a connection with nature contributes to wellbeing and improved health.”
So I hope that the Minister who is taking the Bill through the House—the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow, whose career in the House of Commons has been dedicated to the environment—will share those feelings by recognising the opportunity to do more, and find measures that can be used as targets to enhance people’s enjoyment of our green spaces, so that the “may” does become a “must” in time, and the Government do report on the improvement of people’s enjoyment.
I support all the amendments that Labour has tabled today, but will concentrate my remarks on those specifically related to air quality.
My constituency of Vauxhall contains some of the busiest and most polluted roads in London and the country. Clapham Road and Brixton Road are both major routes for journeying in and out of south London, as well as rat runs for the everyday journeys to work, school and shops made by Vauxhall residents. However, in making these journeys, those residents are constantly exposed to the dangerous pollutants emanating from cars and other vehicles. Brixton Road has made national headlines for exceeding the annual legal air pollution limits a few days into the new year; like many of my constituents, I walk along that road on a daily basis.
We know that these toxic pollutants can have a devastating impact on our hearts and lungs. In particular, we know that PM2.5 particles are able to get deep into our lungs and bloodstream, where they can have a significant impact on our overall health, both in the short and long term. PM2.5 can be very bad for the health of our children. Even before this pandemic, children in Vauxhall were regularly exposed to toxic and illegal levels of air pollution, and were having to wear masks to school.
We all have a role to play in reducing this pollution: we have to make fewer journeys by car, drive less polluting vehicles, and walk and cycle when we are able to do so. However, the Government have to play their part, too. Reaching the World Health Organisation limit on PM2.5 pollution is an achievable target. That is why I will be supporting amendments 2 and 25, to ensure that these strict targets for air quality will be reached by 2030 at the latest. This will take us a step closer to making our air completely safe, both for today and for future generations.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I am very proud of the Government’s leadership on the environment. I commend the Minister for all the work she has done so far.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you would not think that my constituency of West Dorset has the worst place for air pollution in the entire country, but environmental issues affect us all. The village of Chideock, between Bridport and Lyme Regis, has the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide in the entire country from traffic on the A35. The pollution is more than double the Government limit. This issue is not new—it has been ongoing for years—but urgent cross-departmental action is required, and I would welcome the Minister’s assurance that she will look at this issue in Chideock as a matter of priority with the new powers the Bill will provide.
Plastic was once seen as the saviour of the rainforests, but it has become the scourge of the sea. Half of all plastics ever made have been produced in the past 15 years. Less than a third of plastic in Britain is recycled, and British supermarkets still produce 114 billion items of single-use plastic. Those supermarkets are devoid of real environmental responsibility for plastic packaging once it leaves their stores, which is contributing to an environmental disaster.
Greenpeace has just released its “Checking Out on Plastics III” report, which ranks the UK’s biggest supermarkets on their plastics credentials, and is recommended reading. A reader will find out, for example, that on a per market share basis, Tesco’s total plastic use has increased by 2.2% between 2017 and 2019. It is for this reason that I have tabled new clause 11, which would require the Government to set specific targets and reduce the volume of non-essential single-use plastic products sold by a designated date. This amendment is intended to work alongside the measures already set out in this Bill, to complement the Government’s ambitions to end this systemic over-production and over-consumption of polluting plastics.
I have greatly appreciated working with the West Dorset Environmental Alliance, a brilliant local group providing much-needed insights and momentum. I am also grateful for the support from the Conservative Environment Network and Friends of the Earth. This Bill is key to achieving a green future. It will unleash our nation’s potential to make our environment better for us all.
I am pleased to support the amendments in the name of the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn and Caroline Lucas.
The Government said they had a desire to have a “world-leading watchdog”. I wonder whether there was a misprint and it should have said a “world-leading lapdog”. Do they really mean it? I was on the hearing that met Dame Glenys Stacey, and she is a robust regulator, with a proven record of independence, and I trust her. The Secretary of State should set the criteria and the parameters that he expects the Office for Environmental Protection to work to, but he should then leave it to the regulator to regulate. Dame Glenys, I believe, has been appointed as the right person, so let her do the job without further interference. Let her also have the benefit of interim targets, because for someone regulating, targets can be really helpful. I listened to Tim Loughton, and he is absolutely right. We need interim targets to be able to hold people to account, but also to be able to incentivise businesses and give them clarity about what they have to achieve.
When we are talking about enforcement, it is perhaps salutary if I remind colleagues of those who were there when, as chair of the then all-party group on biodiversity, I worked with Friends of the Earth to organise a photo opportunity for colleagues who came to support ensuring there was no relaxation of the ban on neonicotinoids. It was incredibly well supported: over 100 Members of Parliament came to support that campaign, and I have the photos to prove it. So for those Members who go into the Lobby tonight saying they will support the Government on lifting the ban, perhaps we, with Friends of the Earth, should dig out those photographs and start publishing them one by one to show just how much Members meant it when they had their photograph taken with that bee.
On deforestation, the Government are saying that there should be an imposition on companies to look at the legality of the sourcing of their materials, such as soy and timber. Legality is not enough. Yesterday I met a number of people representing the Brazilian interests as well as the commercial interests, and it is clear that what has happened already in Brazil is that the laws have been reduced because of the pressure. Companies must be asked to look at the sustainability of their supply chain, not just the legality of it.
The Office for Environmental Protection concerns me greatly, because I think it is going to offer us very little protection. Its powers include the terrifying capacity to point out that the Government have failed to safeguard environmental protections or to maintain standards, but it cannot force the Government to comply, it cannot fine and it cannot prosecute. It can shame the Government, but if I could be so flippant, Madam Deputy Speaker, this appears to be a Government who know no shame, as demonstrated by the last-minute decision to delay this already criminally overdue Bill by maybe six months or more.
This is outrageous, but the Government will tough it out and will probably bear no consequences for doing so. However, there will be huge consequences for our environment, for biodiversity, for future generations and, indeed, for farmers and food producers. No formal regulation over these months and pretty much toothless enforcement thereafter will mean the steady erosion of animal welfare and environmental protections just, as it happens, as the Government are engaging in negotiating trade deals around the world. Some might consider this to be a rather convenient hiatus that will allow them to throw British farming under a bus once again. Farmers will lose the ability to look at our regulation as something that they can use to strengthen their hand when it comes to those negotiations. The undermining of our land management community—of our farmers—is a massive threat to our environment. Without them, we lose the practical capacity to deliver biodiversity gains.
That delay will also, of course, delay the setting of targets, which is key to the building blocks of the new environmental land management scheme, so it becomes less and less likely that the scheme will be ready and available to all farmers and land managers by 2028. Surely, therefore, if the Government are going to protect those farmers we depend on so much for biodiversity, they should finally accept that they must extend the basic payment scheme at 2020 levels—full levels—until the environmental land management scheme is available to all; otherwise, they will put out of business hundreds of those family farms that we rely on here in Cumbria and elsewhere, which are the very structure that has guaranteed Britain’s high standards in the past.
Finally, if the Government are going to encourage a new generation of land managers to deliver those biodiversity gains, may I make a plea for them to directly fund Newton Rigg College in Penrith?
I will speak to the clauses relating to the Office for Environmental Protection. I had the privilege of being part of the Bill Committee that scrutinised this landmark legislation. I commend the Government and the Minister for taking a world-leading role through this legislation, not least by the introduction of the Office for Environmental Protection.
It is no secret that the defining challenge of our era is to provide an effective mechanism for the preservation of our natural environment. In the wake of covid-19, we have all seen the stories about nature hitting the reset button. Having meaningful, sustainable protection for the environment will require countries across the world to work together, but it will also require countries to show moral leadership on this issue.
That reminds me of a speech that Margaret Thatcher delivered to the United Nations General Assembly in 1989. The then Prime Minister spoke to the international community about the acute dangers of environmental destruction and about nations coming together in a global contribution to our planet’s health. We need a concerted effort by each member of the international community, and I believe that this Bill demonstrates to the world that Britain will be a world leader in protecting our environment. We really should be proud of that.
Our environment is not two-dimensional; it is a complex tapestry of biodiversity. Protecting it is not easy, nor is it an overnight job. That is why the Bill is essential. It offers the guarantee that our 25-year plan needs, our future generations demand and our environment requires. I am confident that the establishment of the OEP will deliver the necessary guarantees and safeguards for our natural environment. The OEP will be a watchdog with the ability to ensure that future Governments stay the course with regard to environmental sustainability and make a significant contribution to the environment that we all desire. The persistent monitoring of progress that Governments will be subjected to by the OEP will ensure that they are held to account and do not renege on our national pledge to the environment.
I also welcome the opportunity for local people to challenge the decisions made by their local authorities. Our communities care about the environment. By allowing people this opportunity to challenge local authorities, we recognise the pride that people have in the environment. I am keen for our communities to be given powers to hold public bodies to account through the OEP. If we are to meaningfully protect our environment, our communities will be essential. The environmental activism that I have seen in my constituency, from schoolchildren to volunteer groups and faith communities, has been nothing short of inspirational. In the year that we take up the presidency of COP26, I also see a massive opportunity to engage our faith communities in building a narrative and a case for moral leadership in protecting our environment.
The global community shares in the inheritance of the health of our world and its aesthetic, but it also shares in the immediate danger of climate destruction. I have no doubt that the OEP will be a world-leading organisation, setting the UK at the forefront of environmental protections. If we are to lead, the best way to do so must be by example, and through this legislation and the OEP, I believe we will be exemplary.
The Environment Bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation that this place is currently scrutinising. That is not hyperbole; the evidence of the climate crisis and the crisis in the state of nature, where the survival of so many species, including our own, is under threat, is irrefutable—although I know some would like it to be refutable.
I was fortunate to be an observer of the first national citizens’ assembly looking at climate change last year. People from all parts of the country, from all backgrounds, with wide-ranging opinions, were randomly selected to reach a consensus about action to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. During one session I attended, the fabulous David Attenborough came along to give us the benefit of his extensive experience, having seen the devastation being wrought on our planet, including here in the UK. It left a profound impact on me, and I hope that citizens’ assemblies will be used at both the national and local level to engage with our communities to build consensus on many other important issues.
It is clear from the many constituents who have contacted me, including many school students from across Oldham and Saddleworth, how concerned they are about the state of the environment and the planet we temporarily inhabit. They want an environment legacy that is fit for not just them, but their children and their children’s children. The environment is another issue of intergenerational inequality. I speak in support of the amendments and new clauses in this group to which I have added my name. First, I support the amendments calling for the Bill to include an environmental objective to achieve and maintain biodiversity, support for human health and wellbeing, and the sustainable use of resources. That provides an overarching focus for the Bill, which I hope the Government will support.
Secondly, the Bill needs to include governance measures to ensure that at least World Health Organisation guidelines on air quality and particulates of 2.5 microns or less are monitored and enforced. Anyone who has followed the campaign of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s family following nine-year-old Ella’s death from a fatal asthma attack, contributed to by the poor air quality in London, will recall the evidence to the recent inquest that pointed to her death acting as a warning of the risk of poor air quality to the health of other Londoners. In Ella’s memory, we must act.
Thirdly, the Bill must include the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny where the Government seek exemptions on the use of pesticides such as neonicotinoids and others banned under EU law. We must question the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on his recent decision to authorise the use of neonicotinoids in place of non-chemical alternatives for controlling the yellow beet virus.
Finally, I support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn on the state of nature report. Only by committing to a binding target to halt and begin to reverse the decline of the state of nature at home, showing the domestic leadership that is needed, can the Government have any credibility in trying to secure support for a global deal—
Order. I thank the hon. Lady for her speech, but I am afraid we must move on now to Sally-Ann Hart.
This Environment Bill is major legislation and a mark of this Government’s commitment to our environment and combating climate change. As the Prime Minister said, it is
“a lodestar by which we will guide our country towards a cleaner, and greener future.”
This Bill is the flagship of a wider package of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs legislation, including the Agriculture Act 2020 and the Fisheries Act 2020, which seeks to deliver on the Government’s pledge to leave the environment in a better state than they inherited it in.
New clause 11, on environmental targets on plastic pollution, has been tabled by my hon. Friend Chris Loder, and I wish to focus my comments on it today. Plastic pollutes land and oceans, and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of its life cycle, from its production to its refining and the way it is managed as a waste product. The scourge of plastic waste—the litter we see in our oceans, and on our beaches, streets, pavements and roadsides—takes hundreds of years to decompose, contaminating our soil and water. The toxic chemicals used to manufacture plastic get transferred to animal tissue and eventually enter the human food chain, risking our health.
In my constituency of beautiful Hastings and Rye, we have a number of stunning beaches, at Camber, Winchelsea, Pett and Hastings. Single-use plastic such as straws, cups, bottles and bags, blights all parts of our environment. Litter picking groups such as Hastings Beach Clean, Tidy Up St Leonards and Rye Harbour Beach Clean pick up bag-loads of plastic every time they go out. However, there is no doubt that this Government have taken the plastic challenge seriously. In 2018, they published a resources and waste strategy, and they have taken measures such as banning plastic straws and microbeads. They are leading global efforts to tackle ocean pollution, including by launching the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance alongside Vanuatu. The requirement for large retailers to charge 5p for single-use plastic carriers bags has seen plastic bag sales drop 90% since its introduction.
The Bill includes a range of measures to tackle plastic use and disposal, such as new charges on single-use plastic and a new deposit return scheme, which should incentivise consumers to choose more sustainable products over plastic ones. The amendment seeks to work with the grain of the measures already set out in the Bill to end the systemic over-production and consumption of polluting plastics and non-essential single-use items. However, it would also require the Government to set targets to reduce plastic pollution and the volume of non-essential single-use plastic products sold by a designated date. For those reasons, I support the amendment.
I speak in support of amendments 21 and 28, tabled by the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham). I thank the Ramblers and other campaign groups that are supporting the amendments and campaigning to promote public access to nature.
The amendments have a simple purpose: to extend the Bill from just protecting nature to ensuring that we can all access nature. The lockdowns and restrictions of the past year have shown us how important it is for people to have access to high-quality outside space. Although we have all been staying at home to protect the NHS, getting out for regular exercise, whether walking, cycling or running, has been vital to protecting people’s mental health.
The use of outside space is to be encouraged after the pandemic, not written off as a temporary phase, but that will mean protecting and expanding green spaces in our cities and supporting and encouraging people to get out into the countryside. As it stands, the Bill allows the Government to set targets for promoting access to nature, which is welcome, but I am concerned that that may end up as a low priority, and we should not allow that to happen.
The amendments would guarantee that future Governments had to take action to protect our access to nature. They would ensure that nature was available to more people, not just those who can afford to access it. We need that to change, because there are already serious inequalities in access to open spaces. Only 57% of adults in the UK live within a five-minute walk of green space, whether a park, field or canal path, but even that disappointing headline figure hides significant further inequalities.
Only two in five people from black and other minority ethnic communities say that they can walk to a green space within five minutes. Adults with a household income below £15,000 are twice as likely to say that they cannot access green space as those with a household income of £70,000. One in four people in my local area of Salford is in that first income band. People in the most deprived areas of England tend to have the poorest health and significantly less green space than those in wealthier areas. We need to do much more to ensure that access to nature is equitable for everyone.
Can the Minister confirm that the Government will set targets for public access to nature, and that they will include widening access to ensure that more people are able to enjoy it? Such targets are only the first step. We will also need concerted action, such as subsidies to farmers to promote access over their land, and the promotion of public transport links from inner-city areas to green, open spaces and the countryside. Without such action and clear targets to prompt it, there remains a danger that access to nature will continue to be denied to many people, so I urge the Government to accept the amendments.
Before Florence Eshalomi gave her contribution over video link, I thought I would be the only Member to speak without tabling a new clause or amendment. The truth is that I actually quite like this Bill—it is a good Bill. It feels like we are having a good day at the office. That does not mean that we should not be debating it, of course, and that is what I am here to do.
Chiefly, I am disappointed by the delay. Climate change is obviously the biggest, most strategic threat that we face as a country and a planet. We have the tactical immediate threat of coronavirus, of course. It is unfortunate, but understandable, that the legislative timetable split. Like my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne, I remain confident that the Bill will return in the next Session. I seek assurances from the Minister that my colleagues still have that ambition and enthusiasm to make sure that these changes become law.
I will talk briefly about new clause 1, give a quick shout out to Government amendment 31, and if there is time I will add some more stuff at the end. What I want to say is that the scale of ambition we have in Government is phenomenal. It is amazing. It is almost too much. When I rose to speak on the Agriculture Bill, I said that our farmers are the custodians of the countryside, but of course that applies to all of us. We are the custodians of our environment. This Bill works hand in hand with the Agriculture Act 2020. As my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers described, it also works hand in hand with the White Paper on housing. All of that put together puts an enormous burden on our public sector, local and national. We are asking our civil servants, our professionals, to do lots of new things all at once. We need to be very careful that we do not overload and try to do too much. That said, ambition is not a crime and we should be ambitious, because the world is watching us. As we approach COP26, this legislation shows how ambitious we are and how we can match that ambition with action.
A number of Members noted that the new regulator might seem toothless and that the targets might need a bit more oomph. I am sort of sympathetic to that, but what we have got is a new environmental improvement plan placed on a statutory footing by what we are doing today. We are literally changing the law to make the environment better. This is a good day at the office.
The world has changed immeasurably in the year since the Bill’s First Reading. In the last 12 months covid-19 has devastated lives, torn through communities and paralysed economies across the globe. The pandemic has taken so much: lives, of course, but also hugs, handshakes, kisses, birthdays, Christmas and Eid. It has given, too: mental health issues, domestic violence and poverty. However, during the height of the pandemic the lockdown also gave us much lower emissions and much better air quality. Anecdotal evidence suggests, somewhat ironically, that those who suffer from certain respiratory illnesses fared much better during the first lockdown. That gives us a brief window into a post-pandemic future if we manage to take a hold of it. We need to create long-term structural change, underpinned by robust legislation.
In my city of Leeds, a person is 20 times more likely to die from air pollution than in a car accident—20 times. According to the Royal College of Physicians, across the UK, air pollution is responsible for 40,000 early deaths, at an economic cost of £20 billion a year. For that reason, I believe it is my moral duty to support amendment 25 to ensure that the particulate matter target for air quality is at least as strict as the WHO guidelines. That is a call I made when we introduced the charging clean air zone in Leeds, a commitment the Government have abandoned. We need to pass the amendment and reintroduce the clean air zone.
The State of Nature report says that UK species diversity is in freefall, with 15% of UK species at risk of becoming extinct. Some our most-loved animals, including Scottish wild cats, red squirrels and water voles, are at risk. I am the parliamentary species champion for the white-clawed crayfish. New clause 5 would give all those species a much better chance of survival. We also have bee-harming neonicotinoids. The UK Government recently granted emergency authorisation for sugar beet seeds to be treated by neonicotinoids. That is banned under EU law and we cannot allow it to come in through the back door, so we need to pass amendment 39.
Finally, on the OEP, its progress has been followed by the Environmental Audit Committee for three years. It is supposedly independent, but its budget, board and chair are set by the Government. Only recently, the Secretary of State said: “We will be able to guide the OEP.” It is worth noting that the Government have no comparable power in relation to any existing enforcement bodies. We therefore need to pass amendment 23 to bring a semblance of independence back to this important regulatory body, and ensure that we move forward and do not have another pause in this legislation.
I am speaking from the Isle of Wight, where, in addition to being a UNESCO biosphere, we hope in the next couple of years to become the UK’s first island park, if the Government intend to bring forward the new protected landscapes Bill, as I clearly I hope they do.
I support this Bill very much—I think it is a great Bill—but I wish to speak in favour of new clauses 14 and 15 to argue the case for minimising the impact of housing on the environment. It is great that the Government want to design better, and frankly we need better design in this country, but a well-designed low-density greenfield housing estate is still a low-density greenfield housing estate, and these housing estates are, by nature, unsustainable. New clause 14 would allow for a handbrake to stop environmentally damaging housing, because it would, by law, prioritise carbon-efficient housing and carbon-efficient locations.
House building, along with everything else that we do, needs to align with the UK’s binding obligations in the Paris climate accords and carbon-efficient obligations, as well as the Government’s justified world-leading commitment to net zero by 2050. To do that, we need carbon-efficient housing solutions, and that implies a focus on cities as opposed to suburban and rural development. If we do not get that carbon-efficient housing in this Bill, as mandated by this new clause, then can we look at it for the housing Bill?
For me, this also means that we need to do more to incentivise brownfield development in not only suburban but rural areas. Very often brownfield sites are too small to be used efficiently under the current financial regime, and it is much cheaper to build inefficiently on greenfield sites. Greenfield sites, as well as being the most carbon-intensive because we are building detached houses, are also dependent on car use outside existing communities, which means dependence not only on carbon-emitting cars but on people having to travel to get to amenities rather than those amenities being built near them. Research provided by the House of Commons Library shows that homes built in urban areas are significantly less carbon-emitting than those built in suburban and rural areas.
I welcome this Bill, but can we please look at the legal requirement for the most carbon-efficient housing in the most carbon-efficient locations, not only for our climate change commitments but for quality of life in cities, in suburbs and in rural areas?
Like other Members, I am disappointed that the Government have failed to make significant progress with this Bill, especially given the urgent need to act to address not only the causes of climate change but biodiversity loss. In such an important year for climate change mitigation and adaptation, I hope that the Government will make a meaningful effort to get the Bill on to the statute book as soon as possible in the next Session.
It is a pleasure to speak to several amendments, including new clause 9, which draws attention to our international commitments and the importance of action to protect our natural environment both here at home and abroad. In particular, I hope that the new clause will draw further attention to the plight of our forests—the lungs of our world and vital habitats for species great and small—in addition to the need for measures to discourage trade in products of deforestation abroad.
I hope that new clause 9 will also draw attention to an equally pertinent issue: the offshoring of our emissions and associated resource consumption. WWF believes that as much as 46% of the UK’s carbon footprint is not currently accounted for by national reporting or included in the UK’s net zero target. This simply must be addressed if we are serious about our role in tackling climate change.
The Bill also focuses minds on the constraints imposed by the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 on action to protect our natural world across the four nations of the UK. This is reflected in amendment 40 and new clause 1, both of which Plaid Cymru will be supporting.
Wales is rightfully proud of its status as a world leader in recycling and a nation where sustainable development is a constitutional duty, yet one of the many reasons why the Senedd withheld consent from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and why the Welsh Government are now taking legal action against the UK Government is the issue of plastic pollution, as raised by the Senedd Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee. Wales would be legally prohibited from taking action to restrict the use of single-use plastic under the Act’s non-discrimination clauses. These clauses not only make the Bill’s lack of ambition even more egregious, but draw attention to how the Government are hindering environmental action by working against, rather than with, the devolved nations and their record of action in this field.
We have a duty to do all we can to protect our natural world for present and future generations. We cannot afford to ignore this most profound duty, so I hope the Government will actively listen and reflect on the constructive debate we have had here today.
Listening to the contributions from colleagues on both sides of the House on this Bill today has been a real pleasure; it is clear that there is widespread support for its ambitions and I share that. It has also been a pleasure to listen to my constituents over the past 12 months —to the schoolchildren, the farmers, the businesses and most of all to Laurinda and The Time is Now group—because it is clear that out in the country the ambitions that the Government have set in this Bill are equally shared and, as many have said, we are eager to see this Bill get on the statute book.
I want to focus on issues of biodiversity and housing and draw the Minister’s attention to the new clauses in the name of my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers. In North East Bedfordshire we look to have one of the fastest rates of growth in housing development, and it is crucially important that whatever the level of housing—and of course those numbers need to come down—that housing development takes into account the maintenance, encouragement and resilience of the biodiversity in our local communities. I urge the Minister to listen to representations from the CPRE and also from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, based in my constituency, about the importance of biodiversity being incorporated in legislation when it comes to the expansion of housing developments and new developments across the country.
Finally, on the Minister and her team, it is clear that these ambitions, coming from all directions, at some point have to be corralled into a piece of legislation for the whole, and there are lots of tensions between what people want to achieve, but, as she and her colleagues will know, in addition to setting targets we must make sure that we maintain support and buy-in from the various constituents who are affected by those targets. I wish her all the best in bringing forward this Bill and give it my strong support today.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. As my hon. Friend Luke Pollard on the Opposition Front Bench said, the delay in the Bill’s progress sends a terrible message in view of the climate emergency. Now that we have left the EU, it is vital that we maintain the highest environmental standards, but this Bill replaces the EU’s comprehensive environmental protections with targets that the Secretary of State has near discretion to change at any time. That is why the amendments in this group are so important in seeking to maintain the independence of the OEP, placing duties on public authorities to act in accordance with key environmental principles, and enhancing protections for biodiversity. That is so important and is why we on these Benches support these amendments.
Many constituents have been in touch about amendment 39 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, which seeks greater transparency in decisions on banned bee-and-other-species-killing pesticides. I want to say a few words in support, not least because the Welsh Government have led the way through their initiatives to make Wales a pollinator-friendly nation, and Newport City Council has also taken up the baton: we are a bee-friendly city. It is to be hoped that bee-friendly initiatives are having an effect, with a population of small scabious bees found in St Julian’s and the Gwent levels being home to the UK’s rarest bumblebee, the shrill carder bee. The Gwent Wildlife Trust and the RSPB are doing fantastic work locally. We know that bees’ importance to the ecosystem is towering. Some 90% of the world’s flowering plant species are dependent on insect pollination, and many species are dependent on bees because their food sources rely on pollination. Tragically, we know that bees are in decline. Reasons for the decline are various, but also include bee-killing insecticides, which were rightly banned across the EU in 2018. Although Ministers previously said that they would keep restrictions on pesticides in place, less than three years on, we now hear that they will allow them to treat sugar beet. This not only puts pollinator populations at risk, but sets a precedent that Ministers can strike out other hard-won protections. We must not allow that to happen.
It is a real privilege to be called to speak in this debate. Improving the environment is a topic that I am incredibly passionate about, and I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I start by saying that it has been great to serve on the Bill Committee for this piece of legislation. There is so much that is good in this Bill and I give particular thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow for her energy and enthusiasm in driving this Bill forward.
Protecting the environment and our natural environment is, without doubt, one of the greatest gifts that we can pass on to the next generation, and protecting the environment is something that is exceptionally close to my heart, and, of course, to many of my constituents. I want to focus my comments in this part of today’s debate on governance. This Bill is of crucial importance to providing a legal framework for our environmental governance for a post-Brexit global Britain. As it stands right now, our environmental law and policies are mostly driven by the European Union, but I know that, when it comes to the environment, the Government are keen to go further, and go beyond the baseline standards that we adopted while we were within the European Union.
All policy should be long term, but it is particularly important that environmental policy goes above and beyond, which is why I welcome the fact that the Environment Bill will allow the setting of new, long-term, legally binding and joined-up targets, focusing on air quality, biodiversity, water, waste reduction and resource efficiency. The Office for Environmental Protection will go a long way to deterring the breaches of environmental law. For far too long, many people have felt that breaches of environmental law in Britain have gone unchecked—it is almost as if they see those breaches as second or third-tier offences—and that enforcement power could be better spent elsewhere. Of course, that is wrong, which is why I am so pleased that the Office for Environmental Protection will be given the flexibility to go a long way to help change that. Damaging the environment damages us all, and I therefore stress to the Minister that, on this point, it is vital that the OEP is fully independent and properly funded to have teeth and weight to take action, and that it is allowed to take the enforcement action that it deems necessary.
In conclusion, there is always much more that we can do, and I urge the Government to push this piece of legislation forward at pace. We all have a duty to leave the environment in a cleaner, greener state than we found it, and this Bill helps to achieve that.
Despite the infectious enthusiasm of the Minister, I have to say that, sadly, the deficiencies of the Bill bolster my scepticism about the Prime Minister’s supposedly Damascene conversion to eco-warrior from someone who, in only 2015, claimed that the science surrounding warming temperatures was “without foundation”. But if his Government want to prove me wrong, they certainly have the chance to do so today. First, they could support new clause 9, which would provide that anyone with duties under the Bill must comply with an environmental objective to achieve and maintain: biodiversity; support for human health and wellbeing; and sustainable use of resources. The new clause includes specified environmental commitments that have been made by the Government including in the UN Leaders’ Pledge for Nature of September 2020 and under the Climate Change Act 2008.
Secondly, the Government should support amendments 25 and 2, whose principles are supported by the British Lung Foundation. These amendments set parameters on the face of the Bill to ensure that the PM2.5 target for air quality will be at least as strict as the 2005 World Health Organisation guidelines, with an attainment deadline of 2030 at the latest. As it stands, the Bill does not set a minimum level of ambition for the achievement of this target. I stress to the Minister the importance of these amendments to my constituents. A 2018 report showed that Salford and Manchester were in breach of these WHO guidelines, and air pollution, primarily caused by vehicles, is said to contribute to at least 1,200 deaths a year across Greater Manchester.
Finally, the Government should support amendment 39. There is huge concern about the decision to allow a derogation regarding the use of certain neonicotinoids. The decision goes against all commitments that the Government made to help nature, including an explicit pledge to keep pesticide restrictions after Brexit. Without the scrutiny that amendment 39 would provide, there is a significant risk that the emergency authorisation of such pesticides could sadly become a common occurrence.
There are so many additional amendments in this section that have been eloquently articulated by Members today, but it is clear that we are in a climate and ecological emergency, and that we need this Environment Bill to create the highest of environmental standards. Without the changes outlined, it simply does not do that; it is just greenwash.
This is a good and welcome Bill. I support it, but I want it to go further, which is why I have put my name to amendment 2, which was tabled by my hon. Friend Neil Parish. One area in particular in which we should go further, and which is of concern to my constituents, is in relation to PM2.5 particulate pollution, which is perhaps the most dangerous type of pollution to human health. Its impact on things such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coronary heart disease, stroke and lung cancer are well documented.
I recognise that the Bill as it stands commits to bringing a new target for PM2.5 before Parliament by October 2022. It is what Ministers have always said in previous debates and it is good, but we need to go further. The Bill does not, for example, commit to reaching World Health Organisation guidelines and does not give a timescale for adoption, even though Ministers have said that that is their ambition.
As I understand it—it has been said in the House previously—past DEFRA studies have shown that we can achieve the WHO standard of 10 micrograms per cubic metre by 2030. That would be a reasonable timeframe, and, if it can be done, there is no reason why we should not put it into the Bill. It is an important issue, even in a constituency such as mine—a comparatively leafy London suburb, which has better scores on pollution than many parts of London, but is still above the UK average in a number of respects—and it is a matter of real concern for my constituents. Putting that commitment, which we want to achieve anyway, on the face of the Bill would show willing on our part towards our own citizens. It is also worth saying that it would increase our influence on these matters abroad, because, at the end of the day, these matters have to be tackled internationally.
There is a great deal of focus on the integrated review that is under way, and many countries have punched above their weight by taking a lead on this issue. New Zealand is a great example, as are many of the Scandinavian countries. If we were to set out our stall and commit ourselves to tackling PM2.5 pollution in this way on the face of the Bill, that would be a really positive message for global Britain, particularly in the run-up to COP26 in November. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that she will indicate that the Government want to move forward positively and vigorously on this, and I suggest that that is a way they can do so.
A number of my constituents have contacted me to stress that the Office for Environmental Protection should be an independent and powerful body capable of ensuring that the Government uphold environmental laws on everything from plastic pollution to air quality. They are concerned about clause 24 of the Bill and have pointed out that, if the Government have the power to tell the Office for Environmental Protection how to do its job, the office cannot be truly effective; I very much share their concerns. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has remarked that it is
“essential that every step is taken to ensure the Office for Environmental Protection is as independent from the Government as possible, to give the public confidence that the Government will be properly held to account on its duty to protect the environment.”
I therefore support amendment 23, which would delete clause 24.
The quality of the air we breathe is vital to our wellbeing. One of my constituents wrote to me last week to say that air pollution is a daily issue for her and others like her suffering with lung conditions. She told me how, on days when air pollution is high, her symptoms can flare up so badly that she is unable to leave her home. The Government have already committed to adopting a new binding target for PM2.5 through the Bill. However, as Friends of the Earth has pointed out, the Bill does not set a minimum level of ambition or a deadline for its achievements. Amendment 25 is intended to set parameters on the face of the Bill to ensure that the PM2.5 target for air quality will be at least as strict as the 2005 World Health Organisation guideline of below 10 micrograms per cubic metre, with an attainment deadline of 2030 at the latest.
I now turn to the matter of bees. I pay tribute to the work of Flourish at Ford Way in Upton for the work it does in keeping hives and producing excellent honey. More than 50,000 people have signed The Wildlife Trusts’ petition urging the Prime Minister to overturn the Environment Secretary’s recent authorisation of the emergency use of a bee-killing pesticide for farmers to use on sugar beet crops in England. That shows the real strength of public feeling on this issue.
Amendment 39 would require Ministers to 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. In conclusion, I urge Members to back these key amendments to ensure the independence of the Office for Environmental Protection, improve air quality and protect bees.
I am glad that this Bill has finally returned to the Commons after months of delay. It has been a frustratingly long time since I took part in prelegislative scrutiny as a member of the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and it is nearly a year since I attended the first meeting of the Public Bill Committee. We are now told that we need to wait months more for the second day of Report stage and for the Bill to become law. The Bill should have been in place before the end of transition. Can we even be sure now that it will be in place before COP26? There is absolutely no excuse for the Government’s laxity, and one can only attribute it to a lack of ambition and urgency in tackling the nature and climate emergencies.
Leaving the EU without a fully functioning, properly resourced and independent Office for Environmental Protection that can take public authorities to court over the most serious breaches of environmental law leaves a regulatory gap, which so many of us warned against. We were promised that the Office for Environmental Protection would be located in Bristol, with the creation of 120 jobs. That was publicly reported, and I was told it by Ministers on more than one occasion, yet the Minister has today announced without a hint of shame—in fact, with more than a hint of smugness—that the OEP will be based in Worcester. She can rest assured that I will be seeking an explanation from her as to why this hugely disappointing and, given Bristol’s record, inexplicable decision was made.
This Bill is not all it could be and needs to be strengthened. Labour’s new clause 9 would place firm duties on officials to achieve and maintain biodiversity, human health and sustainable use of resources. New clause 1 would put a duty on public officials to act in accordance with environmental principles. Again, we were repeatedly told during prelegislative scrutiny that a policy statement on environmental principles would be published imminently, so where is it, or was that just another ploy to stave off awkward questioning at the time?
New clause 5 would set the equivalent of the net zero target for tackling the decline in nature by 2030, to begin to reverse the devastating losses we have seen in recent decades. We need such protections in law because, as we have seen repeatedly, the Government’s actions do not always match their words. For example, amendment 39, which would allow parliamentary scrutiny of the use of harmful pesticides such as bee-killing neonicotinoids, was tabled in response to the Government’s emergency authorisation of the use of those pesticides. Labour will always back good British farming practices and farmers but, faced with a devastating decline in biodiversity and our bee populations, we cannot uncritically give the green light, without scrutiny, to the use of harmful pesticides.
To conclude, the Bill needs to be better, the OEP needs to be stronger, and we need proper environmental governance in place without further delay. The natural world is in crisis and we must do all we can to address that, not just the bare minimum.
Last week, my constituents were given a salutary reminder of the very real threat that we face from the climate and ecological emergency that Parliament declared just 18 months ago: we faced the worst floods—potentially—in living memory, with water levels more than 1 metre higher than ever previously recorded. We were saved because the River Alt burst its banks and demolished an embankment over a 30-mile stretch, bursting into floodplain rather than flooding 500 or so properties in Maghull in my constituency. That is one reason why new clause 9 is so important: it would mean that anyone with duties under the Bill must comply with environmental objectives. We were lucky with the flooding last week but we may not be next time. That is one good example.
The red squirrels in Formby in my constituency, which are looked after by the National Trust, desperately need the intervention of new clause 5, tabled by my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn. Local action to support them is no substitute for wider action on habitat and species, so that new clause is an important and necessary step.
Let me turn to air quality and the importance of the amendments on that subject. The Government want to build an access road to the port of Liverpool. The people who live near the port of Liverpool have a life expectancy that is among the lowest in the country, living 10 years fewer than those just 2 miles away. We heard earlier from Members that 40,000 people a year die because of poor air quality, so why do we not have a system in government in which everybody, including the Department for Transport, plays their part? We should not be building new roads to improve transport in isolation, but should take account of air quality and the need to protect people, as well as the effect on the climate. It should be a rail link rather than a road. That is the third element in my constituency that brings to life what the Bill means in practice.
All three of those elements, in common, indicate why the Office for Environmental Protection must have teeth to be able to intervene across Government. It cannot be that so-called guidance from the Secretary of State can intervene, interfere and dilute the OEP’s effectiveness. So much work is needed on these policy areas—I gave three examples just from my constituency, and there are so many more. We must pass the amendments I have mentioned, the legislation must go on to the statute book quickly, and for this country, my constituents and the world, we must have the intervention now.
I am pleased to be able to speak to the Bill on Report. My constituency is a green and pleasant place, by and large, but we have seen our fair share of environmental damage and change, and we still endure landfill sites and the scars of our industrial heritage. Environmental issues of all kinds are hugely important to my constituents, including the schoolchildren I speak to, such as those at Birtley East Primary School, who told me that they had written to the Prime Minister, as they had to me, to persuade us that we must protect the environment for their sake.
I wish to comment on the group of amendments on oversight and environmental protection. The Bill is welcome, but we have to take the opportunity to make sure that it really hits the spot—that it has the strength to protect our environment locally and nationally and also contributes to environmental protection internationally and globally. From talking to many environmental organisations, it is clear to me that there is widespread agreement that we need to build stronger measures into the Bill. We need targets and we need to build in independence for the Office for Environmental Protection. Most of all, we need to see the Bill become law. It is sad that there is a delay, but we must see this Bill become law urgently, and certainly before COP26 in Glasgow.
I would like to speak briefly about new clause 9. This House has already declared a climate emergency, so it is right that the Bill really tackles that emergency in a consistent and ambitious way. New clause 9, as we have heard from previous speakers, provides that anyone with duties under the Bill must comply with an overarching environmental objective.
On amendment 23, we have already mentioned that the Office for Environmental Protection needs to be independent of Government. As others have said, clause 24, which was added by the Government in Committee, allows the Secretary of State to provide guidance. We really need that independence, so I hope the amendment will be supported.
On amendment 39, I am sure that most hon. Members, like me, have been flooded with representations on the granting of the licence to use neonicotinoids. It is right that we have proper scrutiny when such licences are granted. In fact, we should not be granting them at all. There are difficult decisions to be made on environmental issues, and we really need to step up and try to make them.
Finally, on amendment 25 on air quality, it is becoming more and more important that our air quality is a health and environmental issue, so I support this amendment. There is so much more that I would like to say on different parts of the Bill, but I do not have time today. I hope this debate today will help us to make those tough decisions.
I share with many others the frustration at the delay of this Bill, which started out long before other pieces of legislation, including some incredibly consequential Bills on Brexit that were rammed through with minimal scrutiny. I want to focus in particular on Government amendment 20 and, briefly, new clause 17, and I offer my support for other progressive amendments.
By way of context, arising from the protocol there is a greater ongoing requirement for Northern Ireland to remain aligned to the European Union. This is a good thing. However, governance needs to be considered separately from policy. It should go without saying that independence and an ability to prosecute effectively are critical to the Office for Environmental Protection, but that is not the case.
This Bill grants the Secretary of State in England and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland the power to issue guidance to the OEP on certain matters that must be included in the OEP’s enforcement policy. The Government claim that the new power does not grant the Secretary of State or DAERA any ability to intervene in decision making about civic or individual cases, and that the OEP does not have to act strictly in accordance with the guidance where it has clear reasons not to do so.
While technically correct, it is clear, especially in the context of all the other Government amendments, that the new power will have the effect of allocating Ministers a central role in shaping the basic principles of the watchdog and a severely constraining effect on the OEP’s ability to act independently. This power to provide guidance therefore inverts the intended hierarchy, in which the OEP oversees Ministers, in that it gives Ministers the role of overseeing the OEP. I do not believe that this role has been given sufficient scrutiny in Northern Ireland with respect to the role of DAERA.
I also want to stress that the Office for Environmental Protection is not the summit of environmental governance in Northern Ireland. The New Decade, New Approach agreement, which restored the Northern Ireland Executive this time last year, contained a commitment to an independent environmental protection agency. This will be different in its scope and role from the OEP, and the OEP should not be used as an excuse for not proceeding with an EPA.
Finally, I want to speak very briefly in support of new clause 17. The pandemic has laid bare the need for a new outlook on our economy and wider society. We need to look, therefore, at a new, more holistic and inclusive economic model, including more sophisticated economic objectives and indicators such as environmental regeneration, renewable energy and the UK’s impact overseas, alongside health, incomes, security, equality, inclusion, affordable housing and the wellbeing of future generations.
For all that hon. Members have said that this is a good and necessary Bill, devolution means that it will not have a huge impact on my constituents. The aspects of it that will have an impact have received legislative consent from the Scottish Parliament, which was an important step. More widely, legislative consent needs to be respected by the UK Government more often that just when it happens to suit them.
Amendments 43 and 44, in the names of my SNP and Plaid Cymru colleagues, will not be voted on, but the importance of the principles behind them remains. They would remove the exemptions for armed forces, defence and national security policy from the requirement to have due regard to the policy statement on environmental principles and environmental law. They would also remove the exemptions for tax, spending and the allocation of resources.
We know of the long-term problems caused by munitions dumped at Beaufort’s Dyke between Scotland and Northern Ireland, the impact that military research can have on the environment, the radioactivity on beaches in Fife and the long-term problems left by the decommissioning of nuclear-powered submarines. They have all left us with a literally toxic environmental legacy. Like decisions about taxation, spending and allocating resources, decisions about those matters cannot be divorced from their environmental impact, and the Government cannot be exempted from their wider responsibilities in those regards. This is not about subordinating security or decisions about the economy to the needs of the environment or vice versa; it is about ensuring that the wider policy considerations and responsibilities for the environment are given due regard at all times in the decision-making process.
It is important to recognise that the EU has some of the strongest environmental targets, laws and protections in the world, and our departure has put them under threat. As an EU member, the UK was forced to match those standards. Unlike the Scottish Parliament’s EU continuity Bill, this Bill sadly does not include any non-regression clauses in that regard. The promises of non-regression rely on the intent of this and future Governments to stand by that pledge. It would give me and a great many others much greater assurance about the Government’s good intentions if they were to allow the insertion of a non-regression principle into the Bill as it progresses through the other place.
In the winter of 2019-20, the people of Hull planted 1,300 alder buckthorn trees as part of the butterfly city community initiative. That was done with Hull City Council, local primary schools and community orchard and garden groups across the city. The principal aim was to benefit the brimstone butterfly, as the leaves are food for it, but it was also important to start a conversation about biodiversity.
The planting of the trees was not just about biodiversity; it was also to help to clean our air. Improving the quality of the air we breathe is a priority for Hull. In 2017, the last year for which records are available, Centre for Cities analysis estimated that more than 1,500 deaths in Hull—one in 20—were due to air pollution, making it the most badly affected place in Yorkshire. The major disease-causing component of air pollution is known as fine particulate matter or PM2.5. It can be any solid or liquid particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometres suspended in the air. The tiny size of the particles makes that form of pollution effectively invisible to the human eye. It is not smog or the haze that we normally associate with pollution, it can even be present on what appears to be a clear and sunny day.
There is no effective defence—no mitigation—if we live in an area of high levels. The particles settle in our airways and are small enough to enter our bloodstream. A study by King’s College London of people living within 50 metres of a major road showed that roadside air pollution can stunt children’s lung growth, make asthmatic children more likely to cough and raise people’s risk of a heart attack, stroke, heart disease and lung cancer. Studies from around the world have linked PM2.5 to low birth rates, diabetes and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Air pollution has a cost not just in terms of health and quality of life, but an estimated financial cost of up to £20 billion a year. Based on 2018 data, it is estimated that more than 22 million people in the UK live in areas with levels of PM2.5 above those recommended by the World Health Organisation, yet those deadly levels of air pollution are entirely legal. The Government are well aware of the problems, the costs and the number of deaths. The 2019 air quality strategy clearly states:
“Air quality is the largest environmental health risk in the UK.”
The Labour party wants this country to be the best to grow up in and the best to grow old in, and we want that for everyone, regardless of where they happen to live. That is why we are calling for the adoption into law of the World Health Organisation air quality standards. I urge the Government to take action today, clean up the air and accept our amendment.
This Bill has had an exceptionally long gestation, and it is a matter of great regret to me and to my party that, unfortunately, we have learned today that it is to be delayed even further. This should be an area where there is an easy consensus to be built. Surely, in the year when we are due to host COP26, this should be a matter that brings all parties together to achieve meaningful advance. It is a matter of infinite regret that we are not able to do so.
My first plea to the Minister and the Government is this. If we are to have further delay, can we please use the time a bit better than we have so far? Can we ensure that when we host COP26 later this year, we can point to a significant achievement as an instance where we are leading the world, rather than being pulled along in this area of vital importance to all future generations?
I worked regularly with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Rebecca Pow, on the subject of plastic pollution when she was on the Back Benches. It pains me to say that in that respect, the Bill is a major disappointment. We realise that as a consequence of many of the short-term changes that were necessary to tackle the pandemic, the progress that we had been making on the use of single-use plastic has been put on the back burner. That is regrettable, and possibly necessary, but a concerted effort by the Government is required. The pandemic and the restrictions under which we are living will not last forever, but it feels as though the plastic pollution that we are generating now will do so. It will certainly be with us for decades. That is why we must look to the lessons of how we constructed the Climate Change Act 2008, for example, and get on with the business of setting meaningful targets and having meaningful ways of holding the Government to account for meeting them.
The Minister has new clause 11, from her colleague Chris Loder. Surely that could be given greater impetus now that more time is to be put into the management of this Bill. When she was on the Back Benches, the Minister worked well on the subject with people from across the House. Will she carry on doing that work as a Minister on the Front Bench?
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Government amendments that were made in Committee to clarify the enforcement powers in England of the Office for Environmental Protection, and particularly the fact that further amendments will be made to ensure that they remain aligned with the OEP functions in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that that will be the case. I am aware that there has been co-operation with Northern Ireland Ministers, who have requested that these amendments also be made in relation to Northern Ireland, but I welcome their inclusion and this alignment. If only we could see something similar in all aspects of our governance, such as trade, we would be in a much healthier position, with full shelves—but perhaps that is another debate for another day.
I endorse the comments of Mr Carmichael about plastic pollution, and I request, as he did, that Ministers and Government make a concerted effort to maintain the reduction of plastic pollution. Although we have seen a lot of reduction, we still need more. Enforceability is always a concern of mine. It is right and proper that we introduce greater, more effective legislation, but it is no use unless there is no doubt about the interpretation of the OEP enforcement provisions and the courts’ ability to grant remedies. Many of us would like to ensure that there is no doubt that the courts can and will enforce the Bill’s provisions.
I am a country sports enthusiast, as I am sure the Minister knows, and part of my being a country sports enthusiast is a dedication and commitment to conservation. That is why the Bill is important; it is an essential component of our moving forward, and that is what I always seek to ensure. It is right and proper that there is a legislative obligation to think about environmental principles and I welcome this addition.
However, some constituents have made it clear that they believe the Bill does not go far enough. I seek further clarification from the Minister. Would she be so kind, during her summing up, to outline the rationale behind excluding defence and procurement from these obligations? Every Government Department should play its part. Whilst it should not be the priority of Defence to think of the economy first—the safety of the nation is first—my constituents believe there could still be an obligation to give consideration to the impact within the process of reaching decisions.
I speak as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for healthy homes and buildings. When it comes to the environment, we believe that more could be done to ensure that Government works with developers to help ensure that new projects are much more sustainable. For example, instead of a developer being responsible for the full price of sewer works, and putting in the least that can be expected to enable them to turn a profit, surely Government or local council assistance to put in long-term environmentally sustainable, more costly infrastructure will benefit us all. I also want to put in a word for the importance of air quality, insulation, heating and play areas—the improvement of all buildings in the future.
I am conscious that the Minister has a lot on her plate—a lot of questions to answer—but I thank her for the time and hope she can take these points on board.
I would like to start by thanking my constituents who have contributed to this debate by sending me emails.
We are in a climate and ecological emergency. Considering the scale and urgency of the crisis we are facing, it is staggering that the Government have seen fit to postpone the Bill yet again. We have a responsibility to take rapid and radical action towards sustainability and environmental protection. Delaying this core piece of legislation is a major setback to that work. In the run-up to hosting COP26 later this year, the Bill should be an absolute priority, as should commitment to maintaining and enhancing environmental protection. That it is not, speaks volumes about the commitment of this Government to the environment, to our global responsibilities and to future generations.
The Bill, as it stands, has been called a missed opportunity by the Environmental Audit Committee, and has failed to enshrine action on climate change at the heart of Government policy. Environmental campaigners and organisations across the board have been clear that we need ambitious targets, enforced by a fully independent watchdog, with significant powers to actively dissuade the contravention of environmental legislation. However, if the watchdog is to be effective, it must be capable of holding the Government to account, and that means full independence and serious powers to prosecute and impose financial penalties. The Bill currently allows the OEP to be guided by the Secretary of State, threatening to turn it from a watchdog into a lapdog.
I support many of the various amendments that have been tabled today to strengthen the Bill, including amendment 23, which would ensure the independence of the OEP. With the extra time we now have due to the postponement of the Bill, we could go even further. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will take on board the recommendations of countless environmental campaign groups, endless research projects and recognition by the UN itself that the environmental crisis cannot be tackled without powerful legislation and a fundamental rethink of our economic strategy?
The Bill must take the opportunity to put forward a radical vision that puts climate justice and sustainability at the heart of government through a massive programme of investment and regulation, to offer every worker in high-carbon and unsustainable industries the option of retraining, and to be relocated into high-skill, high-wage jobs in their own communities, from insulating houses to green tech to expanding public transport. “Redeployment not redundancies” must be the strategy. The working class must not pay the price for the corporate greed ravaging the Earth. Instead, strategic support and investment must be undertaken to protect both people and planet, clamp down on tax avoidance and use the income to generate sustainable jobs and invest in a carbon-zero economy. Tinkering at the edges is not an option; the Government must take the rapid and radical action needed to get a grip.
I will be voting in favour of amendment 25 to the Environment Bill, to embed World Health Organisation targets on air quality; amendment 23, to ensure the Office for Environmental Protection is truly independent; and new clause 9, to enforce commitments to protect biodiversity, health and wellbeing, and the sustainable use of resources. However, due to time constraints, I will focus on Labour’s amendment 39, and the importance of Parliament scrutinising the granting of any exemptions for the use of banned pesticides.
I share the concerns of my Luton South constituents who have contacted me, and the more than 50,000 people who have signed the Wildlife Trust’s petition about protecting bees from the use of neonicotinoids. Their existence is too important to the functioning and survival of ecosystems, so the protection of bees is non-negotiable. It is important to recognise, though, that bees are not just in rural areas: the bees in Luton South produce the delicious High Town Honey just around the corner from me, which has won several prizes at the Bedfordshire Beekeepers Association honey show. The decline of bees will have a disastrous impact on food security. Bees pollinate around 70% of the fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds we eat, but in the UK 13 bee species are already extinct, and one in 10 of Europe’s wild bee species is under threat.
The Secretary of State has authorised farmers to use neonicotinoids on sugar beet crops, even though it is widely recognised that they kill bees. The Government’s justification that sugar beet is not a flowering crop, and therefore the risk is acceptable, does not stand up to scrutiny. A similar application for the use of neonicotinoids in 2018 was refused by the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides because of “unacceptable environmental risks.” This is not to say that overall, I do not recognise the genuine concerns of sugar beet growers across the east of England, but the Government should back farmers to help create a sustainable solution through better support for the sector, accelerating the introduction of blight-resistant crops, and including allowances for crop loss in next year’s sugar contracts.
The Government’s decision to allow the use of banned pesticides has too big a consequence for there to be no parliamentary scrutiny. The emergency authorisation of pesticides must never become common practice. The Government have a clear choice today: vote to speed up the decline of our bee population, or uphold the ban, allow parliamentary scrutiny of future exemptions, and save our bees.
I thank hon. Members for their co-operation: we have managed to get everybody from the Back Benches in during this debate. I now call the Minister, Rebecca Pow.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; it is an absolute pleasure to have you in the seat today—the hot seat, as I like to call it.
I thank all those right hon. and hon. Friends and Members who have tabled amendments and contributed to today’s debate, helping to scrutinise this Bill. They have highlighted the importance that so many people place on the issue of the environment, and how important it is that we tackle biodiversity loss, climate change, and environmental risks to public health. In particular, I thank those Members who are so positive about this Bill—which, of course, I am as well—including my hon. Friend Saqib Bhatti, who has done so much work with his faith groups on the issue of the environment. I also thank my right hon. Friend Chris Grayling and my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) and for Keighley (Robbie Moore) for their enthusiasm. This is a phenomenal ambition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North said, and it is a good day at the office—in fact, it is very exciting to get out of the office.
I will start with the environmental principles, and respond to the concerns that have been raised by hon. Members. We are legislating to ensure that the environment is front and centre of our future policy making; however, we need to ensure that our approach is balanced. That is why we must reject new clause 1 and amendment 1 tabled by Caroline Lucas, about which she spoke so eloquently in her opening speech. We must also reject amendments 43 and 44.
Removing the requirement to act proportionately, as set out in amendment 1, would require Ministers to prioritise the principles even where they incur significant disproportionate costs to society, or hinder innovation and sustainable development. This is not our intention. Before I turn to the amendments tabled by Deidre Brock, I will clarify that contrary to her comments, this is not an England-only Bill. Over half its measures extend beyond England, bringing benefits right across the UK.
I turn to amendments 43 and 44, which relate to exemptions. The exemptions to the definition of environmental law simply mean that legislation concerning the armed forces, national security, tax spending and allocation of resources would be excluded. I note, however, that the Scottish Government have taken a similar approach in the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill, exempting defence and national security. Our exemptions do not alter the accountability of public authorities where duties are imposed on them under existing environmental legislation —for example, the MOD’s duties under the habitats regulations. I have discussed the MOD’s strong commitment on environmental protections with my counterpart in the MOD.
Similarly, new clause 1 would place a major burden on Government and public authorities without adding any significant environmental benefit. Applying the duty to individual decisions risks public authorities being overwhelmed by an all-encompassing duty and creating additional complexity and cost.
With that in mind, I would like to address the important concerns raised in amendment 4 by my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, whom I had the pleasure of meeting very recently and whom I have just written to. I agree with the sentiment behind his amendment and reassure him that our approach to the precautionary principle includes a proportionate and risk-focused application respecting the balance with social, economic and other considerations. This will be provided for in the policy statement, which will be published for consultation very shortly. If the use of the principle relied on information included in an alternative statutory document—the regulatory code that the amendment refers to—the clarity of its proportional interpretation and application may be confused or even lost.
I will now address the points raised by hon. Members relating to the setting of long-term targets in the Bill. Regarding new clause 5, long-term targets will be developed through a robust evidence-led process, and we shall not prejudge where this will take us. I can commit to Hilary Benn that our proposed objectives for biodiversity targets include restoring species populations and priority habitats, which will improve the state of nature. By setting targets of at least 15 years, we will ensure that Governments look beyond the short term, but this does not mean we should not make progress until 2030. We are confident that the process we have put in place to develop targets will contribute to meeting new global goals set under the convention on biological diversity.
In addition, with regards to new clause 17, the Government’s economic objectives and decision-making processes are already aligned with ambitious commitments to net zero and to improving the natural environment within a generation. HM Treasury’s world-leading Green Book requires that all impacts to society as a whole, including environmental impacts, are assessed when developing policy options. This includes monetised and non-monetised climate and environmental impacts. Policies must also consider any legal constraints such as the net zero target.
Continuing to new clause 11, I thank my hon. Friend Chris Loder. However, we cannot accept the amendment proposed, as we actually want to see a more ambitious resources and waste target under the Bill, which applies holistically to all materials, not just plastic.
Turning to amendments 21 and 28, we would all agree that the pandemic has underlined the important role of nature in our health and wellbeing. This has been recognised through our green social prescribing project and the £18 million that we have contributed to our green recovery challenge fund. Through their environmental improvement plan, the Government will be able to set out the further steps that they intend to take to improve people’s enjoyment of the natural world. One of the 10 goals of the 25-year environment plan also commits to enhancing beauty, heritage and engagement with the natural environment. The 25-year environment plan is the first environmental improvement plan, and it is clearly in there.
Amendments 2 and 25 were raised by my hon. Friend Neil Parish and Jessica Morden. The hon. Members for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) and my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill also referred to them. I share hon. Members’ desire for ambitious action to reduce public exposure to PM2.5, but these amendments would not allow for robust scientific analysis before setting targets. The World Health Organisation is clear that air quality guidelines should inform the setting of air quality standards, but it acknowledged that they are not ready-made targets ready for adoption. I can absolutely assure hon. Members and hon. Friends that we will be considering the World Health Organisation’s guideline level for PM2.5 when setting these new air quality targets. I personally met Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, and it was a humbling experience. I want to give assurances that we will give this our full attention. Setting a target for PM2.5 is technically highly challenging and we must have a clear pathway to the delivery of the target. We will seek expert input and stakeholder views to develop not just one but two legally binding air quality targets.
Amendment 5 was tabled by my hon. Friend Tim Loughton. Interim targets will set the trajectory towards long-term legally binding targets and drive environmental ambition. The Bill introduces a robust system for ensuring that we take these targets seriously and report on them. We all know that the trajectory of environmental improvement can be unpredictable, particularly for areas such as biodiversity, but setting interim targets in the environment improvement plan provides a degree of flexibility while still ensuring that there is a clear framework of transparency and accountability.
Amendment 39 was tabled by Luke Pollard and was referred to by a great many Opposition colleagues. Pesticides are already subject to strict regulation. They may be used only if they have been authorised following an assessment of risks to people and the environment. I know all this because I grew up on a farm. The decision to grant an emergency authorisation for a neonicotinoid seed treatment for sugar beet—a non-flowering crop, I might highlight—is fully in line with the EU regulations that were retained in UK law at the end of the transition period. Ten member states, including Belgium, Denmark and Spain, granted similar emergency authorisations in 2020.
I assure Members of the strict conditions attached to this decision, to minimise environmental risks, including important protection for bees and other pollinators. I garden for wildlife at home, and I know how important it is to look after our pollinators. Our opposition on neonicotinoids has not changed. We supported the ban in 2018 and we stand by that now—[Interruption.] I must just penultimately turn to the Office for Environmental Protection. I wish to respond to amendment 23. It would remove clause 24, which provides an important power for the Secretary of State to issue guidance for the OEP. This is intended to address ambiguities relating to the OEP’s enforcement functions, and they are considered very important. It does not provide the Secretary of State with any power to issue directions or intervene on specific decisions. [Interruption.] I just want to touch on new clause 14, tabled by my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers. I assure her that there are already strong protections for the environment in the planning system.
I am now going to conclude, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I know that you are hem-hemming at me. I thought you said 5.40, so I am going for it. I just want to say that we are delivering on our commitment to the environment, despite the pandemic, and we want to build back a fairer, greener and more resilient future. We will continue to work in the gap before the second day of the Report stage and we will achieve Royal Assent before COP26.
I thank all Members for their important contributions to the debate, but there is really only one test that matters when it comes to this Bill: does it improve on the protections that we enjoyed as EU members, and is it up to the challenge of the accelerating nature and climate emergencies? Sadly, the answer is no on both counts.
Time and again this afternoon, we have heard that the Bill lacks both ambition and urgency. As many hon. Members have said, with two vital UN meetings on biodiversity and climate this year, it is even more important that we have our own house in order. We cannot hope to influence the performance of other countries if we have not demonstrated leadership in our own domestic policy.
I particularly support those speeches in favour of more ambitious, legally enforceable air quality targets, which are needed now. A number of hon. Members made reference to the tragic death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah. Strong, binding legislation would be the only fitting tribute to her and to her mother, who has campaigned so tirelessly for that. I welcome the fact that the Minister has said she will look at it again.
On the state of nature, the case for legally binding interim targets was powerfully made by Members on both sides of the House. I hope that the Minister will take account of that. I noticed that she did not commit to legally binding targets for 2030, or that the interim targets should be binding, yet that is essential if we are to improve on the Government’s woeful record; they have actually gone backwards on six of the 20 UN biodiversity targets.
I am not reassured by what the Minister said about the independence of the OEP or the strength of the environmental principles. On the OEP, she says that the guidance is intended simply to address ambiguities. That is not the way the Bill is written. The Bill is written in such a way that Ministers will be able to give instruction to that body, not least because they will also give it its budget and have a major say on who makes up its board. That means that the Government will have a disproportionate impact on the OEP, which should be truly independent.
On the principles, I noticed with interest that the Minister appears to have given up trying to persuade us that “due regard” is at least as strong as “in accordance with”. I assume that is because she recognises that that case cannot be made because it is simply not true. In that case, I hope she will undertake to revise that element of the Bill.
The Minister says that applying the principles to public bodies as well as to Ministers is too burdensome. I remind her that it simply replicates what we enjoyed as members of the EU, which was not seen to be too burdensome, and that her Government promised that they would increase the ambition of EU legislation, not water it down in this way. The Environmental Audit Committee, in its pre-legislative scrutiny, concluded:
“This aspect of the Bill is not fit for purpose.”
The Committee recommended that the principles should be
“put on an unqualified legal basis” and extended to all public bodies, and I echo that conclusion.
I take heart from the strong statements of support for more ambitious action on the environment from Members on both sides of the House, but those on the Government side need to understand that, as it is currently drafted, the Bill will not even make up for the protections we have lost as a result of leaving the EU, let alone improve on them, and that unless we fix our broken economic system as my new clause 17 sets out, we will not achieve anything like sustainability anywhere near fast enough.
I urge the Minister again to use the time gained by the delay to the Bill to increase its strength and ambition. It could not be more urgent. Over the course of my lifetime alone, populations of some of our most important wildlife have plummeted by over half, and over 15% of species are now threatened with extinction. As Hilary Benn said in his powerful speech, if we are not going to be ambitious now, when are we? New clause 1 would re-establish a legally binding architecture for essential environmental protections, and I would therefore like to press it to a vote.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
The House divided: Ayes 266, Noes 366.
Question accordingly negatived.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
More than three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (