(1) A person must not burn specified vegetation on land in England which is
within an upland area on peat.
(2) In this section—
“specified vegetation” means heather, rough grass, bracken, gorse or vaccinium, and
“upland area” means all the land shown coloured pink on the map marked as “Map of Upland Area in England” held by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but does not include the land coloured pink in the Isles of Scilly(a).” —(Ruth Jones.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
Question put, that the clause be read a Second time.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Of course, for this Bill, it is the third time in more ways than one. Hon. Members will recall that a similar Bill was introduced in the last Parliament, and this Bill itself started in the last Session. I thank right hon. and hon. Members across the House, particularly the members of the Public Bill Committee for their scrutiny and all those involved in the previous iteration of the Bill during the last Parliament. I pay special tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow, for her tireless work on the Bill, and to all the DEFRA officials for all the work they put in to get such a significant piece of legislation to this point. It is a large and complex piece of legislation, and a huge amount of work has gone into getting its provisions right.
Members in all parts of the House agree that the decline of our natural environment has persisted for too long. As we emerge from the covid-19 pandemic, we must turn our attention to recovery. We must build back greener. The pandemic has reminded us all of the difference that nature makes to our lives.
After G7 nations gather in Cornwall next month, the wider international community will attend the convention on biological diversity in Kunming in October, before the UK, as co-president, hosts the world at COP26 on climate change in November. This is a very important year for the environment internationally, and this landmark Environment Bill will deliver on our manifesto commitment to create the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth.
As I announced last week, the Government intend to amend the Bill in the other place to include a new, historic, legally binding target on species abundance for 2030, aiming to halt the decline of nature. This is a pioneering measure that will be the net zero equivalent for nature, spurring action on the scale required to address the biodiversity crisis. Our forthcoming Green Paper will also explore how we might deliver our world-leading domestic ambitions for nature, including how we improve the status of native species, such as the water vole and the red squirrel, and protect 30% of our land by 2030.
My right hon. Friend Chris Grayling has ensured that the plight of the hedgehog has been greatly debated during the passage of the Bill, and the Green Paper that we plan later this year will also explore how we might better protect other species currently not protected under the habitats regulations, including the hedgehog. In a similar vein, I have asked my noble Friend Lord Benyon to chair a small working group, together with Tony Juniper, Christopher Katkowski, QC, and the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane. The group will explore how our approach to conservation and habitat assessment might be improved so that we can deliver nature’s recovery and hit the ambitious targets that we are setting.
Our world-leading targets will be supported by provisions in the Bill and our new England trees and peat action plans to protect existing trees and expand woodland coverage. Our aim is to treble woodland creation rates by the end of this Parliament and to restore 35,000 hectares of peatland by 2025. Although we treasure our many species and ecosystems for their own sake and their intrinsic value, we must remember that they also provide vital services from which people benefit, such as carbon storage and pollination. As shown in the Dasgupta review, protecting and enhancing our natural assets and the biodiversity that underpins them is crucial to achieving a sustainable, resilient economy.
The Bill takes important strides in tackling air, water and waste pollution. Cleaner air from new, legally binding targets will drive action to tackle harmful air pollution across the country. Better management of our water for new drainage and sewage management plans will improve water quality in our rivers and lakes. The Bill will also give us powers to tackle storm overflows, and I thank my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne for his efforts on that particular area of policy. We therefore intend to table an amendment in the other place requiring Government to publish plans to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows by September 2022, and for water companies and the Environment Agency to publish storm overflow operations data on an annual basis.
We are already consulting on measures to prevent waste and tackle the scourge of plastic ending up in our oceans. The extended producer responsibility scheme, which will make producers of packaging responsible for the cost of disposal, will incentivise better product design from the outset. New powers will allow us to place charges on single-use plastics, reducing their persistence in our natural environment. All of this, of course, will be underpinned by our new system of environmental governance. The Bill creates the new, independent Office for Environmental Protection to hold all public authorities to account on reaching these important goals. Work to establish the OEP is already well under way under the chairmanship of Dame Glenys Stacey and I commend the work that she has done to date.
In conclusion, I am pleased to see this Bill reach its Third Reading after a couple of attempts in previous Sessions and during the last Parliament. I am grateful for the many contributions from Members of all parties today. I believe that these provisions will ensure that this generation leaves our environment in a better state than we found it, and I therefore commend the Bill to the House.
Well, here we are: the Environment Bill has finally reached Third Reading, and we all know that it has taken some time. Talking about timings, I want to wish the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Neil Parish, a very happy 65th birthday, although he is not in his place, because he is a tenacious campaigner, and I have enjoyed working with him on this Bill in recent months.
The last year and a half or thereabouts since this Bill received its Second Reading in this House has been one like no other. With that in mind, I want to start by acknowledging the brilliant hard work of the staff of this House, notably the Clerks, Sarah and Joanna, and of course the staff in the parliamentary offices of my hon. Friend Luke Pollard—thank you, Kieran and Rob; of my hon. Friend Daniel Zeichner—thank you, Rafi; of my hon. Friend Olivia Blake—thank you, Minesh and Sam; and of my hon. Friend Dr Whitehead—thanks to Holly and Bryn. Obviously, I also thank those of my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare), for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) and for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), and of course I must not forget my own team in Newport West—thank you very much, Adam. It has not been easy taking a major piece of legislation through the House while working from home, and our staff have been brilliant. It is important to say thank you to them because, let us be honest, where would we be without them?
This Bill creates the Office for Environmental Protection, but fails to give it the powers it needs. It creates an improvement plan, but does not go far enough. It fails, among other things, to tackle fracking, deliver a proper tree strategy and deliver proper structured chemical regulation. Labour’s amendments in Committee and on Report sought to build on the limited foundation set by the Conservative party and make this Bill properly fit for purpose. It is all very well and good to set out the problem, but if we do not match that with strong and comprehensive plans, what is the point?
I remain saddened that Conservative Members voted against Labour’s amendments at every opportunity they had in Committee and on Report, but all is not yet lost—we should not worry. I feel sure, as the Bill moves to the other place, that my noble Friends Baroness Jones of Whitchurch and Baroness Hayman of Ullock will take it by the horns and make it the strong and purposeful Bill the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Rebecca Pow, could have made it here in this House.
This is not about politics. I should say to the House that the Government’s approach to this Bill sits at the door of the Secretary of State. I used to say that the Environment Bill was missing in action, but the Secretary of State was missing in action, so I am very glad he has turned up safe and sound, and I am very grateful to him for turning up. However, I thank the Minister for her personal commitment and hard work. She takes these issues very seriously, and I have enjoyed working with her. I just feel sorry that her colleagues will not let her work with us in the way I suspect she would like to.
I am grateful to the many stakeholders such as Ruth Chambers from the Green Alliance, Matt Browne from the Wildlife and Countryside Link, Jo Blackman from Global Witness, Chloe Alexander from the CHEM Trust and Andrea Lee from ClientEarth, to name just a few, for their hard work and tenacity over the last year and a bit.
The pandemic, our departure from the European Union and a general election were just some of the hurdles we have had to get over in recent months, and we have done our bit. Many in this House have raised important arguments in recent weeks and months, and will continue to do so as this Bill works its way through the other place before coming back to us. I urge the Secretary of State to do whatever he can to make sure we get the Bill back sooner rather than later. We do not have time to waste. The climate crisis worsens each day, and real action is necessary now. I urge the Secretary of State to work with us and all the Members in this House when the Bill comes back and to do whatever is required to tackle the climate and ecological emergency once and for all.
I have declared my business interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I welcome cleaner air and cleaner water, and I wish the Bill well as it completes its passage. I hope that we will be nicer to nature and better to the other species we share our islands with.
I would like briefly to make a few points to the Secretary of State and the ministerial team, who have worked hard to get this far. The first point is on water. I urge them to work with the water industry and the regulators to put in more reservoir capacity. We have had many homes and new families coming into my area of Wokingham and West Berkshire, but there has been no increase in potential water supply. Nationwide, we still have a rising population, and they will need good provision of clean water.
There are two great natural advantages of having more reservoir capacity. First, when we have long periods of excessive rainfall—we seem to be having one at the moment—and there is the danger of the rivers overtopping and causing flood damage, we need more good places to park the water, and we could then recharge the extra reservoir capacity. Secondly, were we once again to have one of those long, hot summers with long dry spells, as we have had from time to time in the past, we would be able to draw down in more comfort, knowing that we had adequate reservoir capacity, without having to run the streams and rivers too low or draw excessively on the natural aquifers.
On Report, I talked about the excellent news that there will be many more trees and urged Ministers to ensure that they help to build a much bigger forestry and timber industry. We import far too much and need to replace it with home production and fewer wood miles. I also urge the Secretary of State to bring forward those great schemes to promote more food production here at home. We lost too much market share, particularly in areas such as vegetables and fruit, in our CAP days. I do not think it is morally right to be drawing so much of that food from a country such as Spain, which is parched and in great difficulties eking out its inadequate water supplies, when we have plenty of water at home and could do so much more to promote a good domestic industry, cutting the food miles and giving confidence in the environmental benefits of having the home product.
I would also like to draw Ministers’ attention to the unresolved business that they have promised to work on as we complete this piece of legislation: the possible conflict between the Office for Environmental Protection and the Climate Change Committee. I urge Ministers to recognise that they need to supervise both bodies and give them clear public guidance on their remits. The Government will need to bring forward that piece of work to explain what the relative roles of the two are and how the different sets of targets—the natural UK targets on the one hand and the climate change targets on the other—will knit together and be compatible, rather than cause tensions.
For example, we need to know what the thinking is about the pace of carbon dioxide reduction and transition and how that impacts on our natural landscape, because if we are going to accelerate the move from electric vehicles or gas boilers or both, there will need to be massive investment. That investment includes the production of a lot of steel, glass and batteries. Mining activity somewhere is required to produce those raw materials and fashion them into something that can then be part of an electric product. We need to know whether we will be doing any of that in the UK, or whether the idea is that we should import much of it because we do not wish to husband our own natural resources for this purpose. If we are going to import, we should properly account for it, because it is not helping the planet if we say, “Well, we’re not putting the mine here or burning the coal to smart the steel here,” but it is happening somewhere else—indeed, it may be happening somewhere else where environmental concerns are taken much less seriously and the environmental damage of producing that product is far greater than if we had done it at home.
I hope that more work will be published on the pace and cost of transition. Again, the Bill seems to point us more in the direction of repair, maintenance, recycling and reuse, and not wanting a throwaway society but reckoning that, if we make good things, they could last for rather longer. How is that reconciled with the idea that we want a rapid transition to get rid of our existing fleet of petrol and diesel vehicles and to rip out all our gas boilers and solid fuel heating systems? Has there been proper carbon accounting on all that, and how is that reconciled with the very good aim in this Bill that we must consider the impact on our earth and the amount that we take out of our earth in order to fashion the things we may need?
There is a lot of work ahead for Ministers, who have already been very busy. As others have said, the Bill is only the first step, and it will then need to be fashioned into popular products and feasible programmes: things that business will want to collaborate with and things that people will want to do. There is an educational process involved. We also need to ensure that we know what the costs are and that they are realistic, that they are phased and that they fall fairly. I would still like to hear more from the Government on the total cost of all this work, because we need to ensure that it is realistic, that it does not get in the way of levelling up and greater prosperity, and that it reinforces our prime agenda, which is the health and welfare of the British people.
Very briefly, I would like to thank DEFRA officials and particularly the Clerks on the Committee for their help during the progress of the Bill. It has threatened to rival “The Mousetrap” for longevity, and their staying power was quite something in the face of that. The ministerial team who managed to take so long over the thing do not get quite so much gratitude, though. I would also like to thank my researchers, Calum and Josh, whose assistance has been invaluable, and my hon. Friend Richard Thomson, who participated alongside me in the Environment Bill Committee.
It is worth stating again that this legislation is a missed opportunity, and it will have to be revisited again and again in the near future to add in the bits that are so clearly missing. Despite the Minister’s brave efforts over the many months to defend it, the Bill is not much at all. Although it will pass today, only crumbs are being proffered. I look forward in my capacity as environment and COP26 spokesperson for the SNP to continuing to challenge the Government to ensure that they match their warm words with firm actions that will make a real difference, particularly in the year that the UK hosts COP26. Our world’s future deserves nothing less.
Almost two years ago to the day, Parliament declared a climate emergency. Two years ago! The last four years were the hottest on record, one in seven native British species are now at risk of extinction and tree planting targets are missed by 50%. Some 60% of people in England are now breathing illegally poor air, and 44% of species have been in decline over the last 10 years. We could all go on; we all know what the situation is. Is this Bill up to it? I do not think it is, and I am disappointed by that.
People in Putney, Southfields and Roehampton are very interested in the environment and in making a difference. They have joined an environment commission that I have set up, and they are taking action in local communities and also globally. I also think of the other communities around the world that are affected by the decisions we are making today, including the community in Bangladesh that I visited when I worked for WaterAid. We had to get there by plane—there were no roads to get there—and I sat around with a group of women whose whole area had been completely decimated and become saline. They could not grow any crops and they had to walk miles and miles to get fresh water. They were stuck there, having been really decimated by climate change, and we face that here. We have a responsibility to that community as well as to all our communities across the country.
So here we are, 482 days after the Bill was first introduced to Parliament, with a Bill that still fails adequately to address this climate emergency. It fails to guarantee no regression from the environmental measures that were in place when we were members of the European Union. I was so disappointed that the Government could not agree to that when we were in Committee. We could have drawn a line and said, “That’s our baseline; we’re going to get better from there.” Instead, the Government did not agree even to measure that.
The Government have failed to put World Health Organisation air quality targets into the Bill. The Bill fails to reduce disposable nappy use, and I am glad I share an interest in that with other Members of the House. It fails to make enough meaningful change. It fails on marine conservation and ocean preservation. It fails on green homes. Only a few weeks ago, the Government scrapped the green homes grant, yet they are bringing in an Environment Bill.
The Bill fails on trees and bees—we all love bees; I know the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Luke Pollard, loves the bees, as do many of my constituents. There is no detailed plan to meet net zero carbon emissions targets. The starting point should have been how we work to get up to there.
Above all, the Bill fails on strong enforcement. I think that is its weakest point. It delivers an Office for Environmental Protection with no teeth: it is not independent, it is resistant to concrete protections and it has a reduced remit. During the Bill’s passage, the Government reduced the remit of the watchdog, guardian and enforcer of the Bill. The Bill leaves our environment exposed to be used as a bargaining chip in trade agreements. It delivers legally binding targets that will not bite for two decades and that the Secretary of State has near complete discretion to change at any time. Marking our own homework will not lead to the change we need.
The Government, I am afraid, are ducking their responsibilities with the Bill. They have refused to listen to me, very learned and expert colleagues or the many civil society organisations that have fed in and pointed out time and again where the Bill needs to improve. Yet again, the Government have failed to agree to amendments today.
We are living in an imminent and real climate and environmental crisis. We will only solve it by working together, by listening to all voices and by all agreeing that we need the prize of climate change. We can only do that together, but my experience on the Environment Bill Committee confirmed to me that the Government have no interest in that. Amendment after amendment was put forward, all of which would have hugely strengthened the Bill, and the Government did not want to know. Any headlines today about changes of mind the Government may have had on amendments would have been immediately forgotten, because another event was going on this morning that has taken all the headlines, but it could have been done. We now have to hope that the other place will take up the mantle and agree to many of the excellent amendments and changes that we have proposed to the Bill.
The Government’s intransigence will cost future generations dear, but what are the next steps? It must be a global Bill. We must have joined-up Government. It cannot just be this small pot of legislation. For example, the G7 negotiations over vaccines must work to ensure that developing countries come to COP26 and that the whole process works. It has to join up through the year. We have to stop the cuts to international climate aid to countries around the world which undermine efforts we might take here to reduce our carbon emissions, and this must not be undermined by the upcoming planning legislation.
To summarise, this Bill will go down as a historic missed opportunity. I welcome the concessions that have been made, but they have taken too long and are piecemeal measures compared with the enormity of what is required to tackle the climate emergency. My constituents and I hope to be proved wrong. I hope that the Office for Environmental Protection gets some teeth from somewhere and does make a change, and that we see targets that are really achieved, but at the moment I am feeling, along with my constituents, very disappointed.
I put on record my thanks and pay tribute to the officials and Clerks who have been involved throughout this whole lengthy process. I will not be churlish; I will say thanks to the Ministers as well. Whether we agree with everything in the Bill or not, it is a tough job to pilot a Bill, particularly over the period of time we have been discussing it in this place.
I suspect, as Fleur Anderson said, that this is not the last we will hear of this, because I think our friends in the other place may have a thing or two to say about the Bill and seek to strengthen what, in principle at least, is not a bad Bill. There are plenty of things in it where there is great consensus and where we can agree. I shall focus on three areas where I do not agree so much. In particular, I will focus on my concerns about where the Bill is good in theory, but may be very weak in practice. Those concerns relate to regulation, the delivery of environmental goods through land management, and our ability to control and protect local environments.
First, on regulation, I am greatly concerned that the Office for Environmental Protection looks to be a relatively weak watchdog with few teeth and whose key figures are to be directly appointed by the Government. It will be funded by and not sufficiently independent from Government. It will therefore always be considered to be speaking with some level of restriction. The power, independence and penalties available to it do not look anything like as strong as what we had before we left the European Union. We could have easily been able to match that level of independence and robustness. The protections and firewalls have not been put in, so I fear very much that we will have perhaps great policies, poorly regulated.
Nothing highlights that more than the current discussion we are having about the potential Australian trade deal. If we are deeply committed to protecting almost uniquely high-level British animal welfare and environmental standards, how can we go ahead and do a deal with a country with significantly lower environmental and animal welfare standards? That surely undermines our ability to enact those standards throughout the whole United Kingdom and undermines British farming. British farming is the best in the world. We say that a lot, don’t we? It is important to understand why it is the best in the world. It is the best because of the regulation, but it is the best mostly because of our culture of the family farm and the unit of the family farm, which means we have close husbandry—almost hefted human beings, never mind hefted Herdwicks.
That is of massive importance to my second area of concern. Poor protections that would allow a trade deal with Australia could be a precedent for trade deals with other countries that undercut the quality of British produce and undermine British farmers. The concern is about not just weak regulation and a lack of independence, rigour and sanctions in that regulation, but the delivery of environmental goods through land management. The amendment in my name that I spoke to earlier is about ensuring that environmental land management schemes include significant and adequate rewards for maintaining the aesthetics and the beauty, as well as the biodiversity, of our landscape. That is crucial, but so far it is missing. Mr Deputy Speaker, I worry about your constituency, mine and many like them. They are absolutely natural environments, but they are managed, crafted landscapes that have been worked by our farmers over centuries. They are as beautiful as they are because they are managed. If we have a situation where they are not rewarded through the new scheme directly for the preservation of those landscapes, the risk to the world heritage site status of the Lake District is there, the risk to our tourism economy is there and the risk to biodiversity is there.
I would add that the Government’s movement towards ELM, which in theory we are all in favour of, is potentially risky because they are insisting on phasing out the basic payment scheme much more quickly than they are going to bring in ELM. That will leave upland farmers, for example, losing half their income in the next few years. Many of them will leave the industry. Indeed, the Government wish to facilitate them leaving the industry through the retirement package they announced last week, but they have no plans to bring anybody new and young into the industry to replace them. As they preside over the closure of Newton Rigg College in Penrith, for example, where are we getting our young farmers from to deliver these environmental goods? All the best environmental policies in the world are meaningless if we do not have the hands to enact them. It is like the England manager Gareth Southgate drawing a fantastic strategy in the dressing room and then having no players on the pitch. The danger is that the Environment Bill may be a great strategy, but with no players on the pitch we will not score any goals.
My third and final concern is that, when we look at the Government’s plan for local nature resource strategies, it is a good plan and it is a weak plan. There is no mechanism to ensure that those strategies have any impact on decision making locally. That is of particular relevance, given the Government’s plans to undermine planning, democracy and local communities, and to surrender the local environment to developers without proper accountability. In a community such as mine that depends so much on the beauty of our environment, that is a danger. The average number of homes built in a new development is usually fewer than 50 and the Government are looking to give developers the opportunity to do pretty much what they like up to a development of that size.
Put together, all those things draw a picture of a Bill that is broadly well-intentioned and does a lot of good, but, when it comes down to it, it does not provide itself with the mechanisms to actually deliver what it says in the first place. Good in principle—weak in practice.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.