Deregulation: Public Services and Health and Safety - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:29 pm on 13th July 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 12:29 pm, 13th July 2017

My Lords, I declare some past interests. I was a former regulator of the environment as the chief executive of the Environment Agency, a former regulator of biodiversity and conservation as the chairman of Natural England and a former regulator of health and social care quality as the founder chairman of the Care Quality Commission.

I thank my noble friend Lady Andrews for this hugely timely debate in the light of the Grenfell tragedy. It is also timely as today marks, fortuitously, the day that the repeal Bill is published. It is now out there on the internet for those noble Lords who want to wade through its 57 pages. This is no doubt a signal for some Brexiteers to come out of the traps and condemn EU regulation, particularly environmental regulation, and call for its watering down as part of this process.

I was pondering how to encapsulate the wildness of some of the calls for a reduction in EU regulation. However, I spotted an article in the Telegraph in the spring in which it called on the Conservative Party to,

“promise a bonfire of EU red tape”.

The examples the article mentioned were pretty interesting. For example, it referred to the working time directive. So we want to go back to doctors falling asleep while treating patients, do we? The article also referred to builders and newts. Apparently, the entire construction industry is on its knees as a result of too many newts. It also referred to forcing householders to use dim energy-saving lightbulbs. So let us fry the planet with climate change instead. And, of course, there was reference to the perennial bent bananas. I find it difficult to take seriously a campaign with these four prime examples. It is a real shame that noble Lords on the Conservative Privy Council Benches who have continuously advocated such a bonfire are not in their place for this important debate.

A considerable proportion of the EU regulation that will need to be transposed is environmental regulation, the purpose of which is to protect not only the environment but also the public. Therefore, I want to focus on the environmental regulation issue. European environmental regulation has delivered for the environment. We now have cleaner beaches and bathing water. Before the European bathing water directive was passed, only 16 beaches in this country had bathing water considered safe for people to swim in. We now have more than 630 safe beaches. European environmental regulation has reduced waste and made more environmentally sound our handling of waste and our reprocessing and reusing of valuable raw materials. It has also made a huge difference to the protection of our wildlife sites. Every year some 15% of our sites of special scientific interest used to be damaged. That is now down to 0.1% a year on average.

The EU has also been very instrumental in introducing regulation to reduce air pollution. The whole issue of acid rain, which was a major problem for European countries, was resolved by European legislation. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said, Europe, and the legislation coming from it, will be a key factor in the short term in trying to get more proactive action in this country on tackling urban air pollution and its impacts on human health.

Therefore, the repeal Bill is very important. However, I would like to outline a couple of principles with which I suspect the repeal Bill will struggle. We may well see European legislation and regulation being brought across without too much fiddling—I use that as a technical term—but the principles that underlie much of our environmental progress are at risk of not being transposed successfully: principles such as the polluter pays and the precautionary principle. Therefore, I ask the Minister to tell us how these vital environmental principles can be brought across safely and not be lost in the process.

There is also the issue of compliance and enforcement. I used to be responsible for the quality of water in the Thames. It was impossible to get adequate government investment and to free up Thames Water to allow the super-sewer to stop London being the last capital in the world that uses its river as an open sewer at times of high rainfall. European legislation meant that we were put into infraction and fined eye-watering sums daily, and that is why the Government enabled the creation of the super-sewer, which is now under way. Therefore, although we will lose the infraction process, the fining process and the European Court of Justice, we need to make sure that individuals’ access to environment justice is not lost in the transposition. We will need proper mechanisms to allow that to be replicated effectively in this country. Access to the courts is not enough. We have recently seen a move to reduce the ability of private individuals to call for a judicial review by removing the cap on the costs. Your future livelihood and assets are now threatened if you take a judicial review without that protection.

We do not simply want a process whereby local authorities and companies can be fined for environmental failure; in cases where government has played a major part, we need a mechanism that allows the nation to hold government accountable for failure to deliver environmental outcomes. There are a number of suggestions for that, such as an environmental ombudsman process or an environment court. I have no strong views about which it should be, but it must be an effective process that allows action to be taken where there has been inadequate environmental protection.

Of course, the environmental legislation that we have is not just good for the environment and for all of us who depend on environmental quality; it is also good for business. For example, the global market for low-carbon environmental goods and services is estimated to be €4.2 trillion, and the EU member state market share is currently 21% of that, according to BEIS figures. Environmental impacts are the third most important factor for EU customers after quality and price. According to a report by the Office for National Statistics, environmental goods and services contribute £29 billion to the UK economy in value added, and they account for 373,000 full-time jobs. Therefore, there are big business opportunities here and big opportunities to use environmental regulation to drive innovation.

Some claim that environmental regulation is simply a burden and a barrier to global competitiveness. However, thinking about that rationally, the reality is that, if we fail at global competitiveness, it is because we are not sufficiently innovative and because inevitably we find it difficult to compete on labour-market costs with companies and industries based in countries with less labour-market and other regulation. Therefore, we need to find ways of promoting innovation and make sure that we compete on the basis of added value, not a race to the bottom on standards.

I have been impressed by the way in which various regulators have demonstrated how their approach to regulation supports innovation under the Government’s productivity plan and complements the industrial strategy. Indeed, businesses mostly do not complain about environmental legislation. However, they say that, if they are to have a level playing field, there needs to be clarity on standards, an adequate lead time to allow industry to adapt to those standards and innovative ways of meeting them. The last thing they want is changes of direction, very short notice and flip-flops—which might be a bit of a problem for this Government.

Of course, we all want better regulation, and various noble Lords have spoken about that. It needs to be risk based, proportionate and transparent. The regulators need to work in partnership with the regulated businesses and parties and to help them improve, not stand on the sidelines until they get it wrong and then shout at them. But that implies that we must have resources for the agencies to allow them to take that more risk-based and collaborative approach. Alas, that has not been the history of the environmental regulators over the past few years.

I have been privileged to work with a number of people in the better regulation field, not least the noble Lord, Lord Curry, who I am delighted to see is in his place. He led the Better Regulation Executive and did some excellent work. Indeed, when he said that he was standing down, I rather fancied the job, so I phoned up and inquired about it. It turns out that there is not going to be a chairman of the Better Regulation Executive in the future and that the Government have simply handed that over to the Civil Service as a process.

With the one in, three out rule, and without proper consideration of the full benefits of the costs to business and proposed benefits to the public—not just focusing on the £10 billion of savings but looking at what environmental regulation delivers—we need proper oversight of the whole better regulation process. We need an independent body that combines business and beneficiaries, and keeps a firm eye not just on the costs of regulation but the benefits. Environmental protection is for people’s future, and it is too important to be a victim of the anti-regulation political tendentiousness we see in the better regulation field at the moment.