Amendment 113F

Environment Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 30th June 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering:

Moved by Baroness McIntosh of Pickering

113F: Clause 45, page 27, line 14, at end insert—“(c) has regard to the provisions of the Aarhus Convention (UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters which entered into force on 30 0ctober 2001).”

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

I am grateful, my Lords, and I will not test the patience of the House to any great extent.

I have taken the precaution of sharing the briefing I have received from the Bar Council, which has helped me in preparing this amendment, so I hope my noble friend may be able to consider many of the technical details at more leisure than we have this evening. This debate, although not dissimilar, is different from our earlier debate on the group of amendments starting with Amendment 108A. It is really to ask a very simple question of my noble friend as to why previous incarnations of the papers preceding the draft of the Bill indicated that we might be incorporating the Aarhus convention into the Bill. There is disappointment, particularly among legal practitioners, that it is not now included.

I should declare an interest that I studied at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, although not environmental law. I embarked on a thesis looking at anti-trust and competition law in the European Union, particularly joint ventures. That is my unfinished masterpiece, to which I shall no doubt return.

Clause 45(1) limits the definition to “any legislative provision” which

“is mainly concerned with environmental protection, and … is not concerned with an excluded matter.”

The Aarhus convention, despite being concerned with environmental issues, justice and information, obviously does not fall within the term

“mainly concerned with environmental protection”.

So the amendment I have put before the Committee this evening might make better sense if it read as I have set out on the Order Paper, but with allowance at the end for

“any subsequent legislation that supersedes it or incorporates its provisions.”

I will not rehearse all the benefits of the Aarhus Convention, but highlight just one or two. As I mentioned, the Government seemed to indicate that it would be incorporated. There are many reasons to do so. The convention adopts a rights-based approach in its Article 1. It sets out minimum standards to be achieved and prohibits discrimination against persons seeking to exercise their rights under the convention. The main thrust of the obligations contained in the convention is towards public authorities, which strikes a chord, as the Environment Bill is for the first time extending responsibilities to public bodies.

The convention includes institutions of the European Union including, inter alia, the European Commission, the Council and the European Environment Agency, and it sets out access to environmental information, which the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, set out in some detail, so I shall not rehearse that. Finally, in addition to access to justice in environmental matters, I am very taken by the fact that, under the Aarhus convention, the UK is required to complete a national implementation report every three years.

I thank the Bar Council for setting out what is important to sign up to the Aarhus convention. Can I tacitly assume that we are applying the Aarhus convention, otherwise known as the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, which entered into force on 30 October 2001, or can I draw the conclusion that the Government have turned their back and do not intend to apply that convention for the purposes of the Bill? This is intended as a probing amendment to find out the legal status of the Aarhus convention—I am using the Danish pronunciation, obviously—for the purposes of the Bill. When those few words, I look forward to hearing my noble friend’s response.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 5:45 pm, 30th June 2021

My Lords, briefly, I offer my support to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and thank her for tabling it and for sharing the very useful Bar Council briefing. I shall just draw a couple of points from that and make an additional point of my own.

One point to draw from that briefing is that there is a broad definition of environmental information within the Aarhus convention. The briefing rather weighs on some of our earlier debates, noting that it includes a non-exhaustive list of elements of the environment: air, water and soil. It also includes cultural sites and built structures, which very much weighed on a debate on day three perhaps—it all blurs—but one that we had earlier on the inclusion of culture within the frame of the Bill, for which noble Lords on all sides of the Committee strongly argued.

I also wanted to draw attention to the other point of the Aarhus convention, which says that

“public authorities may not withhold information, except for”— and then follows what one would think of as a fairly standard list of exemptions. There is a very important restriction on those exemptions, which is that

“commercial confidentiality may not be invoked to withhold information that is relevant to the protection of the environment”.

Given the level of privatisation of so many aspects of our management of our environment—water companies come to mind most clearly, but there are many others—that may be a very important protection to ensure that this is fully included and complied with. It is worth noting that we are talking about an international convention to which we signed up, but we have recently had a lot of encounters in which the Government do not seem to regard themselves as being bound by international law and matters to which they have signed up.

My final point is the real, life-and-death seriousness of this. I shall refer to a case to which many people, including my noble friend, have referred to previously, which is the tragic death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. I want to quote just one sentence from the coroner’s conclusion, which said:

“There was a lack of information given to Ella’s mother that possibly contributed to her death.”

Very often, when people are thinking about information about the environment being available, they are thinking in broad public health terms—they are thinking of campaigners, whom the Green Party is often supporting, fighting big issues. We are also talking about matters of life and death, and people being able to protect themselves and their children if information is available to them.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for allowing us to have this brief debate. She has rightly raised the fact that the OEP should have some continuing role in monitoring and factoring in our obligations under international environmental law. These obligations, including Aarhus, still exist despite us leaving the EU—and these are not technical questions, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, as just illustrated so vividly. If the Government are not minded to accept this amendment, it would be helpful if they could spell out how the role of the OEP and its enforcement functions with regard to our international obligations will appear in the Bill. I therefore look forward to the Minister’s response.

However, since I have the floor, I briefly echo the concerns of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, about all the business on the Bill ending up at Report. I just say very kindly to the Minister that, in the past, it has been a much more iterative process. It is really not very helpful that the Minister seems to be giving us a blanket no to all the amendments we are debating. Normally, there is a little more give and take. Everyone has their own way of doing things, and he must develop his own style, but I fear that he is storing up more problems than is necessary at Report if he does not take the Chamber with him. This might just be a matter of tone, but I give him just a little helpful advice about how we might proceed.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering for Amendment 113F and reassure noble Lords that the Government are fully committed to the important aims of the Aarhus convention and fulfilling our obligations under this agreement.

The definition of environmental law in the Environment Bill has been designed with the primary purpose of defining the scope of the OEP. The OEP’s remit is to oversee the implementation of domestic legislation, rather than international law. Separate mechanisms exist to regulate compliance with international agreements.

Where the OEP determines a complaint to be outside its scope and considers that the complaint is regarding a failure to comply with the convention, the OEP would be expected to advise the complainant to approach the Aarhus convention compliance committee. This committee considers complaints related to obligations under the Aarhus convention, which is international law, and submits recommendations to the full meeting of the parties.

I assure my noble friend that where the provisions of the Aarhus convention have been given effect in UK law and meet the definition of environmental law, they will fall within the remit of the OEP. The OEP will consider which legislation falls within the definition on a case-by-case basis.

There are, of course, areas in which, appropriately, provisions implementing the convention may not be included in the OEP’s remit. For example, under Clause 45(2)(a) provisions on the

“disclosure of or access to information” are specifically excluded from the definition of environmental law and therefore from the OEP’s remit. This is to avoid overlap with the role of the Information Commissioner’s Office, as we discussed in one of our earlier debates. Amending the definition as proposed would therefore result in confusion, including over the functions of the OEP and the Information Commissioner’s Office.

In response to the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on air pollution, Defra makes air pollution information available through a range of channels. It also informs a network of charities, including the Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation partnership, the British Heart Foundation, the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and the British Thoracic Society, when elevated air pollution levels are forecast to ensure that information reaches the most vulnerable. It will not be bullet-proof or foolproof, but the attempt is there and the mechanism is there to provide that information to those who need it. More broadly, there are several ways in which the public can access air quality information, including through mainstream media, air quality alert systems and dedicated websites, such as those of the UK air and health charities and numerous campaigns. There are a number of alert systems, including in Manchester and London, that people can sign up to, often funded by local authorities. As I say, this is not a bullet-proof or foolproof process. Like everyone in the Committee’s, my heart goes out to Ella’s family. What happened to her absolutely needs to be the basis for all kinds of lessons learned and adds another layer of urgency to the work we are doing through this Bill in relation to air quality.

This group concludes the governance part of the Bill. I have appreciated the interest of all parties in the Committee in this important part of the Bill. I conclude by reaffirming that my door is open to continued discussions on these and other essential issues.

Before I ask my noble friend to withdraw her amendment, I note the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. There are plenty of areas in which I expect the Bill will improve, but it is not within the gift of a Minister unilaterally to decide which amendments should be accepted. I do not think there is any doubt in the department I work for that there are areas in which the Bill can and should be improved. Plenty of very helpful amendments and suggestions have been put forward by the Committee. With that, I ask my noble friend to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Deputy Chairman of Committees

I have received no requests to speak after the Minister, so I move to the mover, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all those who have spoken in the debate, so movingly in the case of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. I welcome the opportunity to have pressed my noble friend in this regard.

I will revert back to practitioners at the Bar Council to ask whether they are completely satisfied with this. From their briefing, my understanding is that there are already similar exclusions in the Aarhus convention. I congratulate my noble friend on his pronunciation. I am extremely impressed and I think we will be speaking Danish together before we even know it. There are similar exclusions to our own freedom of information as exist under the Aarhus convention.

The subsection (2)(a) to which my noble friend referred is a blanket exclusion about which I have some fear. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, highlighted that we need to be very clear about what is being excluded. If it is information that could make a life or death change to someone like the parent of Ella, it is very important that we are cognisant of that and try to work within the law as much as possible.

I support both my noble friend Lord Caithness and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. I am grateful for her support for the sentiments behind this amendment. When my noble friend Lady Bloomfield and I joined, which was the same year, it was around the time that the procedures here changed. I welcome the fact that in Committee we can have much more probing and lengthier debates, but there was possibly some merit, on a case-by-case basis, to disposing of some of those amendments that could possibly be accepted by the Government or easily disposed of either way, rather than storing up problems when the Government have given us such a tight deadline, as they have. If we can work together and find a middle way on this, that would be very helpful indeed.

With those remarks and the fact that I will go back and take further advice from the Bar Council, I am delighted to have had the debate but beg leave to withdraw the amendment at this stage.

Amendment 113F withdrawn.

Amendments 114 and 114A not moved.

Clause 45 agreed.

Clause 46: Interpretation of Part 1: general