Moved by Lord Krebs
99: After Clause 109, insert the following new Clause—“Habitats Regulations: limits on powers to amend(1) The Secretary of State may only make regulations under section 108 or 109—(a) for the purposes of—(i) securing compliance with an international environmental obligation, or(ii) contributing to the favourable conservation status of species or habitats or the favourable condition of protected sites; (b) if the regulations do not reduce the level of protection provided by the Habitats Regulations, including protection for protected species, habitats or sites; and(c) following public consultation and consultation with—(i) the Office for Environmental Protection,(ii) Natural England,(iii) the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, and(iv) other relevant expert bodies.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment ensures that powers to amend the Habitats Regulations may only be used for the purposes of environmental improvement following consultation. It ensures that the level of environmental protection that must be maintained includes protection for important habitats, sites and species as well as overall environmental protection.
My Lords, the amendment is in my name together with those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.
The amendment replaces four amendments that we debated in Committee. It has the same intent as those four amendments: to ensure that the Secretary of State cannot amend the habitats regulations without due process and constraints.
Bearing in mind the admonition we recently heard, let me recap very briefly. The habitats regulations protect our most valuable conservation sites, habitats and species. While these sites account for only a modest proportion of our land and marine area, they certainly punch well above their weight when it comes to protection of species. Unlike the targets in Clause 3, which apply to the country as a whole, the habitats regulations refer to specific places. This is an important distinction.
Clauses 108 and 109 allow the Secretary of State to amend these regulations, and they do not give enough safeguards to ensure that our most valuable habitats will be protected in future. Amendment 99 would provide those safeguards, stating explicitly that any changes to the habitat regulations would not breach any of our international obligations, would contribute to enhancing the conservation of habitat sites and species and would not reduce current levels of protection. It would also require the Government to consult the appropriate statutory expert bodies and other relevant experts. In short, it places in the Bill the commitments that the Government have already made in debate in Committee, when the Minister reassured us on every point.
So what is not to like? The Minister told us that key reasons for Clauses 108 and 109 were contributing to “international obligations” and ensuring
“our protected sites can be restored to good condition”.
This is made clear in Amendment 99. He also told us that the powers in these clauses would be used only to strengthen environmental protection. However, as it stands this would be a test of the Secretary of State being satisfied that protections are not reduced. Although the Minister described this as a “high bar”, it is a subjective judgment. Amendment 99 would replace this subjective test, whereby Ministers mark their own homework, with an objective requirement. The Minister pointed out that the Secretary of State’s judgment could be challenged in the courts, but that seems to me to be setting up a system that would generate money for lawyers and take up large amounts of time with uncertain outcomes. Why not simplify with Amendment 99?
The Minister said that the Government would consult the office for environmental protection before making any changes to the habitats regulations. Amendment 99 extends the consultation requirement to include other relevant bodies. He also referred to a review led by the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, but did not tell us who was consulted in this review and what its impact will be. Perhaps he can expand on this in his reply.
As I have already mentioned, a crucial difference between the habitats regulations and the Clause 3 commitments is that the habitats regulations protect particular sites, habitats and species, while the Clause 3 targets do not. The Minister told us that Clause 108 is
“designed to allow requirements to specify … protections for habitats and species”.—[
However, this does not guarantee those protections. The Minister also told us in Committee that the habitats regulations had not worked. I am not sure to which studies he is referring, but the evidence, as I understand it, from peer-reviewed literature, is that protected species fare better in countries where protection of the kind provided by the habitats regulations is most extensive and long-standing. This is not to say that things could not be improved. However, the Minister did not give us specific examples of how the powers of Clauses 108 and 109 would lead to an improvement. In fact, we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, that this was a post-Brexit opportunity to cut red tape and bureaucracy—hardly a reassuring message.
In summary, I have not heard any convincing arguments against the habitats regulations being maintained, and Amendment 99 will ensure that any changes in future will strengthen rather than weaken them. I very much look forward to what the Minister has to say in his reply but, as things stand, I would wish to test the opinion of the House on this crucial amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, your Lordships’ House will hear from me a great deal later on, so I will be very brief in this contribution. I have attached my name to this amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, which of course has full cross-party and non-party backing. The noble Lord has set out an overwhelmingly powerful case for why we should have this amendment.
I make two comments. We were promised non-regression with Brexit, and this would restore some of the protections that we lost with Brexit and, more than non-regression, we were promised improvements. This is simply standing still, so the Government really must commit to this amendment.
My Lords, it was very long ago and far away that the birth of the habitats regulations took place, but it was something on which the EU was led by the UK. Since then, the impact in terms of improved protection for habitat sites and species has been huge. The SACs and SPAs that they created are the very jewels in the crown of UK nature and the countryside.
Clauses 108 and 109 as they stand state that any changes to the habitats regulations should not reduce the level of environmental protection provided, but the judge on whether a change represents a reduction in protection is left to the Secretary of State—he is going to mark his own homework. This would be after consultation of course, but the clauses do not say who he will consult.
Let us face it: we know that, in some quarters, the habitats regulations have long been a post-Brexit target for pulling their teeth. There is a unique hatred of the habitats regulations in some quarters. They are seen as getting in the way of development, but that is usually inappropriate development. There is an antagonism that is in the same camp as the sweeping zonal proposals in the planning system changes, which we hear the Government have been forced to abandon. The Secretary of State has asked the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, who was briefly in his place, to chair a habitats regulations assessment working group, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said. It is described as a small and informal group, but I think it is a bit of a giveaway that one member of this four-person group is also working with the Government on their planning reforms. It is so small and informal that it has not yet published any outcomes of its review. Can the Minister tell us when it will report and who it is consulting?
The Government say that they need to amend the habitats regulations to meet the Environment Bill targets and the environmental improvement plans, but measures to meet those could easily have been in addition to, not instead of, the habitats regulations. We should be rejoicing in what the UK-inspired habitats regulations have achieved in reducing annual damage to and loss of our key wildlife sites—from 17% each year before the regulations were introduced to 0.17% after their introduction.
In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, assured us that the proposed new powers were to improve the condition of our sites. The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, would set these good intentions in law.
My Lords, I hope that the Climate Change Committee will be one of the appropriate organisations to which this amendment applies; I declare an interest in that sense. There is nothing in this amendment that the Minister has not committed himself to already. All it would do is make sure of the advantages that we have in the habitats directive, which was taken into our own law. The Climate Change Committee has taken to it very strongly because of the additional advantages of sequestration and the treatment of land, which this helps in a significant way. I find it very difficult to see why the Government cannot accept it, unless there is somebody hidden away in No. 10 who has a plot.
I therefore hope that my noble friend realises what will happen if the Government do not accept this: he will have to whip the Conservative Party to vote against the very things that he says he will do. All this amendment would do is to make sure that any successive Minister would also have to do those things. That is, after all, a legacy that he would no doubt like to leave.
My Lords, Clause 109(3) says:
“The Secretary of State may make regulations under this section only if satisfied that the regulations do not reduce the level of environmental protection provided by the Habitats Regulations.”
I suggest that all the Minister needs to do from this point of view is delete the words “satisfied that”.
My Lords, I add the support of our Benches for this important regulation on day four of Report. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said, the habitats regulations are the jewel in the crown in terms of protecting our sites of most special protection for our wildlife and our birds, our bitterns and our nightingales.
It has not been mentioned in this debate so far today that the proposals from the Government to amend these regulations were smuggled in on Report down the other end. These are incredibly important regulations. No one is saying that things must be set in stone for ever, but if they are to be changed, it should be done with full and clear consultation and for the right purpose.
The Minister said in Committee, “They’re not working.” I live in Surrey, which is one of the most densely populated areas, and they are working there. With the Thames Basin initiative of 11 planning authorities, we are managing to build the houses and protect the sites at the same time. If there are going to be changes, the Government should ensure that there is no regression, which this amendment would guarantee, and that there is consultation with experts. As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said, that might be a slightly broader list than that suggested in the amendment so far but certainly there needs to be that expert consultation.
If this amendment is not accepted, it will leave the impression that there are other reasons why the Government are prepared, at a time when we are facing a nature crisis, to sweep aside these most important protections. That will make people feel that perhaps it is because they want to ensure that planning regulations are given a light touch, which, frankly, is not appropriate given the environmental challenge and crisis that we face.
The noble Lord has set out in detail why we have concerns about Clauses 108 and 109 and why the safeguards in our amendment are so important. There is real concern that the government clauses will weaken the protection of our most valued species and habitats which the habitats directive conferred. There is also concern that the clauses give the Secretary of State undue discretionary powers to change the rules in the future.
The Minister will no doubt argue that there is no need to worry and that the wording in the clauses give sufficient protection that the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity will be assured. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and others have explained, there is a difference between a general commitment to biodiversity and the specific protection of individual habitats and species. The new objectives are simply not a substitute for those of the nature directives, which have provided the first line of defence for our most precious habitats over many years.
If we are not careful, these new powers could be used to deconstruct the strict protections for the UK’s finest wildlife sites by referencing other enabling clauses in the Bill. This is why we believe that the general commitment to enhanced biodiversity and to halting species decline, which is elsewhere in the Bill, need to go hand in hand with the more specific guarantees set out in our amendment. This would ensure that any regulations made under these clauses delivered compliance with international obligations, and, crucially, improved the conservation status of species or habitats. It would also deliver the non-regression promises that the Government made when we left the EU.
In response to the debate in Committee, the Minister spelled out that the Government are planning a Green Paper in the autumn with the aim of providing a “fit-for-purpose regulatory framework” to deliver the Government’s ambitions for nature. However, we know that historically, the Government’s idea of “fit-for-purpose regulation” is less regulation and less protection, and we also know that a Green Paper could take a very long time to reach conclusions that can be enacted. We are being asked to put our faith in a process which is stepping into the unknown, and it is quite likely that by the time that process is completed, a different set of Ministers will be in play, with a different set of priorities. Therefore, the proposal for a Green Paper simply adds to our concerns.
Over the summer, we were grateful to have a meeting with the Defra officials dealing with this issue, who sought to reassure us that this was about improving nature recovery rather than watering it down. But of course they do not yet know the content of the Green Paper or its likely outcome. In the meantime, all we have before us is the wording in Clauses 108 and 109 and the rather amorphous phrase that the Secretary of State must “have regard to” the importance of furthering conservation and enhancement of biodiversity.
As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, made clear, it should not be for the Secretary of State to make that call, or to be satisfied that the regulations do not reduce environmental protection for what my noble friend Lady Young rightly described as the jewels in the crown of the countryside. This decision needs to be authenticated by objective scientific bodies such as those set out in our amendment. I hope that noble Lords, having listened to the debate, will understand the strength of our concerns and will agree to support the amendment.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions during this debate. The Bill takes the world-leading step of requiring a new, historic and legally binding target to halt species decline by 2030. The powers in Clauses 108 and 109 form an integral part of our strategy to achieve this.
The first of those powers enables the amendment to Regulation 9 of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. Currently, that regulation requires Ministers and public authorities to comply with or have regard to the requirements of the habitats and wild birds directives. However, these requirements are not explicitly set out anywhere. This has provided scope for differing interpretations and disagreement, as well as potential for legal challenge.
Instead of spending time and taxpayers’ money on battles in the courtroom, we want to try to focus on ensuring that the protection of our designated sites and species is based on robust science and technical expertise. The Government will publish a Green Paper later this year, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, acknowledged, which will set out clearly, plainly and transparently our view of the current requirements of Regulation 9 and remove that uncertainty. We will consult on and agree the conservation requirements necessary to meet our biodiversity targets and improve the natural environment. This will support our aim to focus on the scientific evidence as well as our national priorities for nature restoration.
The second power concerns the amendment to Part 6 of the regulations, which enables us to review the current habitats regulations assessment process. My noble friend Lord Benyon is chairing a small working group that is gathering information from experts regarding our current HRA process, to inform any future decisions on the use of these powers. The group is consulting a wide range of experts with direct experience of HRA, including the competent authorities, statutory advisers, environmental NGOs, developers, town and country planners and land managers. The group includes Minister Pow, Tony Juniper—he is chair of Natural England—and Christopher Katkowski QC. It will input options for proposals and questions to the Green Paper, which will then be subject to extensive consultation.
A clearer, quicker and more easily understood process will support environmental protection by focusing on the issues that really matter for protected sites. I am reminded that Lord Justice Sullivan, when the regulations were formulated, recommended that we needed a system that was simple and not too full of hurdles that could end up causing excessive battles in the courtrooms. It feels to me that, in part, that is where things have ended up.
However, I can commit to this House that no changes will be made without extensive consultation and strong parliamentary scrutiny. Consultation will include the office for environmental protection and statutory nature conservation bodies. It will also include key environmental NGOs, farmers and land managers to name a few. Those commitments are reinforced in Clauses 108(5) and 109(3), so that, in making regulations using these powers, Ministers must be satisfied that they do not reduce existing protections. In addition, we have added a specific requirement that Ministers justify to Parliament that any new regulations using these powers meet the test. This is a meaningful scrutiny mechanism with strong safeguards ensuring that we will not reduce the level of environmental protection.
I know some noble Lords are concerned that the changes will undermine the specific protections currently conferred by the habitats and wild birds directives, and I want to be clear that Clause 108(3) allows for requirements or objectives to be specified in relation to the 2030 species target or other long-term biodiversity targets and to improve our natural environment. These requirements and objectives can specify, among other things, how we must protect habitats and species, and at what scale, to ensure we can reverse biodiversity loss.
Additionally, many of the requirements in the directives derive in turn from multilateral environmental agreements, of which the UK is a contracting party and was instrumental in promoting—in particular, the Berne convention. We remain bound by international law and committed to those obligations to contribute to the conservation status of these habitats and species within their natural range and to continue to co-operate internationally to do so. We remain equally bound by and committed to conserving the marine environment under the Ospar convention; migratory species under the Bonn convention; wetlands under the Ramsar Convention; and, more broadly, the Convention on Biological Diversity.
I hope I have gone some way to reassure noble Lords that this power has been tightly drafted, with strong safeguards in place on its use, and that Amendment 99 is therefore not necessary. Climate change and biodiversity loss present huge long-term challenges that literally threaten our future if left unchecked. We need to act now, through this Bill, to halt the decline of species by 2030 and, as noble Lords will know, we will be legally obliged to do so when the Bill becomes an Act, as we hope it will. The habitats regulation assessment is a key mechanism for preventing deterioration of our most valuable habitats. We want to strengthen that protection and investigate ways in which the habitats regulation assessment could support better environmental outcomes. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate and the Minister for his response. I want to make just three points. The first is that, listening carefully to what he said, I reiterate the question that the noble Lord, Lord Deben, put to him: there is nothing that the Government are not already committed to in this amendment, so why not accept it? I have not heard the argument against it. I have heard the argument for it from the Minister.
The second point concerns the Green Paper, which loomed large in the Minister’s response. There seems to be one species that might be protected by the Green Paper: the pig—the pig in the poke. We do not know what is going to be in the Green Paper. We have had a list of names of people who might be consulted, but we do not know what form the consultation has taken.
The third point is that the Minister referred to the need to have a regulatory regime that is quicker, easier and simpler. That rings alarm bells for me. Ease, simplicity and speed are not necessarily merits that one wishes to pursue if one’s aim is to protect the natural environment. I am afraid that although I have heard responses in detail to Amendment 99, I am not convinced that they provide a satisfactory end point, and therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 201, Noes 186.