Motion E

Part of Environment Bill - Commons Reasons and Amendments – in the House of Lords at 5:33 pm on 26 October 2021.

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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) 5:33, 26 October 2021

My Lords, with the leave of the House I will speak also to Motions F, F1, G, G1, N and N1. We are now discussing the second half of our new, transformative system of environmental governance. This new system has been tailored specifically to a UK context, embeds the environment in future policy-making and takes the essential steps needed to strengthen environmental oversight.

I turn to Amendments 28 and 28B, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. I sincerely thank her for our discussions on this issue and for her proposal to narrow the amendment specifically to cover “safeguarding national security”. However, I am afraid that even with this revised amendment it is the view of the Government that the original exemption for the Armed Forces, defence and national security is still required to provide flexibility to protect and secure the nation. The Government therefore cannot accept the amendment.

The primary function of the defence estate is to support our operations and maintain military capability. It provides homes for those who defend our country, offices for work, space for training, and conditions to prepare to meet the ever-changing threats that the UK faces. This means that defence land, defence policy and national security are inextricably linked. MoD land cannot be separated out; it touches on decisions across the Armed Forces, national security and defence. “National security” does not cover all defence activities. If the coverage of the exemption is reduced, as proposed in the amendment, that directly risks the readiness of our defence capabilities and could impact our responsiveness.

I know that this is a matter in which noble Lords have a keen interest and I emphasise again that these exemptions do not apply to SSSI management, where the MoD is on track to meet the 25-year environment plan target for SSSIs in favourable condition for the sites under its management. Natural England has assessed 48% of the department’s English sites as in favourable condition, which compares well with the English average of 39%.

I reassure the noble Baroness, on the back of the discussions that we have had, that the department will be providing further reassurance in writing of its intentions in relation to the protection, good conservation and improvement of the land under its management. I hope to be able to provide that to her soon.

I turn to the office for environmental protection. I will speak to Amendments 31, 31A, 31B, 31C, 75, 75A, 75B and 75C together, tabled by my colleague Rebecca Pow in the other place and by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. I reiterate the Government’s commitment to establishing the OEP as an independent body. This guidance power is required to ensure appropriate accountability and that the OEP continues to operate effectively because the Secretary of State is ultimately responsible to Parliament for the OEP. There are other examples of independent arm’s-length bodies where provision has been made for the Secretary of State to give guidance; for example, under Section 41 of the Climate Change Act 2008 the Secretary of State can give guidance to the Climate Change Committee regarding the exercise of its functions. We are seeking only to do the same in ensuring appropriate accountability and that the OEP continues to operate effectively by focusing on the most serious, strategic cases with national implications.

None the less, I acknowledge the concerns that have been raised about this power. In recognition of noble Lords’ comments, we introduced a new provision to ensure that Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly can scrutinise draft guidance before it is issued. The Secretary of State must respond to that scrutiny before final guidance can be laid and have effect. This has been reinstated in the other place, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for adding it to his amendment in lieu. I hope noble Lords will recognise that their concerns are being listened to with this measure.

I turn to the other parts of the amendment. I should be clear with noble Lords that we are confident that the right appointment processes are in place for the OEP. These are equivalent to those for other independent scrutiny bodies, such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission. This retains the right balance between ministerial accountability and operational independence. Furthermore, as set out in the Written Ministerial Statement on 7 September:

“The Government took the necessary steps to ensure that the role of Chair was listed as a significant appointment with the Commissioner for Public Appointments … The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Environmental Audit Committees conducted a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing before the appointment of Dame Glenys Stacey as OEP Chair Designate.”—[Official Report, Commons, 7/9/21; col. 19WS.]

I am happy to reiterate our intention that future chair appointments should follow a similar process, ensuring fairness, accountability and independence in future, as was set out in the Written Ministerial Statement.

I hope that that provides some reassurance for noble Lords and indicates why the amendment therefore is not necessary. Ultimately, Ministers are accountable and responsible to Parliament for public appointments. While we are committed to ensuring parliamentary scrutiny, it is appropriate that Ministers should retain the ability to make the final choice.

Amendments 33 and 33B, on enforcement, were tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, and I am grateful to him and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for the engagement that they have given us over the preceding weeks and months. The OEP’s enforcement powers will operate more effectively than those of the European Commission as the OEP will be able to liaise directly with the public body in question to investigate and resolve alleged serious breaches of environmental law in a more targeted and timely manner.

Through environmental review, the OEP can apply for judicial review remedies—subject to appropriate safeguards—that will work to ensure compliance with environmental law. The Court of Justice of the EU cannot issue these kinds of remedies to member states and therefore the OEP could have a far more direct impact on third parties than the previous system. The protections for third parties brought into the OEP’s process of environmental review have therefore been specifically designed in recognition of the unique nature of this type of legal challenge.

We also have to consider the direct impacts that the OEP’s enforcement function may have on third parties. Through environmental review, the OEP will be able to bring cases to court outside of standard judicial review time limits, potentially long after the decisions in question have been taken. For instance, if a quashing order was placed on planning permission or consent for a new shopping centre many months or even years after the decision was taken and where significant building work had already taken place, this could result in substantial hardship for the various parties involved, which would not be fair. We need to ensure that the key principles of fairness and certainty are upheld for third parties who have acted in good faith on the basis of certain decisions and balance this with the need to protect the environment.

Furthermore, the principle behind the provision to protect third-party rights on environmental review is not new. As I have noted in previous debates, it is an extension of the existing position for legal challenges, including under the Senior Courts Act 1981 and the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. These Acts grant the courts discretion to refuse relief where there has been undue delay, and this would be likely to substantially impact third parties or be detrimental to good administration. We are building on these precedents here in a way that reflects the nature of environmental review.

While I thank the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, for proposing Amendment 33B, I am afraid that it does not offer such protections for third parties against the quashing of decisions outside of normal time limits. The factors that it sets out, which the court would have to have regard to, would not provide sufficient protection or certainty, and therefore we cannot support it. The Government have reflected on this new amendment, but I am afraid that it still offers no further protections for third parties. I hope that noble Lords can understand our position on this matter and on the other amendments that we have been discussing.