Motion E1 (as an amendment to Motion E)

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

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Baroness Parminter:

Moved by Baroness Parminter

At end insert “, and do propose Amendment 28B in lieu—

28B: Clause 18, page 11, line 24, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—“(a) safeguarding national security,””

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee, Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee

My Lords, I beg to move Motion E1, as an amendment to Motion E—I believe that is the correct phraseology. I read carefully in Hansard the debate on our amendment on the exemptions that we were calling for on the policy statement on environmental principles. I am disappointed that the Government did not support it, but I am grateful for the support for this case from the Labour Benches, the Greens and the SNP.

The Government cited financial privilege as a reason why we should not proceed with this amendment, and of course I accept that on the basis of the reference to the tax-and-spend points in the amendment that we proposed, when it went to the Commons. I am grateful that, in the Commons, the Minister made the point that all departments will be obliged to subject their policy decisions to the rigours of the policy statement on environmental principles. I am mindful that, clearly, the macroeconomic points that the Treasury has are outwith that—but I am grateful.

However, the Government gave no reasons for refusing the point, made by this House, that the MoD should not be completely exempt from having to take account of the policy statement on environmental principles. The Minister’s comments seemed to suggest that there was a fear of legal challenge. I find that quite surprising. I am not a lawyer, but I am well aware that the courts are very well equipped to filter out unmeritorious cases, as they stand. Equally, while we were in the European Union, the MoD was subject to all these provisions, with a very tiny exemption with regard only to security matters pertaining to munitions and arms. So it has been subject to all these requests to take account of environmental principles for, effectively, the last 30 years. There have not been any challenges, and it does not seem to have caused any problems. However, that is the reason that has been cited, so it is the one that I had to address.

For that reason, I narrowed the scope of the disapplication purely to “national security”, in the hope that that would reassure them. Again, I am not a lawyer, but my understanding from lawyers far more eminent that me is that the courts will always defer to the Executive on matters of national security. Therefore, it seemed to me that the proposal that I put forward was reasonable and met the needs, as they saw it, of the MoD to protect its fear of being challenged on urgent operational matters. It seemed to me that it also met this House’s clear desire that all government departments should be subject to having consideration of the environmental principles, with certain particular tightened safeguards. That was also the position of the Environmental Audit Committee, the EFRA committee in the other House and the office for environmental protection, when it gave its first and only advice to the Government, earlier this year.

I think that the amendment that I proposed today was reasonable and fair, but I hear what the Minister has said, and I spot a red line when I see one. At this stage in the game, I will reluctantly up stumps—but I serve notice to the team opposite that this is an issue that this House takes extremely seriously. I heard the Minister say that I will be provided with reassurances. I am looking for a clear statement from the MoD that there is equivalence in how it deals with climate change and with nature protection. Under the Climate Change Act, it is obliged to take climate change seriously. I want to see the word “equivalence”. I say again to the team opposite that, if we do not get that, this House, which takes this matter very seriously, will bring out its fastest spin bowlers, among whom I count my committee, the Environment and Climate Change Committee—I see members of it in this House today—and we and other Members will knock for six any pathetic excuses that the Government come up with, if they do not keep to that commitment.

On that basis, I am grateful for what the Minister has offered—a letter of reassurance. I hope that he can see that, again, I am trying to be consensual. If those words are in there, I will be temporarily reassured, but please be mindful: this is not an issue that will go away.

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Crossbench 5:45, 26 October 2021

My Lords, I rise to speak to Motion F1, which would amend the government Motion F. I also support Motion G1, which we will come to shortly. The issue at stake with my amendment is simply this: does the Bill give the office for environmental protection sufficient independence to allow it to fulfil its function of holding public authorities, including Ministers, to account in relation to breaches of environmental law?

Clause 24 gives the Secretary of State wide-ranging powers to issue guidance to the OEP on the matters listed in Clause 23(6). These include whether a failure to comply with the law is “serious”, how the OEP determines

“whether damage to the … environment or to human health is serious”,

how the OEP exercises its enforcement functions

“in a way that respects the integrity of other statutory regimes”,

how the OEP intends to “avoid … overlap” with relevant ombudsmen and

“how the OEP intends to prioritise cases.”

The Bill also gives the Secretary of State powers to determine the budget of the OEP and to hire and fire the board, including the chair. Many of us feel that this does not add up to creating a truly independent watchdog.

Therefore, on Report, I moved an amendment, with support from across the House, to rewrite Clause 24 in order to ensure that it gave independence to the OEP in its enforcement role and budget. It also gave parliamentary oversight of both the budget and the hiring and firing of board members. This amendment was passed by a majority of 29. The Government proposed an alternative amendment that would have involved more consultation with Parliament but did not remove the guidance powers or change the substance of Clause 24. This amendment is essentially the same as Amendments 31A and 31B that we have in front of us today.

In the other place, on 20 October, my amendment was rejected, in spite of the fact that, according to my reading of Hansard, the speeches that referred to it strongly supported it. In her response, Minister Pow made three points. First, she said that paragraph 17 of Schedule 1 requires the Secretary of State to “have regard to” to the OEP’s independence. But we all know that “have regard to” is a weak requirement.

Secondly, she said that the Secretary of State cannot intervene on “specific … cases”. But by intervening on a category of cases—say, new nuclear power stations—the Secretary of State could, in theory, preclude the OEP from investigating a whole raft of individual cases within that category; for example, if it was advised that it is not a priority.

Thirdly, Minister Pow said:

“The OEP does not have to follow the guidance where it has clear reasons not to do so.”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/10/21; col. 823.]

It is a bit paradoxical to justify the existence of the guidance power by saying that the OEP does not have to take any notice of it. Furthermore, you could argue it would be a brave OEP that ignored the guidance from the individual who has the power to determine its budget and hire and fire the board, including the chair.

I am still not satisfied that the Bill will protect the independence of the OEP without further amendment. This new amendment—my Amendment 31C—is a genuine attempt at compromise, and I hope the Government will recognise this and therefore accept it. Let me briefly summarise. Subsection (1) sets out that the OEP has complete discretion in relation to its enforcement policy and functions and in preparing its budget. This would make it comparable to the Office for Budget Responsibility and the National Audit Office. Subsection (2), importantly, retains the guidance power for the Secretary of State but narrows its focus to certain strategic issues concerned with enforcement, as described in Clause 22(6)(c). Subsection (3) requires the OEP to have due regard to the guidance but allows for circumstances in which it may choose to disregard it. Subsections (4) and (5) refer to consultation and parliamentary scrutiny of the guidance, and subsection (6) involves the relevant parliamentary committees in the hiring and firing of board members.

The long-term success or failure of this Bill will in large part be measured by the effectiveness of the office for environmental protection. All the good intentions of the other parts of the Bill could come to naught without a fully independent watchman. We all had high confidence in and high regard for Dame Glenys Stacey, and for her board. We also have high regard for and confidence in the good intentions of current Defra Ministers. But I believe we have to prepare for the long term and that this amendment is fundamental to protecting the OEP’s independence in the long term.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated

My Lords, I will be brief, as this issue has been debated thoroughly at previous stages of the Environment Bill. I rise to move my Amendment 75C, under Motion N1, which would replace government Amendments 75A and 75B. This mirrors Amendment 31C, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and would achieve the same outcomes for the OEP’s independence in Northern Ireland as his would for the OEP in England.

My amendment would safeguard the OEP’s independence in the long term by amending the power of DAERA to guide how the OEP will hold Ministers to account on any environmental wrongdoings, to make it more targeted. It would also provide the OEP with complete discretion to undertake its activities in Northern Ireland and establish a role for the Assembly’s AERA Committee in overseeing the appointment of the Northern Ireland member on the OEP’s board. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said on Report:

“If the Government accept that the OEP should have complete discretion, surely a matter of this importance should be in the Bill.”—[Official Report, 18/9/21; col. 886.]

The recent DAERA consultation in Northern Ireland on environmental plans, principles and governance indicated strong support for the establishment of the OEP in Northern Ireland. I am in no doubt that that will be a huge boon for our environmental governance, but unless its independence is enshrined for the long term in this Bill, we will have missed a serious opportunity to ensure that this important new body is protected from future political whims. I say that with great reluctance, but we have to consider the political dynamics that exist in the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly. As the EFRA Committee chair Neil Parish MP said in the other place last week,

“we need to ensure that those offices are independent for all time.”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/10/21; col. 804.]

In summary, I disagree with the Government’s amendments in respect of the OEP in Northern Ireland and the need for it to be independent, and I hope the Minister will change his mind on this issue.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Ipswich Lord Anderson of Ipswich Crossbench

My Lords, in logical sequence, I will speak to Motion G1 and Amendment 33B, which concerns the conditions that must be satisfied before the High Court can grant a remedy to the OEP on an application for environmental review. Your Lordships will recall that as the Bill stands, in notable contrast to the normal position under judicial review, no remedy whatever may be granted on environmental review unless the court is satisfied that there is not likely to be any substantial prejudice or detriment to a developer, landowner or any other third party, and that there will be no detriment to good administration. So, the mechanism that appears to allow public authorities to be held to account for the non-performance of their environmental duties will in practice be ineffective in all cases where there are serious conflicting interests.

We accept that the interests of developers and landowners can and should be placed in the balance when courts are making decisions about remedies, but it is perverse and without precedent to suggest that those interests should automatically outweigh all other factors, including the public interest in a clean environment and having the law enforced. In any judicial system worth the name, the court must at least be able to have regard to those factors, which is our modest and limited objective.

We bent over backwards in Amendment 33 to accommodate the Government’s concerns, to the point where my noble and learned friend Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who signed the original amendment, said:

“I cannot see what greater protection any Government could legitimately seek.”—[Official Report, 8/9/21; col. 897.]

We have risen to my noble and learned friend’s challenge and, in response to the other place, imprecise though its comments were, we have been more accommodating still.

There are two additional reasons Amendment 33B should commend itself to the House. First, when listing the factors to which the court must have regard when deciding whether to grant a remedy, we have largely borrowed the list of factors used by the Government themselves for comparable purposes in Clause 1(8) of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which has its Second Reading in the other place today. Those factors specifically include the interests and expectations of developers, landowners and others who have relied—no doubt in good faith—on failures by a public authority to comply with environmental law.

Secondly, my noble friend Lord Krebs has conceded, in his linked Amendment 31C, that the Secretary of State may issue guidance to the OEP on the matters listed in Clause 22(6)(c): that is, the exercise of

“its enforcement functions in a way that respects the integrity of other statutory regimes (including statutory provision for appeals).”

Even if my noble friend’s amendment is accepted—and I hope it is—the Government will have every opportunity to ensure that environmental review, which we accept is designed to deal with systemic problems, is not used to circumvent the short statutory deadlines that apply in planning cases. That fundamentally changes the landscape in which my amendment features.

I am acutely aware that we have to tread delicately at this stage of a Bill, but make no apology for stressing the particular importance of this amendment. Arguments about the precise ambit of the environmental duties to be imposed on public authorities will be to little effect if those duties cannot be enforced in court in the normal way at the request of the body established for the purpose. If this in many ways admirable Bill cannot be made to achieve this, it will have a fundamental weakness at its core. For that reason, and unless the Minister can offer the necessary assurance, which I understand from our continuing dialogue may be unlikely at this stage, I propose to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 33B.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I will pose a couple of brief questions to my noble friend the Minister. He will recall that I supported the original amendment on the independence of the OEP at earlier stages. I cannot think of any other body to which a department has issued guidance that is meant to be overseeing that department. To be honest, I preferred the original Amendment 31 and am struggling entirely to understand the contents of the new Amendment 31C.

Can my noble friend confirm that the Scottish equivalent—Environmental Standards Scotland—does not have to follow guidance set by the Government of Scotland but is left to get on to apply environmental law as it best understands it? I also refer him to the report adopted earlier this year by the European Union Committee, specifically the Environment Sub-Committee on which I have the privilege to sit, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. The report is titled Beyond Brexit: Food, Environment, Energy and Health. In paragraph 164, we concluded:

“Environment law will be more effectively enforced if the UK’s supervisory authorities cooperate closely with one another and with the European Commission. We urge them to enter into this cooperation openly and with the goal of ensuring the maximum level of protection for the environment.”

In evidence given by the Secretary of State to that committee, he was very open-minded about that co-operation and, if that is the case, I urge my noble friend that such co-operation take place and he allows the OEP, under the chairmanship of Dame Glenys Stacey, to work as effectively and independently as it possibly can.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench 6:00, 26 October 2021

My Lords, as someone who spoke passionately about the independence of the OEP at earlier stages of the Bill, I support my noble friend Lord Krebs in his amendment.

The OEP will be at the centre of our country’s new environmental future: post Brexit, post COP 26 and post COP 15. The world is changing fast, and I am pleased to say that, as the Minister mentioned earlier, we are slowly waking up to the environmental dangers we face and gradually—very gradually—moving in the right direction.

We all have great hopes for and expectations of the OEP, and within the nation’s ambitions to drive a cleaner, more sustainable and more biodiverse future, I cannot stress how important it is that we get the OEP right. The success or otherwise of everything in the Bill depends on it. At the moment, it still looks as though it will be a tool of the very department it should be overseeing, as has been mentioned.

Let us not forget that Defra is in charge of and funds our most important environmental bodies: Natural England and the Environment Agency. Even local authorities do much of their environmental work in partnership with Natural England and the Environment Agency, so the auditing and bringing to book of these, our most important environmental bodies, will be crucial. Sadly, in my experience of working with NDPBs within the Defra family, I believe this is unlikely to happen if Defra is allowed to exert undue influence over the OEP. As I said in debates at earlier stages, the OEP has not only to be independent but to be seen to be independent, and at the moment there is a severe danger that it will be neither.

This House’s views on the vital importance of the independence of the OEP have been expressed again and again by noble Lords from all sides of the House with much more eloquence than I can muster, so I will not go on, but I urge Defra, which originally fired the arrow of an independent OEP when Michael Gove was Secretary of State, to now let it fly. This is the department’s chance to do that.

This excellently crafted compromise amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Krebs is, like all compromises, probably not to the satisfaction of all, but I strongly believe that the Government and all noble Lords should now grasp this opportunity to resolve the impasse and give us an OEP we can be proud of by voting for my noble friend’s Motion F1.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lord, extremely briefly, I offer the Green group’s support for all the opposition amendments in this group. On Motion E1, I have a question for the Minister. Will he acknowledge to the House that we cannot keep the same mantra of “It is either deal with climate change or deal with national security” and acknowledge that, as the integrated review says, the climate emergency is the number one threat that the Government should be focused on internationally?

On introducing this debate on Motions F1 and G1, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said that he was not commenting on any individual involved in the OEP. I shall comment on individuals, to note the two noble Lords moving those Motions and urge noble Lords to support those extremely distinguished Members of our House in their area of absolute expertise and get behind them.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

My Lords, when these amendments were dealt with in the House of Commons, the Minister said that she was very satisfied to have the office of environmental protection independent. That is what I want, and I believe that that is what the Government want, but she went on to say that the Secretary of State will be accountable for the OEP. I am in difficulty about the precise nature of that accountability. This is not the easiest question to answer, so I gave notice this morning that I proposed to ask it, so that my noble friend might have an opportunity, if he wished, to think it over. Obviously, the Minister dealing with this in the House of Commons must have had an idea in mind.

This arises in connection with the giving of instructions. The strange thing about the instructions and guidance is that the guidance does not need to be followed. It has to be seen by the Houses of Parliament before it passes, but once it is passed, it need not be performed. To my mind, that is a rather exceptional situation. Why should Parliament be asked to study carefully what the department—the Secretary of State—is proposing but then the organisation that is to receive the instructions need do nothing about it? That is a remarkable situation, but it ties into the idea of the accountability of the Secretary of State for this independent body.

I should be glad to know precisely how this operation is supposed to work. How is the Secretary of State responsible, apart from saying that the OEP is independent and he must secure that at all costs? If that is all, very good, but I suspect that the Minister in the Commons was thinking of something a little more complicated than that, and I hope the Minister can explain it to us in due course.

I think that the Motions in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Krebs and Lord Anderson, are pretty essential to the working of this arrangement, but the principal fact that I wish established is that the OEP should be independent, as the Minister said in the House of Commons.

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

My Lords, I took the opportunity to support the noble Lords, Lord Krebs and Lord Anderson, in the previous rounds of this proposal, and I will continue to do so.

The office for environmental protection is the beating heart of the Environment Bill. We are about to embark on an extraordinary gathering of people about climate change here in the UK, in Glasgow. The eyes of the world are upon us. There are suspicions that this particular element of the Environment Bill is not as strong as it needs to be. The amendments that have been put forward are a useful adjustment to previous amendments and I believe that they are workable. Without them, the pressures that we put upon Dame Glenys Stacey will be immense. The suspicion will linger always that she is somehow or other beholden to the Government in one fashion or another, and there will be continued requests for clarification, and for clarity about her behaviour as well as that of her board and her team—this will go on.

We need the absolute certainty of independence, which we can achieve here today, through these amendments. If we can do that, we can set sail upon a fine voyage—we set sail just before COP, with a very clear successor body to the European Commission, which can do what the European Commission once did—that is, hold power to account.

The amendments are before us. It is up to this House to decide what to do with them.

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

My Lords, first, I am grateful to the Minister for the discussions that he has had with us since Report. Secondly, we are disappointed that the Government have not seen fit to make a concession to the revised amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, to include defence in the scope of the Bill. However, we understand her generous decision to pull up stumps at this point, bearing in mind some of the other pressures on us this evening. Thirdly, we are very grateful, as ever, to the noble Lords, Lord Krebs and Lord Anderson, and my noble friend Lady Ritchie for continuing to pursue the independence of the OEP and the need for effective remedies.

These noble Lords have all made hugely impressive and convincing contributions this evening; they do not need me to repeat their arguments. I also thank all other noble Lords who have added their voices in support. I hope that the Minister is getting a sense of the mood of the House on these issues. We very much hope that he can therefore agree to revisit them. If this is not possible, we urge the noble Lords, Lord Krebs and Lord Anderson, to test the opinion of the House.

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 noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. Beginning with Amendment 28B, the Government maintain the position that exempting the Armed Forces, defence and national security from the environmental principles duty is required to ensure the flexibility for our defence capability. I appreciate the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, but I am afraid that, as I said in my opening remarks, this is a red line for the MoD. I will secure the reassurance that we were promised together on a call that we made, which has been followed up since, and I very much hope that it directly addresses the plea that she has made to this House. We will continue those discussions afterwards.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, I am very happy to reiterate something that I, she and many others have said many times: nature and climate change are inextricably linked. Indeed, climate change is in many respects the fever that the planet is experiencing as a consequence of the degradation of its natural environment. All the science tells us that there is no pathway to net zero, or to staying within 1.5 degrees, without massive efforts to protect and restore nature on a scale that we have never seen before. That is absolutely understood. I simply add that it is not just a reflection of my view but the position of this Government as they take us towards COP 26. We have sought to put nature at the very heart of our response to climate change, both here and internationally. I think, and hope, that we will see some real movement over the coming weeks from the global community.

I turn to amendments 31, 31A, 31B, 31C, 75, 75A, 75B and 75C. We believe that the guidance power is necessary to ensure that the OEP continues to operate effectively and provide appropriate accountability. To elaborate on a point I made earlier in response to comments by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, the OEP will have an extremely broad scope and remit, encompassing all environmental law and with powers to investigate alleged serious breaches by any public authority, ranging from a local authority to a Minister of the Crown. Given this huge breadth, the guidance power is important to ensure that Ministers who are ultimately responsible for the OEP’s use of public money can ensure that it is functioning as intended, focusing on the most serious strategic cases. My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked for comparable examples of such guidance being issued. My understanding is that the Secretary of State has the power to provide guidance to the Climate Change Committee, and that power is enshrined in the Climate Change Act.

I want to respond to the comments and questions put to me by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. As a non-departmental body, the OEP will be operationally independent from government. It will set its own strategy and have discretion in deciding how best to deliver on its principal objective by exercising its statutory functions, including whether to provide advice to Ministers and publish reports on its own initiative. The Bill also specifies that the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to protect the OEP’s independence.

The Government believe that Ministers should be properly accountable to Parliament for the governance and performance of their departments’ arm’s-length bodies, including in their use of public funds. For this reason, the Government consider the guidance power under Clause 24 to be necessary. The Secretary of State will agree with the Treasury sufficient funding for the OEP to carry out its functions and make the final decision on public appointments.

The OEP will be subject to routine monitoring of expenditure during the year and will have a duty also to arrange for its key financial reports to be laid before Parliament. The responsible Minister will account for the OEP in Parliament on all matters other than in respect of the OEP’s enforcement decisions and the content of its advice or reports.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, the Bill makes provision for an equivalent guidance power for the Northern Ireland department. A similar Lords amendment seeks to remove this power.

Finally, on Amendments 33 and 33B, I am afraid that, as they would remove the protections for third parties, even despite the relevant factors for the court to consider, which the noble Lord has added, we are unable to accept them. Again, to elaborate, as the court will have access to court orders outside of the normal judicial review time limits, there is significantly increased risk that third parties may be negatively affected by the grant of a remedy. If it is necessary to prevent or mitigate serious damage to the environment or human health, the OEP can apply directly for an urgent judicial review, without going through its earlier notice period. In cases such as these, all remedies would be available at the discretion of the court.

I suspect—indeed, I am certain—that we will have to disagree at this time, but I do so acknowledging in all sincerity the case that the noble Lord has made and the constructive and compelling manner in which he has made it. I am afraid we are not able to accept the amendment.

I thank all noble Lords who have contributed today, and in personal conversations with myself and my officials, on these measures. I hope that noble Lords have been reassured by my words and I commend the Motion to the House.