Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Part of Environment Bill - Commons Reasons and Amendments – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 9th November 2021.

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Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Crossbench 3:45 pm, 9th November 2021

My Lords, I thank the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Bill team for the very helpful discussions that I have had with them throughout, and particularly during the last week. In spite of this, here I am with a further amendment, and I feel slightly embarrassed to be pressing yet again on the matter of the independence of the OEP. However, the strength of opinion across this House was clear at the first stage of ping-pong, when my amendment passed with a majority of 51.

The Government clearly have an umbilical attachment to the guidance powers in Clause 22, and my amendment makes a major concession in that it does not seek to remove the guidance power. I expect that there will be some noble Lords who believe that this concedes too much. However, the proposed new subsection (2) in the amendment would introduce a specific constraint on the Secretary of State in issuing guidance, namely that guidance cannot be issued on

“matters relating to the enforcement of environmental law against the Secretary of State”.

The aim of this subsection is to prevent the Secretary of State having a conflict of interest. Without it, he or she could, in effect, mark their own homework.

The proposed subsections (1) and (2A) of my amendment state that, in spite of any guidance, the OEP

“has complete discretion in the carrying out of its functions”,

and that, while it

“must have regard to the guidance”,

the OEP does not have to follow it if

“there are material considerations that indicate otherwise.”

These subsections are designed to ensure that the OEP has the operational independence that we all want, in spite of the guidance power.

I turn to the Minister’s opening speech and quote back two key sentences. The first is:

“It would also be inappropriate for the Secretary of State to issue guidance on specific matters relating to the enforcement of environmental law against the Secretary of State for Defra, given that there would be a conflict of interest.”

The second is:

“the OEP would be expected to have regard to any guidance issued, but it retains the ability and discretion to make its own decisions and is not bound to act in accordance with the guidance where it has clear reasons not to do so.”

Although the wording is slightly different from my amendment, the implications of the points made in the Minister’s speech are more or less identical. I hope that, later in this debate, the Minister will confirm that my interpretation is indeed correct. The only piece that is left out is the OEP setting its own budget, but there are some other safeguards in other parts of the Bill.

I consider it a great pity that the Government were not prepared to accept my amendment, as the Minister’s speech implies that its intent has indeed been accepted. However, as the Minister stated at the start of his speech, ministerial statements in Hansard could be used by the courts in future as an aid to statutory interpretation. I look to the lawyers, because it is well above my pay grade to judge the value of that statement and, therefore, whether what we have heard is a sufficiently robust protection for the OEP’s independence.

The Minister also made three other important points that respond to earlier concerns expressed about the guidance power. First, the guidance power could not be used to preclude the OEP from investigating a broad category of cases. The example I used in an earlier debate was new nuclear power stations. Secondly, it is up to the OEP to decide whether cases have national implications. For instance, a case that has specific and local implications, such as the destruction of a unique habitat, could also be of national significance. Thirdly, the Secretary of State will not issue guidance to the OEP before the initial setup and before the OEP has had a chance to develop its own enforcement policy.

I thank the Minister for his speech. I believe that we have converged on a way forward that protects the operational independence of the OEP. The solution may not be perfect, but it gives me some reassurance on this absolutely central plank of the Bill. I beg to move.