Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Part of Environment Bill - Commons Reasons and Amendments – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 9th November 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:00 pm, 9th November 2021

My Lords, I will speak specifically on Motions A, A1, B and D. My noble friend Lady Quin will then return to Motion C later in the debate. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Krebs and Lord Anderson, for their perseverance and commitment to achieving proper OEP independence and enforcement powers. As we have said repeatedly, these measures are necessary to ensure that the environmental standards set out in this Bill, and indeed elsewhere, are protected for the longer term. I am also grateful to the Minister and the Bill team for listening and engaging on the issues that we have raised.

However, what we have before us today is not ideal, and we believe that the Government could have gone further to amend the Bill to give the assurances for which noble Lords across this House have repeatedly pressed. Throughout the process, we have supported the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, in his determination to protect the independence of the OEP. This has been a fundamental issue and we continue to support Motion Al, which he has tabled today. We believe, as his amendment sets out, that the OEP should have complete discretion to carry out its functions free from the interference of government.

In this context, there have been a number of areas of detail which have been helpfully clarified by the Government in the Commons and, again, in this Chamber by the Minister today. For example, despite the Government’s insistence on the right to issue guidance to the OEP, we welcome the recognition that this should be limited to the areas of OEP enforcement policy listed in Clause 22. Quite rightly, it has been made clear that the Secretary of State cannot issue guidance on enforcement issues against the Defra Secretary of State, as this would be a clear conflict of interest. It has also been helpfully clarified that it would be within the scope of the OEP’s remit to investigate broad categories of individual cases that might have a common theme. This includes cases that have a discrete local impact but national implications.

We also reiterate our support for the proposal that Parliament should scrutinise the draft guidance before it is issued. All this goes some way to providing reassurance on an issue that we nevertheless believe continues to represent a flaw in the overall construct of the legislation. Can the Minister also assure us that before the Government publish any draft guidance, they will consult the OEP? Can he also assure us that the framework which will be agreed with the OEP will also set out its commitment to a five-year indicative budget? These are issues which the Minister will know are outstanding from earlier debate.

On the issue of enforcement, we welcome the tabling of the Government’s amendments to Clause 37(8), which address the concerns that the threshold for achieving a successful judicial review was insurmountable and anyway gave precedence to the interests of third-party polluters rather than those of the environment and the community. The amendment recognises that, on occasions, granting a remedy to address behaviour or damage will be necessary even if it may cause substantial hardship to the rights of a third party.

We have argued from the beginning that the courts should have the discretion to weigh all these factors equally in the balance. The Government’s amendments do not achieve that objective, but nevertheless we support the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, in the view that this compromise wording is a step forward and the best that we will get at this stage of the process. No doubt the exact meaning of “the exceptional public interest” test will be played out in the courts in years to come, and we very much hope that the widest possible interpretation of it will become the norm.

The Minister will not be surprised to hear that we still have reservations about the final wording in the Bill on these issues, but nevertheless, we accept that progress has been made, and hope that he can reassure us on the remaining outstanding questions about the OEP’s independence.