Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Part of Environment Bill - Commons Reasons and Amendments – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 9th November 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) 4:45 pm, 9th November 2021

I thank your Lordships for your contributions to this debate. This is a landmark Environment Bill, the benefits of which will undoubtedly be felt by future generations both in the UK and, as a result of, for example, our due diligence legislation and more besides, internationally. I thank your Lordships for the collaborative and expert manner in which you have approached this Bill. Your constructive support and knowledge have been invaluable in enabling the passage of this Bill and making it better than when it first came to this House.

I will begin by addressing points made by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, whom I thank again for sharing his expertise, time and patience on this important issue, and for his words today. I am happy to reiterate my earlier statement, also in response to questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that, in exercising its discretion in individual cases, the OEP would of course need to have regard to a range of relevant factors but ultimately must take all its decisions objectively, impartially and independently of government. Furthermore, I am happy to confirm that the Government are committed to ensuring the operational independence of the OEP.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked whether, in preparing the guidance, we would consult the OEP. The answer is, of course, yes we would. She also asked whether the framework document that the Government will agree with the OEP will make explicit reference to the Government’s commitment to a five-year indicative budget ring-fenced within each spending review period. The answer is that the framework document will make explicit reference to the five-year indicative budget and Defra will provide a ring-fence within each spending review period, in line with previous government commitments. It will also add detail that will guide and give further clarity to the relationship between the OEP, Defra and the rest of government.

To answer the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, I assure her that Defra Ministers and officials continue to have very regular discussions with DAERA, as has my noble friend, who I see up in the Gallery now, as they have throughout the passage of this Bill. Northern Irish Ministers have consistently sought parity as far as possible between the two Administrations with regard to the OEP. I know that my friend, Minister Pow, will continue these discussions and will support Northern Ireland in setting up a fully independent OEP.

Turning to Amendment 33B on the environmental review measure, I reiterate that the changes made by the Government in the other place will provide discretion to the court to grant remedies if it is satisfied that it is necessary to prevent or mitigate serious damage to the environment or people’s health, and there is an exceptional public interest reason to do so. They also ensure that a high bar is still set for the granting of remedies where third parties may be affected.

I place again on the record my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, for his important contribution to improving the Bill and the manner in which he has engaged with me and my officials. I am glad that my words have at least gone some way to reassure him sufficiently today.

I turn to Amendment 45B in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and Amendment 45C tabled by Rebecca Pow on storm overflows. The Government’s new amendment in lieu will underpin the storm overflows measures in the Bill by requiring water companies to secure a progressive reduction—I will come to the definition of that in a moment—in the adverse impacts of their storm overflows. It will make our expectations unequivocal in law and enforceable with the full suite of sanctions available under the Water Industry Act 1991.

A number of noble Lords mentioned cost and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Jones, mentioned figures. The £600 billion figure—I say at the outset that no one pretends it is a scientific figure; a huge range has been described, from £150 billion to £600 billion, which is partly a reflection of the fact that we do not know—is the cost not of dealing with the problem in the manner we are describing and discussing in this House but of eliminating all storm overflows. I do not think that is what anyone is pushing for, as elimination of storm overflows would also remove, for example, the use of sustainable drainage systems, reed systems and the like. That figure is not made up. It may be wrong—I will not pretend that we know for sure it is right—but it is not a figure that has been plucked out of thin air. It was set out by the Storm Overflows Taskforce in November. As I said, I do not think anyone anticipates spending anything like £600 billion to eliminate storm overflows. Our job will be to eliminate the harm from storm overflows; that is the basis on which we are continuing.

The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, mentioned the Thames tideway project. The cost of that is around £5 billion. That is for one river—albeit a big river—and £5 billion for one solution in one area strikes me as a very large sum of money, so it is not completely out of sync with the figures we have discussed in relation to what the cost would be for the whole country.

I hope I will not ruin her credibility by saying so, but I count the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, as a friend and someone who I think has instincts that are absolutely right. She has been campaigning for many years on the environment in a very effective and positive way, so I say this with genuine respect, but I think she is wrong that we are heading backwards in any respect at all. There is an argument—it is one she has made—that the Bill does not go far enough, and we have discussed the issue many times. If it becomes a law, the Bill in its current form represents a big step forward. The protections we will have for our waterways, rivers and ocean will be greater than at any point in our history as a consequence of the Bill. Again, there can be argument about whether the laws have been sufficiently strengthened, but the idea that we are going backwards in any sense is just not objectively true.

The noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington—and I extend my comments to the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann—asked for acknowledgement by me that this amendment is a reflection of and testament to extraordinarily effective campaigning by both them and Philip Dunne, who is sitting over there. I really appreciate the pressure that they have applied because, as they know, decisions are made by the whole of government and pressure on one department enables that department to win arguments with other departments. I sincerely acknowledge the beneficial impact of the noble Duke’s very effective campaigning. On the back of that clear success, I hope noble Lords will feel able to support these amendments.

As your Lordships’ House will be aware, the Bill requires the Government to prepare and publish a plan to reduce storm overflows by September 2022. We have been clear that this plan—not secondary legislation, as would be required by the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—is the right place to set out guiding principles to reduce harm from storm overflows, including our level of ambition. The Bill requires us to consult publicly on that plan, and I can announce to the House that we will consult on the draft plan, including the level of ambition over the lifetime of the plan, in spring next year. The plan will help to inform and underpin the wider price review process, including guidance from the Environment Agency, the Water Industry National Environment Programme and the water industry strategic environmental requirements.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and, I think, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, all talked about the importance of enforcement. Our amendments will dock in with the existing enforcement regime in the Water Industry Act, which means that Ofwat can issue enforcement notices to direct specific actions or, as I said earlier, fine companies up to 10% of their annual turnover, which is a very significant deterrent. However, I acknowledge the point, and I think that the Government across the board would acknowledge that those tools needed to be more effectively used. I do not think there is any argument there; we need a much more muscular approach.

I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who asked about the definition of a “progressive reduction”. We took that term directly from the Lords amendment. “Progressive” means that water companies must continue to take action even after the next price review period and even after they have achieved a significant reduction and tackled high-priority sites, as required in the draft policy statement to the regulator, Ofwat.

In response to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, I say that the new monitoring requirements added to the Bill include near real-time reporting and attach a new duty to the Environment Agency. The need for very up-to-date and rapid reporting and monitoring is embedded in the amendments we have put forward and, indeed, across the Bill.