Moved by Lord Krebs
At end insert “, and do propose Amendment 15B in lieu—
15B: After Clause 16, insert the following new Clause— “Environmental protection (1) Regulations may not be made by a relevant national authority under section 12, 13, 15 or 16 unless the relevant national authority is satisfied that the regulations do not— (a) reduce the level of environmental protection arising from the retained EU law to which the provision relates; (b) conflict with any relevant international environmental agreements to which the United Kingdom is party. (2) Prior to making any provision to which this section applies, the relevant national authority must— (a) seek advice from persons who are independent of the authority and have relevant expertise, and (b) publish a report setting out— (i) how the provision does not reduce the level of environmental protection in accordance with subsection (1), and (ii) how the authority has taken into account the advice from the persons referred to in paragraph (a) of this subsection. (3) In this section “relevant international environmental agreements” includes but is not limited to— (a) the UNECE Convention on access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters (Aarhus,
My Lords, my proposed new clause represents a simplified and shortened version of the amendment passed by your Lordships’ House on Report on
I will briefly recap the purpose of the amendment and explain the differences between my new proposal and the previous version. The core purpose remains the same: to ensure that any changes to EU laws do not dilute environmental protection or contravene relevant international environmental agreements, to ensure that expert advice is sought and to ensure transparency by requiring the publication of an explanation of how any changes do not reduce environmental protection and how expert advice supports this assertion.
The principles embodied in the amendment—non-regression, expert advice and transparency—are so non-controversial that I am at a loss to understand why the Government find them unacceptable. The new amendment differs from the version on Report in three principal ways. First, it leaves out food standards and is concerned exclusively with environmental protection. I would have preferred to leave food in, but the chair of the Food Standards Agency said it was unnecessary, and I defer to her advice. Secondly, the requirement to consult experts is less prescriptive than in the earlier version and is modelled on the wording in Sections 112(7) and 4(1) of the Environment Act 2021. Thirdly, acknowledging a point made on Report by the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, the new version of the amendment recognises that the list of international environmental agreements is not exhaustive; they are simply examples.
What are the Government’s arguments against the amendments? On Report the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, for whom I have the highest regard, said that my amendment was “burdensome” and “unnecessary”. As my noble friend Lord Kerr of Kinlochard pointed out to me, it is difficult for the amendment to be both at once. If it is unnecessary because it happens anyway, it cannot be burdensome. If it is imposing an extra burden on Ministers by introducing further steps required before changing the law, that may well be a good and necessary thing.
“Ministers have made it clear repeatedly at every stage of this Bill’s passage in both Houses that we will not lower environmental protections or standards”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/5/23; col. 328.]
The Minister made essentially the same point a few moments ago. The question for me is whether the assertions that Ministers have made are matched by the reality. If they are not, surely there is a case for securing an extra layer of guarantee in the Bill.
What does the Government’s own statutory watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, say about current environmental standards? Are the Government living up to their promises? The 2023 statutory report from the Office for Environmental Protection, Progress in Improving the Natural Environment in England, 2021/2022, makes for grim reading. It says:
“We have little good news to report … We assessed 32 trends across the breadth of the natural environment; nine trends were improving, eleven were static, and eight were deteriorating … We assessed 23 environmental targets and found none where Government’s progress was demonstrably on track … Overall, we do not think the current pace and scale of action will deliver the changes necessary to improve the environment in England significantly, as required by the Environment Act 2021”.
It is no use saying, “We already have an Environment Act, and therefore the amendment is unnecessary”, because the Government’s own watchdog is saying that action is not matching the rhetoric. We are not on track to meet the targets in the Environment Act. While I have the highest confidence in the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, as an Environment Minister and in his commitment to the environment, the OEP’s report shows that, more widely, the Government are failing miserably to protect our environment.
Furthermore, this is about the longer term. As was said in a previous debate, even if present Ministers may be committed to not diluting environmental standards, how do we know what future Administrations might decide to do? In its briefing for this debate, the Law Society said:
“It is imperative that business and the public can be certain that following the revocation of the EU laws, environmental protections and standards are upheld. Uncertainty is not only detrimental to the UK’s transition to net zero but also this country’s status as an attractive place to do business. Unless these standards are protected in law, we are concerned that future administrations could roll back on our commitments, thus creating uncertainty”.
In my view, there is thus an indisputable case to add a clause that would help to ensure that future changes to retained EU law do not further harm our already badly damaged natural environment. I will listen carefully to the Minister’s reply but, at the moment, my intention is to test the opinion of the House. I beg to move.
I support Motion C1. It is interesting, because all the constitutional arguments we heard earlier apply equally to this Motion. It gives Ministers the powers to delete or rewrite thousands of laws almost without any parliamentary scrutiny.
There is a vast ecosystem of about 1,600 environmental laws that are threatened by this Bill. These laws protect humans, animals and the broader environment. The Minister stood up and—forgive me for using this word —boasted about the Government’s credentials on environmental issues. I am sorry to inform him that, among the environmental lobby within the UK and worldwide, this Government have zero credibility on environmental issues. I am very happy to list them if necessary.
I accept that some of these laws are probably defunct or could be improved; that would be acceptable. What would be unacceptable is for the Government to weaken or delete laws that we need and that protect us and our environment. Although this is a constitutional issue, it is also about life. Forgive me if I am a bit emotional about this, but this is about the health of people and the planet. Without the planet, we do not exist. If we do not support our bees, we do not exist. If we do not think about our food standards, we will cease to exist. So it is incredibly important that this Motion is agreed to. We have to say to the Commons that it has got this dreadfully wrong.
My Lords, on Report I had a bit of a spat with the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, on this issue. It strikes me that it would be very odd if the Government wanted to put the health of their citizens at risk by not adopting these measures, so I am sure that they will. On top of that, not adhering to high food standards would completely undermine our exports to other countries. I do not quite see the point of this amendment and I will certainly vote against it.
My Lords, the debate on this amendment has been somewhat shorter. It would be easier to support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, were it not for the very explicit reference to regulatory burden. It is very clear in the Bill as it is now that the regulatory burden cannot increase. It is not clear how it is measured, whether as a particular regulation, a range of regulations or an entire statute book of regulations. But, in total, financial costs cannot go up; administrative inconvenience cannot go up; obstacles to trade or innovation cannot go up; obstacles to efficiency, productivity or profitability cannot go up; and a sanction that affects the carrying out of a lawful activity cannot go up.
It is in that context—the context of the Bill—that those of us who have heard the very reassuring words of the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, whom we all respect in this House, are caused to be suspicious. When the Government kick back so hard and so thoroughly on what I think the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, very rightly characterised as a modest amendment, we become more suspicious yet. The very fact that the Government are resisting this amendment is the reason we need it.
My Lords, I wonder whether we could reflect on the House of Commons Select Committee’s report on the state of things at the moment in Defra. One of my worries is whether the Government are in a position, frankly, to understand just where we are on this. After all, it turns out from that very powerful Select Committee report that Defra actually transacted 14 million transactions manually because its systems do not actually cover what needs to be done. In those circumstances, I am not sure that any of us can be sure that the Government can assess where they are on these matters, because of the difficulties which they have with not funding satisfactorily the department which is supposed to deal with this, or any of its agencies such as the Environment Agency and Natural England. In those circumstances, I very much hope that the Minister will be kind enough to help me on this, in his usual charming way—
I say that to try to make sure it continues to be a good-natured debate. There is no doubt that many people who are not antagonistic to the Government do not want to rely on the excellence of the present Minister, but want to make sure that future Ministers do this job as he, I am sure, would hope to do it himself. Therefore, the question here is: given that we have doubts about the efficacy of the department most responsible for it—not because of our own concerns but because of the House of Commons Select Committee—and given that he will surely want other Ministers to follow him in the attitudes which he has displayed, would it not be more sensible to put this into the law, as indeed the Law Society itself has suggested? I think I am right in saying that every exterior independent body, including the Government’s own watchdog on this matter, agrees. I remind the House of my own interests, as declared in the register of interests: not only the things I do outside but also my chairmanship of the Climate Change Committee. I just feel that the world would be more assured that the kind of attitudes which we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, for example, will be the attitudes enforced in the future. That is all we are asking, and I do not quite understand why that is unreasonable.
My Lords, I listened with great interest throughout Committee to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and his very reasonable and constructive proposals for protecting our environment. But it is time to move on to UK law, which is more transparent and will save the taxpayer the cost of having to pay for a dual system of EU and UK law. Yes, we are already committed by international obligation to our international treaties, but it is ironic that many of the problems which we hear considered have arisen under this dual system of arrangements. I am afraid that I will not support the noble Lord’s amendment. I hope the Government will get on with it, and we will move to restoring UK law over this vital environmental sector so we can all have the protections we need for the environment and hold the Government to account.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for bringing this amendment forward and assure him of our full support. We heard from him that, in response to comments made by Ministers on Report, the amendment has been altered to focus on enshrining a legal commitment to maintain existing levels of environmental protection, and that he has taken into account much of what was said during that debate.
One of the things that we debated is how much of the Bill has significant implications for environmental law and for many regulations of significant public interest protecting our natural environment and many aspects of our health so, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said in his introduction, and others have said, it has been pretty disconcerting to hear the Government describe commitments to maintain existing levels of environmental protection as burdensome. I find that quite shocking. We know that there is wide-ranging support for an environmental non-regression principle. Amendment 15 would give legal substance to what Ministers have been saying they want to achieve. In fact, in his introduction, the Minister said that the Government are committed to maintaining high environmental standards; the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, said that; and the Minister in the other place, Trudy Harrison, said that. However, as a matter of law, just because somebody says something provides no assurances or protections and, however welcome it is, it cannot bind the hands of any future Ministers, as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, has just said.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, mentioned concerns that some regulations that we need may well be lost. I want very briefly to give an example, which is the intention to remove some items relating to the national air pollution control programme—the NAPCP. Removing the obligation to draw up and implement the programme strips away any clear duty on the Government to show how they will reduce emissions in line with their legally binding emissions targets. The Government say that by repealing this item they can better focus on what will help clear the air, such as delivering on the targets set in the Environment Act. In this debate, the Government repeatedly cite the existence of the Environment Act as the reason why such amendments are not necessary, and no doubt the Minister will repeat that shortly. However, if we look at Regulation 10 of the National Emissions Ceilings Regulations 2018 and the associated implementing decision, we see that the Government are clearly required to consult the public as part of the process of preparing and revising the NAPCP. This is in stark contrast with the approach they took with the revised environmental improvement plan earlier this year where there was no public consultation, very limited stakeholder engagement and limited transparency over which stakeholders were contacted—yet the Minister in his introduction held the EIP up as something to which we should aspire. Given that there is currently no provision in the Environment Act to require any public consultation in relation to future revisions of the EIP, how will the Government ensure that the public do not lose their ability to contribute and to have their say?
I also want to look at some of the powers in the Environment Act and how they are constructed. For example, it includes a non-regression commitment in respect of one piece of REUL, the habitats regulations. This empowers the Secretary of State to make regulations to amend part of the habitats regulations
“only if satisfied that the regulations do not reduce the level of environmental protection provided by the Habitats Regulations”.
So I consider it relevant in today’s debate to look at why the Government opted to include this non-regression safeguard in law.
During the passage of the Environment Act, the Minister, at that time the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, explained that
“the clause includes a number of safeguards that are designed to retain our existing protections”, recognising the importance of underpinning commitments in law. He went on:
“Ministers will have to be satisfied and explain to Parliament that any change would not reduce our existing environmental protections, and Parliament will have a vote on any use of the powers”.
He also explained that consultation on any proposals would be comprehensive and that there would be
“a full impact assessment of any regulations made under the powers, when bringing them forward”.—[
If the Government were committed to such a safeguard in the Environment Act, which was brought in only in 2021, why are they so against making a similar non-regression commitment on maintaining existing levels of environmental protection in law in this Bill?
As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said, this is very uncontroversial. I await the Minister’s response with interest, but if the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, wishes to test the opinion of the House, he will have our strong support.
My Lords, I can keep my response brief. I have lost track of the number of times during the passage of the Bill that we have had this debate. We had it in Committee, on Report and we are having it now—and of course it was repeated in the House of Commons. The House of Commons has heard the assurances of the Government. I suspect that nothing else I can say will change most Members’ minds but, for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, I will repeat the arguments again.
The noble Lord’s Motion proposes to insert additional measures into the Bill on environmental protections. I appreciate the sentiment, and we recognise the importance of maintaining our environmental standards, but the Government do not believe this amendment to be necessary. The UK is a world leader in environmental protection, despite what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, wants to tell us, and we will continue to uphold our environmental protections. Furthermore, in a debate in the other place, the House of Commons rejected essentially a similar amendment by a majority of 77.
We are committed to our environmental protections. Nothing in this Bill changes that commitment. As I referenced in my opening speech, we have substantive concerns that this amendment, in the way that it is worded, would actually make it more difficult to uphold those environmental commitments. I hope that, if the Motion is moved to a vote, the House will reject it.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate, and I thank the Minister for his response. I will not speak for very long but I want to make three specific comments in response to particular points that have been made.
The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, referred to food standards. I remind noble Lords that this version of the amendment does not include food, so the noble Lord can relax in his seat and not worry about food.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lawlor, seemed to imply that the amendment would somehow fossilise existing regulations in relation to the environment. It is not about fossilising existing regulations; it is about allowing change and improvement as long as they do not dilute environmental protection and as long as they are made in consultation with, and on the advice of, experts, and that that advice is published. This is not trying to freeze things in 2023 at all. I hope that provides reassurance.
As a final point, in response to the Minister, who repeated the oft-quoted mantra that the UK is “world-leading” in environmental protection, I remind him of what I read out less than half an hour ago from the Government’s own watchdog. It makes grim reading. We are failing on all the targets that the OEP looked at. We are not world-leading; we are struggling. This simple and modest amendment aims to put further legal protections around what the Government claim they are doing anyway; it is simple, modest and straight- forward.
I would not like to be the one going home to explain to my children and grandchildren that I stood up and voted against protecting our environment. I hope that other noble Lords feel the same—that those who have children or grandchildren and are thinking of the future would want to protect the environment on their behalf. Therefore, I wish to ask the House to agree to Motion C1.
Ayes 244, Noes 190.