Environment Bill: Legislative Consent Motion

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:30 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 6:30 pm, 30th June 2020

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for the opportunity to bring the legislative consent motion forward and to speak about an issue that affects us all. The Environment Bill is a UK Government Bill, containing a range of clauses; some of which apply UK-wide, some only to England and some to Northern Ireland and other devolved jurisdictions. A number of matters that are covered by the Bill are reserved and, as such, do not require the consent of the Assembly for the UK Government to legislate at Westminster. Transfrontier shipment of waste is an example. However, the environment in general is a devolved matter and, hence, most of the clauses in the Bill that apply to Northern Ireland require the Assembly's consent. At this point, I record my appreciation for the work that has been carried out by the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in completing its report under difficult circumstances for the benefit of the Assembly.

The original intention of the Bill was to address the environmental governance gaps that will be created at the end of the EU withdrawal transition period, in particular the absence of the environment oversight role that is currently undertaken by the European Commission and the environmental principles that are embedded in the EU treaties. The UK Government published a draft Bill in December 2018 that addressed those specific points and gave a statutory footing for their 25-year plan for the environment. Subsequent iterations of the Bill included a range of other environmental matters, some of which are driven by EU withdrawal, while others seek to maintain existing UK-wide systems. A Bill has been drafted so as not to constrain the ability of the Assembly to scrutinise the Bill. This is a key point, but with one exception. The provisions that deal with the devolved matters in Northern Ireland can be implemented only after being debated and approved in the Chamber. That one exception, a power to amend specific chemicals legislation, had to be made for technical reasons and would still require the approval of DAERA before it could be implemented here.

It is my general view that, where possible, devolved matters should be legislated for by the Assembly. However, in this case, there simply is not time to deliver fully considered Northern Ireland legislation before the end of the transition period. Failure to take this opportunity to keep open the options presented by this UK Bill would be detrimental to environmental governance and safeguards in Northern Ireland. To be clear, this does not constrain the Assembly from enacting additional or alternative Northern Ireland legislation relating to any of the devolved matters in the Bill in future.

There are 17 clauses and nine associated schedules for which legislative consent is sought. These cover a range of environmental matters, including improving the natural environment, environmental oversight, waste, resource efficiency, water and chemicals. I will start with the relevant provisions in Part 2 of the Bill, which relate to environmental governance. Clause 45 gives effect to schedule 2, which is split into two Parts. Part 1 provides for the arrangements for the development and management of environmental improvement plans. Part 2 outlines the means by which the environmental principles currently enshrined in the treaty on the functioning of the EU can be incorporated into Northern Ireland law and, subsequently, policy-making.

More specifically, Part 1 provides for, first, the preparation, review, revision and renewal of environmental improvement plans and, secondly, the collection of data to assist with monitoring progress on environmental and improvement plans. This allows plans to improve the natural environment to be placed on a statutory footing. Part 2 allows for the preparation and publication of a statement on the interpretation and application of relevant environmental principles to which Northern Ireland Departments and UK Government Ministers must have regard when making policy in respect of Northern Ireland. This would allow us to address the gaps in arrangements relating to environmental principles as a result of departure from the EU.

Clause 46 concerns the office for environmental protection (OEP) and gives effect to schedule 3, which would allow this body to exercise its functions in Northern Ireland. Its broad role would be to replace the environmental oversight function of the European Commission, holding public bodies to account for any failure to comply with environmental law. The provisions of schedule 3 would give the OEP operating in Northern Ireland broadly similar powers to the OEP operating in England. These powers would allow the OEP to monitor the implementation of environmental law and progress in improving the natural environment in accordance with any environmental improvement plans agreed by the Executive; provide Northern Ireland Departments with advice — for example, on any proposed changes to environmental law; and investigate any failures by public authorities in Northern Ireland to comply with environmental law, taking appropriate enforcement action when necessary. This would allow us to address an obvious environmental governance gap as a result of departure from the EU.

At this point, it is appropriate to advise Members that it is my understanding that the UK Government intend to table a small number of amendments to the provisions relating to the OEP when the Westminster Committee Stage resumes. I have not yet had the opportunity to consider the proposals fully and, obviously, it would not be appropriate for me to announce UK Government policy, but I can say that these amendments are intended to clarify the OEP's role. I will consider whether similar amendments would also be desirable for Northern Ireland and will advise Executive colleagues and the AERA Committee as appropriate. Should any amendments to Northern Ireland provisions proposed during the Bill's passage through Parliament fall outside the scope of this motion, a further legislative consent motion would, of course, be tabled in accordance with the requirements of the relevant Standing Orders.

Part 3 contains provisions on waste and resource efficiency. Clause 47 gives effect to schedule 4, which deals with producer responsibility, obliging business that place certain specified products or materials on the market to take greater responsibility for those products or materials once they have become waste. The Environment Bill provides the means by which the UK-wide producer responsibility schemes can be replaced and updated and new obligations placed on producers in relation to reuse, redistribution, recycling and recovery of products. For Northern Ireland, schedule 4 confers on DAERA powers to make new regulations under which producer responsibility obligations can be imposed on specified persons and in relation to specified products and materials. It also provides for enforcement of these regulations.

Clause 47 also repeals the producer responsibility obligations, which are no longer required alongside the provisions of schedule 4. Those provisions will allow me, as Minister, to keep producer responsibility schemes operable, and/or reformed or to introduce schemes alongside the rest of the UK.

Clause 28 gives effect to schedule 5, which also deals with producer responsibility, conferring powers on DAERA to make Northern Ireland regulations that may require those involved in the manufacture, processing, distribution or supply of products or materials to pay for or contribute to the cost of disposing of those items when they become waste. It also provides for the enforcement of those regulations. The provision is designed to incentivise producers to design products with sustainability in mind with the aim of reducing the consumption of raw materials.

Clause 49 gives effect to schedule 6 and is concerned with resource efficiency information, allowing DAERA to make product-specific regulations, setting requirements to provide information about a product's resource efficiency. It also provides for enforcement arrangements. The provision is designed to require clear labelling on products to enable consumers to identify those that are more durable, repairable and recyclable.

Clause 50 gives effect to schedule 7, and also relates to resource efficiency. Under the provision, DAERA can make regulations setting requirements for specific products' resource efficiency. Enforcement arrangements are also provided for. Alongside schedule 6, these provisions are intended to encourage more sustainable and efficient use of materials.

Clause 51 schedule 8 brings into effect and deals with deposit-and-return schemes. The provision allows DAERA to make regulations to establish and enforce deposit schemes. Under the schemes, consumers can pay a deposit when they buy an item — for example, a drink in a bottle or can — which is redeemed when the used item is returned. Such schemes can reduce littering and increase recycling and reuse.

Under clauses 47 to 51, regulations from Northern Ireland may be made by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but only with DAERA's consent. An example of where that might be granted is where there is agreement on the benefit of taking a UK-wide approach to a scheme.

Clause 52 and its associated schedule 9 allow DAERA to make regulations for Northern Ireland relating to charging for a range of single-use plastic items by sellers of goods and services. It also provides for the enforcement of those regulations, including the imposition of civil sanctions. It is intended to build on the success of the charge for carrier bags.

Clause 53, insofar as it relates to Northern Ireland, amends schedule 6 of the Climate Change Act to allow DAERA to make regulations requiring the sellers of carrier bags to register with an administrator. The regulations may also make provision about applications for registration, the period of registration, the cancellation of registration and the payment of registration fees, including the amount.

Clause 56 relates to new powers to establish a mandatory electronic system to record and monitor the movement of waste. It includes powers to impose fees and charges, and to create associated criminal offences and civil penalties for the breaches of any regulations made under the powers. <BR/>The provision aims to improve the management and tracking of waste, thereby assisting in the detection and reduction of waste crime in Northern Ireland.

Clause 58 updates the powers available to DAERA in respect of the regulation of hazardous waste. That includes providing for the imposition of civil sanctions in respect of contraventions of regulations and the updating of fixed penalty amounts that can be applied in relation to offences.

Clause 62 includes new powers to allow for fees to be charged to recover costs in relation to waste management licensing of producer responsibility schemes. The powers will enable the fees and charges to be updated by way of a charging scheme. Charging for regulatory activities carried out reduces the burden on general taxation. The clause aims to ensure that the costs associated with enforcement activity in Northern Ireland are appropriately recovered — a practical application of "the polluter pays" principle.

Clause 64 ensures that the Department will have powers to direct a registered carrier to collect specified waste and deliver it to a specified site. That addresses a gap in current legislation with respect to the removal of harmful waste from a site, and its safe treatment or disposal.

Clause 68 is a technical amendment to ensure the amendments to the Waste and Contaminated Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 by the Environment Bill, which will confer functions on DAERA, rather than the former Department of the Environment.

I now turn to Part 5 of the Bill about provisions relating to the water environment. Clause 81 provides a regulation-making power to the DEFRA Secretary of State to make provision about the substances to be taken into account in assessing the chemical status of surface water or ground water and to specify standards for those substances or in relation to the chemical status of water bodies. Where those regulations could be made under DAERA's own powers, under clause 83, the DEFRA Secretary of State must obtain DAERA's consent. The provision will ensure that, after the transition period, the UK will still be able to update the list of priority hazardous substances and specify standards.

Clause 83, which I have just mentioned, confers the same powers on DAERA in relation to Northern Ireland to make regulations about the substances to be taken into account when assessing the chemical status of surface water or ground water and to specify standards for those substances or in relation to the chemical status of water bodies. Again, this will ensure that Northern Ireland can continue to update the list of priority hazardous substances and specify standards after the end of the transition period.

Part 8 of the Bill covers miscellaneous and general provisions and includes the final provision for which I seek legislative consent. Clause 125 gives effect to schedule 19, which allows the DEFRA Secretary of State to make regulations to amend two pieces of retained European Union law relating to registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals, generally referred to as REACH. These are the REACH Regulation and the REACH Enforcement Regulations 2008. The Secretary of State cannot make such regulations without the consent of the devolved Administrations, including DAERA, and is also required to consider any request by a relevant devolved authority to make regulations. The schedule also confers a power on DAERA and/or the Department for the Economy to amend REACH Enforcement Regulations 2008 independently of the DEFRA Secretary of State.

While that concludes the list of provisions for which legislative consent is being sought, I would also like to highlight the commencement provisions in clause 131 to reinforce the point that I made earlier about the implementation of these provisions being subject to the consent or approval of the Assembly. With the exception of clause 125 and its associated schedule 19, all of the provisions that I have outlined to you today require the Assembly's approval of a draft commencement order before being brought into operation. Members will, therefore, quite rightly, have the opportunity to debate the merits of the Bill's provisions before bringing them into force.

Our environment is precious in its own right, but it also contributes significantly to our economic prosperity and the physical and mental health of our citizens. Therefore, it deserves to be properly protected and improved for the benefit of all. I believe that the provisions of the Bill that I have highlighted will help us to achieve that. Accordingly, I commend the motion to the House.