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Examination of Witnesses

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Ruth Chambers, Rebecca Newsom and Ali Plummer gave evidence.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 4:30 pm, 10th March 2020

Good afternoon, ladies. I apologise for starting half an hour late, from your perspective, but we will finish at 5.30 pm on the dot. For the record, may I ask you to identify yourselves and the organisation for which you work, and its purpose?

Ruth Chambers:

I am Ruth Chambers, and I represent Greener UK, which is a coalition of the big 13 environmental non-governmental organisations in the UK, including Greenpeace and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. We have come together to ensure that Parliament and Government hear from the sector in a united way, so that our asks our presented with clarity and purpose.

Rebecca Newsom:

My name is Rebecca Newsom. I head up the political affairs unit at Greenpeace UK. As Ruth said, we are a member of the Greener UK coalition.

Ali Plummer:

I am Ali Plummer. I am a senior policy officer at the RSPB.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Thank you all very much indeed for joining us.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change)

Q I know that there has been a considerable amount of discussion among environmental and green groups about how the Office for Environmental Protection will work within the Bill, and to what extent it will be sufficiently independent to carry out the function that is widely regarded as the function that it should carry out on environmental protection overall. How do you think the OEP could be strengthened in the Bill, and do you think that the Bill has it right regarding the teeth that the OEP will need to hold the Government and public authorities to account?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

It is not necessary for every member of the panel to answer every question, but in answer to this first question it may be helpful for you to set your stall out a bit as well.

Ruth Chambers:

That is a very important question. There are three ways in which the independence of the Office for Environmental Protection will be ensured. The first is through the legal foundations provided by the Bill. The second is through its culture, which we will not talk about today. The third is through its organisational design, and the initial budget that it will get. Again, that is not relevant to the Bill, but it is a very important issue to ensure that we get the OEP off to a good start, so that it is not hampered from the get-go.

In terms of the legal foundations, there are two main ways in which the independence of a public body can be assured through law: how it gets its money and where its members come from. At the moment, although there have been some welcome strides forward, the Bill unfortunately falls down in both those regards. In terms of where it gets its money from, we welcome the commitment that the Government made around October that the OEP will have a multi-year annual funding framework for five years, ring-fenced in each spending review. That is very helpful. We see no reason why that could not be enshrined in the Bill, to give those guarantees on an enduring basis. The route by which the OEP gets its money is also very important. We have argued that it should be able to submit its own estimate directly to Parliament in the way that other public bodies, such as the National Audit Office, can.

Secondly, where the body will get its chair and other members from will be entirely at the discretion of Government Ministers at the moment. For a body of this import, which is meant to be independent not just at the start but for the duration, we think that greater involvement from Parliament would be very helpful. We are not asking for something unprecedented. Indeed, there are very good models where that is the case in practice. The National Audit Office and the Office for Budget Responsibility have already been flagged before the Committee. They are two examples of how you could crack the same nut in a slightly different way. Either way would be better than what the OEP has at the moment.

In terms of teeth, finally, we think that the way the enforcement functions are configured at the moment is certainly a step forward but there are some serious flaws, particularly in clause 35. One example is the upper tribunal being constrained in the types of remedies that it can issue and grant, should a public authority be found to be in breach of environmental law. We think it should have more freedom to impose the remedies as it sees fit.

Rebecca Newsom:

I echo everything that Ruth just said. From Greenpeace’s perspective, we have concerns around the OEP’s independence, funding and enforcement powers, which definitely need to be closed. The scale of public concern for getting this right is such that over 20,000 Greenpeace supporters have been in touch this week with their MPs about this and other issues relating to the target-setting framework.

Ali Plummer:

We share the concerns Ruth has outlined. I would add that part of getting a robust watchdog in place is the likeliness of its acting at its most effective. We welcome the escalating processes in the Bill, and there are opportunities to look to resolve issues before they get to full enforcement. To our mind, the way those remedies and escalating processes work most effectively is when you have a robust stop at the end, which encourages action before you have to get to that point. We welcome and share everything Ruth said in terms of strengthening the OEP in respect of both its independence and its ability to act as a true deterrent. We need to make sure that we are remedying any environmental damage or failure to comply with environmental law.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change)

Q Following on from that, the OEP is substantially seen as the guarantor, as it were, that the standards of environmental protection that existed when the UK was a member of the EU will not only be continued but will be enhanced. Do your concerns about the OEP’s independence and other such matters relate to ensuring that we have that proper standard of environmental protection following the UK leaving the EU? Or do you have other concerns about the question of regression or otherwise in terms of environmental law, as we are now on our own in environmental law rather than substantially under the carapace of EU directives?

Ruth Chambers:

That is an important question. Independent accountability and oversight will definitely be crucial in ensuring that our environmental laws are not only maintained but enhanced in the future, as the Government have said they want. That is an important element, but so are environmental principles—there are clauses that embed those principles in law, but again there are flaws in how that would be done. We can come on to those later.

There are also some potential loopholes in the Bill where standards could be weakened, almost accidentally. We will not talk about it today, but clause 81 in relation to chemicals in water is a good example of that. We feel that there are a lot of good work and good standards in this Bill but there is a lot of wriggle room as well. We hope that the conversations we will have today and throughout the passage of the Bill will enable some of those loopholes to be closed.

An example of where there could be some wriggle room is in the section on the REACH regulation and chemical standards. It is a wide-ranging power, and extra oversight and accountability could ensure that the power is exercised in a faithful way. We are clear that clauses 19 and 20 are not tantamount to a binding commitment to non-regression. They are welcome and important transparency mechanisms, but that really is what they should be seen as. There are modest, pragmatic ways in which they could be improved. For example, we think that clause 19 is modelled on human rights legislation, but the way in which the Human Rights Act 1998 ensures that human rights are factored into new legislation and new policy is a little bit more stringent and strategic. There are ways in which those clauses could be tightened as well.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Before we proceed, Ms Chambers, you indicated that we would not talk about a particular clause today. In so far as we have the time you are entirely within your rights to comment on anything that is relevant.

Ruth Chambers:

Thank you.

Ali Plummer:

If I could just add something, there are two parts to that question. One is about maintaining the robustness of enforcement mechanisms; what we are really looking for through the independence of the OEP is maintaining that in longevity. It is not necessarily about the intent of the body as it is being set up, but making sure that it maintains that independence and robustness going forward.

I guess a watchdog and enforcement body is only as good as the law it is able to uphold, which comes to the second part of your question. There are lots of welcome provisions within this Bill that should allow us to go much further and to build on existing environmental protections, but we would be looking for much more robust reassurance that that floor—those existing protections—will remain for us to build on. The second part is making sure that we are able to secure existing environmental legislation so that the OEP can continue to uphold that.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Welcome, everyone, and thank you for coming. I just wanted to get some clarification, because there seems to be a view that in leaving Europe we are going to have lower environmental standards, but the whole point of this Bill and, indeed, the OEP is that it will enable us to have higher standards. First, we will roll over all the environmental law; we will then create our own measures, and it is quite clear to me that the Bill enables us to do so. At EU level, the Commission can issue judgments on a breach of law, but they are not legally binding on member states. Do you not think that the court order remedy in this Bill would be stronger than that?

Ruth Chambers:

I would go back to my previous answer about the lack of remedies that the tribunal will have at its disposal. It is severely constrained by the clause, if you look at the small print.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q But it can ultimately issue fines if it so desires, and before that, the OEP will try to remedy any problems through discussion, advice, analysis and scrutiny. It will only go to the upper tribunal if it really needs those extra teeth, and that opportunity is there.

Ruth Chambers:

We very much support your vision for how the enforcement system would work, where it is front-loaded, if you like, and the OEP acts as a strategic intervener and litigator rather than a serial nit-picker. Nobody wants a busybody poring over every single decision of every public authority; that is nobody’s vision for how this body will work.

However, at the moment when we get to the end of the process, if a public authority is found in breach of environmental law after all of the good work that the OEP will necessarily have done, what we are left with is a statement of non-compliance. It is very hard to know exactly what bite that non-compliance will have, factoring in the upper tribunal not having a very effective or strong set of deterrents. It is helpful to have your reassurance, Minister, that the tribunal will be able to impose a financial penalty if it sees fit. It would be even better to have that reassurance written into the Bill so that there is absolute clarity on it, and stakeholders and public authorities know that there is bite to this process. That will provide the deterrent that we all want, so that things are sorted out early on.

Ali Plummer:

It is also worth reiterating that the ability to levy fines is really welcome, but what we are actually looking for is to either prevent environmental damage in the first place or remedy it. Although a fine is a welcome part of that, we are really looking for remedial action, or the ability to ensure that the public authorities or others are taking the actions needed to remedy the environmental damage. While a fine can provide for some of that, it is not necessarily—

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q But as I hope I made clear, that is the last step; remedy is the first step of the OEP. I hope it is very clear now that we have left the EU, and as a sovereign nation we will be responsible for setting our own environmental laws. It is then the role of Parliament to scrutinise those laws.

That leads me on to the whole issue of the targets, and what we will be scrutinising in order to improve the environment, which is the focus of the Bill. We have a triple lock within the system, and I just wanted your views on how you think that will work. We call it a triple lock because we have five-yearly improvement plans; we have annual reporting on how those five-yearly plans are going to get to the long-term targets; and we have the Office for Environmental Protection analysing all of that to drive environmental improvement. We think that is very strong, so I wondered what your views on that were.

Rebecca Newsom:

The thing that I would want to say about that is that reporting and analysis are really important, but are not the same as interim targets actually having a legal force. It is a top priority from all of our perspectives to ensure that the short-term interim targets that lead towards end goals have that legal bite, so that there is absolutely no wiggle room in terms of the requirement on public authorities to ensure progress straightaway to meeting that long-term goal.

That is really important, particularly also because there is a track record for voluntary targets set by Government not being met or being abandoned—for example the 2020 target of not using peat in horticulture has not been met. Another example is that site of special scientific interest targets have also now been dropped, and they were voluntary. It is really important that we have that safeguard in the Bill, guaranteeing that the interim targets will have that force.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q To get our SSSIs, the 75% in good and favourable condition, is in our 25-year environment plan. The first phase of the Bill is the 25-year environment plan. It is called the environmental improvement plan. That is what I call the second side of the Bill. It is in the Bill. This actually provides all the levers and all the tools to do exactly what I think you all want us to do.

Rebecca Newsom:

I think we are agreed to a large degree on the vision. The difference is that the environmental improvement plans are not legally binding. It is good to have a policy document, but it needs to have legal force. That is what is going to guarantee the drive forward of change in the short term.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q But targets will be the legal force; the setting of the targets is the legal duty.

Rebecca Newsom:

Long-term targets definitely, but the interim targets will not have that force, as the Bill is currently set up.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q But wouldn’t you agree, on the environment, it is an ever-changing, flexible scene? That is why we have interim targets.

Rebecca Newsom:

Yes, absolutely. It is really important to recognise that, in different environmental areas, change towards long-term goals, and progress towards meeting them, does not always happen in a linear way. We recognise that, but that is not an argument not to make the interim targets legally binding. It is an argument for the Government to apply some flexibility in the type of interim targets they might set.

For example, in some areas, such as bird species abundance, you could have an interim target that relates to the planting of wildflower meadows or to particular types of tree planting in certain areas, because there is that flexibility and non-linearity towards the long-term goal. In other areas—for example, pesticide pollution in rivers—it would be much easier to do an outcome-based interim target. In both cases, they need to be legally binding. The Government could apply that kind of flexibility to the type of target, without compromising on the legally binding nature of it.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Thank you. The Minister invited you to set out your concerns, and you have done so very lucidly, if I may say so. We cannot engage too long, however, in a bilateral discussion.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q I would like to direct this to Ruth Chambers. In your submission to the Committee, Greener UK points out that the requirement to have due regard to the environmental principles policy statement does not apply to decision making but is also subject to wide-ranging exemptions. I am speaking specifically of those mentioned in clause 18 regarding the Ministry of Defence and HM Treasury. It specifies

“the armed forces, defence or national security” and

“taxation, spending or the allocation of resources within government”.

Could you elaborate a little more on your concerns regarding that? Perhaps Ms Newsom and Ms Plummer would have something to add.

Ruth Chambers:

I think the environmental principles clauses are really important and, in many ways, are a slightly overlooked part of the Bill, because everyone is interested in the OEP, and many people are interested in targets. The principles have become a little bit forgotten, so I am really pleased that question has been asked today.

They should be the bedrock of the Bill going forward. We were pleased to see the Government and the Minister say that they are intended to place environmental accountability at the heart of Government. That is a shared vision for what they should do. Unfortunately, we do not think that the framework as configured in the Bill will do that, for a number of reasons. You have highlighted one very important reason, which is that there are lots of carve-outs and exclusions. For example, the duty will not apply to the Ministry of Defence and will not apply to decisions like resource allocation and spending and so on. Already, we seem to be absolving quite a large part of Government from the principles.

Secondly, the duty is quite weak. It is to have due regard not to the principles themselves, but to a policy statement. The trouble is that none of us has yet seen what the policy statement says. Ever since it was first mentioned, we have been asking to see what it is, so that we can have some comfort that it will be a helpful tool for policy makers and for stakeholders. The sooner that it can be published—ideally, that would be during the Bill’s passage—the better.

The third reason is that this part of the Bill will apply to England only. We have questions as to what will happen to the principles in the rest of the UK and how trans-boundary decisions will be guided by the principles in the future.

Finally, on the policy statement, if you look at comparable arrangements for how policy statements on, say, national energy projects are endorsed and approved by Parliament, you see that they are subject to a motion that is voted on by Parliament. There is no such thing for this policy statement. We think that, if it really is that important, there should be some tighter parliamentary oversight of it.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley

Q I want to turn the conversation back to the OEP. Can you explain why the Committee on Climate Change and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have similar independence, if not slightly weaker, to the OEP? Have those bodies not clearly shown that the independence of the OEP set out in the Bill is credible?

Ruth Chambers:

It is an interesting question about the EHRC. We recently came across something that, if it would help the Committee, we could provide a short note on. I think that last year the Government undertook what is called a tailored review of the EHRC. In its evidence to that review, the Equality and Human Rights Commission itself was arguing for greater independence, more accountability to Parliament and a slightly different model, but the Government said that they did not think that that was appropriate for that body. So even a body that the Minister this morning was drawing some comparison with is saying that it feels that it is not sufficiently independent from Government.

We would not say that, for us, in the NGO sector, that is the best comparator. The two bodies that we think are more comparable in this space are the National Audit Office and the Office for Budget Responsibility—not necessarily in terms of their form and function, but in terms of how their independence is delivered via laws, both now and in the long term.

Ali Plummer:

It is worth saying that what we are looking for here, ultimately, is that the OEP will hold the Government to account on meeting their environmental obligations, so building in some independent safeguards just to make sure that there is that gap between what the OEP can do, in terms of holding Government to account, and how it is set up is really important. As Ruth said, there are clear examples of that happening in other places, so what we are calling for is certainly not unique or unheard of in other places. I think that it would make sense to apply it to the OEP as well.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q Could I ask about the global footprint issues? As you may have noticed, I have tabled a couple of amendments: 76 and 77. There are two aspects to this. One is our consumption—the consumption of commodities, how they are produced overseas and the fact that we are contributing to climate change, environmental degradation and deforestation as a result. The other side of the coin is that we are financing, British companies are financing or UK Export Finance is financing quite a lot of this work as well. Do you think that there is a case for going global in terms of this Bill? I am trying not to ask too leading questions, but my view would be that there is not much point in putting your own house in order at home and talking about planting trees here if the Amazon is being razed to the ground because of British consumption or British financing. I think that Greenpeace put something about this in its note to the Committee.

Rebecca Newsom:

Absolutely—we totally agree with what you have just said. We have to think about our global impact, as well as getting things right here. There is a major problem with the UK’s global footprint at the moment. A lot of the products that we consume on the UK market often, when it is related to meat and dairy, are somehow connected, through the supply chain, to deforestation. For example, 95% of chickens slaughtered in the UK are farmed intensively in a way that means they are fed on soya, and half of Europe’s global deforestation footprint is in relation to soya. We know that it can be tracked back, but, at the moment, there is not that kind of transparency.

The way to deal with this issue is twofold: first, reduce how much meat and dairy we are consuming in the UK, because we need to be freeing up agricultural land globally to give back to nature and allow abundance to be restored. We know the Government are very keen on nature-based solutions for climate change, and a key part of the puzzle is giving land back to nature. That requires a shift in our consumption habits. A global footprint provision in the Environment Bill to allow targets for this would enable that to happen.

The other piece to the puzzle is sorting out our supply chains and putting a requirement on corporations to clean up the supply chain and conduct due diligence. That can be delivered through the amendment you tabled on enforcing the 2020 deforestation deadline; the Government have backed that previously, but it needs legal enforcement, and also the establishment of due diligence legislation in six months’ time, which would set up that framework to enable it to be delivered.

Ruth Chambers:

Can I add one thing to that? Again, this is a vital issue. If we take a step back and think about the journey of this Bill, it has been on a journey, and we have been on a journey with it. Its existence came from draft provisions from the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which were intended to close the environmental governance gap I have already talked about that arose as a result of EU exit. Then the Government took a very welcome step and decided to take the opportunity to enshrine domestic ambition in law through the Environment Bill, which came out in October and was re-published in January. This is the missing piece of that trilogy.

We totally understand that the Bill has been on a fast track—rightly, because nature’s decline cannot wait a moment longer. We understand why it has not been possible until this point in time to include measures in the Bill, but we hope the Government will do all they can to ensure these important issues are addressed, whether substantively or by using the Bill as a very important springboard ahead of the international summit later this year.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

Q I want to ask our visitors about regulatory complexity when it comes to environmental regulation. I do not know how many bodies there are, including Natural England and this new OEP. I would like you to describe how you feel it works. Do you think we need fewer? Do you think the OEP can help bring together some of this work? I am interested in your views on that.

Ali Plummer:

From my perspective, one of the things the OEP can do is help bring a strategic overview of how some of this is working, to really drive and make regulation work a bit better in this country. One of the things regulation suffers from is underfunding and under-investment, to be honest; that applies particularly to bodies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency. Natural England has suffered huge budget cuts, and when it comes to its ability to properly regulate the things it is supposed to, it is struggling to fulfil some of its statutory duties. As a result, one of the things the OEP can do is take a much more strategic overview and hopefully provide a bit of insight and guidance—and enforcement, when needed—to make sure regulation is working effectively. It is not the OEP’s role to step in and perform the roles of these regulators, but it can take a much broader view and make sure the regulators are doing what they are supposed to be doing, and are properly upholding environmental law.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

Q That makes sense to me, but do you not fear, as a lot of businesses, landowners and farmers do, that there are so many different types of environmental regulator that it is difficult to keep up? It creates its own inefficiencies. Might it be easier if we had a more simplified structure? That does not mean you regulate more or less; it means you regulate more simply. Is that something you think would benefit the environmental outcomes? It is my contention that it would, because it would be clearer and easier for everybody, from Government to individuals, to follow what needs to happen.

Ali Plummer:

For the most part, when we have seen reviews of existing regulators and of implementation of environmental law, what tends to be lacking is proper implementation. It is not necessarily a question of rewriting, simplifying or restructuring stuff; it is making sure that there is access to the information and guidance that business and industry need in order to comply. I am not sure that simplifying and trying to bring those bodies together would resolve that issue. We need up-front investment in regulators and to ensure that everyone has access to information and understands what they need to do to comply.

Ruth Chambers:

To my mind—again, it is an important question—the clarity and shape of the future delivery landscape are very important. That seems beyond the scope of the Bill and the provisions that we are talking about. The Bill does include how the OEP can and should relate to some of the bodies in the existing landscape. There are provisions relating to how the OEP and the Committee on Climate Change should co-operate to ensure that there is no duplication and overlap, so that they operate seamlessly. We welcome the Government amendments in that space, too.

We spoke earlier about the UK. The OEP will be a body for England and potentially Northern Ireland. The Scottish and Welsh Governments are bringing forward their own legislation with their own versions of environmental governance. We hope that some of those proposals will be live at a time when this Bill is still live. There would be considerable merit in looking at them side by side, to see how they work across a UK-wide delivery landscape.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

Q You have anticipated my next question on the UK. Do you think it would be simpler, from a regulatory perspective, and more effective, if the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolved Governments worked with the Office for Environmental Protection that we are setting up, rather than setting up duplicate versions of their own?

Ruth Chambers:

It might well be, but that ship has sailed, unfortunately. The Scottish and Welsh Governments are now making their own devolved governance arrangements. I think the Scottish legislation will be coming shortly. It is less clear when Welsh proposals will be out, but we hope that will be shortly. It is important to look at them side by side, to ensure that they interrelate on things such as transboundary issues. There is a clause in the Bill that requires future environmental governance bodies to co-operate and share information. I think that is very important.

To go back to Northern Ireland, if I may, we spoke about environmental principles being a slightly forgotten part of the Bill; we also feel that way about the Northern Ireland clauses in part 2. Again, we talk about the OEP and principles, but the Northern Ireland environmental governance provisions are a game-changer for Northern Ireland. We should not underestimate their importance. We hope that they get due consideration in the Committee, either in the oral evidence sessions or when amendments are proposed. They are vital; we cannot stress that enough.

Ali Plummer:

On the issue of co-operation across four governance bodies, it is really important for citizens to be able to access complaint mechanisms. It should be clear that if they make a complaint to one body, and that is not the right place, it will be shared with the four country bodies. If there are four mechanisms, they need to work in co-operation, because they will all be upholding devolved environmental legislation. It is important that if a citizen makes a complaint to one point, they can have confidence that it will be looked at, no matter where in the UK they made it, and that it will get to the right place, without them necessarily needing to understand the interaction between these systems.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q I want to go back to the brief conversation about the interim and long-term environmental targets, which you touched on, Rebecca. As you know, provisions on that will be in the Bill. Do you think the clauses give a sufficiently clear direction of travel on the sort of targets that will be set?

Ali Plummer:

Not currently, the way the Bill is written. The provisions to set targets in priority areas are welcome. We are looking for slightly more clarity and reassurance in two areas: first, on the scope of targets that will be set, to ensure there are enough targets set in the priority areas, and that they will cover that whole priority area, and not just a small proportion of it; and secondly, on the targets being sufficiently ambitious to drive the transformation that we need in order to tackle some big environmental issues.

While there is a welcome duty to set targets—on, for example, the priority area of biodiversity—I think we are looking for more confidence that the Government’s intent will be carried, through the Bill, by successive Governments. I am not sure that that sense of direction is there. While there is a significant environmental improvement test, I do not think that quite gives us the confidence that the Bill will really drive the transformation that we need across Government if we are to really tackle the issues.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q I am putting you on the spot here, and the Bill is quite broad, but are there any specific, target-related things that you want to see in it?

Ali Plummer:

If I can look at the biodiversity provisions for a bit longer, we really want targets that drive the recovery of biodiversity across the board. With the way the Bill is drafted, we have concerns that you could see quite narrow targets set in some areas to do with biodiversity. For example, you could see targets set around habitat extent that would not necessarily speak to the quality of that habitat. They might not necessarily drive the improvement that we need in order to not just halt the declines in biodiversity but drive recovery.

We would want broad targets around species abundance, populations and the quality of habitat, as well as the extent of the habitat. I appreciate that the Bill is framework legislation, but we want to make sure that when targets are set and revised, it is within a strong and ambitious framework, with a clear vision of what we are trying to achieve, which, ultimately, is recovery of our natural world and our environment more broadly.

Rebecca Newsom:

I echo everything that Ali has said. In terms of the target-setting framework and making sure that the long-term and interim targets are comprehensive enough, that really comes down to amendment 1, which would require an appropriate number and type of targets to be set in each priority area. Also, amendment 81 is about requiring the taking of independent advice, and full public consultation, which will inform the target-setting process. Finally, there is the one on ensuring that global footprint is included in the list of priority areas, so that there is a holistic view of the environment nationally and internationally, and improvement across the board is being pushed through that target-setting framework.

While those changes are absolutely vital, there are two areas where, in our opinion, such is the sense of urgency, the evidence base and the public demand for action in the short term that two short-term targets need to be put in the Bill. The first one is the 2020 deforestation target, which I have already touched on. The second would be a 50% plastic packaging reduction target by 2025, which is basically about providing a level playing field for retailers and suppliers, off the back of the voluntary commitment that Sainsbury’s has made, but no others have, and off the back of calls that retailers have made to us. They say they would support a plastic packaging reduction target in law, to allow the drive towards reuse as a level playing field in that sector.

Ruth Chambers:

Very briefly, because I think my colleagues have covered the position extremely well, all I would add is that what we are seeking is not a different policy objective from the one that the Government are set on. We very much agree with the policy objective, which is to ensure that ambitious, enforceable, legally binding targets are set to drive environmental improvement; there is nothing between us on that. I think our difference is on how the framework is configured to achieve that, and whether what is written in the Bill is sufficient and gives the right signals, not only to business, as you heard this morning, but the public, and future Governments in which current Ministers may not have such an active role. It is about that clarity and the clear direction of travel, which we do not think is there, for the reasons that my colleagues have explained.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

That is very helpful; thank you.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

Q I have just one question—I know we have had a long sitting, because of the vote. The clauses on environmental principles have been widely criticised for being creatures of policy, with many carve-outs and exclusions. Do you agree with those criticisms, and if so, what would your recommendations be to improve the Bill and ensure that we do not have carve-outs and exclusions?

Ruth Chambers:

As we discussed with Deidre, the carve-outs are not helpful, because they absolve much of Government from applying the principles in the way that they should be applied. The most simple solution would be to remove or diminish those carve-outs. We do not think that a very strong or justified case has been made for the carve-outs, certainly for the Ministry of Defence or the armed forces; in many ways, it is the gold standard Department, in terms of encountering environmental principles in its work. There seems to be no strong case for excluding it, so remove the exclusions.

There are also proportionality and other limitations on how the policy statement should be taken forward. Again, we do not see a strong case for those being embedded in the law. As I mentioned, we should strengthen the duty, so that it is not just a duty to have due regard to a policy statement, which is a next-step-removed duty, but a duty in relation to the principles themselves. To repeat the point, it would be brilliant if we could see the policy statement soon, so that we can help the Department and the Government shape it into a really helpful vehicle for everybody.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley

Q How important do you think it is that businesses are brought on board throughout the process in relation to meeting the global footprint target and in relation to the due diligence requirement?

Rebecca Newsom:

It is really important. There have been indications from companies that they are interested and support the idea of a due diligence framework. Again, it is about setting up a level playing field. There have been voluntary commitments over the last decade through the consumer goods forum to deliver deforestation-free supply chains by 2020. Those commitments have not been met or delivered on, basically because it has been a voluntary framework and the mechanisms have not been in place to deliver on it. The Bill is an opportunity to do that, and to set it in law and give the direction of travel. There is business interest in doing that because it means that the companies that want to move ahead and be progressive are not going to be at a competitive disadvantage.

Ali Plummer:

More broadly, getting business on board across the whole Bill is really important. As we have talked about quite a lot, it is a bit of framework legislation. An awful lot will need to be delivered through actions taken elsewhere—for example, actions coming through the Agriculture Bill and through house builders. You had a session earlier on planning. It is about getting business on board and getting understanding. This will need to be delivered across society. It is beholden on us all to contribute to delivering the ambition of the Bill.

Getting understanding and input from business, particularly in the target-setting framework in terms of what will need to be in place to deliver that, is really important—not just for the global footprint bit but for the Bill more broadly. Finding that coherence and narrative between the first and second half of the Bill, and in other Bills including the Agriculture Bill, is also really important, so that they work together to deliver the Government ambition on environmental restoration and recovery.

Ruth Chambers:

Again, this is a really important question. From our engagement with businesses across the piece—our members have many contacts with all sorts of businesses—we do not detect that business is opposed to such measures in any way. Of course businesses want to know the detail and the nature of the measures and any particular mechanisms that are proposed. The easiest way to do that is to set out a policy proposition and then consult on it. We would encourage the Government to do that as quickly as possible. That consultation can be done at the same time as the passage of the Bill. That is not unheard of. Certainly, we would want to see that. I worked on the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which did a similar thing in relation to a transparency-in-supply-chains requirement. That was done with the consent and help of businesses.

Finally, there is a group called the Global Resource Initiative, which is a taskforce that has been looking at the questions that we have been talking about. We hope that it will publish its report while the Bill is still live. If it does, we would encourage you to look at those recommendations as well.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change)

Q Turning to another part of the Bill, as you know there is a section concerning single-use plastics and proposals to raise a tax on them to discourage their use. Is the emphasis on plastics in single use the right way round in the Bill? Should we perhaps think about single use, which might include plastics, and legislate for that? What are your thoughts on that? Are there ways to legislate to take that view into account?

Ruth Chambers:

In our evidence we very much recognised that point. Our preferred position would be not to introduce charges just for single-use plastics, because although it sounds really good, it could have unintended consequences. If we really want as our policy objective to drive down single-use cultures and practices, we need to look at including a broader range of material. We would suggest an amendment to that part of the Bill that related not just to single-use plastics, but to all single-use materials.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change)

Q I will try not to take too long; I know that people want to get home. One part of the plastics concern in the Bill is about transfrontier exports. As a result of the powers that could be in the Bill, it is suggested that restrictions could be placed on the export of plastics to non-OECD countries, but there are potential problems even within OECD countries as far as receiving exports of plastics is concerned. One view is that we might resolve the issue simply by setting a date for the banning of plastic exports, provided we have the resources and plant to recycle and reprocess plastics within the UK. Do you have a view on that? If so, what date do you think that a ban might properly be introduced, taking into account what we would need to do in the meantime to accommodate that ban within the UK?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Ms Newsom? You are nodding.

Rebecca Newsom:

I do not have a specific recommendation on a waste export ban date, but it is important to remember the big picture. Plastic production globally is set to quadruple, at the same time as a lot of countries across the world are due to enforce their own plastic waste export bans, coming from the UK. The only way to deal with the problem without causing a massive spike in incineration is to reduce how much plastic is used in the first place. That is why we have placed the emphasis on the reduction side of things. We need to emphasise the waste hierarchy. Reuse needs to be at the top of that, without emphasising as much on the recycling side because of course we need infrastructure there. But there is no way that the UK’s recycling infrastructure, even with a lot of extra investment, will be able to cope with the anticipated rise in production and with the waste export bans, so we need to turn the tap on the production at source.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change)

Q So you might favour something in the legislation that requires attention to the waste hierarchy, for example, in terms of the passages on waste and resources.

Rebecca Newsom:

Definitely. As Ruth said, we would support making sure that there are reduction targets stemming from the waste priority area across all materials. Such is the urgency specific to plastics that Greenpeace would support a plastic reduction target for packaging in the Bill in the short term, with an emphasis on reuse to avoid unintended environmental consequences.

Ruth Chambers:

I definitely agree with all of what Rebecca has just said. Certainly one of the schedules in the Bill talks about disposal costs, which does not seem to sit readily within the strategic framework that Dr Whitehead has outlined. I do not have a view on the date, but you should certainly put that question to my colleague Libby Peake when she gives evidence on Thursday.

Finally, to reinforce a point that was made in the discussion, a key to ensuring that such a ban is to be enforced effectively is resourcing—the resourcing of bodies such as the Environment Agency. That point has come up a few times now in the discussion. It is obviously not an issue that the Bill has much ability to direct—it is an issue of much broader import than that—but it keeps coming up. If the Bill is to matter and to be delivered and implemented successfully, the resourcing needs to be there to match that over the long term.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I need to bring the Minister back in. Ms McCarthy, do you want to come in briefly?

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

We are having a sitting on Thursday, when we may be looking at things such as the waste hierarchy, so I can probably save my question for that. It was mentioned earlier today that, because there is already technically a waste hierarchy that is enforceable in law, we do not need anything here. I would like to return to that, but I think we can do it at the Thursday sitting. I am flagging it up now in case Thursday’s witnesses are listening.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Final questions or statements from the Minister.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Thank you all for your input. I know that all your organisations have engaged previously, and it is invaluable. We have had a lot of talk today about targets. I partly get the impression that you think we should have much stricter, tighter and more defined targets set in the Bill. We will set legally binding targets in the four areas specified as well as the PM2.5. Do you feel that the intention is that we fully engage further with NGOs, the public and experts to set these targets as we go through, and potentially learn lessons from other areas where targets have been set but have not worked very well? What is your view on that, in order to help us get the right targets? Do you think that is the right way to do it?

Ali Plummer:

I think they are really welcome and vital. This area of the Bill is quite sparse. The targets are difficult. We are trying to tackle some challenging and difficult issues. One of the things that we will be looking for is the welcome conversation that the Government will open with experts, practitioners on the ground and stakeholders to make sure that we are genuinely setting achievable and ambitious targets. We are setting a high level of ambition but we are also clear what we need to do in order to achieve those targets. Those two conversations need to go hand in hand. We cannot set high-level ambitious targets without having a genuine conversation about how we are going to get there. Otherwise, we will end up setting long-term targets and potentially arguing for the next 15 years about how to do it and then have to start the whole process over again.

We are looking to build some of that Government intent into the Bill. We then have certainty and clarity that not just this Government but successive Governments will continue that intent and make sure that the Bill is going in that direction—in particular, on the advisory function, making sure the Government have access to good-quality expert advice. It follows more of the model we see in the Climate Change Act 2008, where there is a “comply or explain” mechanism built in. The Government can take this expert advice, which is public, transparent and clear, and comply with it, or give a good, clear explanation why not. Those are the sorts of things we are looking for. As Ruth reiterated earlier, I think we are as one on this. We totally recognise the Government intent. We are looking for a Bill that will make sure that successive Governments hold that intent. That open dialogue, where we can all have a genuine conversation about what we need to put in place to tackle these issues, is welcome.

Rebecca Newsom:

I basically fully agree with what Ali has just said. I am also grateful for the intent; it is about translating it into a robust legal framework. I would add that, alongside getting the advice functions right, it is also about the public consultation through the target-setting process. As you said, continuing this conversation through formal consultation processes is key for the ongoing target-setting framework.

Ruth Chambers:

Again, I endorse what my colleagues have said. I want to say two final things. First, we are asking for some of the very good intentions and objectives that we have talked about today to be more explicit, rather than implicit, so that whether we are a business, a member of the public or a future Minister, we have that clarity going forward.

Minister, you helpfully referred to the target development process, which will not form part of this Bill but will nevertheless be an important match to it. It will happen over the next few months, and if the targets in the first tranche are to be set by 2022, although that sounds a long way away, we all know from the way Governments work that it is actually not that far. The sooner that process can start in earnest and the sooner there can be clarity about how stakeholders can be involved, how we can feed in and when the consultation is going to be, the better, so we can make sure that we play a full and meaningful part in that.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Thank you very much indeed. I think that brings the proceedings fairly neatly to a conclusion. As I have said to everybody else and will say to you, earlier this morning the Committee passed a resolution agreeing to accept written submissions. If there is anything that you feel you missed out or wish you had said, please put it in writing and let the Committee have it, and it will be taken into account.

Ms Chambers, Ms Newsom and Ms Plummer, thank you very much indeed, both for your patience and for the information you have given to the Committee. We are all grateful to you, and look forward to a successful resolution.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Leo Docherty.)

Adjourned till Thursday 12 March at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

EB01 49 Club

EB02 Coca-Cola European Partners

EB03 Local Government Association

EB04 Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA)

EB05 The Royal Town Planning Institute

EB06 Cycling UK

EB07 Building Engineering Services Association (BESA)

EB08 Girlguiding

EB09 United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG)