Examination of Witnesses

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 12th March 2020.

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George Monbiot and Dr Richard Benwell gave evidence.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley 2:00 pm, 12th March 2020

We now come to the first panel of witnesses this afternoon. We will hear oral evidence from Mr George Monbiot, a journalist and environmental campaigner, and Dr Richard Benwell, chief executive officer of the Wildlife and Countryside Link. Welcome. I have already introduced you, but can I invite the two witnesses to say a few words about who they are and what they bring to proceedings?

George Monbiot:

George Monbiot; I have a long-standing interest in wildlife, environmental and countryside issues. Many of those wildlife issues are covered by this Bill.

Dr Benwell:

Wildlife and Countryside Link is a coalition of 56 organisations working to improve the natural environment, animal welfare and people’s access to a healthy environment.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

We have until 2.45 pm before we reach the end of this session. I will call Dr Alan Whitehead to open up with one or two questions and then go to the Minister.

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

Good afternoon. A pretty direct, straight initial question: do you think this Bill is up to the task of protecting the environment in its own right? If you do not, what do you think is missing from the Bill that would enable it to do that job betterQ154 ?

George Monbiot:

There are several areas that are clearly missing, because of the scale of the impacts and a long-standing failure to engage with them. One is the unlicensed release of game birds. They amount at some times of year to a greater biomass than all the wild birds put together and have a massive ecological impact, yet their release is unregulated and uncontrolled.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Sorry to interrupt, but the acoustics are not brilliant in this room. If people could speak up a little, it would be helpful.

George Monbiot:

I am so sorry. Associated with that is the widespread use of lead shot. It is completely incomprehensible and unacceptable that in the 21st century we are still allowed to spray lead shot all over the countryside with, again, significant environmental impacts. We have also, as a nation, completely failed to get to grips with phytosanitary issues; as a result, we are in a situation where just about every tree will eventually meet its deadly pathogen, because we are so successfully moving tree and other plant diseases around the world.

A previous Environment Minister, Thérèse Coffey, said that one dividend of Brexit would be that we could set much tighter phytosanitary rules. Well, I think we should cash in that dividend and see how far we can push it. There might be an option to say, “No live plant imports into the UK that are not grown from tissue culture.” At the moment, ash dieback alone is likely to cost around £15 billion in economic terms. The entire live plant trade has an annual value of £300 million, so in raw economic terms, let alone ecological terms, it makes no sense to continue as we are.

A fourth issue that I would like to introduce as missing from the Bill is the release of the statutory environmental agencies from the duty imposed on them in section 108 of the Deregulation Act 2015: to

“have regard to…promoting economic growth.”

Doing so might be appropriate in some Government agencies, but when you are meant to be protecting the natural world and ecosystems, that should come first. Very often, promoting economic growth is in direct opposition to the aims of protecting the living world, so it seems perverse to me that agencies such as the Environment Agency or Natural England should have a duty to promote economic growth.

Dr Benwell:

I would like to start by saying that this is not a run-of-the-mill Bill; it is a really, really exciting piece of legislation that has the potential to be amazing. It has a huge job of work to do. The latest “State of Nature” report found that 44% of species are in long-term decline and that 15% of species here in the UK are at risk of extinction.

The trend of the decline of nature has been going on for a very, very long time. To put a Bill before Parliament with the aspiration of finally bending that curve to improve nature is a really big aspiration, and this Bill has many of the building blocks to start doing those things. It is really exciting; in particular, the promise of legally binding targets for nature is a tremendous step forward from where this Bill started—we really welcome it, so thank you for that. I hope that the Committee is excited about the prospect of considering a Bill that, hopefully, people will talk about for a very long time. That said, of course, I think that improvements need to be made to realise that ambition. If we were able to talk about two areas of improvement and one area of missing provisions, I would be very grateful.

Two areas really need improvement. The first is the targets framework. Although we have that promise of legally binding targets, at the moment the duty in clause 1 could be satisfied by setting a single target in each of the priority areas of air, water, waste and wildlife. Consequently, I think the first thing that we need to think about is how to shore up that provision, so that enough targets of the right ambition are set to deal with that whole natural environment improvement.

The second area that I would like to turn to if possible this afternoon is the nature chapter, in which there are, again, some really positive provisions. The system of local nature recovery strategies has the potential to start directing how we spend our natural environment money with much greater efficiency. At the moment, we spend our environment money in separate silos in the most inefficient manner imaginable—we spend our flood money here, our biodiversity money there and our air quality money there, and all that is usually tagged on after the end of the development process. In those local nature recovery strategies, we have the chance to align development planning and environmental spending in a way that can really up value for money and improve the way we use our cash.

The second bit in the nature chapter that really has good potential is the promise of net environmental gain in development. I have always thought of this as a sort of Jekyll and Hyde policy: if it is done badly, it can be a licence to trash, but if it is done well, it can be extra money from development to internalise some of that environmental cost that at the moment is not factored into the damage of development.

Again, those areas need a couple of improvements. Particularly on net gain, we need to ensure that it is properly covering the whole of development. At the moment, major infrastructure projects—nationally significant infrastructure projects—are not included. That is a big lacuna.

On local nature recovery strategies, the things that we need to tighten up are the duties to use those strategies. At the moment, there is a duty to do five-yearly planning and policy making, but that does not necessarily feed through into day-to-day planning and spending decisions. Focusing in on that duty, which is the one that also operationalises the local nature recovery strategies, is another really important way to fix the Bill.

If that can be done, not only can we start to think about bending that curve here in the UK—it is really important to remember that some big international negotiations are coming up this year: in Glasgow in November and before that, in autumn time, in Kunming, for the convention on biological diversity, where the world will come together to set biodiversity targets.

If we can fix this Bill and make it one that genuinely says, “Here in the UK, we will have a legal commitment to restore nature and the tools to do that”, not only could we start to bend the curve here but we could once again set a model for improving nature around the world.

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

Q Thank you for that; it very much coincides with my general thoughts about the Bill. I guess that, as part of your homework for your appearance this afternoon, you may have had the misfortune of having to read through the entire Bill, from end to end.

I wonder whether you have any thoughts on how the Bill, though its various clauses and powers and permissions, actually does the task that it needs to do between Administrations and different stages of the process of protecting the environment, which will take place over a number of years. I am talking about how the Bill really does the job of surviving between Administrations and perhaps doing something like the Climate Change Act 2008 is doing—not necessarily binding future Administrations, but standing there as something that has to be done, so that an Administration must have very good reasons why they should not do the things subsequently, even if they are not as well disposed towards environmental improvement as the one we have at the moment.

Dr Benwell:

I will make three points on that: two about the targets framework and one about the Office for Environmental Protection.

We want the targets framework to be a legacy framework—one that will keep having statutory force from Administration to Administration and ensure that the suite of targets can work for the natural environment as a system in place over time. That is why, even if this Government intend to set a really strong set of targets, we need to ensure that the duties in the Bill are strong enough so that when we come to a period of review later, any gaps that emerge are once again filled.

We talked earlier about the marine strategy framework directive targets, which end in 2020. We talked about the water framework directive targets, which end in 2027. We have thought about the ambient air quality directive targets, which end in 2030. The Bill needs to do the heavy lifting of ensuring that when those targets come and go, future Governments are obliged to revisit them and see which need to be put back in place.

I thought the Minister started a really fun game earlier of, “What’s your favourite target?”

Dr Benwell:

Thank you; I could do a little list now.

On biodiversity, we would have species abundance, species diversity and extinction risk. On habitat, you would have habitat extent and quality. On waste and resources, you would have resource productivity and waste minimisation. On air quality, you would have SOx, NOx—sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides—ozone and ammonia. And on water, you would have biological quality, chemical status and abstraction. There is a great set there, but some of those exist in law at the moment, so we do not need them now. What we do need is a framework that will ensure that when they come and go, future Governments have to fill that gap.

There are several ways to do that. You have heard about the options in relation to an overarching objective that could be a touchpoint for setting targets. You could simply list those targets in the Bill and say that they all have to exist somewhere in law. Alternatively, you could look at the significant environmental improvement test in clause 6 and make it clear that it needs to achieve significant improvement for the environment as a system—not just in the individual areas listed, but across the whole natural environment. That is so we know that we will have a strong set of targets now and in the future.

I will be briefer on the next points, but that was point one. Point two would be about ensuring that action actually happens. The environmental improvement plans should link to targets. There should be a requirement for environmental improvement plans to be capable of meeting targets and for the Government to take the steps in those plans. And the interim targets to get you there should be legally binding.

Point three—I promised I would be faster—is about the Office for Environmental Protection and ensuring that it has the independence and powers to hold the Government to account on delivery.

I have just remembered one thing missing from the Bill, in response to Dr Whitehead’s first question: the global footprint of our consumption and impacts here in the UK. Adding a priority area for our global footprint and a due diligence requirement on business would be a really remarkable step, again, to show our leadership around the world.

George Monbiot:

All I would add to that brilliant and comprehensive review is that there has been an extraordinary failure on monitoring and enforcement of existing environmental law in this country. We see that with Environment Agency prosecutions and follow-ups, and similarly with Natural England.

You can have excellent laws in statute, but if the resources and the will to enforce are not there, they might as well not exist. At every possible opportunity in the Bill, we need to nail that down and say, “That money will be there, and those powers will be used.” That is particularly the case with OEP, but it also applies to the existing statutory agencies.

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

Thank you so much for coming in. How lovely to have some enthusiasm! I will build on that enthusiasm for a second. I know there are probably lots of things that people think ought to be tweaked. Overall, can you sum up what you think the opportunities from this Bill will present to us?Q

Given that we have left the EU, I personally see this being a much more holistic system. I would like your views on that. You might also touch not only on the opportunities for improving the overall environment, but how this will touch on our society and business; we have to bring those people along with us.

George Monbiot:

I think there is a fantastic opportunity in clause 93, which inserts the words “and enhance biodiversity”. That is something we can really start to build on. We find ourselves 189th out of 216 countries in terms of the intactness of our ecosystems. We have seen a catastrophic collapse in wildlife diversity and abundance, yet for far too long our conservation mindset has been, “Let’s just protect what we have”, rather than, “Let’s think about what we ought to have.” I would love to see that built on.

We can further the general biodiversity objective by saying, “Let’s start bringing back missing habitats and species to the greatest extent possible,” with the reintroduction of keystone species, many of which we do not have at all in this country, others of which we have in tiny pockets in a few parts of the country, but we could do with having far more of.

We could re-establish ecosystems that might in some places be missing altogether, such as rainforests in the west of the country; the western uplands of the country would have been almost entirely covered in temperate rainforest, defined by the presence of epiphytes—plants that grow on the branches of the trees. There are only the tiniest pockets left, such as Wistman’s wood on Dartmoor or Horner wood on Exmoor. Those are stunning, remarkable and extraordinary places, but they are pocket handkerchiefs. They would have covered very large tracts.

We need to use this wonderful enhancement opportunity, which the Bill gives us. There is a lot to build on in clause 93. We can say, “Okay, let’s start thinking big and look at how we could expand that to a restoration duty and, hopefully, a reintroduction and re-establishment duty.” That harks back to clause 16, where we have five very good environmental principles; I think they have been introduced from international best practice. But perhaps we could add one more to those, which would be the restoration of damaged or missing habitats and ecosystems and the re-establishment of nationally extinct native species. We will then not only be firefighting with the Bill, but looking forward to a better world, rather than a less bad one than we might otherwise have had.

Dr Benwell:

That is a lovely way to put it: starting to think about restoration and improvement, rather than clinging on to what we are missing. That is the opportunity provided by the Bill.

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

Q It does say “significantly improved”. That is the purpose of the Bill.

Dr Benwell:

I am with you. I am saying that is a very good thing. Ensuring that we do that at a systemic level rather than improving one or two cherry-picked areas is something that we need to lock down in the targets framework.

You are right: the approach of doing things in a holistic manner, rather than just choosing one or two favourite options, is so important. It is the core insight of such a broad swathe of environmental thinking, from James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, on the one hand, to Dieter Helm’s theory of natural capital on the other. The common insight is that the environment has to operate as a system. If you choose one thing to focus on, you end up causing more problems than you solve. Think of tree planting. When that is the only, myopic target, we end up planting trees on peatlands and making things worse, or doing what was proposed the other week: planting trees on beautiful, wildflower meadowland. You have to think about the system. That is the promise here.

There are two other big opportunities, if you are asking where we could get excited about with the Bill. We need to think about the benefits of the environment for human health. If we could get a handle on the World Health Organisation target regarding the 40,000 premature deaths from air pollution a year, and demonstrate to the Government that there are wide-ranging benefits from environmental improvement, that would be thrilling.

On the business point, it is such a cliché but it remains true that what businesses really want is certainty. In the natural environment sector, they have never had anything more than fluffy aspiration. So many environmental policies of the past have said, “Ooh, we’ll do nice things for nature and we might see some improvement.” If we nail it down with a strong set of legally binding targets, businesses will know that they need to start changing their practices and investing money, and we will see some change on the ground.

There are lots of particular provisions in the Bill that could work well for businesses, such as net gain—at the moment, it is a patchwork from local authority to local authority, but we can standardise that now—and local nature recovery strategies, where we will know about targeting business investment in the future. There are big opportunities. We just need to tighten up those few provisions.

George Monbiot:

To pick up on Richard’s second point about health and connectedness, almost all Governments have always agreed that outdoor education is really positive, yet nobody funds it. There is a massive loss of contact between schoolchildren and the living world, and I hope the Bill might be an opportunity to put that right. That is another thing that I would add to the shopping list.

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

Thank you very much, gentlemen. The 25-year plan is being enacted through the Bill, and the plan does touch on the area that you mention, but thank you.

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

I will ask two questions that I put to previous witnesses. The first is about clause 18, and the exemptions for the armed forces, defence or national security, and Q for taxation, spending or the allocation of resources within Government, and whether you think that is appropriate. I have been doing some work on munitions dumps around the UK coast. I have also called for environmental audits to be done of the Ministry of Defence’s activities—for example, on land and sea—so I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on that.

On clause 20, and the requirement in the Bill for the Secretary of State to report on international environmental protection legislation every two years, do you think it might be more appropriate for the OEP to do that, and to decide what international legislation is really important, rather than the Secretary of State?

Dr Benwell:

On the exemptions from the principles policy statement, it is important to think about the weaknesses in that section as a whole. It is unfortunate that the legal duty attached to the principles is to have due regard to a principles policy statement, rather than some sort of direct duty on the principles themselves. I am hopeful that the principles policy statement, when it comes out, will do some beneficial things, if it reaches into all Government Departments and sets a clear process for the way the principles should be considered. I hope that the Department will be able to share its thinking on the principles policy statement as we go. Engagement has been very good, on the whole, with the Bill, but it would really help to see that principles policy statement in public.

The exemptions are very wide-ranging. It perhaps makes sense for certain activities of national security to be exempt. However, there is no reason to exempt Ministry of Defence land, for example, which includes areas of extremely important biodiversity. In fact, that is probably one area where we will see net gain credits generated on public land under the net gain clause, so it is strange that that is exempt.

Perhaps the weirdest exemption is the one that essentially takes out everything to do with the Treasury. When we are thinking about things like the principle of “the provider is paid and the polluter pays”, it is very strange that nothing to do with taxation or spending will be considered in the principles policy statement.

As for clause 20, I think you could do both. It would be perfectly possible for the Government and the OEP to consider international examples, and I think it would be very useful to benchmark both primary legislation and secondary legislation, in terms of non-regression. The Bill as a whole can make sure that we never have to rely on that if it is strong enough and brave enough.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Mr Monbiot, do you have anything to add?

George Monbiot:

No, that was a lovely answer.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

Q Dr Benwell, thank you for sharing your favourite targets and your points. I want to pick up on two points that you made. One was around operating as a system, and the other was around opportunity. Clearly, through the Bill, the Government are looking to lead on this, but I think it is widely acknowledged that it is going to take everybody. In terms of local nature recovery strategies and their production, what role and opportunities do you see as part of that system for your organisation and for the wider partnerships?

Dr Benwell:

The opportunities are to align spending in a much more targeted manner and to build in environmental thinking at a much earlier stage in development and other decision making at the local level. At the moment, there is no real strategic planning for nature above the local authority level. This is an opportunity for local know-how to combine with national priorities in a way that will help to bake in the environment right at the start. That should explicitly link to policies such as environmental land management, so that farmers who invest in measures that make sense for the local environment will be paid more. That is a very sensible way to target agri-environment schemes and a very good way to target things such as net gain spending.

The problem is that, at the moment, the duty to use local nature recovery strategies is a duty to have regard to local nature recovery strategies in the exercise of the new biodiversity duty, which itself is a duty only to make plans and policies. There are several levels before anybody actually has to use a local nature recovery strategy. The worst-case scenario is that we put a new obligation on local authorities to come up with these plans.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

Q Is that where your organisation might step in? How will your organisation and the wider partnerships contribute to that production?

Dr Benwell:

We hope that all sorts of stakeholders will be involved in the production. We hope that Natural England will sign off the plans, to show that they are ecologically rational, and that non-governmental organisations will come together with water companies, developers and local businesses to make it happen. However, all of those need to be sure that the plans will actually be used in day-to-day planning and spending decisions; otherwise, they will waste a lot of time and money putting together things that will just sit on the shelf. The duties to actually use them are not quite there at the moment.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

I must have revised the questions I was about to ask about 20 times, Richard, because you just kept saying, “And another thing,” so I was like, “That one is gone.” There are a couple of things that you both touched on, but not in that much detail.Q

We heard from one witness that the Bill is slightly lacking an overarching vision, which they thought could be addressed by having not just environmental objectives but objectives on health and wellbeing—I see that they are debating that in the Lords today—a bit like in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. The other issue mentioned was resource use, because there is stuff about reducing single-use plastics but not about consumption patterns overall. Decarbonisation was mentioned as well. Do you feel that the Bill could encompass those things without being unwieldy?

The other thing, which is slightly connected, is the global footprint, and I have put down some amendments on that. I entirely agree that there is not much point in doing things here if you are buying in stuff that causes environmental degradation elsewhere, or if we are funding it. I wonder whether you can say a bit more. George, on that point, one of my amendments would add to the four priority areas of the global footprint. What would be the sort of targets that we would be looking at? What would be the first things that we would address on that front?

George Monbiot:

Of course, footprinting is now quite a technical and well-documented field, in which we can see what our footprint is as a proportion of our biological capacity. In land use, for example, we are using roughly 1.7 times as much as the agricultural land that we have here. A fantastic objective—it would be a long-term one—would be bring that down to 1. If we were to look at living within our means as far as key ecological resources are concerned, that would be a wonderful overarching objective for anyone.

Dr Benwell:

On global resources, we should set out with an aspiration to deal with the UK’s entire environmental footprint eventually, including embedded water, embedded carbon and all those sorts of things, but for now it is very difficult to come up with reliable metrics for everything, so we should start where we can. One of the most straightforward ways is dealing with products in the supply chain that cause deforestation. It is basically the point that George was making. We know what those products are—it is things like leather, beef, soya, cocoa—

George Monbiot:

Palm oil.

Dr Benwell:

Palm oil, of course. It is perfectly possible to measure that footprint and set a target for reducing it. Businesses themselves came up with a voluntary commitment back in 2010, and it has had no real effect on the UK’s impact on global deforestation in some of the most amazing areas of the world. It is time to back that up with a regulatory commitment, and that would be good for the businesses that have shown a lead. At the moment, the only ones who properly investigate their supply chains, disclose what they find and take due diligence are the ones that are trying really hard. Unfortunately, it makes them look bad when the ones that are doing the worst and most damaging practices are just not bothering to report.

We should start off with a priority area for the global footprint being a metric for deforestation. Then we should have a due diligence duty that requires all businesses to look across their supply chain for deforestation risks and, crucially, to act to reduce those risks where they find them. That would be a massive step forward. It would be such an unlocker in international negotiations, where the refrain is always that developed countries are not doing their bit, but are just exporting their harm. If we show that we are not going to play that game anymore and are actually going to take responsibility, that would be an amazing thing to lay on the table in international talks.

George Monbiot:

To Richard’s list of commodities with very damaging impacts, I would certainly add fish. We currently import all sorts of fish with devastating by-catch rates. The Fisheries Bill aims to improve performance within UK waters, although it is pretty vague at the moment. It would be profoundly hypocritical if we were to carry on importing fish from places with very poor environmental performance.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q On the health and wellbeing point, it was mentioned as a possible objective, but we took evidence this morning about air quality and water quality, and witnesses in both sessions suggested that we were ignoring the impact on the human population. Should there be something in the Bill that talks about people, or should it be a Bill that talks about the environment? Should we bring people into it as well?

Dr Benwell:

It should definitely be in there. I think there is full potential for that to be covered in the Bill. If there is not, it should be broadened out. Yes, definitely, we should think of our approach to the natural environment as serving wildlife and people. Setting an overarching objective is one way to do it, or you could deal with specific areas.

George Monbiot:

And specifically listing children and future generations as people for whom there is a particular duty of care in terms of protecting the natural environment.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

Thank you for your evidence so far, which has been really informative. I want to take you back to the discussion on targets—we are hearing about these things quite a lot from different stakeholders—and to your example of Dartmoor, if I may. You might know more about this than I do, but it is my understanding that about half a millennium ago Dartmoor was actually an ancient woodland, and they cut down the trees to make the ships to build Henry VIII’s navy. I do not know whether I am right about that, but that is what I have heardQ . I do not know whether the target for somewhere like Dartmoor should be to keep it as moorland or to regenerate it to woodland, if that was case.

I feel that the Bill is the overarching framework for a positive way forward, and that were we to try to lock in all sorts of specific targets it would lose what it is trying to achieve, because there would be so much going on. What is your opinion on taking the matter to secondary legislation in the future so that we could listen to experts? I do not know what the experts would say about somewhere like Dartmoor. They might have differing opinions, and then how would we know what success looks like?

George Monbiot:

You raise the fascinating issue of baselines. What baseline should we be working to? Should we be working to an Eemian baseline—the previous interglacial, when there were elephants and rhinos roaming around, with massive, very positive environmental effects, and there was an identical climate to today’s? Should we be aiming for a Mesolithic baseline, when there would have been rainforest covering Dartmoor; a Neolithic one, when it would have been a mixture of forest and heath; or a more recent one, which is basically heath and grass, with not much heath left?

The truth is that baselines will continue to shift because we will move into a new climatic regime. All sorts of other environmental factors have changed, so we will never be able to recreate or freeze in time any previous state. That is why I think that a general legislative aim should be restoration and the re-establishment of missing species, without having to specify in primary legislation which ones they will be. The restoration of missing habitats, as well as the improvement and enhancement of existing habitats, is the bit that is missing from clause 93. We could add in habitats that we no longer have but could still support. However, we should not lock it down too much.

A big problem with existing conservation, particularly with its single-species and interest-features approach, has been to lock in place previous instances of environmental destruction. You will go to a site of special scientific interest and it will say, “The interest feature here is grass no more than 10 cm high.” Why is that the interest feature? Because that is the condition in which we found the land when we designated it as an SSSI. Is it the ideal condition from an ecological point of view? Certainly not.

We need flexibility, as well as the much broader overarching target of enhancing biodiversity and enhancing abundance at the same time. We could add to that a target to enhance the breadth and depth of food chains: the trophic functioning of ecosystems, through trophic rewilding or strengthening trophic links—“trophic” meaning feeding and being fed upon. Having functioning food webs that are as deep as possible, ideally with top predators, and as wide as possible, with as many species at every level, would be a really great ecological objective.

Dr Benwell:

You are right: we would not want to set detailed targets for the condition of Dartmoor in the Bill. That would not make sense. Nor, indeed, do we necessarily want to set numerical targets for anything else. What we need is the confidence that the suite of targets will be comprehensive and enough to turn around the state of nature. In the Bill at the moment, that legal duty could be fulfilled by setting four very parochial targets for air, water, waste and wildlife. I do not think that that is the intention, but when it comes down to it, the test is whether the target would achieve significant environmental improvement in biodiversity.

You could imagine a single target that deals with one rare species in one corner of the country. That could legitimately be argued to be a significant environmental improvement for biodiversity. Unquestionably it could, but what we need—I think this is the Government’s intention—is something that says, “We are not going to do that. We are going to treat the natural environment as a comprehensive system and set enough targets to deal with it as a whole.”

I can think of three ways of doing that. You could set an overarching objective that says what sort of end state you want to have—a thriving environment that is healthy for wildlife and people; you could list the different target areas, as I had a go at before, on the basis of expert advice, and make sure that those are always there; or you could look again at the significant environmental improvement test and make it clear that it is not just talking about individual priority areas but about the environment as a whole, on land and at sea. It does not matter how the Government do it. I think that is their intention. However, at the moment, we are not convinced that the legal provisions in the Bill would require that now or in future iterations of the target framework.

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

IQ wanted to follow up on your earlier comments about the target framework, when you said it needs to have more teeth—I agree about that. You specifically talked about how environmental improvement should be linked to targets. As you know, when it comes to targets, this Bill hangs a lot on significant improvement tests. Can you tell me more about those tests, and whether you think they are appropriate metrics?

Dr Benwell:

The test is not really a metric; it is a subjective opinion of the Secretary of State. Of course, that will be an informed opinion, but the significant improvement test is, “In the opinion of the Secretary of State, will a significant improvement be achieved through a particular target?” I am sure the Secretary of State will take advice on that, but it is a fairly loose test at the moment, and one that does not necessarily guarantee that sort of overarching improvement. I will leave it at that, because I am hopeful that in 3.5 minutes, we might return to net gain.

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

Q George, do you have any comments on that?

George Monbiot:

No, I will leave the space for—[Laughter.]

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North

BuildingQ on what you said a few moments ago, do you feel that the Bill sufficiently empowers all Government Departments to protect and improve our environment?

Dr Benwell:

“Empowers”, possibly; “requires”, not quite yet. We are hoping that the environmental improvement plan will be cross-departmental, and that it will contain specific actions that are demonstrably capable of reaching a target, just as we do with carbon budgets. That environmental improvement plan should set interim targets that are binding, and it should say, “These are the steps we are going to take to get there in the Department for Transport, in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.” That will give us the confidence that stuff is going to happen, rather than waiting 14 years and then realising we are going to miss it.

George Monbiot:

To add one small and specific thing to that, clause 86 contains what appears to be a very heavy reliance on internal drainage boards and a potential enhancement of their powers. Those drainage boards are not accountable to any Government Department, so there is a remarkable democratic deficit there. If you go ahead with clause 86 in its current form, you are effectively letting go of governmental control over a very important and large area. They are a quite extraordinary, almost feudal set of organisations; for instance, there is a property qualification for voting in internal drainage board elections. They really are effectively a law unto themselves, with appalling environmental credentials and very poor flood prevention credentials as well. If you want departmental responsibility, I would disband the internal drainage boards—as they have done in Wales—and bring their duties into the Environment Agency or another statutory agency.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

I am afraid there will not be time for any further questions; we have to move on. [Interruption.] Well, I am afraid we have a very tight timetable. I will try to make it up subsequently to those who were unable to get in, but we have to conclude this session by 2.45, and it is now 2.44 and 35 seconds. Anybody who asked a question would be unlikely to get anything like a coherent answer in the time available, so we have to close this session.

I thank our two witnesses for the benefit of their experience and the advice they have given. We are very grateful. It has been useful and helpful to our deliberations.

Dr Benwell:

Thank you.