I welcome the three witnesses. Thank you for taking the time and trouble to come and act as witnesses before the Committee. I hope that starting slightly earlier has not inconvenienced you too much. The session has to conclude by 5 pm, although it does not have to go on until then if there are insufficient questions. We will open the questioning with Dr Alan Whitehead.
Q Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. The Bill contains many sections that run on from a central theme and have what looks like pretty comprehensive legislation for the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Administration. I appreciate that you may have to act as a proxy for everybody rather than just for Scotland.
One of my concerns, about which I do not know enough, is the extent to which we are putting things in the Environment Bill and expecting everything to happen in the same way in all the different Governments and Administrations within the UK, which all clearly have quite different practices. Are you confident that the Bill, certainly as far as Scotland is concerned, will enable us to have UK-wide environmental protection standards that are good for everybody, bearing in mind that species, waste and various other things do not worry too much about borders and are of particular concern to the whole of this part of the world? Are you happy that the Bill does that job, or are there things that could go into it to better reflect the particular circumstances in different parts of the UK, particularly for the Scottish Government?
We are all looking at each other to see who goes first. My name is Lloyd Austin. I am an honorary fellow of Scottish Environment LINK and convener of Scottish Environment LINK’s governance group.
My answer to the question is that it depends. Different parts of the Bill work in different ways. It is clear that environment has been devolved for the whole time. Lots of environmental regulations and, as you say, practices differ between the Administrations already, and they will continue to do so. On the other hand, there is also a need, as you rightly say, for proper co-ordination, co-operation and joint working, so we would encourage all those things. In a way, it is not for us to comment on whether the devolution settlement or any other constitutional arrangement is right or wrong; we simply try to encourage the Administrations, in whatever arrangement there is, to try to achieve the best environmental outcome.
There are different ways of doing that for different things in the Bill. On the EU environmental principles, we have a question mark about how they are applied in Scotland and Wales in relation to reserved matters; that seems to be a gap in the Bill. We understand that the Scottish Government are bringing forward their own legislation in relation to the EU environmental principles, which will apply, obviously, to devolved matters. That is positive and welcome, but we would encourage the Administrations to work together to try to agree some form of statement about how those principles, which are the same at the moment because they are in the Lisbon treaty and therefore apply to all Administrations, will operate coherently across the piece and how they will replicate, in a sense, the way they work at the moment. We believe there are discussions between the Administrations about that at the moment, but it would be useful to stakeholders for such a thing to be consulted on before the different bits of legislation get finished off.
I am John Bynorth, policy communications officer at Environmental Protection Scotland. Certainly, devolution is one of the main challenges facing the UK legislation that is coming in. It is important to ensure that standards are common between the different countries. There is no point having one set of standards in England and not having the same standards in Scotland. Ministers and civil servants in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Northern Ireland should talk to each other to ensure consistency, so we do not end up with two different types of air quality policy, for example, which could be quite damaging, and just in general, as Lloyd said, in respect of environmental standards.
The SNP Government launched their environmental strategy for Scotland last month. They have made it very clear that they will retain or even try to exceed the EU standards that we have just left behind by leaving Brussels. They have been a lot clearer on that. We do not see so much of that in the UK Environment Bill. Those are important distinctions. On the clampdown on domestic burning—the sale of solid wood fuels and wet wood—you cannot have two different policies in England and Scotland, for example, because somebody would just sell something across the border that was illegal in England. We need to have a look at things like that and to ensure that people are talking to each other and that the links we have are maintained.
I am Alison McNab. I am a policy executive with the Law Society of Scotland. We are the professional body for solicitors in Scotland and have an interest not only in representing our own members but in acting in the public interest.
Your question raises an interesting point. It is important, of course, to bear in mind that deviation is a natural consequence of devolution. Equally, I agree with the comments by both Lloyd and John that there is merit in consistency and coherence in the approach. We know that, in attempting to avoid regulatory tourism, there are aspects where Scotland may be said to be slightly ahead. In Scotland, we have seen regulations on the introduction of a deposit and return scheme.
In terms of the Bill, Lloyd made a point about the environmental principles, and how reserved functions of UK Ministers in Scotland will be dealt with. We anticipate Scottish legislation in the coming weeks. That may give some clarity around that. There may be opportunities where the consistency of the work of the Office for Environmental Protection can be strengthened. There are provisions in clause 24 of the Bill about a requirement for the OEP to consult, and an exemption from the restriction on disclosing information in clause 40. There is potential scope for strengthening those provisions.
In relation to everything else in the Bill and common frameworks around environmental matters more generally, the extent to which consistency is sought is somewhat of a political matter for the Joint Ministerial Committee to give consideration to. At the moment, it appears clear that there is a desire to achieve consistency on at least a number of environmental matters.
Q Thank you for coming. We have had extensive consultation already with all the devolved Administrations, which you welcome. Each of the areas is choosing to opt in or out of different parts of the Bill. The Scottish Government have opted in to some areas. How do you think being part of the Bill would benefit citizens of Scotland?
Obviously, there are different laws in Scotland, particularly regarding regulation. They should definitely work more closely together, liaising between the Office for Environmental Protection and the body that has just been announced by the Cabinet Secretary for Environment in Scotland, Roseanna Cunningham, which will be set up as a similar sort of regulatory and enforcement body. It will be good to have the two talking to each other, so they can learn from each other’s experiences. We should not have two distinct bodies that do not pick up the phone and talk to each other between Edinburgh and Bristol, or wherever the OEP will be based. We can see closer co-operation between the two, just to ensure that the whole of the UK is covered.
Things such as air pollution do not respect boundaries—it is a bit like the coronavirus, except it does not even respect inequality: it affects the poorest and those with underlying health conditions more than anyone else. Anything that is learned or being put into place by the UK Government should be taken up by the Scottish Government and vice versa, because they are doing a lot of work to improve air quality through air quality management areas. There are 38 in Scotland; they are introducing four low emission zones for the main cities in Scotland, to reduce the amount of transport pollution.
I see a lot of opportunities there. Politics should not come into it; whether there is an SNP Government, or a Conservative Government here, should be disregarded, because air pollution and the environment affect people’s health. We are talking about it more from an air quality perspective. There are other views as well.
First of all, I agree with John about the need for the OEP and the Scottish body, whatever it is called, to have stronger powers and duties to co-operate and liaise. If a citizen of Scotland wishes to raise an issue and they go to the wrong body, it is very important that that body is able to pass on their complaint or concern. That relates to my earlier point about reserved matters. It is obvious that the citizens of Scotland will look to the UK Government and the Bill to address any reserved matters that fall within the definition of environmental law under the Bill.
It is not for us to say whether a matter should or should not be reserved. We would like what is reserved to be more transparent. There are quite a lot of discussions about which areas of environmental law are reserved. That is not very clear to citizens at this stage. The OEP will be responsible for reserved matters under the Bill as drafted, but as I indicated there is a lack of clarity about the application of the principles to them. The Committee might want to look at that, to see whether that gap could be filled.
As was commented on earlier, devolution leads to differences. There were differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK before devolution, when we had the Scottish Office and administrative devolution, and that has continued. From an environmental point of view, we would like those differences to lead to a race to the top rather than a race to the bottom. The more that each of the Administrations can lead the way and encourage others to follow suit, the better.
For instance, you indicated, Minister, that the Scottish Government have opted in to some and not other parts of the Bill. I think that is fine. It is very welcome that they are moving faster on a deposit return scheme. On the other hand, it looks as though there is agreement on extended producer responsibility, and all Administrations will move together. I hope that the race to the top will encourage all Administrations to move faster. The fact that the Scottish Government have moved faster and further on a deposit return scheme will encourage the other three, and vice versa. In relation to England, the Bill does some very positive things regarding biodiversity and the recovery of nature, and the setting of targets. I would argue that the Scottish Government could learn from that and then go beyond it.
I echo the comments made by Lloyd in relation to the OEP. I suppose the key thing is that the benefit to consumers may come in clarity on who is dealing with what, where they seek assistance, where they take complaints, and so on. It is important that the law is clear and that people are able to guide their conduct based on a clear understanding. That will be important to achieve in the context of the Bill and all that comes from its enabling provisions in particular.
Q Will you welcome as much alignment as possible through your version of the OEP? We have made it clear who comes under that and where people go to report. Would you like to see a similar body?
What is important is that whatever is set up can work well alongside the OEP. Perhaps there is scope for strengthening provisions in the Bill for the OEP to work alongside bodies in the devolved Administrations to ensure good working relationships, consistency, the sharing of information, and so on.
Q Good afternoon, and thank you for coming down. The Bill leaves a number of things out of its scope, including tax and spend and allocation of resources by the Treasury, and MOD activities, among others. Do you think that is a sensible way to go about things? Perhaps I should not say sensible. What are your thoughts on those exemptions?
From the point of view of environmental NGOs, we agree. Greener UK colleagues made this clear earlier in the week, and we support those comments. The definition of environmental law is perhaps too narrow. We are interested in policies and measures that have an impact on the environment, because we are interested in environmental outcomes and achieving good environmental objectives. That is the key thing. If any policy or piece of legislation has an effect, whether good or bad—many things are good, and many may not be so good—it should come under the remit or gamut of somebody considering the impact on the environment. Therefore, the definition should be as broad as possible.
In reality, we accept that there will be exceptions. Those exceptions should be based not on the kind of broadbrush things indicated, but on a degree of justification for why—reasons of national security or whatever—the environmental issue has to be overwritten. Nobody thinks the environment will always trump everything but, on the other hand, where the environment is trumped, there should be a good reason, and that reason should be transparent to citizens.
The question of exemptions may be for the military. I understand that they currently apply the principles of environmental law, but why should they be exempt? They use a huge amount of machinery and there are air quality issues there. It seems that the Secretaries of State will have the final decision on which targets are implemented, so there are concerns about that. It is a bit arbitrary and unjustified that the military, for example, should not be subject to the same conditions as everyone else.
Without touching on the specific exemptions, it strikes me that there may be scope for greater specification within the Bill about what the exemptions are to be. If memory serves me correctly, when the Bill was consulted on at draft stage in late 2018 and early 2019, there was an additional exemption around anything else that the Secretary of State considered should be exempt. We have come some way from that view. There may also be greater scope for scrutiny within the Bill on the exemptions, which the Committee may wish to consider strengthening. Essentially, there are opportunities for more specification and more scrutiny.
Q While recognising that devolution can mean deviation, and that that can have some positive effects, some of those opportunities can also turn into risk because the environment is transboundary and business is transboundary too. What do you see as the risks if the Scottish body took a fundamentally different approach to that of the Office for Environmental Protection?
I referred to environmental regulatory tourism earlier on—call it whatever you wish. There will always be issues around people trying to beat the system, and that is a risk if there are varying standards. However, on the flip side, there are opportunities to drive improved performance or improved outcomes. There may be commercial interests that need to be taken into account, so it may not be viable to do a different thing in one jurisdiction from another.
Q Do you think that is a problem of clarity? It is incredibly important for people to understand exactly what the protections, standards and targets are, in order to be compliant.
There is the potential for it to be. I suppose what is important is that there are clear routes for people to be directed to—not only legislation, but guidance and other information on how to take things forward. It is important to bear in mind that there may be opportunities to support businesses in how they work cross-boundary, and opportunities in the context of the Bill to think about the functions. One that springs to mind, for example, is the function of the OEP to advise Ministers. Of course, it may be advising on matters that relate to English or reserved matters, but that may have a cross-boundary effect, and it is important that that is considered.
The OEP is probably key. The environmental principles raise an interesting issue: at the moment, the Bill provides for them to apply in England and it is not clear how reserved functions of the UK Ministers that apply in Scotland will be covered. We do not yet know the detail of the Scottish legislation, but is there potential for a gap there? I suspect yes, but we do not know the detail of that yet.
REACH is an area that the Committee has already heard about this afternoon, and there are powers within schedule 19 for the devolved Administrations to make some regulations on that in terms of the enforcement. Given the wider scope of REACH in the reserved issues, that is perhaps something that would merit collaboration.
Certainly, there is no point in having two sets of rules, two sets of penalties and two sets of punishments for each part of the country. In a multinational world, there are UK-wide operators such as haulage, oil refineries and petroleum companies. We have a problem at the moment in Scotland with Mossmorran in Fife, an ExxonMobil-owned company, which is having problems with flaring that are affecting local communities. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency is trying to deal with it, but it keeps happening again and it is causing terrible problems for people living in the area, with noise and other issues. You need to have consistency in dealing with that between the different parts of the country.
The other issue is that if penalties in Scotland were different from those in England, companies might up sticks and move their business completely to England, which would affect the economy. Consistency is vital. The same applies with emissions: we have clean air zones down here, but low emission zones in Scotland. The types of restrictions on bringing petrol and diesel vehicles into cities, and on haulage companies, need to be very similar—I think that is happening—so that our economy is not damaged, but the rules and penalties are made clear to people and are UK-wide.
Maybe there should be a joint memorandum of understanding between the new protection body that we will get in Scotland and the OEP, once they are up and running. That could be a key part of what they do, with the civil servants from each body talking to each other and ensuring that they set out what our principles are, what we have in common and where the differences are, so that people, and businesses in particular, are clear on that.
To follow on from the last thing John said, some kind of agreement about how the new bodies work together would be very useful. In terms of the Bill, that could be an amendment included within the clause dealing with the OEP’s having to set its strategy. It already sets out various aspects of what should be in that strategy, and a simple line indicating that, as part of determining its strategy, it must set out how it plans to work with similar bodies in Scotland and Wales would be very useful.
Regarding your generic question about risks, the biggest risk is the race to the bottom, as I described it before. We must try to prevent that and to encourage the race to the top.
Regarding specific issues, the scale of the risk depends on the mobility of the risk. John mentioned the issue of businesses moving waste and Alison mentioned regulatory tourism. Those are risks, and waste tourism is another. If the two Administrations are too different in terms of their waste management policies, it is very easy for businesses to stick the waste on a lorry and take it over the border, and that sort of thing. It therefore depends on mobility.
From an environmental perspective, one of the key things is specific environments that cross borders. We have a very good system of cross-border river basin management plans, which is reflected in the water part of the Bill for, in our case, the Tweed-Solway area. That is a shared environment, where the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the Environment Agency have to work together, and the plan is jointly signed off by Scottish Ministers and the Secretary of State. There is a similar model for the cross-border areas between England and Wales, and between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Those types of cross-border arrangements should be continued for those cross-border types of environment; that is a good mechanism.
Having mentioned Northern Ireland, when we talk about these devolution issues within the UK, it is important that we remember that we also have a border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland and the EU on the island of Ireland. The issues that you are asking us about—regarding the difference between Scotland and Wales—apply equally between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That is a challenge that needs to be addressed.
Equally, in relation to our marine environment, all of our marine environments have borders with other nation states—some with EU nation states and, to the north, with Norway and the Faroes. In managing our marine environment, we must work through mechanisms such as OSPAR to ensure that we have good co-ordination with Governments outside the UK, in exactly the same way that we need good co-ordination between Governments within the UK. The environmental issues—I always come back to focusing on the environmental outcomes—are in principle much the same, irrespective of whether the borders are national borders or sub-national borders, if you see what I mean.
Q It is getting quite complicated, isn’t it? I know that you cannot speak for Northern Ireland or for Wales but, as far as you can answer this, are you aware that there has been strong collaboration so far between interested bodies and the Government on the Bill? If you are, do you think that has been working well so far? How effectively do you think co-operation on nature recovery networks might be?
We cannot really answer in terms of co-operation between the Governments; we are not the Governments. We speak to all four Governments, and sometimes we hear signs of good co-operation and sometimes we hear signs of challenges—shall I put it that way?—whereby different Governments give us different indications of the nature of the discussion.
One thing that I am certainly aware of is that through our Greener UK and Environment Links UK network, there is good co-operation between the NGOs across all four countries. I am speaking as the co-chair of the Greener UK devolution group as well; that is how I am familiar with some of the work going on in Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as Scotland. There are examples of good co-operation; equally, there are challenges.
In relation to nature recovery, one of the key challenges is that the Bill requires the Secretary of State to set a target on biodiversity, and it is unclear whether that is for England or the UK. If it is for the latter, what will be the role of the devolved Administrations in delivering that target? Will they agree the UK target, and what proportion of it would be for England and would be delivered by the English nature recovery network? There is scope for greater thinking and clarity on how the Administrations might agree some kind of high-level objective, to which each of their individual targets and recovery processes would contribute.
Perhaps as a precedent, I would point you to a document that all four Governments agreed prior to passing separate marine legislation back in 2005 or 2006. The four Governments all signed a document on the high-level objectives for the marine environment. Subsequently, the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 was passed by this Parliament, the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 was passed by the Scottish Parliament and the Marine Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, each piece of legislation contributed to the agreed high-level objectives document.
It would be beneficial to environmental outcomes if the four Governments could sign up to similarly generic, high-level environmental objectives. It would not involve one Government telling another what to do; the document would be mutually agreed in the same way as the one on marine legislation. The Secretary of State’s targets would indicate what the English contribution to those high-level objectives would be, and Scottish Ministers would have their own process for the Scottish contribution—likewise for Wales and Northern Ireland.
Anecdotally, I hear that the Scottish Government and civil servants talk quite regularly to DEFRA and other UK organisations—it would be stupid not to.
On air quality, we have two different strategies. The UK Government have the clean air strategy and Scotland has the “Cleaner Air for Scotland” strategy, which is currently subject to a review and will be refreshed and republished later this year. Within that, you have different sources of air pollution. The Scottish Government will be talking to DEFRA and there are continuous conversations, particularly about indoor air quality. Whether you are in Scotland or England, that does not change. Having different types of properties might affect indoor air quality, but it is fundamentally a national issue.
There is concern at the moment about the rise in ammonia from agriculture, particularly in Scotland. That is an issue where they will learn from what is happening down south with DEFRA. It is not just DEFRA; even though we have now left the EU, we should not shut the door. We have to keep the door open to the EU. There is a lot of really good work going on in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe that we can learn from. We need to keep the door open, although we have now gone and cannot do anything about that. Just keep the door open and learn from it.
There is close working, but it could always be better. Hopefully, the Environment Bill will improve that, as will Scotland’s environment strategy. We need to keep those conversations going.
I do not have much to add to the comments that have been made already. There are perhaps two things that strike me, one of which relates to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee—perhaps there is a role there. It demonstrates quite good collaboration across the UK.
Looking a bit more widely, Lloyd touched on marine issues as an example. The joint fisheries statement set up in the Fisheries Bill has the four agencies—the Secretary of State and the devolved Administrations—coming together to talk about how they will achieve the objectives. That perhaps presents quite a good model for thinking further about other things in the environmental field.
Q I found this really interesting, actually. My general observation is that you are very keen on close co-operation, which is clearly something that this Government are very keen on, because there are no boundaries in the environment—in the air, as you have clearly explained, and water and all of those things. Would I be right in surmising that you would like as close co-operation as possible?
The marine examples that I quoted and the fisheries examples that Alison quoted are areas where things are mutually agreed, and as I tried to say earlier, that applies beyond the UK as well as within it.
As John indicated, we should not forget our European partners, both those within the EU and those such as Norway, the Faroes and Iceland to our north that are not in the EU, but interestingly are all in the European Environment Agency. In terms of data collation, data reporting and environmental science, we would very much like to see some continued association with that agency, which goes well beyond the EU members. Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Turkey, Belarus and lots of countries like that are partners in the EEA, engaging in simple sharing and publication of environmental data. It seems very short-sighted to pull out of the EEA when it has nothing to do with EU membership, so that is another form of co-operation that we would promote.
Being in the EEA would be very good from an information and data sharing point of view, and for maintaining consistency of standards, so I definitely agree with that and support it. I go to a lot of conferences south of the border, just to find out what is going on down there regarding air quality and other environmental issues. Everyone is talking about similar things: transport emissions in urban areas, domestic burning—how we deal with wood-burning stoves and the problems they are causing with air quality—agriculture and industrial emissions. Those are all common issues, and there are nuances about the way you deal with them, but we can all learn from each other.
The Scottish Government might not be doing things right all the time, and the UK Government might not be doing things right. We should come together regularly to discuss these things and find out how we can improve and work together. We are still part of the UK, and it is very important that we do that.
Strong collaboration between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations is essential. You have highlighted the transboundary effects of the environment, which are well recognised. Back in 2017, the Cabinet Office published a list of areas where EU law intersects with devolved powers. The revised list, which is from April of last year, highlights 21 remaining areas in which it is hoped that legislative common frameworks will be achieved. Seven of those 21 relate to environmental matters, so it is going to be crucial for there to be good collaboration between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations to achieve the desired aims regarding those matters.
Q Given what you know about the OEP’s governance framework and the concerns you have highlighted about divergence and risks—race to the bottom and that type of thing—I am trying to gauge what importance you would place on there being a structure in the devolved Administrations equivalent to the OEP here in England.
From my point of view, I would say it is very important that the governance gap, as we called it soon after the referendum result, applies everywhere in the UK, and it should be filled everywhere in the UK, whether that is for devolved or reserved matters. We very much welcome the recent announcement by the Scottish Government that they will be establishing some form of body. We are yet to see the detail; we understand that detail will be published later this month. We are less clear on the proposal for Wales. Of course, this Bill addresses Northern Ireland in schedule 2. Wales is the area that still has the biggest question mark, but we would want the Scottish body to be as good as or better than the OEP.
I would totally back that up. The Scottish Government’s environment strategy, which has only just been published, says that there will be robust governance to implement and enforce laws for their equivalent body. We do not know the detail of that—who will be leading it, and what sort of people will be on it and how they will be appointed, but it has got to be totally independent. You cannot have a body for the rest of the UK that has a different standard; they have to have the same standard and the same quality of people involved, and the same toughness to really crack down on people and organisations that breach the law. Our job as an independent and impartial organisation is to ensure that they are held to account on that, so once it is published and we know more details, we will be able to push on that.
I certainly think that having a strong figurehead for the two organisations is important—the OEP and whatever it will be called in Scotland. Personally, I think John Gummer, Lord Deben, does a brilliant job at the Committee on Climate Change. He has vast experience as a former Environment Minister, right at the top level of the UK Government. You need figures like that, who are also independent of politicians, so they can actually make decisions. Those sort of people inspire others to come on board. You need a strong staff who will stand up to organisations that flout the law—they have got to be very strong. It is up to us to ensure that whatever the Scottish Government produce is to that sort of standard. Hopefully, organisations similar to us down here will do the same with the OEP.
I agree with the comments that have been made. It is clear that there is going to be a governance gap once we reach the end of the transition period, and it is important that there are provisions put in place to mitigate that. Whether that is done by way of a single body, as in the OEP, or by different bodies taking different roles, is a matter up for grabs. The Scottish Government have announced their intention to have a single body, which we presume will be similar to the OEP. I think what will be crucial is the way that those bodies work in terms of how they set their strategy. The OEP requirement to consult on the strategy is a good thing and will enable stakeholders to contribute to devising how that body is going to operate. I hope there will be similar opportunities for the body that is created in Scotland in terms of what direction it is going to take and how it will undertake its functions.
Q With a view to trying to learn from the possible mistakes of others, there is a provision in the Bill that would prevent public bodies from making complaints to the OEP. We could find ourselves with the possibility that one public body could be aware of another committing a breach of the law without having the option of raising that complaint with the OEP, or perhaps one council being aware of another council breaching the law and not being able to take action with the OEP about it. Should we be looking at amending that in the Bill?
I would have to go away and give further consideration to that. On the one hand, there are laudable reasons for having that provision, but, equally, we recognise that there is a potential for something like a race to the bottom, where bodies are perhaps not subject to the same degree of scrutiny that they might be.
Q Sure. I like the idea of the race to the top that you mentioned, Mr Austin. I noticed in your briefing, John, the air quality issues and the more stringent standards that we have in place in Scotland, for example. Hopefully, folk will learn from that.
Absolutely. The clause you refer to relates to statements about Bills containing environmental provisions. It provides some degree of scrutiny. However, it might be somewhat limited in its scope. There is no recourse provided in the Bill if, for example, Parliament or external stakeholders felt that a matter had not been given proper consideration. Also, there is a question around how that is tested. How is the statement tested and how is it subject to scrutiny?
On your first point, like Alison I need to think about it a bit more, but I see that there is some degree of logic in one public body not being able to complain about another. Public bodies should have existing mechanisms to raise concerns with central Government.
From the point of view of NGOs and our members, ordinary citizens, the really important thing to make sure exists—this applies to the OEP and the Scottish or Welsh bodies—is a mechanism that enables ordinary citizens to raise concerns with the OEP. That is in there to some degree. There are ways in which that could be strengthened, but it is vital that that exists in the other bodies in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, with, as I said earlier, an ability for the OEP and the Scottish and Welsh bodies to pass one citizen’s complaint to another if that is necessary. If the citizen has inadvertently complained to the wrong body, it should be able to pass it on, and in some cases bodies maybe should be able to work together in a joint investigation. Some issues that citizens might be concerned about may be caused by both a reserved and a devolved matter, or may be caused by, as we discussed earlier, the Scottish and UK Governments not working together very well. The two bodies working together to encourage better co-operation might be one form of remedy that they would have available to them. We represent ordinary members of the public who are members of our organisation, and it is those citizens’ right to complain. Most public bodies can normally find a citizen if they want to.
There is an increased awareness of the environment. A poll last week showed increased awareness of climate change impacts, and the poll was taken even before the recent flooding in south Wales, Shropshire and the midlands. People are increasingly taking an interest in these things. Communities in Newcastle, for example, and even in Edinburgh, have low-cost monitoring centres to check air pollution in the towns and streets where they live, so there is huge awareness of that and climate change as well. People will want an outlet where they can complain if they think something is wrong. The office will need to be aware of that and will need to respond to that. It is a changing environment: people’s attitudes are changing all the time.
Obviously, if the Office for Environmental Protection had teeth, clout and the ability to fine people in the rest of the UK, I would want to see that in Scotland, too. In other respects, certainly the Governments work together. There are differences, as I say, but if they could work together, that would be one of the best things.
From my point of view, the varying extent of different parts of the Bill is appropriate, because it tends to reflect the arrangements that have been agreed between the Scottish Government and the UK Government. For instance, the deposit return scheme does not apply to Scotland, and that is because they have already got their provisions in place. Those other areas, such as extended producer responsibilities, are included and, as the Minister said earlier, they have opted in. I think the different extent is a consequence of developments to date; it reflects those developments.
The biggest gap is the issue of reserved areas, or the application of EU environmental principles to decisions by UK Ministers relating to reserved matters in Scotland and Wales. Those are excluded from the Bill, and it is a gap. It may be—as stakeholders, we do not know—that the Governments have agreed to legislate for that in some other way, through Scottish legislation or subsequent Welsh legislation. However, because we have not seen that, we do not know, and there has been no statement to that effect. As far as observers are aware, that gap still remains. It may be filled by an amendment to the Bill, or by Scottish legislation with the agreement of UK Ministers or whatever—we do not know—but we want to keep highlighting that it is a gap that does need to be filled.
The Scottish Government have joined where they have felt that they can, or where they have felt that to be appropriate. Certainly Roseanna Cunningham, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, made the statement before the relevant Committee in the Scottish Parliament back in October that an agreement had been reached in relation to the extended producer responsibility. There may be other areas where harmonisation can be achieved.
As Lloyd says, there is potential for a gap in the environmental principles. There is also some uncertainty around reserved matters and the OEP, and what those matters are; there may be some matters involved that appear in schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998. Product labelling and product standards spring to mind; there are certain exceptions there. There may be some issues that still need to be considered. REACH is another example where there is quite a complicated mix of reserved and devolved issues. What is important is having clarity on those things. Where collaboration can be achieved, that is good, but you need to ensure that no gaps are left.
Carrying on with the theme of collaboration, do you think that the benefits of the Bill outweigh the risks associated with having separate bodies? In my view, there are potential risks that follow from having separate legislation and bodiesQ .
If I could borrow a term that my colleague Ruth Chambers used earlier in the week, I think that boat has probably sailed. Two years ago, I remember, we had discussions with Governments north and south of the border, and east and west of Offa’s Dyke. We encouraged a discussion about which is the best route—separate bodies or one single body that would somehow be collectively owned by all the Governments, if you see what I mean. The challenge would be creating that sort of body that had the means to respect the devolution settlement, so that in relation to devolved matters it was accountable to the Scottish Parliament, and in relation to reserved matters it was accountable to this Parliament.
Creating a single body that is somehow accountable to different legislatures is a challenge, although I do not think it would have been impossible, because there are means of creating joint committees, and that sort of thing; but I think, given the way in which the devolution settlement is arranged, that kind of thing had to be mutually agreed. With the way in which the various Governments have proceeded, for their own different reasons, that was not possible. Therefore we are now in a situation where we have one body for England, reserved matters and Northern Ireland, because of circumstances over the years in Northern Ireland, and other bodies for Wales and Scotland. In a sense it is not for us to question the reasons why we arrived at this position. We are in this position, and the best way of addressing it is to ensure that the bodies work together in the way that we have described. I think you could answer that question with, “I wouldn’t start from here”—but we are here.
There is not much we can do about it, I think. The Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency work together. There are common areas—noise policy, for example—and the bodies feed off the World Health Organisation, and things like that, in policy areas. With devolution, you do have to have an organisation that is accountable to MSPs in Scotland, but there is no reason why the new Office for Environmental Protection cannot work very closely with whatever is going to be set up in Scotland. You would have to have that accountability, under the devolution settlement, to the Scottish Parliament, however. I do not know whether there is much more we can do or say about that, but that is the situation. I think you are going to end up with two bodies, really.
I agree with the comments made. As I referred to earlier, I suppose the extent to which consistency is achieved is really a political decision. The reality is that it appears that we will have the OEP and a separate Scottish, and potentially a separate Welsh, body as well. What is important is looking at how that can work together now—the practicalities of that, and how the risks can be overcome. Probably the greatest way to do that is to ensure that there are strong provisions in each of the relevant pieces of legislation for the bodies to work together. That may be a requirement to work together, strengthened from what at the moment is a requirement to consult on relevant matters.
Thank you to our witnesses. It was really important for the Committee that we got a Scottish perspective on this. I think we got that very thoroughly, and we are very grateful for it.