Environmental Targets

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 17th March 2020.

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Amendment moved (this day): 178, in clause 1, page 1, line 17, at end insert—

“(3A) Targets set within the priority area of air quality must include targets for—

(a) the ambient 24 hour mean concentration of PM2.5 and PM10;

(b) average human exposure to PM2.5 and PM10; and

(c) annual emissions of NOx, ammonia, PM2.5, PM10, SO2 and non-methane volatile organic compounds.

(3B) Targets set within the priority area of water must include, but are not limited to, matters relating to—

(a) abstraction rates; and

(b) the chemical and biological status and monitoring of inland freshwater and the marine environment.

(3C) Targets set within the priority area of biodiversity must include, but are not limited to, matters relating to—

(a) the abundance, diversity and extinction risk of species; and

(b) the quality, extent and connectivity of habitats.

(3D) Targets set within the priority area of waste and resources must include, but are not limited to, matters relating to the reduction of overall material use and waste generation and pollution, including but not limited to plastics.”—

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 2:00 pm, 17th March 2020

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Before we start proceedings, I have been advised that the ambition today is to get to the end of clause 6, which as far as I am concerned is both admirable and acceptable. The Chairman’s job is to be in the Chair, and I am prepared to do that, but if we sit rather later than we might have done, I will suspend the sitting, probably for 15 minutes at 4.30 pm—for natural causes.

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)

For the elucidation of the Committee, I confirm that the intention of the Opposition is to get to the end of clause 6 in reasonably good order, so it will not be necessary, I hope, for the Chair to suspend proceedings, because we will already have gone home by then. We will see whether I manage to keep my remarks suitably brief, so that we can achieve that goal.

I barely started my remarks about the amendment this morning. I will first emphasise how important the amendment is to ensuring that the priority area targets are seen as targets with content, rather than targets in theory. That is important because of the frankly rather odd way in which subsection (2) is set out:

“The Secretary of State must exercise the power in subsection (1) so as to set a long-term target in respect of at least one matter within each priority area.”

That might suggest that the Secretary of State will have a lottery choice, and will say, “Well, I’ve got to set at least one target in each area, so what’s it going to be? If I go above my limit of one target per area, I might not be able to get targets in other areas,” or perhaps, “I haven’t got enough targets in this section, so I have to beef them up.”

In reality, targets are not one per customer; they are based on what targets should be set in each area. What are the themes that one would prioritise within each area in which a target might be set? What are the priorities regarding air quality, water, biodiversity and waste and resources that would cause us to say, “Perhaps in this area there should be three or four targets, and in that area two, or more than three”?

The Bill allows the Secretary of State to set more than one target, but it at least strongly suggests that it should be one target, and implies that that should be it. I hope we can be clear today that that certainly is not it, and that the Secretary of State will be charged with looking at each area and deciding, on the basis of what is needed, what the targets for those areas should be. They might or might not be numerous.

There is a rumour that there was discussion with the Treasury about how many targets might be allowed in each area, and the Treasury said, “Maybe keep it to one each. That will be okay.” I am sure that is untrue, but nevertheless the drafting of this part of part 1 seems a little odd.

In amendment 178, we have tried to say, “What would be the general priority areas?” One might say that it was our best go at answering that. If we have time to spare this afternoon, having got through our business, we could have a little roundtable and decide whether we think those are the absolute priorities, or whether we should put in others or change them around. It is an attempt, which I think is good enough to go into the legislation, to look at what the main areas are within each priority area that we could reasonably set targets on.

Within air quality, it would be good to have targets on average human exposure to PM2.5 and PM10, and annual emissions of nitrogen oxides, ammonia, the different PMs and non-methane volatile organic compounds. For water, the targets could be on abstraction rates,

“the chemical and biological status and monitoring of inland freshwater” and, importantly, the marine environment, which we touched on this morning.

In the priority area of biodiversity, there could be targets on

“the abundance, diversity and extinction risk of species” and

“the quality, extent and connectivity of habitats”.

Later in the Bill, we will talk about recreating habitats if necessary, and ensuring, through local plans, that habitats join up with each other, so that we do not have a series of island habitants with no relation to each other. Perhaps we should have a biodiversity target on ensuring that those habitats are connected.

In the priority area of waste and resources, there could be targets on

“overall material use and waste generation and pollution, including but not limited to plastics.”

As we will see later in our discussions, there could certainly be targets relating to the extent to which things are properly moved up the waste hierarchy. One of the concerns we have regarding the waste and resources part of the Bill is the extent to which there is, rightly, a concern for recycling, but not for going any further up the waste hierarchy than that.

Amendment 178 is the explanation that we would like to see after the very thin gruel served up in clause 1(3). It is by no means the last word, and we state in the amendment that the targets are not limited to those set out in it. Indeed, it would be a perfectly good idea if the Secretary of State or Minister said, “I don’t quite agree with the targets that you have set out here. There are other priority areas in these sectors, and we’d like to set targets on those instead.” We are not precious about that in any way.

I hope the Committee can accept the principle that it is not sufficient to set out single-word priority areas, particularly in clause 1(2). In the Bill, there needs to be some unpacking of the process, so that we can assure ourselves that we will get to grips with the sort of targets that we believe are necessary. That is a friendly proposal. I hope it is met with interest from Government Members, and that we can discuss how we get that right, having accepted the principle. We do not necessarily need the amendment to be accepted in its totality, but if we do not see any movement at all in its direction, we strongly feel that we ought to set down a marker to show that it is important that such a process be undertaken, and would therefore reluctantly seek to divide the Committee.

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

I thank the shadow Minister for seeking to specify the targets that the Government should set within each priority area. He asked if what he said was met with interest. Of course it was. He recognises that the Bill includes a requirement, which I reiterate, to set at least one long-term legally binding target in each of four important areas: air quality; water; biodiversity; and resource efficiency and waste reduction. Those were chosen because they are the priority areas that reflect where we believe targets will drive long-lasting significant improvement in the natural environment, which is the aim of the Bill.

The four priority areas were chosen to complement the chapters of the Bill, to build on the vision in the 25-year environment plan—the first environment improvement plan in the Bill—and to facilitate the delivery of comprehensive measures, with an “s” on the end, across the natural environment; we are talking about not just one thing, but a whole raft of measures. The Bill’s framework allows long-term targets to be set on any aspect of the natural environment, or people’s enjoyment of it, beyond the four priority areas in order to drive significant improvement in the natural environment. Of course, all those things will be monitored, checked and reported on to ensure that the significant improvement is achieved, and if more targets are seen to be required, then more targets are what will happen.

I would like to reassure the shadow Minister that the Government will be able to determine the specific areas in which targets will be set via the robust and transparent target-setting process that I referred to this morning. Advice from independent experts will be sought in every case during the process. Stakeholders and the public will also have an opportunity to give input on targets. Indeed, just now in the Tea Room, one of our colleagues asked about giving input on the deposit return scheme. I said, “Yes, there will be a lot of engagement and a lot of consultation, through the Bill.” Targets will be based on robust, scientifically credible evidence, as well as economic analysis.

We do not want to prejudge which specific targets will emerge from the process, and the Office for Environmental Protection has a role in setting targets. If the OEP believes that additional targets should be set, it can say what it thinks should be done in its annual report when it is assessing the Government’s progress. It will do that every year. The Government then have to publish and lay before Parliament a response to the OEP’s call. Any long-term targets will be set via statutory instruments, which will be subject to the affirmative procedure. That means that Parliament can scrutinise, debate, and ultimately vote on them, so everyone gets their say. I hope that will please the shadow Minister, because he will very much be part of that. This process ensures that Parliament, supported by the OEP, can hold the Government to account for the targets they set.

On air quality, we are committed to tackling a diversity of air pollutants that harm human health and the environment, including those that the shadow Minister mentioned. I remind him that we already have ambitious statutory emissions reduction ceilings in place for five key pollutants, as well as legally binding concentration limits for other pollutants, and those are already starting to drive significant improvements to air quality. Those are in legislation, and we obviously have to abide by them. The case for more ambitious action on fine particulate matter is especially strong, which is why we are creating through this Bill a specific duty to set a target for PM2.5, in addition to a further long-term air quality target.

Far from having a thin gruel, as the shadow Minister said—in jest, I am sure—we have a substantial porridge. That porridge will provide the building block for the whole process of setting these targets, with our main ambition being to drive and enhance a better-protected environment. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Service on a Bill Committee such as this might seem like doing porridge, but—[Laughter.] Before we proceed, the normal convention is that whoever moves the motion speaks first. There is then a pause, not because I have forgotten what to do, but so that I can see whether anybody else is excited by the debate. If I pause and nobody bothers to indicate that they wish to speak, I call the Minister. Two Members have now indicated that they wish to speak. That is perfectly in order, and I have no problem with it, but traditionally, the Minister speaks last to summarise the debate. There is then the possibility of prolonging the matter further, but that is how it is usually done.

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

I apologise for not rising quickly enough before the Minister spoke. I will try to do so more quickly in future.

I reiterate that under our current regime, it took three court cases, brought by a voluntary organisation, for Government to bring forward the clean air measures that are now being introduced. Obviously, a lot of other targets are included in amendment 178, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test—my name is not on that amendment, but I will be supporting it—but the ones about air quality are particularly close to my heart.

The fact that we had to go through those court cases under the European regulations, and that those clean air targets are not in the Bill, is deeply worrying. I am sure that we have ceilings, but for a lot of people, those ceilings are too high, and people are still going to die of breathing-related and other lung-related conditions. The ceiling in this Committee Room, for example, is very high; knowing what we now know, we would not again build this room with this ceiling height; we would have a far lower ceiling. The same is true for levels of particulate matter.

When we took evidence from ClientEarth last week, Katie Neald said:

“The cases that ClientEarth has taken against the UK Government have been key both to driving action to meet the legal limits we already have and to highlighting this as a serious issue and highlighting Government failures so far. It is really important that the Bill allows people to continue to do that against these new binding targets.”––[Official Report, Environment Public Bill Committee, 12 March 2020; c. 95, Q136.]

This amendment creates that framework. Without it, the Bill is insufficient.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I apologise, Sir Roger, for not indicating earlier that I wished to speak. I want to make a very quick point, which underpins quite a lot of my criticism of many of the amendments that have been tabled to this Bill.

This Bill is a framework measure. The Government have already set out their priority areas, which are listed in the Bill. To get into the level of specificity in the amendment presupposes that we could know, theoretically for 15, 20 or 25 years, all the measures we may wish to choose. There are some that might seem good now, but in future may not seem so good. Flexibility is very important and something any Government of any colour or description, or any Minister, would need in future because, as we are seeing, the science and advice can change quite quickly. Having priority areas around the broad themes set out in the Bill makes sense because air will not cease to exist—if it does, we will cease to exist. Within that, however, we need Parliament and the Government to have flexibility. On those grounds, I do not support the amendment.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Does the Minister wish to comment on what has just been said before I go back to Dr Whitehead?

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

Very briefly, thank you, Sir Roger.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. He has hit the nail on the head in summing up the flexibility for the targets and the importance of getting and inputting the right expert advice and having the flexibility to move and change with the requirements. The environment is such a huge thing. There is no one thing; it is not a straightforward answer. There will be lots of different targets to consider. Specifically, however, we have a requirement to set at least one long-term target.

To pick on the point made by the hon. Member for Leeds North West on air quality, we have a clean air strategy already, which the World Health Organisation has held up as an example for the rest of the world to follow. We are already taking the lead on that and have committed £3.5 billion to delivering our clean air strategy and the measures within it. They are already operating and will work part and parcel with the Bill’s new measures to have an even more holistic and comprehensive approach to air quality.

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)

If the Bill were just a framework Bill, it would be about a quarter as long as it is. The fact that, in various parts, it has quite a lot of detail about the things that are required within the overall framework indicates that the Bill is more than that. It seeks to set out, guide and secure a whole series of advances in environmental standards and enhancements of the natural environment in a way that hopefully we can all be proud of.

That is why I call this particular section thin gruel. I was trying to see where we can go with the porridge analogy. Although its potential is not thin gruel, the way it is set out in the Bill appears to me to turn out something that is rather more thin gruel than good porridge. Some Government Members, meanwhile, are thinking “How can we make it flower out of its bowl with all sorts of things added to it?”

Our amendment does not stop Ministers coming up with new targets—wide targets, changeover time and so on—and go with the flow of circumstances as they unfold, but it prevents the porridge from being thinner than it might otherwise be. We want to see basic, good porridge with some fruit, raspberries—

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)

With some nuts on top, which together makes a pleasing dish that one can understand and be secure that one is going to get a good breakfast as a result. That is the purpose of our amendment. We feel strongly about that—we all like a good breakfast. On that basis, I am not happy with the Minister’s response. I do not see how the things that she wants to get done on the Bill will in any way be undermined or diluted by the structure that we have put forward. On the contrary, I think they would be underpinned and expanded. On that basis, I will press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 1 Environment Bill — Environmental Targets

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

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)

I beg to move amendment 80, in clause 1, page 2, line 4, at end insert—

“(4A) A target under this section must be set on the basis of the best available evidence and any advice given under section (3)(1).

(4B) In setting targets under this section, the Secretary of State must take into account relevant international best practices and seek to improve on them.”

This amendment seeks to ensure that targets are evidence based and have considered international best practises.

The amendment deals with what the targets must specify. As the Bill stands at the moment, that is a little vague. Subsection (4) states:

“A target set under this section must specify—

(a) a standard to be achieved, which must be capable of being objectively measured, and

(b) a date by which it is to be achieved.”

We think that that formulation does not take full account of the way in which those targets should be appraised, particularly the way they should be appraised on the basis of the best available evidence and international best practices and how the UK might be able to improve on them. We therefore suggest adding proposed new subsections (4A) and (4B) after subsection (4).

We have to look at the best available evidence. I am not saying for a moment that this would occur, but a target that was set under this procedure by the Minister, which appeared to have been conjured out of thin air on a whim and did not have much support, would be gravely undermining of those people who want those targets to be achieved and those achievements to be firmly attained.

The best available evidence and the relevant international best practices are extremely important. We should be able to say that we can learn from others and incorporate that into our practices so that we leap ahead in our achievements. That is a very good guideline to inform target setting, and it is what we offer in our amendment. Again, I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether she thinks that what is in the Bill at the moment really does the job in terms of setting targets, or whether, perhaps by using different means from the clause, there are ways in which we can make sure that the Bill stands up rather better to the target-setting task that we have set it.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:30 pm, 17th March 2020

Of course I recognise the shadow Minister’s desire to ensure that, when these targets are set, they are based on the highest possible standards of evidence, practice and advice. However, I believe that it is not necessary to make such explicit amendments as the one that we are considering, because we have already committed to setting targets under a robust, evidence-led process. We expect the best available evidence to inform this, including, of course, scientific data, models, historical datasets and assessment of what is feasible from a socioeconomic perspective. I can assure him that absolutely nothing will be conjured out of thin air, as he was suggesting; conducting ourselves in such a way would not be a correct way for Government to operate.

I am sure that the shadow Minister will be interested to be reminded that every two years, we will conduct a review of significant developments in international environmental legislation. I think that that was one of the new additions to the Bill that was inserted during the process that he was outlining earlier, about how the Bill came and went, and fell, and various other things. This is an extra addition that I believe will be useful and will address exactly what he is talking about, because it is right that we consider what is happening across the rest of the world, to make sure that we are aligned, whether we want to be or not, and consider what other people are doing, and make sure we keep abreast of developments in driving forward our environmental protection legislation.

Of course, we will publish that review and make sure that any relevant findings are factored into our environmental improvement plan, and considered with the environmental target-setting process. We will also seek and consider very carefully the advice of independent experts before setting the targets. Additionally, our target proposals will be subject to the affirmative procedure in Parliament; both Houses will have the opportunity to scrutinise, debate and ultimately vote on the details and the ambition of the targets. We also expect the Select Committees to take an interest in this process and they will have an opportunity to scrutinise the Government’s target proposals. They might choose to conduct their own inquiries or publish reports, which the Government would then respond to in the usual manner.

Having given that amount of detail, I hope that it provides some reassurance. The shadow Minister is obviously raising really important issues, but I hope that my response makes it clear that we are taking this matter very seriously. I therefore ask him to withdraw the amendment.

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)

The Minister has said exactly what I had anticipated she might say in the best of outcomes, and that is now on the record; indeed, our purpose principally was to ensure that that kind of statement about these targets was there for all to see. I am grateful to her for setting that out and I am much happier than I would have been if she had not said that. I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment 28, in clause 1, page 2, line 15, leave out “the National Assembly for Wales” and insert “Senedd Cymru”.

This amendment reflects the renaming of the National Assembly for Wales as “Senedd Cymru” by the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020. Similar changes are made by Amendments 29, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47,48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 67, 72, and 73.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 29, 32 to 36, 67, 37 to 57, 72 and 73, and 58 to 64.

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

Section 2 of the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020 renames the National Assembly for Wales as the Welsh Parliament or Senedd Cymru. The changes will take effect from 6 May 2020. As a consequence, amendment 28 would replace references in the Bill to “the National Assembly for Wales” with “Senedd Cymru”, and replace references to “the Assembly” with “the Senedd”—I hope I have made that quite clear. This is consistent with the approach that the Welsh Government are taking to their own legislation.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Could the Minister clarify whether we are replacing “the National Assembly for Wales” with “Senedd Cymru” in all legislation or whether we are inserting both, as was implied in part of her statement, by saying, “the National Assembly for Wales/Senedd Cymru”? Does the National Assembly for Wales cease to exist completely, and are we always to refer to it as Senedd Cymru in all future parliamentary debates?

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

That is a very perceptive question, which does not surprise me at all—my hon. Friend is always on the ball. The answer is no, the Welsh Assembly will remain. I will just add that the Government consulted the Welsh Government on how the Welsh legislature should be referred to in legislation moving forward, and using the Welsh title ensures there is a consistent approach across the statute book.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

For clarification, can I just confirm that we will refer to “the National Assembly for Wales” and to “Senedd Cymru” in the Bill, and that that is the format that Parliament and the Government will adopt for all legislation, and that we are not replacing “the National Assembly for Wales” with “Senedd Cymru” on every occasion?

Amendment 28 agreed to.

Amendment made: 29, in clause 1, page 2, line 16, leave out “Assembly” and insert “Senedd”.—(Rebecca Pow.)

See Amendment 28.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I am satisfied that clause 1 has been sufficiently debated, and I therefore do not propose to take a clause stand part debate.

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.