Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Environmental targets: process

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 17th March 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change) 3:00 pm, 17th March 2020

I beg to move amendment 81, in clause 3, page 2, line 33, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

“(1) Before making regulations under sections 1 or 2, reviewing targets under section 6, setting interim targets under section 10, or considering actions required to achieve targets set under sections 1, 2, or 10, the Secretary of State must—

(a) obtain, and take into account, the advice of a relevant independent and expert advisory body set up for this purpose;

(b) carry out full public consultation;

(c) publish that advice as soon as is reasonably practicable.

(1A) If regulations laid under sections 1 or 2 or interim targets make provision different from that recommended by the advisory body, the Secretary of State must both publish the public interest reasons for those differences and make a statement to Parliament on them.

(1B) Any advisory body set up under subsection (1)(a) must comprise 50 per cent of members nominated by the OEP and 50 per cent of members nominated by the Committee on Climate Change.”

This amendment seeks to prevent the Secretary of State from breaking Articles 4 to 8 of the United Nations Aarhus Convention of which the UK is a party. It encourages the Secretary of State to set up and listen to an independent expert body, to consult with the public, and share information. Where discrepancies between what is advised and the regulations the secretary of state chooses to make arise, it requests explanation of that discrepancy. Finally it makes suggestions for how that advisory body should be set up.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 181, in clause 3, page 2, line 35, at end insert—

“(1A) The advice sought under section 3(1) must include advice on how the scope and level of targets should be set to significantly improve the natural environment and minimise, or where possible eliminate, the harmful impacts of pollution on human health and the environment.”

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

I was slightly taken aback as I had received an indication from the Chair’s provisional grouping and selection of amendments that amendments 81 and 181 would be taken separately.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

They can be voted on separately but debated together. I hate to say it, but I am right.

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

I think I probably have a provisional grouping in front of me here and things maybe have changed since then. In that case, I am very sorry that I raised that particular point.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

No problem at all. The grouping on the selection paper indicates amendment 81 with 181 and then, separately, amendment 24.

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

My other problem here was that I had extensively marked up the provisional grouping with colour coding and so on, and was reluctant to set it aside. That is maybe why I brought it into the Committee. It is a nice piece of work in its own right.

We are talking about amendments 81 and 181 grouped together, which I am happy to talk to. I begin with amendment 81, which seeks to unpack the statement at the beginning of clause 3 that before “making regulations” the

Secretary of State must seek advice from persons the Secretary of State considers to be independent and to have relevant expertise.”

That is a rather strange form of wording. Hon. Members may agree on that. It appears, at its face, that the Secretary of State could choose who—in his or her opinion— is “independent”, a subjective view from the Secretary of State, and who has “relevant expertise”. That is also a subjective view. The Secretary of State can decide on his or her advice without consultation, and can decide from whom he or she must seek that advice.

Amendment 81 seeks to make it much clearer that that is not how the process of seeking and obtaining advice would be carried out. Not only that, that it also seeks to put in place what is essentially good practice from previous legislation in this area, to guide us on how that process would be undertaken. Amendment 81 sets out that the Secretary of State would have to “obtain” and “take into account” the

“advice of a relevant independent and expert advisory body set up for this purpose” when reviewing targets and making regulations under clauses 1 or 2. It would not just be someone who the Secretary of State thought had some relevance to the matter, or to whom they decided to go in the belief that they might be independent. They would be “independent”, they would be “expert”, and they would be separate. It would be clear who that advice was coming from.

On the basis of that advice, full public consultation should be undertaken, and that advice would be published as soon as was reasonably practical. It gives the Secretary of State a get-out, and it is proper that it should. Since the advice is to be given as advice, and if the Secretary of State decided that they did not want to take that advice, or wanted to make a provision other than the one recommended by the advisory body, then the Secretary of State should

“publish the public interest reasons for those differences and make a statement to Parliament on them.”

That is what is known as a comply or explain procedure. It would be expected, in the first instance, that the Secretary of State would comply with properly given, properly expert and properly independent advice, but if they did not feel that they could comply with that advice, it would be up to them to put up a good case as to why not, to publish that good case and to make a statement to Parliament on the good case as to why they could not comply.

We have suggested that the members of the advisory body for this purpose should be nominated by two bodies, one of which is independent and the other, we hope, will very shortly be independent. We suggest that 50% of members be nominated by the Office for Environmental Protection and 50% by the Committee on Climate Change.

That brings me to the procedures that were set up under the original climate change legislation, the Climate Change Act 2008, which, as I have already mentioned in these proceedings and will undoubtedly mention again, seems to me to be a yardstick by which we should measure what we are doing in the Bill. The Bill has often been described as a Climate Change Act for the environment, and it is right that we should make that comparison, because a Bill in its best form will, first, stand the comparison and, secondly, as the Climate Change Act has, stand the test of time between Administrations and through vicissitudes and changes in scientific consideration. It will have within it the mechanism to keep a firm eye on what we are doing, but at the same time change, if necessary, with changes in circumstances.

The Climate Change Act is clear about what the Secretary of State must do in terms of either setting targets or amending target percentages. That is a comparator with what is suggested in this Bill in clause 3. The Climate Change Act states the following:

“Before laying before Parliament a draft of a statutory instrument containing an order…amending the 2050 target or the baseline year…the Secretary of State must…obtain, and take into account, the advice of the Committee on Climate Change”— the Committee on Climate Change was set up by the Climate Change Act for that purpose of providing independent advice. The Act also says that the Secretary of State must publish that advice and, if the order that the Secretary of State lays makes provision different from that recommended by the committee,

“the Secretary of State must also publish a statement setting out the reasons for that decision.”

The “comply or explain” mode of doing things is enshrined in the Climate Change Act. Indeed, it is shot through the Climate Change Act in terms of different orders that can be made to amend targets or baseline years or to amend target percentages. When the target percentage in the Act was, as hon. Members will recall, changed in July of last year—I was privileged to lead for Labour on the change that was put forward in, as it happened, a statutory instrument—that change went through well, in that the procedures in the Climate Change Act allowed the change to be made on the basis of proper advice and consultation and ministerial statements to that effect. All those procedures worked well in relation to the Climate Change Act and the changes made there.

There are no such procedures in this Bill. That is what we are particularly concerned about. We think that a procedure similar to that in the Climate Change Act but addressing the particular concerns of the Environment Bill—not everything can simply be squeezed in unamended and unchanged—would be the appropriate way to deal with this request for advice on setting targets and interim targets. Yes, the amendment is quite a bit more extensive than the brief mention of targets in clause 3, but it would add real lustre to the Bill, ensuring that targets would be properly set, properly consulted on and properly explained. Therefore, they would be properly and legitimately adopted.

Amendment 181 seeks to expand on the advice sought under clause 3(1) and is to be taken alongside our proposals on advice. It seeks

“advice on how the scope and level of targets should be set to significantly improve the natural environment and minimise, or where possible eliminate, the harmful impacts of pollution on human health and the environment.”

It therefore specifies to an extent what the content of the advice sought by the independent body would look like, and how the body could be sure to shape its advice to be consistent with the intentions of the framers of the legislation. We think both changes would be good for and strengthen the Bill, and we hope that the Government will be interested in proceeding, if not along those exact lines, then along lines similar to those in the Climate Change Act, knowing that that procedure has stood the test of time well. It would certainly be robust for the future.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:15 pm, 17th March 2020

I thank the hon. Gentleman for amendments 81 and 181. I hope he has already got the impression that we are absolutely committed to setting targets under a robust evidence-led process. Independent experts, the public, stakeholders and Parliament will all play a part in informing the scope and level of target development. The Government will carefully consider advice from independent experts before setting targets.

As the Bill progresses, we will continue to consider how the role of experts is best fulfilled. A number of witnesses last week referred to the need to use experts, and they will be used constantly and continuously. Such experts could include academics, scientists and practitioners within the four priority areas included in the Bill. The expert advice we receive to support the setting of both the target for PM2.5 and the further long-term air quality target will include that on how targets will reduce the harmful impacts of air pollution on human health. We will rely hugely on that expert advice.

Long-term targets will be subject to the affirmative procedure, so Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise and analyse the target proposals. That will, of course, include the shadow Minister, because both Houses will debate the statutory instruments that will set the targets. The Office for Environmental Protection will publish annual reports on the Government’s progress towards the targets, which may include recommendations for improving progress. As I have reiterated a number of times, the Government will be required to publish a response to the recommendations.

I want to stress that the Office for Environmental Protection can advise on targets, either through its duties related to environmental law or through its annual progress report on the environmental improvement plan. For example, it has a statutory power to advise on changes to environmental law, which enables it to comment on proposed legislation on long-term targets. It also has a statutory duty to monitor progress towards meeting targets as part of its annual progress report on the environmental improvement plan, which can include recommending how progress could be improved. So there is already a very strong mechanism.

Environmental law extends to all target provisions of the Bill—for example, procedural requirements on target setting and amendments, and the requirement to achieve targets. In addition, the Government will conduct the first significant improvement test—that is a legal requirement—and report to Parliament on its outcome, three months after the deadline for bringing forward the initial priority area targets.

The significant improvement test provisions of the Bill will form part of environmental law, which is why they will come under the OEP. That means that the OEP will have oversight of the provisions, as it does over all aspects of environmental law, and will have a key role in making sure that the Government meet the targets.

The shadow Minister rightly drew analogies with the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Committee on Climate Change. I am pleased that he recognises the similarities. In designing this framework, we have learned from the successful example of the Climate Change Act—for example, the strong duty to achieve long-term targets, the requirement to report on progress and scrutiny of progress by an independent, statutory body, in this case, the Office for Environmental Protection. That mirrors the CCA. We are confident that the framework is every bit as strong as the CCA framework and that it provides certainty to society that the Government will achieve the targets, delivering significant environmental improvements.

Ongoing stakeholder engagement, expert advice and public consultation will help to inform future target areas, as part of the robust, evidence-led, target-setting process. The Government will, as a matter of course, conduct a wide range of consultations for the first set of long-term targets. I hope that that is clear. We do not need the amendments suggested by the shadow Minister, and I ask him to withdraw them.

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

That is all quite terrific, but it is not quite what it says in the Bill. That is the problem. The Minister has set out a robust and wide-ranging procedure for setting targets and I hope that all the steps she mentioned are going to be followed. If they are, we have a good arrangement. However, if we look at the Bill, there is fairly scattered evidence that that is the way we are going to conduct ourselves. On the contrary, it actually appears to give a great deal of leeway for somebody or some people not to do most of those things in setting the targets, if that is what they wanted to do.

We are perhaps back to some of the discussions we had this morning about the extent to which the Bill has to stand not just the test of time, but the potential test of malevolence. If a well-minded and dedicated Minister, such as the one we have before us this afternoon, were to conduct the procedure, that is exactly how she would conduct it, and I would expect nothing less of her, because that is the frame of mind in which she approaches the issue—but, in legislating, we have to consider that not everyone would have that positive frame of mind. I do not want to divide the Committee, but I am concerned that the procedure in the Bill is too sketchily set out for comfort. Maybe, when we draw up the regulations, we could flesh out some of the things that the Minister said this afternoon, to assure ourselves that that is what we will do, and do properly. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I was not expecting to be called quite so soon, so I will move amendment 24 formally.

Amendment proposed: 24, in clause 3, page 3, line 20, leave out “31 October 2022” and insert “31 December 2020”.—(Alex Sobel.)

This amendment is intended to bring forward the deadline for laying regulations setting the PM2.5 target to December 2020.

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

I could cut my speech short and just say that I am very pleased the hon. Member has withdrawn his amendment.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

He has not withdrawn it; he has moved it formally.

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

I will give my speech then, Sir Roger.

The amendment would undermine the intention to ensure that we set targets via an open consultation process that allows sufficient time for relevant evidence to be gathered, scrutinised and tested. As part of that process, we intend to seek evidence from a wide range of stakeholder interests, carry out good quality scientific socioeconomic analysis, take advice from independent experts and conduct a public consultation, alongside the parliamentary scrutiny of the target SIs that I have mentioned many times before.

It is important that we get that right rather than rushing to set targets, so we do not want to bring the deadline forward from 31 October 2022. We have heard strong support for that approach from stakeholders, who are all keen to have time and space to contribute meaningfully to target development. It is critical that there is certainty about what our targets are by the time we review our environmental improvement plan. That is essential for us to set out appropriate interim targets—the ones that will get us to the long-term target—and consider what measures may be required to achieve both the interim and long-term targets. The review of the plan must happen by 31 January 2023, so to that end, the target deadline of 31 October 2022 works well.

The Committee should also note that 31 October 2022 is a deadline. It does not prevent us from setting a target earlier where we have robust evidence and have received the necessary input from experts, stakeholders and the public.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Can the Minister reassure us that the 2022 deadline does not mean that progress on those issues will not be made or that we cannot have interim targets before we reach the deadline? The whole thing is not being kicked off until 2022; we should still be doing our best to tackle the problem of clean air between now and then.

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

The target deadline of 31 October 2022 works well for us to report back on our first environmental improvement plan three months later. We hope that some consultations will start during the process, so work will be under way to improve the environment, take advice, set targets and so on. Work will be under way to start the ball rolling.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West 3:30 pm, 17th March 2020

I thank the Minister for giving some reassurance that the date is not absolutely set in stone and that measures could be introduced earlier, although obviously the date given in the amendment is ideal from my point of view and that of the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.