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Environmental targets: effect

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 17th March 2020.

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Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change) 3:30 pm, 17th March 2020

I beg to move amendment 82, in clause 4, page 3, line 24, at end insert


(c) interim targets are met.”

This amendment places a duty on the Secretary of State to meet the interim targets they set.

For the Committee’s further enlightenment, I can say that amendment 24 was in a different place in the provisional grouping. I landed my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West in it slightly by assuming that it would be debated under clause 2; it is actually a separate discussion. I am sorry to my hon. Friend for that, but he did a brilliant job under the circumstances.

Amendment 82 is deceptively small but makes an important point about interim targets in this piece of legislation. The Bill requires interim targets to be set on a five-yearly basis. In the environmental improvement plans, the Government are required to set out the steps they will take over a 15-year period to improve the natural environment. However, environmental improvement plans are not legally binding; they are simply policy documents.

Although the plans need to be reviewed, potentially updated every five years and reported on every year, that is not the same as legal accountability. Indeed, voluntary environmental targets have been badly missed on a number of occasions. The target set in 2010 to end the inclusion of peat in amateur gardening products by 2020 will be badly missed. The target set in 2011 for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to conserve 50%—by area—of England’s sites of special scientific interest by 2020 has been abandoned and replaced with a new target to ensure that 38.7% of SSSIs are in favourable condition, which is only just higher than the current level. A number of voluntary, interim and other targets have clearly been missed because they are just reporting objects; they do not have legal accountability.

Interim targets should be legally binding to guarantee that they will be delivered, and it is vital to have a robust legal framework in place to hold the Government and public authorities to account—not just in the long term, but in the short term. As things stand, the Government could in theory set a long-term, legally binding target for 2037, as suggested in the legislation, but then avoid having to do anything whatever about meeting it until 2036.

Amendment 82 would insert the phrase, “interim targets are met.” That would effectively place a duty on the Secretary of State to meet the interim targets that they set. In that context, it is no different from the provisions of the Climate Change Act, which I keep repeating as an example for us all to follow. Indeed, how the five-year carbon budgets work is an example for all of us to follow. They were set up by the Climate Change Act effectively as interim targets before the overall target set for 2050, which is now a 100% reduction; it was an 80% reduction in the original Act.

Those five-year targets are set by the independent body—the Committee on Climate Change—and the Government are required to meet them. If the Government cannot meet them, they are required to take measures to rectify the situation shortly afterwards. Therefore, there are far better mechanisms than those in the Bill to give interim targets real life and ensure they are not just exercises on a piece of paper.

It is important that the Secretary of State is given a duty to meet the targets, because that means that they will have to introduce mechanisms to ensure that they meet those targets. That is what we anticipate would happen as a subset of these measures.

We need to take interim targets seriously, as I am sure the Minister would agree. Indeed, it is not a question of whether we take them seriously; it is a question of how we take them seriously, in a way that ensures that they are credible, achievable, workable and play a full part in the process of getting to the eventual targets that we set at the start of the Bill.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

I will be very brief. I entirely support what my hon. Friend says about the need for interim targets. We have seen how the carbon budgets work under the Climate Change Act. There is real concern that the timetable might be slipping and that we might not manage to meet the commitments in the next couple of carbon budgets, but at least there is a mechanism.

I know that we have the environmental improvement plans, and that there is a requirement to review them and potentially update them every five years. However, there are so many strategy documents and plans. If we look at peat, for example, my hon. Friend mentioned the fact that the target set in 2010 for ending the inclusion of peat in amateur garden products by the end of this year will be missed. I know that the Government have a peat strategy, and there are various other things kicking around that are mentioned every time we talk about peat. But there is a lack of focus, a lack of drive and a lack of certainty as to where the Government are heading on that issue. I feel that if we had legally binding interim targets in the Bill, that would give a sense of direction and it would be something against which we could hold the Government to account—more so than with what is currently proposed.

Regarding my last intervention on the Minister, I was trying to be helpful. I was just asking her to give a reassurance that all the efforts to clear up our air and to tackle air pollution are going on regardless; it is not just about setting this target and whether we set it for 2022 or 2020. That is one particular measure. All I am trying to say is that I am looking for reassurances that the Government will still be focused on cleaning up our air. All she has to do is say yes.

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for tabling this amendment. Very quickly, I can give assurances that of course work is ongoing to clean up our air, because we have our clean air strategy. A great many processes are being put in place through that strategy to tackle all the key pollutants that affect air quality. The measures in the Bill come on top of that. I hope that gives the reassurance that was sought.

It is of course critical that we achieve our long-term targets to deliver significant environmental improvement, and this framework provides strong assurances that we will do so. The Bill has this whole framework of robust statutory requirements for monitoring, reporting and reviewing, combined with the Office for Environmental Protection and parliamentary scrutiny, to ensure that meeting the interim targets is taken seriously, without the need for them to be legally binding.

Interim targets are there to help the trajectory towards meeting the long-term targets, to ensure that the Government are staying on track. We cannot simply set a long-term target for 2037 and forget about it. Through this cycle—the reporting requirement and the requirement to set out the interim target of up to five years—the Bill will ensure that the Government take early, regular steps to achieve the long-term targets and can be held to account. The OEP and Parliament will, of course, play their role too.

To be clear, we have a little mechanism called the triple lock, which is the key to driving short-term progress. The Government must have an environmental improvement plan, which sets out the steps they intend to take to improve the environment, and review it at least every five years. In step 2, the Government must report on progress towards achieving the targets every year. In step 3, the OEP will hold us to account on progress towards achieving the targets, and every year it can recommend how we could make better progress, if it thinks better progress needs to be made. The Government then have to respond.

If progress seems too slow, or is deemed to be too slow, the Government may need to develop new policies to make up for that when reviewing their EIPs. They will not wait until 2037 to do that; these things can be done as a continuous process, and that is important.

The shadow Minister rightly referred back to the Climate Change Act and the five-yearly carbon budgets, as did the hon. Member for Bristol East. He asked why, if the carbon budgets were legally binding, the interim targets are not. That is a good question, but of course the targets in the Environment Bill are quite different from carbon budgets. Carbon budgets relate to a single metric: the UK’s net greenhouse gas emissions. These targets will be set on several different aspects of the natural environment.

As I am sure hon. Members will understand, that is very complicated; it is an interconnected system that is subject to natural factors as well as to human activity. Additionally, aspects of the natural environment such as water quality or soil health might respond more quickly to some things and more slowly to others, even with ambitious interventions. It is possible that the Government could adopt extremely ambitious measures and still miss their interim targets due to external factors.

What is important, in this case, is that a missed interim target is recognised and that the Government consider what is needed to get back on track. I am convinced that the system that is there to recognising that—the reporting, analysis and so on—will highlight it. There will be reporting through the EIPs, the targets and the OEP scrutiny, and the incorporation of any new interim targets or measures; it can all be looked at in the five-yearly review of the EIP. I believe there is a strong framework there already.

Finally, of course, the OEP will have the power to bring legal proceedings if the Government breach their environmental law duties, including their duty to achieve long-term targets. Of course, we cannot reach the long-term targets unless we have achieved the interim targets first. I hope I have been clear on that; I feel strongly that we have the right process here, and I hope the shadow Minister will kindly withdraw his amendment.

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

I hope the Minister will not think I am being too unkind if I say that she is describing a triple lock process rather more like a triple bunch of flowers process. Yes, what she says about the process operating under positive circumstances is good. Indeed, if it happens as she has outlined, we will have a good process in place. It may well be that as time goes by and people have more confidence in how the process works, and if the Government of the day play ball with that process in its own right, the outcome will be good.

I accept the point that the Climate Change Act talks about one metric, as opposed to another. However, the point about the process adopted by that Act is that although under the law as it stands, we cannot imagine a Minister being clapped in irons and taken to the Tower for not achieving a particular carbon budget, the discipline that the legal status of that requirement places on Ministers means that they have to explain themselves to Parliament fully and carefully.

The Minister has suggested that this process substantively does the same. Ministers have to make pretty clear recompense for failings in the carbon budget. As she will know, if Ministers have slipped up in achieving a carbon budget—if they have produced a clean growth plan or low carbon plan relating to a carbon budget, and then do not achieve that budget—they are legally obliged to take measures that get it back on track. As I understand it, none of that kind of constraint applies to the Environment Bill. Although it is true that if this Bill is taken in its totality, a number of things could work together to achieve something like that end, I would prefer it if we had something a bit stronger to make sure those ends are achieved. I am not saying that there is no evidence that those structures are effectively in the Bill; only that they do not really add up to something that can give us the same sort of certainty as the process in the Climate Change Act.

I hear what the Minister says, and I hope she is right. I am reasonably confident that with a good wind behind this legislation, those procedures will obtain the confidence of the public. However, the Bill is deficient when it comes to making fully sure that it will work over the long term in the way that the public want, and therefore that the public have confidence in it. I do not particularly want to divide the Committee, but I retain my reservations about whether the structures in the Bill will give it proper effect. I hope they will, but I reserve the right to say “I told you so” if they do not work out. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment 83, in clause 4, page 3, line 24, at end insert


(c) steps identified under section 5(5)(b) are taken.”

This amendment places a duty on the Secretary of State to do what they have said needs to be done in their report.

The amendment attempts to tidy up the procedures in clauses 4 and 5. Clause 5 talks about reporting duties, and it identifies the steps that are taken to make sure the Secretary of State does what they need to do according to their report. At present, the steps identified in clause 5 stand separate from the Secretary of State’s report, and the Secretary of State appears to report in isolation. Various things have to be done, but they are not tied in with the report.

The amendment would ensure that the

“steps identified under section 5(5)(b) are taken”,

which would mean that the Secretary of State’s report is not only a piece of paper. The amendment would impose a duty on the Secretary of State to do what their report says needs to be done, so the report would have real substance for future activity in this area.

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

I thank the shadow Minister for tabling the amendment. I am sure he agrees that the most critical thing is the meeting of long-term targets in order to deliver significant environmental improvement, rather than the specific process of getting there. Our target framework provides strong assurance that the Government will achieve them, so the amendment is not necessary.

If a long-term target is missed, the Government’s remedial plan must set out the steps they intend to take towards meeting the missed target as soon as reasonably practicable. The Government will remain under an explicit duty to meet the target. The OEP will have a key role in holding the Government to account on the delivery of targets, both through the annual scrutiny of progress and through its enforcement functions. If a long-term target is missed, the OEP may decide to commence an investigation, which could ultimately lead to enforcement action. We expect the case for enforcement action to increase with time if the target keeps being missed, including if the Government fail to take the steps outlined in the remedial plan. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

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

I am a little happier with the Minister’s consideration of that amendment. I think it might be a good idea to pull these things together, but I accept what the Minister says, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.