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Environmental targets: review

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 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) 3:45 pm, 17th March 2020

I beg to move amendment 183, in clause 6, page 4, line 21, at end insert—

“(3A) In considering whether the natural environment would be significantly improved, the Secretary of State must be satisfied that—

(a) the terrestrial and marine natural environment in England has improved as a system; and

(b) that the achievement of any targets which meet the conditions specified in subsection (8) would constitute significant improvement in that matter.”

This amendment would require a review to consider whether significant improvement is achieved for the environment as a whole, as well as for certain individual aspects of the environment.

We now move to the fabled land of clause 6. We have been looking at it from afar and thinking that it might be a mirage, but it turns out that, like the targets we are talking about, it may be within our grasp. The amendment is important when it comes to looking at the system of the terrestrial and marine environment as a whole in the consideration of significant improvement to the natural environment.

We have talked about what we mean by significant improvement. We have discussed whether in certain circumstances, the improvement of the habitat for a particular species near Birmingham might constitute significant improvement, or whether we need a more holistic consideration of significant improvement. I think we need something more holistic, because it is important that our individual efforts—we will discuss them later in relation to local nature action plans—join up, and that they are seen as a whole and as parts of a wider process that provides systematic improvement for the whole terrestrial and marine environment. Individual improvements should therefore be judged against that wider yardstick.

In considering that question, we want the Secretary of State to be satisfied that the same yardstick can reasonably be applied to the general and the individual, ensuring that the general is taken account of and that individual things are not only good in their own right, but achieve a wider improvement. The amendment also sets out that

“the achievement of any targets which meet the conditions specified in subsection (8) would constitute significant improvement in that matter.”

That would bind the notion of significant improvement into the wider context, and it would be a useful improvement to the Bill.

The Minister might say that a systemic view of the overall terrestrial and marine natural environment can be inserted into the process in other ways. We probably agree that it is important for it to be done one way or the other, so that we stay focused on where we are going rather than getting distracted by things that are interesting but do not add to the whole, as far as systems are concerned. I hope that she will reassure me on that point.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:00 pm, 17th March 2020

I welcome the shadow Minister’s intention of ensuring that the Secretary of State looks at whether targets will achieve significant improvement in the natural environment as a whole, as well as in individual areas of it. I do not believe that the amendment is necessary. The shadow Minister will not be surprised to hear me say that, but even in our evidence session of last week, Dr Richard Benwell, chief executive officer of Wildlife and Countryside Link, stated that

“the environment has to operate as a system. If you choose one thing to focus on, you end up causing more problems to solve.”––[Official Report, Environment Public Bill Committee, 12 March 2020; c. 116, Q157.]

In line with that, the significant improvement test—a legal requirement in the Bill—is intended to consider both the breadth and the amount of improvement, with the aim of assessing whether England’s natural environment as a whole would significantly improve. It is a holistic approach, and the Bill’s definition of the natural environment is drafted to be broad enough to encompass all its elements, including the marine environment, which we discussed earlier. I believe the shadow Minister and I are thinking along the same lines, as I think he was intimating that he wants this all-encompassing approach, which is explicitly highlighted in the Bill’s explanatory notes.

The Secretary of State will consider expected environmental improvement across all aspects of England’s natural environment, both terrestrial and marine, when conducting the significant improvement test. The test involves assessing whether England’s natural environment would significantly improve as a result of collectively meeting the long-term targets, which are legally binding, under the Bill, alongside any other relevant legislative environmental targets to which we are also adhering. I hope that reassures the shadow Minister, and I ask him to withdraw amendment 183.

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

I am interested to know what status the Minister thinks the explanatory notes have in these proceedings. I imagine they are rather more than insignificant, and rather less than completely significant. I read the explanatory notes to any piece of legislation. Sometimes, it occurs to me that they run very close to what is in the legislation, and sometimes they depart a little, yet they come before us in the same form on all occasions. They are a sort of concordance that goes along with the legislation so that we can understand the clauses more easily.

I am not sure whether there is a consistent production line technique for explanatory notes, and whether they have at least some legal significance in terms of seeking the Minister’s intention in presenting a piece of legislation or, indeed, a Committee’s intention in seeking to legislate.

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

The shadow Minister makes a very good point about the explanatory notes, although I always love having a look at them. Explanatory notes can obviously be used in the interpretation of the Bill and in legal proceedings, if necessary, as part of wider evidence.

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

That is a very helpful intervention, and it is what I thought. It means that even if explanatory notes appear to stray a little from what one might read in the legislation, if one took it absolutely at face value, we can rely on them for clarification, for future reference. That is an important point, because this afternoon, in the Minister’s response to my inquiry, she relied on what the explanatory notes said about the Bill, rather than what the Bill said. I take her point. If we are to take on board what the explanatory notes say, then that is not a bad response to my point. I wonder whether it would have been a better idea to put that stuff in the legislation, but hey, no one is perfect. We probably have a reasonably good framework to proceed with, in the light of the Minister’s explanation. I therefore 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 86, in clause 6, page 4, line 41, at end insert—

“(9) In carrying out a review under this section, the Secretary of State must consider whether any targets relating to the priority areas in section 1 that are contained in legislation which forms part of the law of England and Wales—

(a) have expired, or

(b) are required to be achieved by a date which has passed.

(10) If paragraph (a) or (b) applies, then the significant environmental improvement test is only met if a new target or targets are set relating to the same matters which specify a new standard and a future date by which such standards must be reached.”

This amendment prevents the targets from meeting the significant improvement test through virtue of being out of date and so more easily achieved.

The amendment seeks to ensure that—

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

On a point of order, Sir Roger, am I right in thinking that we have got roughly halfway down page 1 of the selection list, and still have more than three full pages to go? By your calculation, are we on time to complete this business by 6 pm? If we are not, would it be possible for the Opposition to consider which of the amendments they most want to discuss, debate in detail and to push to a vote?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Mr Graham, there is a wonderful organisation known as the usual channels, and I think you and I should allow them to do their job.

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

I think we were aiming to get to the end of clause 6, so this is the last amendment that we want to raise this afternoon.

This amendment seeks to ensure that measures that are considered in carrying out a review are timely and in date. For example, the Secretary of State cannot carry out a review when things are out of date, and so more easily achieved than they would have been if the tests were in date. The amendment requires the Secretary of State to consider whether the targets that relate to the priority areas in clause 1 have expired or are required to be achieved by a date that has passed. That sounds a little like sell-by dates on cartons of milk, but it is more important than that, because a review could address targets that have expired, have been changed or have been achieved, and then the effect of that review could be pretty null.

This amendment puts at the end of the clause the requirement that

“the Secretary of State must consider whether any targets…have expired.”

If either of the considerations in proposed new subsection (9) apply, then under proposed new subsection (10),

“the significant environmental improvement test is only met if a new target or targets are set relating to the same matters which specify a new standard and a future date by which such standards must be reached.”

That is to say, if, in carrying out a review, the Secretary of State considers a target to have expired, or to have been required to be achieved by a date which has passed, then the significant environmental improvement test is met only if that is rectified.

As hon. Members said this morning, this is a moving and creaking ship. Things can change over time. New targets can be put in place, and existing targets can be changed, amended and improved. This amendment reflects the fact that over time, that may well happen. Indeed, some targets might be achieved and exceeded. If a Secretary of State is reporting on a target that has been exceeded, but is saying how a target should be reached, then clearly that report does not make a great deal of sense. The amendment rectifies that possibility, and puts in place a requirement that new targets be sought through the target-setting process discussed this morning. It allies these targets with the significant improvement test, and allows them to be met in a coherent way.

Again, the Minister may well decide that the amendment is not exactly what she wants this afternoon, but she may have information that will allow me to think, “Well, the Government have thought about this, and have a method of making sure that the problems are solved by means other than this amendment.”

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:15 pm, 17th March 2020

I thank the hon. Member. If I may say so, he tables slightly tortuous amendments and it is often a case of trying to get one’s head around them. I reassure him that this is not a creaking ship. This is a buoyant ship sailing towards a bright new blue environmentally enhanced horizon. As this is the last amendment today, I feel I can slip that in.

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

Perhaps I can clarify the issue. My understanding of the term “creaking ship” is that it is a ship that is under sail, flourishing and driving through the water, and whose timbers are creaking as it is propelled to new horizons.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I think the answer is, when you are in a hole, stop digging.

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

I feel a bit of backtracking going on here.

Amendment 86 would mean that the significant improvement test could be met only if any targets within the four priority areas that have expired have been replaced by new targets. I reassure the hon. Member that the Government would consider current targets—not expired targets—only when conducting the significant improvement test. That test involves assessing whether England’s natural environment would improve significantly as a result of meeting the longer-term legally binding targets. That has taken up a large part of today’s discussion and is set under the Bill, as well as any other relevant legislation relating to environmental targets.

If the test is not passed, the Government must set out how they plan to use their new target-setting powers to close that gap. In practice, that will most likely involve plans to modify existing targets, make them more ambitious, or set new targets. That helps the Government to focus on the most pressing environmental issues of our time, rather than simply replacing targets that have expired. Some expired targets might, for example, no longer be the key issues on which we should focus in our long-term goals.

The Office for Environmental Protection has a key role through the exercising of its scrutiny functions, and it could publish a report if it disagreed with the Government’s conclusions that the existing targets were sufficient to pass the significant improvement test. The Government would then have to respond to that OEP report, and that response must be published and laid before Parliament. That is a clear pathway. The process ensures that Parliament, supported by the OEP, can hold the Government to account on the sufficiency of their measures to significantly improve the natural environment. I hope that clarifies the situation, and I ask the hon. Member kindly to withdraw amendment 86.

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

I think that does provide clarification, to a reasonable extent. The amendment sought to copper-bottom guarantees, but the ship can sail quite well under the circumstances set out by the Minister, while perhaps not being fully caulked. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Before everybody leaves, the expectation is that the Committee will sit at 11.30 on Thursday 19 March. I say “expectation” because, as we all know, we live in rather strange times, and I feel I owe it to Mr Graham, having slapped him down a bit, to answer the question properly.

The timetable for the Bill is agreed by the usual channels, in consultation with the Minister and shadow Minister. There should be more than adequate time to thoroughly debate the Bill, given the programme we have. I have no problems with that whatsoever. However, I understand that discussions are taking place that may affect the progress not only of this Bill, but of other legislation. That remains to be seen. We may find this extremely important piece of legislation going on ice for a week, a month or six months.

Before we part—in case we do not meet even on Thursday —I want to say two things. The proceedings today have been slightly ramshackle around the edges, but I can live with that. You have been immensely courteous, thorough and good-humoured about the proceedings, and I am grateful to you for that.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Leo Docherty.)

Adjourned till Thursday 19 March at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

EB13 WWF UK

EB14 Countryside Alliance

EB15 City of London Corporation

EB16 Peter Silverman MA MSc, Clean Highways

EB17 Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link (supplementary submission)

EB18 British Lung Foundation

EB19 ClientEarth

EB20 London Councils

EB21 Cllr Andrew Western, Leader of Trafford Council and Greater Manchester Green City Region Lead

EB22 British Heart Foundation

EB23 Global Witness

EB24 Global Canopy

EB25 Broadway Initiative