Clause 28 - Failure of public authorities to comply with environmental law

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 5th November 2020.

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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) 2:15 pm, 5th November 2020

I beg to move amendment 117, in clause 28, page 16, line 30, after “means a” insert—

Minister of the Crown, a government department and public body, including a local authority, or any”.

This amendment clarifies that Ministers, government departments and public bodies are public authorities in respect of all their functions.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment 191, in clause 28, page 16, line 39, at end insert—

“(f) a Scottish local authority,

(g) a Scottish housing association, or

(h) a Scottish environmental regulator.”

This amendment seeks to increase the definition of ‘public authority’ in relation to failures by public authorities to comply with environmental law.

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)

Amendment 117 seeks clarity about what a public authority is. Hon. Members will see from perusing the amendment paper that it is not an action amendment; it does not ask the Government to do anything differently. It amends that part of the Bill—a part found in all Bills—that defines words and terms in the Bill. Although I cannot put my finger on it exactly, I believe there is a definition of “public authority” elsewhere in the Bill, but not in this clause.

Amendment 117 would put a definition of “public authority” in this part of the Bill by inserting before

“a person carrying out any function of a public nature that is not a devolved function, a parliamentary function or a function of any of the following persons” the words

“a Minister of the Crown, a government department and public body including a local authority”; those would be public authorities carrying out that function. That would expand the definition in the Bill to match what is said elsewhere in the Bill about what a public authority consists of.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:30 pm, 5th November 2020

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of the amendment. We are well aware that the terms “public authority” and “public body” are often used interchangeably, which can lead to a lack of clarity. We are concerned that “public authority” could be interpreted as meaning a smaller category of public bodies. Public bodies are sometimes, for the avoidance of doubt, explicitly listed in legislation as being encompassed by the term authority. For example, section 28G of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 clarifies that authorities include

“any other public body of any description.”

This clarification is helpful for those reading only part of the Bill; it means that they do not need to read the whole Bill to understand a clause. It is important that we clarify what we mean by the term, so we welcome the amendment.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Assistant Whip

I thank hon. Members for their contributions. I agree that it is of great importance that the OEP should be able to hold public authorities to account, and that all parties should have certainty about its remit. I assure hon. Members, however, that the provisions in the Bill are sufficient to ensure both those things.

Regarding amendment 117, we have deliberately taken a broad approach to defining a public authority as

“a person carrying out any function of a public nature”, subject to a number of specific exclusions. The same approach is used in a number of other Acts, including the Human Rights Act 1998 and, more recently, the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. It is, therefore, an approach with which the courts are familiar.

The existing definition already covers UK Ministers and Government Departments, local authorities, arm’s length bodies such as the Environment Agency, and all other bodies that carry out public functions. It is therefore unnecessary to list specific types of public authority in the Bill, as they are already captured. Furthermore, by including the term “public body” without defining it further, this amendment would introduce a lack of clarity about who and what is covered by this particular new element of the definition.

I reassure the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith that the Bill respects the devolution settlements, including the Scotland Act 1998. Scottish Ministers, the Scottish Parliament and any person carrying out devolved functions have been excluded from the remit of the OEP. The public authorities listed in amendment 191 are, therefore, already excluded from the remit of the OEP, to the extent that they are carrying out devolved functions, so it is not necessary to list them as excluded bodies for the purposes of clause 28. I support her intention of avoiding overlaps with the equivalent Scottish governance body, Environmental Standards Scotland. That is why we have appropriately sought to limit the OEP’s remit to reserved matters, while avoiding any devolved matters that would appropriately be dealt with by that body.

In conclusion, I hope that Members are reassured that the definition is fit for purpose. It both avoids overlaps with bodies carrying out devolved functions, and ensures that the OEP has oversight over all relevant public authorities. As such, I politely ask the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am somewhat reassured by the Minister’s comments. He has basically given me the same assurance as he gave for amendment 190—that all the bodies covered in the amendment are already covered by references to either “(d) a devolved legislature” or “(e) the Scottish Ministers”. I am happy with that assurance and will not press amendment 191.

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)

Likewise, although we think it would be a good idea to have the words in amendment 117 in the Bill, we are a little reassured by what the Minister has said, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.