I should have brought my copy of the Bill. There are actually some very good bits in clause 117. The Government have done quite a good job of writing in the mitigation hierarchy, which is welcome to see. The problem is linked through to clause 127, which allows everything in preceding parts simply to replace existing environmental law. It would be much better if the Government came forward with fully worked-up proposals for how to strengthen the existing system of the EIA and SEA, rather than taking the approach of giving themselves the powers to take out layers of environmental law and put in something different.
You mentioned clause 120, the so-called non-regression clause. It is obviously a good thing to have a commitment not to weaken environmental protection, but I am afraid that the efficacy of such a clause is really in doubt, for a number of reasons. First, it is the Secretary of State in whose opinion environmental law has to be maintained at an equal level. That is a highly subjective opinion left in the hands of Ministers—and, just to emphasise, not a court in the land would challenge that on the basis of ultra vires without it being patently absurd. Courts are really deferential to decision makers, so if a Minister were to say, “Yes, this is equivalent,” that statement would have to be really, really daft for a court to challenge it. So we think that that kind of non-regression provision is unlikely to be robust.
Secondly, the other noteworthy part of the non-regression provision is that it talks about overall levels of protection. That is where we come back to the idea of talking about the environment in aggregate and those big broad trends of species-level data, which is really important—like Carolyn, I think that we should be linking back to the Environment Act targets—but it is not sufficient. We must keep in place the rules that protect the particular, the peculiar and the exciting at the local level that matter to important people, and those local populations of species and habitats that are so important. Otherwise, we get into a runaway offsetting mentality where the assurance that things will be better overall can be taken to obscure a lot of harm to the natural environment at the local level.
So there are some good things in clause 117 and some nice sentiments in clause 120, but overall they do not give the reassurance that would be provided by simply taking time to work up provisions in full and bring them forward in primary legislation rather than giving Ministers the power to swip and swap through regulations.