New environmental watchdog needs greater independence and sharper teeth
30 April 2019
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee's Scrutiny of the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill report is calling on the Government to make significant revisions to the Bill before presenting it to Parliament.
The Committee launched its inquiry following the publication of the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill in December 2018, which will form part of the wider Bill which is yet to be published.
The draft Bill sets out how the Government plans to maintain environmental standards as we leave the European Union.
After receiving a range of evidence from a variety of witnesses, the Committee has concluded that the draft Bill's provisions do not match the current environmental protections provided by membership of the EU.
The Government has stated that “we will not only maintain our current protections, but surpass them, taking new steps to ensure our environment is even better protected in future”. For the Government to meet its own ambition for the environment, the Report recommends that the current draft Bill needs significant revision.
The Committee seeks reassurance that any future legislation relating to environmental principles must, at a minimum, replicate the legal status and current levels of protection granted in European Law. The Report concludes that the provisions for a new policy statement on environmental principles in the Bill mark a significant regression on current standards as part of the EU.
The draft Bill also seeks to establish a new environmental watchdog body – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) - to deliver functions currently undertaken by European institutions.
The Committee considers that, as currently drafted, the Bill would not allow the OEP to operate with sufficient independence from Government. The Report recommends that all decisions relating to board membership of the OEP should require the consent of the EFRA Committee and that the Government must commit to a multi-annual budgetary framework in the Bill. This is consistent with the independence given to the respected Office for Budgetary Responsibility.
In addition, to strengthen the OEP's enforcement powers, the OEP must be provided with further compliance tools beyond the threat of judicial review, and must be empowered to issue emergency and interim measures in urgent cases of environmental harm.
The Report also addresses a possible gap in enforcing Climate Change law. Currently, all Climate Change legislation is enforced by the EU. However, Climate Change is excluded from the remit of the new watchdog.
The Report highlights that the draft Bill leads to a potential “governance gap” after we leave the EU, and recommends that the OEPOEP be provided with the necessary powers to avert this.
Neil Parish MP, the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, said:
“Although the Government has made a real attempt to establish a robust framework for environmental governance, the draft Bill clearly fails to meet its own ambition to ‘ensure the environment is even better protected in future' as we exit the EU. In some areas it actually marks a significant regression on current standards.
“Given this unique opportunity to rethink how we protect the environment in the future, we cannot afford to see the standards we currently adhere to slip.
“There is also little point in setting up an environmental watchdog if it is unable to fulfil its essential function of holding the government to account. The new watchdog must not solely be a creature of Government but needs real independence.
“To achieve real independence there needs to be a role for Parliament in all decisions relating to the membership of the OEP's board. Funding for the OEP must also not be solely at the whim of Defra ministers, as is currently the proposal. Sustained cuts to arm's length bodies such as the Environment Agency and Natural England demonstrate the need for the OEP to have greater budgetary protection to guarantee genuine independence.
“The watchdog will also need sharper enforcement teeth. The Government must explore appropriate ways to ensure greater personal accountability for Ministers and public servants if they fail to uphold environmental law before presenting this Bill to Parliament.
“It is imperative to future generations that the Government does not squander its chance to get this right – it is unlikely they will get another any time soon.”
Image: mr sweetis/Pixabay