Wera Hobhouse contributions to the Environment Bill 2019-20

Mon 28th October 2019 Environment Bill (Commons Chamber)
2nd reading: House of Commons
Money resolution: House of Commons
Ways and Means resolution: House of Commons
3 interactions (603 words)

Environment Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
(Money resolution: House of Commons)
(Ways and Means resolution: House of Commons)
(2nd reading: House of Commons)
(Money resolution: House of Commons)
(Ways and Means resolution: House of Commons)
Wera Hobhouse Excerpts
Monday 28th October 2019

(8 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Bill Main Page
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Philip Dunne Portrait Mr Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con) -

I join colleagues—at least those on the Government Benches—in welcoming this groundbreaking Bill. The Opposition’s position on this Bill is illustrative of the fact that even though they may not be prepared to vote for a general election, they are demonstrating, from the contributions they are making to this debate, that despite the wide cross-party consensus in favour of an environmental Bill and the many measures that have been included in it, they cannot bring themselves to congratulate the Government on bringing it forward.

It is timely that today we are talking about an Environment Bill. It is a day when parts of the Welsh Marches, including much of Shropshire and my constituency, are recovering from a significant water event—something like 50 mm of rain fell in 36 hours on Friday and Saturday leading to widespread flooding, because it landed on saturated ground. The River Severn has barricades up in Shrewsbury and Ironbridge. The Rivers Clun and Teme in my constituency burst their banks. The town of Clun has been cut in two, and some roads around my constituency are impassable. Vehicles have been flooded and are abandoned, and the road network between Cardiff and Manchester has been held up as a result of ballast being washed away. My point is to illustrate how significant it is that we have started to take measures to address the climate emergency. We cannot stop the rain falling, but we can do things about it when it arrives. What I want to spend my few moments talking about are some of the important water measures in this Bill.

I am a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, and I very much hope to serve on the Bill Committee because I want to press the Government to use the opportunity of this Bill to do more to raise the ecological status of our rivers. It is not acceptable that 84% of our rivers are meeting current standards. We need to raise those standards and ensure that all our rivers meet them. I will be urging the Government to consider proposals for water companies that I have raised previously in this House with the Secretary of State to see whether there are alternative means to try to use current technologies—novel technologies and, frankly, less intrusive technologies, such as integrated constructed wetlands—as a way to treat and improve the effluent and the consequence of flooding, with run-off foul waters getting into our rivers through such mechanisms.

I wish to touch briefly on governance. The Government have raised targets in the Bill in a number of areas: water, air, biodiversity, resource efficiency and waste reduction, which are all welcome. There have been complaints that the targets are not tough enough and that it is taking a while to introduce them, but it is a step forward and reflects some of the recommendations made in the pre-legislative scrutiny by the EAC that there will be five-yearly interim milestones for the targets and that they will be annually reported on by both the Government and the Office for Environmental Protection. That provision was sought by our Committee and is therefore welcome.

I share the desire across the House that we should see measures to prevent the regression of the standards, and I think that is something we should be pressing for in Committee; that may rule out my serving on the Bill Committee, but I make the offer none the less. As far as the Office for Environmental Protection is concerned, it is important to have a pre-appointment hearing to ensure independence, and I endorse the suggestion that it is jointly reviewed by the EAC in addition to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD) -

I welcome this legislation, which is long overdue, but of course it is only necessary because this Government want to leave the European Union, which has for a long time been a force for good when it comes to environmental protection.

Environmental degradation is at an all-time high and we need to be bold to safeguard our natural world for our children and our children’s children. It is important to enshrine standards in law, especially if the EU legislation becomes no longer relevant. But the targets that this Bill sets out are deeply inadequate: 2037 is the first year that the Government would be required to meet their targets, which will not even be set until 2022. We are living through a climate emergency and we need climate action now, not in 18 years’ time.

The year 2037 is far too late to start holding the Government to account. We need to undertake a 10-year emergency emissions reduction programme, seeking to cut emissions as much as possible by 2030. The Liberal Democrats have a credible plan to cut most emissions by 2030 and get to net zero by 2045. Targets are meaningless on their own. We must ensure that local authorities, under the new Office for Environmental Protection, are empowered to hold the Government to account. If they are not, we risk this fundamentally important legislation being reduced to a Christmas wish list.

One of the key features of the legislation is the new Office for Environmental Protection, which seeks to replace the current protections we enjoy under EU bodies. This proposed organisation, however, has extremely limited independence, relying on central Government for funding, appointments and target setting. In addition, it lacks the power to fine Governments. It is a toothless version of our current provisions, which come from the EU and can hold the Government to account through hefty fines. This is exactly what happened with the air pollution problems. Only when ClientEarth came along and actually threatened to fine the Government did the Government finally act. This Government’s fixation on leaving the EU will cause untold damage. We are facing a true climate emergency and our environment is in the firing line. Now is not the time to abandon international co-operation.

The Government’s focus on plastics and clean air is welcome. However, the proposed actions once again fall short. Single-use plastics need to be part of a wider policy around recycling and waste. We need to improve recycling across the country by improving consistency, so that people can become familiar with how to separate waste and do not have to adjust to a new regime every time they move to another area. Local authorities should be able to set their policy, but they should be supported by the Government and manufacturers, which should make products easier to recycle. Our European neighbours set a very good example in this regard. For instance, Norway has only 18 different categories for recycling; this country has many, many more. Restricting the plastics we use is very important.

Clean air is a big priority for my constituents in Bath, and I am personally disappointed by the lack of ambition on these issues. We need a new legal limit for air quality that matches those set by the World Health Organisation; a duty on public bodies to do their part to tackle air pollution; and a right to clean air enshrined in domestic law.

We can all talk about wanting to do something about the environment and say, “Yes, there’s a climate emergency”, but it is ambition that matters and this piece of legislation definitely lacks ambition.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con)

I very much support this ambitious, landmark Environment Bill.

In the short time I have available, I want to make just two points. The first is about the replacement for the common agricultural policy payments that go to farmers at the moment. Obviously, farmers play an incredibly important role in the stewardship of our natural environment, and I would like to see those payments replaced with much more straightforward financial payments to landowners that incentivise carbon sequestration and improve water management and quality. Focusing on those two areas will lead to healthier soils, better quality, more nutritious food, and nature recovery. I have seen myself from visits to many farms in Cornwall that nature recovery goes hand in glove with producing more high quality food. Stewardship of the land undertaken by farmers can be just as important as that undertaken by our much loved wildlife trusts such as Cornwall Wildlife Trust.

Secondly, while Parliament has been taking world-leading action on climate and nature recovery, too few people know where to go to find out what is actually going on and what they can do to help. This needs to change, and quickly, because far too often I see misrepresentations of the facts, or even lies, being spread. It is not just our air, our water and our soil that is being poisoned—it is our politics too. Information is power. The Government need to invest in easily accessible, independent and expert information on what action is being taken across all sectors of society to deliver our net zero and new nature recovery targets. This will help to increase confidence and trust in politics.

Leaving our environment in a better condition for the next generation is something we can all agree on. In the creation of the groundbreaking Climate Change Act 2008, this House came to a radical political consensus. I hope and pray that as we approach the general election, all of us, and all political parties, will do everything we can to maintain this consensus, because, as the Secretary of State rightly said, what could be more important for any Member of Parliament than to do that?