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)
Richard Benyon Excerpts
Monday 28th October 2019

(11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 7:59 p.m.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is utterly inexcusable that one Department that has so much impact on our environment is excused from its responsibilities in this way. I certainly remember reading about the 1995 incidents when explosives were washed up on the Clyde coast—a shocking occasion. The largest of those munitions dumps, at Beaufort’s dyke in the Irish sea, now has a gas pipe running through it, and none of it is even monitored, let alone tidied up. I know this because I have asked. How can that flagrant disregard for the marine environment align with this vague promise to look after the seabed? And how does that match up with excusing the MOD of any responsibility under the Bill?

There are other MOD sites, of course: the ship refuelling stations, the bases handling nuclear weapons and nuclear subs and the ranges were live firing is practised. We already know about the damaging health effects on former soldiers of some of the munitions they have dealt with, but we do not know anything about the weapons that are fired on those ranges. The MOD has told me that it does environmental audits with its “industry partner”, whatever that is, but that it will not publish them. We are not to be told about the environmental impact of this massive polluter, and it is being excused responsibility under the Bill. I do not think that is good enough. There is no such thing as acceptable environmental damage, and there should be no such thing as a Department with an environmental “get out of jail free” card.

Of course, this thing will ultimately pass—no one is going to vote down an environment Bill—but it really is not what is needed. Serious action to limit emissions and clean up the messes that have been left would be more worth while. For example, what about legislating so that English water companies cannot pay dividends to their shareholders while they are still pouring a precious resource into the ground? Or even better, why not copy the Scottish system and have a publicly owned water company that can spend on infrastructure because it does not have to make a profit? How about taking the power to close down companies that refuse to comply with best practice? How about telling them that their days of pouring pollutants into other people’s air and water are over? No soft touch, no more, “Come along now, play nicely”; instead, we need to say, “You do not get to do this any more.” And here is another thought: what about refusing to allow the import of products that can be shown to have a poor environmental footprint? None of that is in the Bill.

There is some target setting in there, but no indication of taking any power that might allow those targets to be met. Just last week, Ofgem refused to allow a subsea cable to be laid from Shetland to the mainland to allow the output from a large wind farm to get to potential customers. That was refused on the basis that subsidies have been withdrawn by this Government under its previous guises since 2010. Where is the provision in the Bill to put those subsidies back or—given that Shetland would like to press ahead anyway—to force the provision of the connection to the grid? Where is the ambition?

The creation of a clunky and unwieldy Office for Environmental Protection is a major disappointment. It will involve enforcement provisions that give weakness a bad name. Where are the prosecuting powers it needs? Where is its ability to act independently and develop the principles behind environmental law? There is nothing in the Bill to protect the Aarhus convention rights. Back in July 2016, I asked the then EFRA Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), whether the UK would continue to abide by Aarhus after leaving the EU, and she replied:

“Until we leave the EU, EU law continues to apply so the UK continues to comply with EU law that implements obligations in the Aarhus Convention. The UK remains a Party to the Aarhus Convention.”

In November last year, I asked the next EFRA Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), whether he planned to maintain compliance with the Aarhus convention on access to information, public participation in decision making and access to justice in environmental matters after the UK had left the EU, and he replied, “Yes”. So where are those commitments, and why are they not in the Bill? Will the Secretary of State undertake to bring forward amendments that will satisfy those commitments, and can we be assured that amendments will be tabled in Committee that will beef up the OEP? Can we at least give the tiger a set of dentures, if it is not going to have serious teeth?

I would like to ask some further questions about devolved issues. It would be helpful if Ministers set out how they developed their thinking on the need for the climate change measures and legislation to be covered by the OEP, and how they decided that this was needed. Also, do Scottish Ministers support the proposals? What consultation was undertaken with them prior to their inclusion? Will the Secretary of State set out what resource has been made available to date for the OEP? It is suggested that the OEP’s remit covers all UK climate change legislation. Are the Government proposing that it has oversight over Scottish legislation, which is devolved? If there is a need for a UK-wide approach, would that not logically suggest that the remit for doing this should be given to the Scottish Government, given that they already have world-leading legislation and more ambitious targets in place? This is surely something that the UK Government should be seriously considering.

Every Member here will have had the same representations from environmental organisations that I have had. We all know that they are unhappy that there is no protection in the Bill against regression and that they fear that the legislation could be watered down in the future. I know that there will be armchair constitutional experts muttering into their port that one Parliament cannot bind another, but we all know that politics makes that a lie. We all know that confident, positive action arising from having the political will to deliver has a binding effect on future Parliaments and Governments. If it did not, the NHS would have disappeared decades ago. Strong action now to protect and enhance the environment, and repercussions for those who transgress, will set a tone that a future Government or Parliament would find it hard to undo.

We need to see changes in the way we see waste. We must no longer think that we will deal with it when we come to it; rather, we need more planning not to create it in the first place. A bit of Government encouragement could do that, and plastics are not the only waste we should be concerned about. I am young enough to remember a time when aerosols were innocent cans that people used every morning, and most people never knew the damage that the gases could do. Well, we all ken now, and the question is: what else are we blithely ignorant of as we go about our comfortable, modern life? Cut the waste; do it in legislation; and do it now! Have courage! Take that courage in both hands and give us legislation that is fit for purpose. Do something stunning this year instead of something that could be described as stunningly stupid.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Ind) Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 8:08 p.m.

I always think that we get listened to better in this House if we can find something in what we say that is generous to the other side, so I will be generous and say that I welcome the Bill. I have come straight from the West Berkshire climate conference, which nearly 300 people attended. People from the community spoke with real passion about their interest in more than just dealing with greenhouse gases. They spoke about the need to reverse the declines in biodiversity, about addressing a resurgence in the value of our natural capital and of our rivers, about the wider aspects of land use that could see greater amounts of carbon sequestered, about flood protection and about policies with human wellbeing at their heart.

I see many positives in the Bill. I like the sound of the biodiversity net gain. I like seeing the 25-year plan being put on a statutory footing in the Bill. I also like the nature recovery strategies and many of the proposals on waste and plastic. I applaud my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for her introduction of the Bill. Having been involved in many negotiations with her Department, I know that clauses 16, 17 and 18 have taken a lot of work, and I am delighted to see how they have turned out. I implore hon. Members on both sides of the House and some of the organisations that are advising us to see the value of what is in here. It is this House and the national policy statement that the Secretary of State will make at the Dispatch Box that will be held to account, and that is crucial. That is in the wording of those clauses. It is this House and the democratic institutions that support us that will decide the future environmental direction of this and future Governments, rather than putting it in the hands of the courts, which would perhaps too often see it in a rather dry, legalistic sense. People can make these cases in Parliament with emotion and passion.

Clauses 73 to 87 relate to water, and I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a great fan of regulation in this area. The water framework directive sets out demanding standards which, if not met, result in infraction fines from Europe. We are trying to encourage the Government to emulate that as best we can in this piece of legislation. It is worrying that England is behind on its targets to achieve good ecological status for all waterways by 2027, and the concern is that this Bill allows the Government to give themselves powers to amend difficult targets or the way in which they are measured. I hope that we will be able to tease out the Government’s precise intentions during the Bill’s passage, because there is bold ambition across the House to address the failings of past years on our waterways.

I also want the Bill to do more to tackle water consumption. We are able to have targets for reducing particulate matter, so why can we not have targets to tackle water consumption? Abstraction is a major problem for our environment, and I want greater measures to address it.

In totality, there is much to applaud the Government on, and I hope we will hear from Members on both sides of the House at least an acceptance that the Government are noble in their intention to create something that will have a lasting effect down the generations. I applaud the Secretary of State for bringing in this Bill.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab) Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 8:11 p.m.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). I share some of his concerns about the potential watering down of targets made by Ministers and then enacted or judged by a body that is appointed by Ministers.

It is important to remember why we are here. We are here because of Brexit. We are here because, in the 1970s, the UK was the dirty man of Europe—or the dirty person, as I think we should probably call ourselves—and we pumped raw sewage into the sea. Thanks, however, to the European Union’s level playing field provisions, which allow no member state to race to the bottom and compete on the environment, we now have cleaner beaches, drive more fuel-efficient cars and have reduced our waste going to landfill.

I see Brexit as a clear and present danger to the UK environment. Yes, the Government have, through the original European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, copied and pasted some EU law into UK law. The danger is that it will become zombie legislation that is no longer monitored, enforced or updated. There is a troublesome third that cannot be cut and pasted that this Bill is designed to address, but there is nothing to stop those targets, as the right hon. Gentleman said, being quietly reversed by a future Government. Leaving the EU means that we risk losing those key protections and an entire system of the regulation of chemicals under REACH, which means that UK companies that sell right across the European Union that have already spent hundreds of millions of pounds registering thousands of chemicals with the European Union now face a double regulatory burden if and when the UK Government set up its own chemicals regulator.

Food safety could be compromised, and we could end up with higher pesticide residue in food if protections are negotiated away to secure a trade deal with the United States. Our farmers are the custodians of our environment—I pay tribute to the amazing farmers doing such a brilliant job in Wakefield—but they face a triple whammy through loss of subsidies. For example, the CAP subsidies are only guaranteed by the Government until the end of 2022.