The Environment Bill could have a huge impact on farming, air quality, animal welfare, biodiversity, water pollution and a host of other important issues, yet the Greens in the Lords are not allocated a slot for discussing it as part of the Queen's Speech. Despite the recent election success and having hundreds of local councillors, we still only get two chances to speak in the five whole days of discussing the Government’s programme.
What I would have said if I’d had the chance is that the Environment Bill lacks the teeth to enforce the inadequate standards that it currently contains. This legislation is meant to replace the range of European rules by which the Commission could hold a country to account if it failed to comply with what it had signed up to do and to seek redress via the European Court. In ‘taking back control’ of its own rules and enforcement, the Government is seeking to let itself off the hook in sticking to its promises and stated commitments.
The new environmental watchdog is called the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). The OEP will be responsible for holding the Government and other public authorities to account on their compliance with environmental law, but there are key questions to be resolved. What sanctions can it impose for non-compliance, or does everything have to go through a lengthy and contested High Court process? What resources and access to expertise will the OEP have? Will the Government be able to direct the OEP investigations by issuing guidance?
The European Commission's approach to environmental protection had major flaws at times, but the threat of the European Court’s issuing heavy fines was a constant pressure on the UK Government to act on air pollution and to protect the health of its citizens. What incentive will the Government have to comply with the OEP?
As shown by the failure of the Commission to act against the vehicle manufacturers who fitted defeat devices and evaded air pollution rules, we need independent experts to be involved in the details of environmental compliance. Will the OEP be independent when it relies upon government funding – and, if the Government is given the ability to direct, what should be investigated and how it should be investigated? We also need transparency, so the experts have access to what is really going on, but that is also under threat in the new proposals.
Boris Johnson supposedly loves the environment so much he has put the Environment Bill centre stage during the last three Queen’s Speeches. But then, predictably, has done absolutely nothing.
We were originally promised the Environment Bill ahead of the Brexit departure date; it was due to contain a lot of the safeguards the Government didn’t want us to push for in all the other legislation it has rammed through: the Farming Bill; the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade Bill. Yet the Environment Bill has now been bumped to the back of the queue as the Government has created new laws at breakneck speed to give legal immunity to spy cops and police agents, while doing nothing to improve our environment, nor recognise animal sentience.
For those still clinging to the government rhetoric of a green Brexit, take it from me (I voted Leave), it will never happen under this Government. There is a reason why ministers have repeatedly refused to enshrine in law a commitment that future rules will be no weaker than those which applied when the UK was an EU member state. With all the backward steps on supporting new coal mines, giving up greener homes and planning new road building, this Government won’t leave the UK’s environment in better shape than they found it, because it’s just not that important to them