Interim OEP recommends Defra ‘looks again’ at draft policy statement

The Interim Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) yesterday (6 July) published its advice on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) draft environmental principles policy statement, following a request from Environment Minister Rebecca Pow.

The Government recently consulted on the draft legally binding statement covering five environmental principles that ministers have a duty to be guided by when making policy.

UK Houses of ParliamentThe Interim OEP welcomed the statement as an ‘important step’ towards implementing the Environment Bill following Royal Assent, but issued a series of recommendations to strengthen the draft.

It was recommended that Defra ‘looks again’ at the structure of the policy statement, with the Interim OEP urging policy-makers to ‘apply the principles in all cases where doing so would be beneficial’, and ‘avoid applying them too late in policy development to be effective’.

The Interim OEP also recommended that Defra promotes a ‘less restrictive’ approach to proportionality, emphasising that ‘the weight to be afforded to environmental effects in this balancing exercise’ should be ‘fully clear’.

The organisation pointed out the importance of effective integration with international and domestic law, recommending that Defra revisit its approach to the integration principle to ‘ensure it genuinely helps deliver joined-up policy-making’.

Defra’s draft policy statement was additionally criticised for failing to sufficiently support policy-makers across government in its implementation, with the Interim OEP urging Defra to provide greater guidance for policy-makers within and alongside the statement.

The organisation recommended that the policy statement be better integrated with the Government’s environmental goals, such as those in the 25 Year Environment Plan, and with the natural capital guidance set out in the Green Book.

The Interim OEP also urged Defra to consider the arrangements in place within government to oversee policy statement implementation across government.

Interim OEP Chair Dame Glenys Stacey and CEO Natalie Prosser are set to present evidence at a joint Environment Audit Committee and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee hearing today (7 July), which will focus on the progress in establishing the OEP, and how the organisation intends to exercise its functions, including its function to provide advice.

Natalie Prosser said: “I would like to express our strong support for the Government's aim to put the wellbeing of our natural environment at the heart of policy-making.

As the Government seeks to build back better and play a leading environmental role globally ahead of COP26, there are such important benefits to be reaped should policy-making across all departments embrace and live by these principles.

“From focusing on opportunities to deliver a greener future to expanding how the precautionary principle is applied, we believe the draft statement must be strengthened in a number of key areas if it is to fully embrace these ambitions and deliver the benefits envisaged.”

The Interim OEP was established on 1 July, when the Board met near its headquarters in Worcester to consider how to deliver the ambitions of improved environmental governance, set out in the Environment Bill.

The Interim OEP aims to report on progress against the 25 Year Environment Plan by the end of the year, ahead of the OEP being formally established once the Environment Bill becomes law.

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