MPs call for ‘world-leading’ UK environmental watchdog

MPs call for creation of ‘world-leading’ UK environmental watchdog
Michael Gove at a hearing of the Environmental Audit Committee
MPs have called for the creation of an oversight body with legal powers to hold the government to account on the goals set out in its 25 Year Environment Plan (25YEP).

The Plan, which was published in January, sets out the government’s long-term aims for the safeguarding of the environment, with a notable focus on what Prime Minister Theresa May termed the ‘scourge’ of plastic waste.

MPs in Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) launched an inquiry into the 25YEP in February, looking at the scope of its aims and ambitions and how the government plans to achieve them.

Published today (24 July), the inquiry report states that while the scope of the Plan is admirably broad, there is a significant lack of detail about how its ambitions will be achieved. The EAC has therefore set out the legislation it feels is required in order to remedy this, including the development of legally-binding targets relating to the objectives in the Plan, to be scrutinised by an independent oversight body – an Environmental Enforcement and Audit Office (EEAO).

Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the EAC, said: “If we want a world-leading environment we need a world-leading environmental watchdog. But in recent months the government has been referred to the EU’s highest court for failing to tackle illegal levels of air pollution in the UK. We are facing a biodiversity crisis and risk losing iconic species like the hedgehog.

“We want an Environmental Governance and Principles Act that sets legally-binding targets and creates a new Environmental Enforcement and Audit Office to measure progress and enforce this new law.

“The government needs to set out detailed delivery and funding proposals for the Plan and departments across Whitehall need to commit to its ambitions, rather than trying to water them down behind the scenes.”

Maintaining current standards and principles

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is currently consulting on a new Environmental Principles and Governance Bill, which will set out a list of the UK’s environmental principles, as well as provide for the establishment of a public body with some level of enforcement capability, to hold the government to account over these principles in place of the oversight currently provided by the European Commission and Court of Justice.

Recently, Environment Secretary Michael Gove (who previously assured that Defra would be delivering a ‘Green Brexit’) was unable to guarantee to the EAC at an evidence session that the current environmental standards and protections enjoyed through Britain’s EU membership will not fall after Brexit. Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major environmental organisations, has warned that a number of policy areas are at risk of being weakened after Brexit. In its Brexit Risk Tracker, air pollution and chemicals are currently designated high risk policy areas, while all others except climate change are at medium risk, including waste and resources.

MPs call for creation of ‘world-leading’ UK environmental watchdog
“We are facing a biodiversity crisis”: Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the EAC
The government has stated in its Repeal Bill White Paper that it will ‘ensure that the whole body of existing EU environmental law continues to have effect in domestic law’. However, as Greener UK has pointed out, ‘it is stated elsewhere that the bill will only convert EU law into domestic law “wherever practical and sensible”, and it is not yet clear whether this could create gaps in environmental protections.’

The EAC is therefore calling for the government to put into law all environmental principles that it has signed up to in international and EU law, as well as a principle that policy and all public bodies will seek to ensure a high level of environmental protection – and a presumption that current environmental protections will not be rolled back.

Oversight body

Environmental governance is also identified by Greener UK as a key area across the board in which UK policy is currently lacking. The EAC has recommended the development of an independent environmental watchdog, the EEAO, which, as well as monitoring government performance, would have ‘effective and proactive enforcement powers’, including the ability to take government departments and agencies to court, as well as to hand out fines, the revenue from which would be ring-fenced and used for an environmental fund overseen by the EEAO.

The committee has added that the EEAO would need to be overseen by Parliament, reporting on a bi-annual basis, to ensure it remains independent. During its inquiry, the EAC heard from respondents, including Lord Deben, who warned of a history of environmental watchdogs (such as the Environmental Agency and Natural England) “being brought more and more under the control [of the Department]”. Creagh also warned that the government has “more experience of getting rid of environmental watchdogs than of setting them up”, stating that the EEAO’s budget should be set by a statutory body to ensure it is not cut.

The draft Environmental Principles and Governance Bill must be published by December 2018, but the legislation contained within it will not be ratified in time for the UK’s EU departure date of 19 March 2019, leaving the UK open to an environmental governance gap: ‘If there is no deal and no transitional period with the European Union’, the report states, ‘then the United Kingdom will leave with no mechanism for enforcing environmental rights, targets and protections. This is an unthinkable prospect, and the government must do everything to avoid it.’

Detailed targets required
MPs call for creation of ‘world-leading’ UK environmental watchdog
Plastic waste and marine pollution are identified as some of the key areas for the government to develop targets

The EAC has also criticised the lack of ‘specific, measurable and achievable’ targets in the 25YEP – the headline goal of eliminating ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042, for instance, has been questioned for the vague nature of its terms, as well as the lack of shorter-term targets. Evasive or loose wording – such as ‘as soon as is practicable’ – allows for a weakening of environmental goals, potentially providing a loophole if a goal is not achieved by a certain time. Ray Georgeson, Chief Executive of trade body the Resource Association, said at the launch of the Plan: “Our nation is and should be capable of so much more than this in terms of real-time specifics, targets and legislative underpinning.”

Therefore, the EAC has asked that the government bring forward more specific targets in advance of the draft Environmental Principles and Governance Bill being published. In addition, the committee has called for targets to be made legally binding to ensure they are achieved, especially in such policy areas as water, marine pollution, air quality, soil health and waste. In terms of the latter, the UK has said it will remain beholden to the recycling targets in the EU’s Circular Economy Package (CEP), which requires member states to achieve a 65 per cent recycling rate by 2035 – but it is as yet unclear exactly how the CEP will be translated into UK law.

Ruth Chambers, Senior Parliamentary Affairs Associate at Greener UK, commented: “The EAC’s report adds to the growing calls for the government to be bolder and more precise in setting out its plans for how our environment will be protected and governed after the UK leaves the EU.

“A watchdog with strong legal powers is essential, as is ensuring the new body has the resources and freedom to do its job. Greener UK supports the committee’s recommendation for ambitious new targets to protect and improve our environment.

“This, along with the Prime Minister’s commitment to the first Environment Bill for over twenty years, are steps in the right direction, but the government must now act swiftly to match its rhetoric with legal commitments that stand the test of time.”

The full report from the EAC into the 25YEP can be found on the Parliament website.

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