MPs cast doubt on independence of new environmental watchdog
The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has called into question the independence of the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), an environmental watchdog proposed in the government’s Environment Bill.
In a letter written to Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers, EAC Chair Mary Creagh raised concerns with several key aspects of the Bill, which was introduced to Parliament following last Monday’s Queen’s Speech (14 October).
The EAC, a group of cross-party MPs who oversee the environmental impact of government policies, cast doubt on the OEP’s ability to scrutinise government performance. Criticising the Bill’s proposed model where the OEP’s Chair and Members will be chosen by the Secretary of State, the Committee called for a stronger link between the OEP and Parliament to ensure the watchdog’s independence.
The independence of the OEP is of particular concern in light of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Post-Brexit, the OEP will replace the oversight and enforcement powers of the European Commission and will therefore be crucial in ensuring that the Environment Bill’s key measures – including plans for extended producer responsibility (EPR) and a deposit return scheme (DRS) – are delivered satisfactorily.
The EAC had previously taken issue with the proposed OEP in its response to the government’s draft Environment Bill in April, although Villiers has since claimed that the government is ‘committed to ensuring the OEP is independent.’
The establishment of an independent environmental watchdog has long been supported by the EAC. Following the publication of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan in January 2018 – a set of long-term plans for environmental protection – the EAC published a report recommending the establishment of an independent oversight body, an Environmental Enforcement and Audit Office (EEAO).
The EAC has also expressed unease with the Bill’s environmental principles, describing them as ‘not fit for purpose’. The Committee’s letter highlights that the duty to apply the environmental principles has not been explicitly set out in the Bill, but has been deferred to a policy statement which has not yet been published.
Commenting on the Bill, Creagh said: “The Environment Bill offers the government a chance to safeguard our environment for future generations, but there remain glaring oversights in the Bill.
“The government has failed to set out its policy framework which would establish how the environmental principles will be used in practice – allowing them to avoid full scrutiny from Parliament.
“We are concerned the independence of the Office for Environmental Protection remains fragile as long as it relies on the discretion of Ministers. We ask again for the government to consider the alternative governance model recommended in our pre-legislative report.
The EAC also expressed disappointment with the Environment Bill’s timeframe, as the Bill’s targets will not be in place until October 2022, with no requirement to meet them until 2037.
Furthermore, the EAC also called for the government to set targets for all ten of the headline goals in the 25 Year Environment Plan, rather than just the four ‘priority areas’ set out in the Bill (air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction).
Creagh explained: “Setting 2037 as the date to achieve the environmental targets is too little too late. The Bill only sets targets for air quality, water, biodiversity, and resource efficiency and waste reduction, but we need targets across all ten Environment Plan goals. We are facing an ecological emergency, the time to act is now.”
Although the Committee’s response to the Environment Bill was primarily one of concern, the EAC’s letter did highlight some positive developments.
Notably, whilst the EAC had initially criticised the lack of climate change mitigation policies in last December’s draft Bill, the final Environment Bill has included climate change in the scope of the OEP.
You can read the letter from the EAC Chair to the Environment Secretary on the Parliament website.