Watchdog MPs have warned the government that elements of its flagship new Environment Bill are “not fit for purpose” days Boris Johnson pledged to make the nation the “cleanest, greenest society on Earth”.
Environmental Audit Committee chair Mary Creagh said several areas of the draft legislation were concerning, particularly the independence of the proposed Office for Environmental Protection and the legislation's failure to “explicitly set out” its duty to apply the government's environmental principles, which underpin environmental law and shape policy-making
In a letter to environment secretary Theresa Villiers, Creagh said that while Defra had adopted some of the committee’s recommendations from pre-legislative scrutiny, the MPs' main concern had not been fully addressed. She called for “reconsideration” of the environmental principles during the passage of the bill.
“We remain convinced that the aspect of the bill on environmental principles is not fit for purpose, since the duty to apply the environmental principles is not explicitly set out in the bill and defers to a policy statement,” she said.
“We have still not had sight of this policy statement, which makes it difficult to judge how they will be interpreted and applied. We welcome that parliament will have a formal role in its scrutiny, but for this scrutiny to be effective it is vital that we have early sight of this document.”
On the independence of the OEP, Creagh said that her committee remained of the opinion that the watchdog's governance structure should mirror the relationship between the National Audit Office and parliament’s Public Accounts Commission.
“Our main concern with the draft bill was the independence of the OEP and its ability to scrutinise government performance on the environment effectively,” she said.
“We appreciate that some measures have been taken to enhance its independence, such as providing for multi-annual budgets, however we are still concerned that the chair and its members will be chosen by the secretary of state and accountable to them.
“A statutory duty on ministers to uphold the independence of the OEP is necessary but insufficient to guarantee its independence, and we do not consider that this is stronger than a duty to report interference.
“We urge the government to consider strengthening the links between the OEP and parliament to enhance the independence of the body.
“We continue to consider the governance model provided by the Public Accounts Commission and the National Audit Office to be the most appropriate for the OEP, and suggest that this is looked at again during the passage of the bill.”
Creagh added that her was the “natural home for scrutiny” of the performance and governance of the OEP, and that it would expect to play a role in appointing the new body’s chair.
Elsewhere, Creagh shared more positive views on the bill, which was introduced on October 15. She particularly welcomed its framework for setting legal targets and the inclusion of five year milestones allowing for monitoring of progress and scrutiny by OEP.
She added that members were also pleased to see climate change incorporated into the scope of the OEP, so that climate change targets and carbon budgets would be legally enforceable for the first time.
A Defra spokesperson said the department disagreed "strongly" with the concerns expressed by the EAC and insisted the Environment Bill was a landmark piece of legislation that showed global leadership at a crucial time for the planet.
“The principles in the bill ensure environmental protection is embedded across government policy making and we will publish a policy statement shortly," they said.
“By setting long-term, legally-binding environmental targets, we’ll restore and protect our precious resources, landscapes and wildlife.
“We cannot set a long-term target and then simply forget about it – the bill obliges government to set five-yearly interim targets and report annually on progress. And we will be held to account by the Office for Environmental Protection, whose independence and wide-ranging powers are clearly set out in the bill.”
This story was updated at 17:00 on October 24 to include a response from Defra