Maggie Jones on the need for the government to respond properly to Peers’ concerns about the sustainability of its flagship Environment Bill
Over the course of eight days of debate, the House of Lords has considered more than 420 amendments to the long-awaited Environment Bill. These have spanned dozens of separate topics and enabled line-by-line examination of the government’s supposedly landmark proposals.
When this mammoth piece of legislation arrived in late May, we were already aware it contained several gaping holes. Having now properly shone a light on the provisions, it seems there are both more and bigger shortcomings than we anticipated. This is despite the Bill having been in development for five years and forming a key part of the government’s legislative programme for two consecutive parliamentary sessions. So far, not so good.
While a small number of changes have been brought forward by the Minister, Lord Goldsmith, the government’s general response to even the most sensible of suggestions has essentially been “thanks, but no thanks”. Of course, we do not expect to achieve consensus in every single area, but in the Lords, we are accustomed to working in a much more open, constructive, and collaborative manner than has been possible so far.
With the Bill’s Committee Stage now drawing to a close, I know that colleagues of all political allegiances – and, in the case of Crossbenchers and the Bishops, none – are beginning to look at priorities for key voting stages in September and beyond. Those votes, along with the government’s response, will be crucial if we are to begin turning the tide in both domestic and global efforts to address the climate and ecological emergency.
The government has stated time and again that this legislation must be on the statute book by the time of the COP26 summit, for the UK to maximise its soft power. While we understand that wish, our priority will remain ensuring the legislation is fit for purpose. There is little use in passing a Bill which does not make a meaningful contribution to the global fight – and to pretend otherwise would do a huge disservice to the friends and partners we will welcome to Glasgow this November.
If we are to meet the twin challenges of improving the legislation while passing it in a timely manner, Lord Goldsmith and his departmental colleagues must come to the table for detailed discussions. There are many areas where a convincing case has been made and we hope the government will come forward with concessions. In other areas, it may be necessary for us to ask the House of Commons to think again.
It cannot be right that the new Office for Environmental Protection will be directed by the very Ministers it seeks to hold to account. A new ‘species abundance target’ will be of little use if there is no statutory obligation to halt or begin to reverse the decline in biodiversity by 2030. Those living in cities cannot have confidence in the cleanliness of the air they breathe if the government refuses to set targets that are consistent with World Health Organisation guidance.
Whether for human beings or animals, these are questions of survival. On pesticides, for example, we must not allow Ministers to authorise the use of products that harm pollinators. Initiatives which would reduce the amount of single-use plastic items are needed now rather than in several years’ time. Otherwise, plastic will continue finding its way into our countryside, rivers, and oceans.
The government likes to tell a positive story on these topics and more. However, our environment and the life it sustains does not need warm words but ambition and action.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 13th July 2021