The government is facing increased pressure to fix its flagship Environment Bill after its draft version has come under further fire from parliamentary committees.
The House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRAC) has seconded concerns raised by the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) last week that the draft bill ‘severely downgrades’ the UK’s environmental principles post-Brexit.
The EAC warned that the bill ‘lacks coherence’ and does not guarantee the independence of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), the government’s planned new environmental watchdog.
Releasing its own pre-legislative scrutiny report, the EFRAC has added further fuel to the fire, saying that the OEP needs ‘real independence’ and ‘sharper teeth’ if it is to protect the UK’s environmental standards.
Neil Parish MP, chair of the EFRAC, said: ‘Although the government has made a real attempt to establish a robust framework for environmental governance, the draft Bill clearly fails to meet its own ambition to “ensure the environment is even better protected in future” as we exit the EU.’
‘In some areas, it actually marks a significant regression on current standards. Given this unique opportunity to rethink how we protect the environment in the future, we cannot afford to see the standards we currently adhere to slip.’
The EFRAC has recommended ‘significant’ revision of the bill, which sets out how the government plans to protect environmental standards following the UK’s departure of the European Union.
Their report warns, like the EAC’s report did last week, that the draft Bill’s provisions do not match the current environmental protections provided by membership of the EU.
The committee advised that the draft does not give the OEP enough independence from government to operate effectively, as current proposals leave the watchdog open to government cuts.
Its members also identified a potential gap in enforcing climate change law, as the draft bill excludes climate change from the OAP’s remit.
‘The government must explore appropriate ways to ensure greater personal accountability for ministers and public servants if they fail to uphold environmental law before presenting this bill to parliament,’ Parish added.
‘It is imperative to future generations that the government does not squander its chance to get this right – it is unlikely they will get another any time soon.’
The EFRAC has asked for reassurance that any future laws relating to environmental principles will match current European levels of protection, as well as for the committee to be given the final say over all decisions relating to the OEP’s board membership.
It has also recommended that the OEP be provided with greater budgetary protection, as well as stronger compliance tools and the powers to issue emergency and interim environmental measures.
A government spokesperson said in a previous statement that it welcomed the publication of the EAC’s report and will respond in due course having carefully considered their recommendations.
The government’s draft bill only covers the principles and governance of its final, wider Environment Bill, which is set to be published later this year.