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The Environment Bill 2019-21 was considered during 22 sittings of the Public Bill Committee between 10 March and 26 November 2020. There was a pause in the Committee’s sittings during this period due to Coronavirus pandemic related restrictions. The Bill’s remaining stages in the Commons are scheduled for 26 January 2020. Full background on the Bill, and its provisions as originally presented, can be found in Library Briefing Paper, Commons Library Analysis of the Environment Bill, 6 March 2020.

The aims of the Bill

The Government describes the main purposes of the Bill are to:

  • Transform our environmental governance once we leave the EU by putting environmental principles into law; introducing legally binding targets; and establishing a new Office for Environmental Protection.
  • Increase local powers to tackle sources of air pollution.
  • Protect nature and improve biodiversity by working with developers.
  • Extend producer responsibility, ensure a consistent approach to recycling, introduce deposit return schemes, and introduce charges for specified single use plastic items.
  • Secure long-term, resilient water and wastewater services, including through powers to direct water companies to work together to meet current and future demand.

Committee stage: Government amendments and new clauses

A number of Government amendments and new clauses were accepted during the Committee stage. A number of them related to the establishment and functions of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). The Government argued that these amendments would bring greater clarity about the OEP’s role and consistency with other legal mechanisms. These included:

  • Clarification of the remit between the OEP and the Committee on Climate Change, with the aim of ensuring no duplication of work, through the production of a memorandum of understanding;
  • Clarification of the threshold for when an environmental review can be initiated by the OEP;
  • To change the new environmental review process from being held in the upper tribunal to the High Court;
  • To limit the OEP’s powers to intervene in judicial review proceedings to “serious” cases;
  • To limit the OEP’s powers to initiate judicial review proceedings to “urgent” cases; and
  • A new power for the Secretary of State to issue guidance to the OEP on matters concerning its enforcement policy.

New Government clauses will provide powers for Natural England to implement species conservation strategies and protected site conservation strategies, and changes to how wildlife conservation licences are granted.

The Government also introduced a new clause into the Bill on the use of forest risk commodities in commercial activities, with the aim to reduce deforestation caused by agriculture. Businesses will be prohibited from using “forest risk commodities” produced on land that was illegally occupied or used. Examples of the commodities include soya, palm oil, and cocoa. Businesses will be required to establish a due diligence system for regulated commodities to ensure that their supply chains do not support illegal deforestation, and will have to report annually on that exercise. If businesses do not comply, they would be subject to fines.

Committee stage: Opposition amendments and new clauses

No Opposition amendments or new clauses were added to the Bill. Labour moved a number of similar amendments across the committee proceedings to change the Bill’s phrasing where the Bill states that the Secretary of State “may” make secondary legislation, to “must”. Shadow Minister Dr Alan Whitehead said that he wanted to ensure that it was a strong Bill for future generations, and he did not want the Government to have a choice about whether it implements or commences the accompanying environmental secondary legislation.

Labour also opposed many of the Government amendments in relation to the Office for Environmental Protection, amid concern that they would curtail its freedom to act and its independence. Of particular concern were the Government amendments relating to the OEP’s abilities to intervene in and initiate judicial review action.

Many Opposition amendments across the Bill were pushed to division but defeated. Some of these included:

  • aiming to enshrine World Health Organization air quality targets on particulate matter on the face of the Bill;
  • aiming to remove the exemptions from the need to have due regard to the new policy statement on environmental principles;
  • aiming to ensure greater independence for the OEP in its budget setting and appointment of its Chair;
  • aiming to widen the definition of “natural environment” in the Bill to include the historic environment;
  • aiming to require manufacturers, processers, distributors and suppliers of packaging to contribute to the “social costs” (and not just to disposal costs), incurred throughout the lifecycle of the products or materials;
  • aiming to require an assessment on water quality and the impact of discharge in drainage and sewerage management plans;
  • aiming to set the new requirement for development of a 10% biodiversity gain as a minimum; and
  • aiming to ensure that the starting regulatory framework for UK REACH was as close as possible to EU REACH and did not “regress from what there was before”.

The Opposition also moved a number of new clauses which were pushed to division across a range of policy areas including: non-regression of environmental standards, fracking, a clean air duty, smoking related litter, the waste hierarchy, environmental and human rights due diligence, reservoirs and flood risk, a state of nature target and reduction of lead poisoning from shot. None of these were added to the Bill.

Report stage

The Bill has been scheduled to have two days for its remaining stages in the Commons (Report and Third Reading). The first of these days took place on 26 January 2021.

At day one of Report Stage, only Government amendments were added to Bill. Most of them were described by the Minister, Rebecca Pow, as being “technical” in nature. They included:

  • Clarification that the English inshore and offshore region will be covered by the ‘significant improvement test’. This relates to reviews of the environmental targets that the Bill will establish. The test is met where the Secretary of State considers that meeting the targets will bring about a significant improvement in the natural environment. The first significant improvement test review will be by 31 January 2023.
  • A series of amendments intended to align the clauses relating to the Office for Environmental Protection’s Northern Ireland enforcement functions with the equivalent provisions for England (that were amended previously at Committee Stage). In the debate, the Minister, Rebecca Pow said that these amendments were personally requested by Northern Ireland Ministers.

A number of Opposition amendments and new clauses were pushed to division, where they were defeated.

A carry-over motion tabled for the Bill means that its remaining stages, (including day two of Report Stage), will not now take place until the next Parliamentary session. The Government has cited pressures on Parliamentary time caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as the reason for the delay. The Government has emphasised its commitment to the Bill and its environmental ambitions and said that it expects to see Royal Assent of the Bill in the autumn. Environmental organisations and campaigners have expressed disappointment and frustration about the delay to the Bill.

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