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The aims of the Bill

The Government says 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.

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.

Day one of the Bill’s Report Stage took place on 26 January 2021 in the 2019-21 parliamentary session. The Bill had a carry over motion and day two of Report Stage and Third Reading took place on 26 May 2021 in the 2021-22 session. The Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords on 7 June 2021, which it passed without division. It has now been committed to a Committee of the Whole House (Lords) for its next stage.

Full background on the Bill, and its provisions as originally presented, can be found in, Commons Library Analysis of the Environment Bill, 6 March 2020.

Committee stage: Government amendments and new clauses

Several Government amendments and new clauses were accepted during the Committee Stage. Some 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:

  • Clarifying of the remit between the OEP and the Committee on Climate Change, aiming 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;
  • Changing the new environmental review process from being held in the upper tribunal to the High Court;
  • Limiting the OEP’s powers to intervene in judicial review proceedings to “serious” cases;
  • Limiting 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 (the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England), to implement species conservation and protected site conservation strategies, and changes to how wildlife conservation licences are granted.

The Government also introduced a new clause on the use of “forest risk commodities” in commercial activities, aiming to reduce deforestation caused by agriculture. This means, businesses will be prohibited from using such commodities produced on land that was illegally occupied or used. Examples include soya, palm oil, and cocoa. Businesses will be required to create a due diligence system for regulated commodities to ensure their supply chains do not support illegal deforestation, and will have to report annually. 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 several similar amendments 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 he wanted to ensure that it was a strong Bill for future generations, and 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. These included aims to:

  • Enshrine World Health Organization air quality targets on particulate matter on the face of the Bill;
  • Remove the exemptions from the need to have due regard to the new policy statement on environmental principles;
  • Ensure greater independence for the OEP in its budget setting and appointment of its chair;
  • Widen the definition of “natural environment” in the Bill to include the historic environment;
  • 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;
  • Require an assessment on water quality and the impact of discharge in drainage and sewerage management plans;
  • Set the new requirement for development of a 10% biodiversity gain as a minimum; and
  • 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 had two days for its Report Stage and Third Reading. The Government has said pressures on parliamentary time caused by the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in the delay between the two days. 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.

At day one of Report Stage, on 26 January 2021, 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, Rebecca Pow said that these amendments were personally requested by Northern Ireland Ministers.

On day two of Report Stage, on 26 May 2021, two new clauses tabled by the Government were added to the Bill. They relate to a Government announcement that it intends to set a new biodiversity target and provide powers to amend the Habitats Regulations.

On both days of Report Stage, several Opposition amendments and new clauses were pushed to division, where they were defeated (and not added to the Bill).

Queen’s Speech 2021 and further Government plans for amendment

In the background briefing notes of the Queen’s Speech 2021, the Government announced plans to further amend the Bill. This included proposals to introduce new duties requiring the Government to publish a plan to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows by September 2022 and report to Parliament the progress of implementing the plan. These amendments are expected to be tabled during the Bill’s stages in the House of Lords.

In June 2021 the Government confirmed that it intends to amend the Bill to set requirements for biodiversity net gain for New Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects in England. Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects are large scale developments (relating to energy, transport, water, or waste) which require a type of consent known as “development consent”.

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