Environment Bill: Amendments raise fresh concerns over post-Brexit watchdog

The OEP is due to start operating in January 2021

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow has tabled the proposed amendments, which were published this week and will be voted on when the Bill returns to Parliament. This is expected to happen in November.

One amendment would give senior representatives of the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) the power to guide the Office for Environmental Protection’s (OEP) remit and processes for enforcing punishment on actors who fail to comply with green laws. This power covers the ways in which the OEP would deal with public sector bodies – including Government departments.

The thinking behind the amendment would appear to be to fast-track the implementation of the Bill after a string of delays and to align the aims of Defra and the OEP.

But Greener UK – a coalition representing 13 of the UK’s biggest environmental charities, with a combined eight million members – called the move a “clear and simple weakening of environmental protection”.

“These changes are only necessary if the government wants to control a body charged with holding it to account,” Greener UK’s senior parliamentary affairs associate Ruth Chambers said. “They provide a get-out-of-jail-free card for the government to direct the watchdog away from awkward or inconvenient cases, completely undermining claims that it will be independent.”

The Green Party has also voiced opposition to the amendment. Co-leader Jonathan Bartley said it would “allow the Government to basically tell the OEP what to do”, weakening an already “toothless” body.

A further amendment by Pow stipulates that the OEP should not consider the climate impacts of progress on nature, air quality and biodiversity. This, the amendment states, is the remit of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

Bringing the Bill back

A recent survey of 244 sustainability and energy professionals by edie found that this Bill is the top policy priority.  But it has now been absent from Parliament for more than 200 days, due to Covid-19, Brexit preparations and the summer recess for MPs.

Defra has confirmed that the Bill will be updated to include legally binding targets on biodiversity, water, air quality and waste when it returns to Parliament.

It has also repeatedly told media representatives that the OEP will begin operating in January 2021 – a delay from December 2020. The Natural Capital Committee this week published a policy briefing expressing concerns over this delay and, in light of the fact that Natural England has been under-funded for years, urging Ministers to ensure the OEP is “properly” funded and resourced.

Sarah George

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