MPs urge next Prime Minister to embed environmental considerations into policymaking

MPs are arguing that there is “no reason for any further delay” to the implementation of the Environment Bill amid the Conservative Party’s selection as a replacement for Boris Johnson, pressing for action before this autumn.

MPs urge next Prime Minister to embed environmental considerations into policymaking

Defra has stated its intention to have the Principles fully in place by this autumn

The call to action is being made through a new publication from the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), published today (28 July). The publication chiefly concerns the ‘Environmental Principles’ detailed in the Bill, which was enshrined in law last winter after a fraught passage through Parliament and the Lords taking more than two years. A statement of the Principles was then presented to Parliament this May.

Key Environmental Principles set out by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are:

  • Integration (that environmental conservation should be an issue for all policy areas)
  • Prevention (that it is preferable to anticipate and avoid environmental harm than to product the harm, then rectify or offset)
  • Precautionary (regulators should take action to prevent possible harm)
  • Rectification (where damage does occur, it should be addressed at its origin to remedy the impacts)
  • Polluter pays (the cost of pollution should be borne by the party or parties causing the problem, not the party or parties suffering the effects)

The point of the Principles is to guide future policymaking. Decisions taken by Defra and by other departments are expected to be aligned with this framework, with decision-makers having “due regard” to the Principles when creating new policies and regulations or updating existing frameworks.  “Due regard” is a legal obligation for policy in all areas except defence, national security and the armed forces. Taxation and the allocation of Government resources internally are also exempt.

The EAC has heard concern that there will be a further delay to the implementation of the Principles amid the Conservative Party leadership race. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are running, with the chosen successor to Johnson set to be formally appointed in early September. A decision may well come before that point. EAC members are concerned that Whitehall will “sidestep, rather than embrace” the principles.

At present, the green economy is awaiting further information on governance changes to ensure the Principles are embedded in the policymaking process. The EAC wants this to be finalised by autumn at the latest, and for the first review of implementation to follow by autumn 2023.

In its publication, the EAC is highlighting how Ministers at Defra, including Brexiteer George Eustice, have previously discussed the implementation of the Principles as an opportunity for the UK to raise ambitions from the frameworks it was previously bound to as an EU member state.

EAC chair Philip Dunne MP said: “The Environmental Principles policy statement has been over four years in the making. The Government must not continue to drag its feet over the implementation of this important element of the Environment Act. It is a major post-Brexit opportunity, to champion environmental protection at home. Yet this potential win from Brexit risks being squandered while Ministers figure out how the principles ought to be implemented in Whitehall.

“There is absolutely no reason after such time has elapsed for there to be any further delay in making the principles binding on policymakers.”

edie contacted Defra for a comment on the EAC’s calls to action. A Department spokesperson said: “Our environmental principles will ensure we put the environment at the heart of the Government’s work across Whitehall. We are committed to publishing the final statement in autumn this year.”

Strengthening the framework

As well as the implementation of the Principles in their current form, the EAC’s publication also notes an opportunity to strengthen them.

It highlights that the UK Government’s post-Brexit green watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), stated earlier this month that the Environment Bill’s targets and Principles are, in some cases, “unambitious” and lacking a “comprehensive” implementation guide. That statement followed a similar warning in the summer of 2021.

OEP chief Natalie Prosser said at the time: “As the Government seeks to build back better and play a leading environmental role globally ahead of COP26, there are such important benefits to be reaped should policymaking across all departments embrace and live by these principles.

“From focusing on opportunities to deliver a greener future to expanding how the precautionary principle is applied, we believe the draft statement must be strengthened in a number of key areas if it is to fully embrace these ambitions and deliver the benefits envisaged.”

Defra initially declined to take the OEP’s recommendations on board in 2021. It subsequently made several changes to the Principles, providing more clarity on opportunities for improving nature and adding the Principles as a filter at the outset of the policymaking process. The EAC is now calling for the Department to rethink further.

The EAC’s report comes a week after Defra published its latest progress report on the 25-Year Environment Plan, revealing that progress has gone backwards in many areas including water consumption, litter in the North Sea and the abundance of ‘priority’ species. Progress was noted in some areas, though, such as public engagement with nature and classing more land as ‘protected’.

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