Watchdog slams Defra for ‘consistently failing’ to report on whether its policies are effective

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has today (27 March) published a new report assessing whether Defra and other departments responsible for green policy have been reporting on the impact of their lawmaking – as they are legally required to.

The conclusion is that Defra and other departments, including those responsible for transport, business and energy, are “consistently failing” to deliver these reports on time.  The OEP has warned of “widespread and longstanding” failures to report to time.

According to the OEP, Defra has been required to conduct 56 Post-Implementation Reviews of legislation and regulation that it has implemented since 1989. Seven are not yet due and, for the remaining 29, not a single Review has been completed to its initial deadline.

Some of these Reviews are still outstanding. Those due last year but still not completed include Reviews relating to the conservation of offshore marine habitats and species; forest law enforcement in international trade and environmental impact assessments by agriculture and forestry companies.

Those due earlier this year and still outstanding include Reviews of the 2018 microbeads ban in England and the implementation of producer responsibility obligations on packaging manufacturers, first introduced in 2007.

Of the reviews that were provided, late, the OEP has recorded delays of up to four years.

OEP chair Dame Glenys Stacey said: “[The] Government should monitor and evaluate how environmental and other relevant laws are working. It is important for Parliamentary accountability and wider scrutiny. And it allows Government to see in good time the extent to which the law and its implementation are sufficiently effective.

“The information and insight from such reports is especially relevant when Government is reviewing and making decisions about the future of environmental law. There is now the potential for significant changes to environmental law, most notably through the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, but also through other draft legislation such as the Energy Bill and the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.“

Introduced under Liz Truss, the Retained EU Law Bill is designed to “sunset” most EU laws retained in the UK post-Brexit by the end of this year. The intention is then to do away with the remaining laws by 2026.

Environmental groups have pointed out how policies relating to climate and nature feature heavily in the list of laws which could be scrapped, potentially without the UK bringing in a replacement which either maintains or increases standards. An £82bn price tag on environmental backsliding that could result from the Bill has been estimated by NGOs. The OEP itself has cautioned against rushing to deliver the Bill and recommended an extended timeline.

Responding to the OEP’s report, a Defra spokesperson said: “We keep all laws under review to make sure they are achieving what they set out to.

“We take these obligations incredibly seriously as part of our ongoing work to leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it.

“Work is already underway to clear the backlog, in part due to extraordinary pressures during the pandemic, and ensure we meet all review obligations in the future.”

Other departments

While Defra is the focus of the OEP’s report, as its areas of policymaking are the regulator’s main focus areas, it also looks at delayed publications for other departments setting policies that will impact climate and nature.

One Review due from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in 2020, on hazardous substances in buildings, has not yet been published. The Department also has two outstanding Reviews from 2022. As such, three-quarters of the Reviews of green policy are now overdue.

The OEP also looked at Reviews from the Department for Transport, finding one out of seven overdue. This Review was due in 2019 and pertains to the prevention of air pollution from ships.

Additionally detailed is the Review record of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). BEIS, which is in the process of being replaced, has six Reviews overdue out of 12. These include Reviews of measures to conserve offshore habitats against the negative impacts of the oil and gas sector, which were due in October 2021.

The OEP is calling for a formal response from the Government, providing “reassurance as to how these failures will be rectified and reviews prioritised”.

edie has reached out to the departments mentioned in the OEP’s new report. This article will be updated as and when they respond.

Related article: Can Defra end its ‘culture of delay’ in 2023?

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