A great deal of the Green group’s time in the House of Lords in the coming months will be taken up with detailed, line-by-line analysis of three crucial bills that will set out the government’s approach to leaving the European Union: the Environment, Agriculture and Fisheries Bills.
They will set the framework for action on the climate emergency and nature crisis in the next crucial decade, the time the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us we have to transform in these crucial areas.
Often, if you watch or read a debate, we will talking about minute details of a clause or a phrase. It will be hard to see the wood for the trees. But there is an important, deeply disturbing bigger picture that we will also be trying to bring out. These are essentially empty bills that fail to provide for the urgent, transformational direction and action that our environment and society need.
These bills largely only provide for the possibility for the government to act; they do not direct the government to act. They fail to provide ways by which the people can hold the government to account.
Take air pollution for example. There’s a recognition in the Environment Bill of the need for a target to reduce fine particulate matter pollution. The targets - which should be a legally binding commitment to meet World Health Organisation guidelines, as a minimum - should be written into the Bill. They are not.
Contrast them with the 2008 Climate Change Act, a world-leading move at the time, that set out clear (if inadequate) targets for the UK to cut carbon emissions, and provided a truly independent mechanism to monitor progress in the Climate Change Committee.
Now that might still not be delivering what is needed - as experts have been saying, we are not on track for those legally binding targets - but the planned direction of travel was clear and provided the possibility for the government to be held to account for its failures.
The Environment Bill fails to put in place a credible mechanism for ensuring expert advice is taken in the setting of targets - Clause 3(1) lets the Secretary of State decide from whom to take advice - a blank cheque. Campaigners are instead calling for a well-resourced, independent and expert body to be set up, and public consultation mandated, a similar model to the Committee on Climate Change.
Resources and independence
It also allows for fifteen-year targets, to be set in secondary legislation by October 2022. That’s agonisingly slow - and there’s not enough focus on intermediate targets along the way, given the urgent need for climate and other environmental action.
What’s also needed is what is referred to as binding non-regression clauses - a legal commitment not to reduce current environment standards. This is regarded as a key part of modern environmental law (France recently introduced it and it is part of the draft Global Pact for the Environment).
One of the key issues is the status of the Office of Environmental Protection, created under the Environment Bill to replace oversight of protections now provided by the European Commission.
The Environment Bill fails to guarantee the resources that it needs to act, risking it being placed in the parlous situation of Natural England in recent years, without the resources so urgently needed to carry out its role.
The Bill also fails, crucially, to guarantee its independence from the government. Without that, it is not a regulator, or even an independent commentator, just a potentially useful tool for ministers to use to distance themselves from responsibility.
There’s also the issue of trade standards - which goes much further than keeping out chlorinated chicken, much as that’s a handy illustration of the awful animal welfare and human health standards prevalent in the US and elsewhere that we want to keep out of the UK.
There are no legal safeguards in the Agriculture Bill to ensure that we keep to at least the current EU standards - standards hard won over decades of campaigning.
Another issue is the way in which there’s precious little sign of joined-up thinking between these bills - there are contradictory elements - or with broader policy.
We’re expecting a food strategy for England (the first written down one) to be finalised in the summer. But there’s precious little sign of an integrated approach with the agriculture bill - covering of course the way in which we’d hope most of our food is produced.
Complaints about the weakness of these bills have come from some surprising quarters. I heard a senior staffer from a major waste company saying that the Bills failed to provide the certainty it needed to invest. If the strength and scope of the rules under which it has to operate are not clear, it can’t risk spending on equipment or training.
The proposals are inadequate. We’ll be doing our best to strengthen them, line by line, where we can, but what’s really needed is a complete rewrite, one that sets clear targets for swift action, guarantees the means to deliver them, and a mechanism for regular checking and accountability to keep them on track.
Natalie Bennett is a Green Party peer. She spoke about these issues with Matthew Wright on Talk Radio last week.
Image: TheDigitalArtist, Pixabay.