On Tuesday in the House of Commons a debate took place which was set out initially by the MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas who happens to be my own MP. However her statement was not related in any direct way to her constitution. This was a much bigger issue that goes well beyond our own nation. However the way the law is set out is vital if we as a nation are going to begin to set out our own positions correctly. The Minister who took part in the debate was Rebecca Pow and early on in the debate she stated very clearly that “As the Prime Minister set out in the Government’s 10-point plan to net zero, protection, restoration and enhancement of our natural environment are crucial. The Bill will play a key part in that mission. I thank Caroline Lucas for opening the debate by raising some important points on the environmental principles.“ It was also encouraging to read the text from the Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans who stated at the beginning of the debate “The vast majority of contributions will be via videolink” as this is clearly a very important element for both protecting people from travelling unecessarily but also the reduction of the environmental impact is also something very valuable to send out to all of us and specifically to Jacob Rees-Mogg who has opposed the use of the Videolink for far too long. So here are some of the opening elements of Caroline Lucas’s speech.
I am pleased to move new clause 1. This Bill could not be more important. It is 25 years since the last dedicated Environment Act was passed. During that time, the speed and scale of environmental destruction has increased dramatically. The UK is now one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, and Ministers simply are not rising to that challenge. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Government are failing to meet fully 17 out of 20 UN biodiversity targets.
Despite the Government’s aim to be “the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it”, this Bill has languished in Parliament for more than 200 days before Committee resumed. As a consequence, there is now a governance gap, with only interim measures in place where a fully-fledged Office for Environmental Protection should have been. Worse, we now hear that the Bill is to be delayed by at least six months, because Ministers have apparently run out of time to pass it in Parliament.
Of course we understand the pressures that covid has put on the parliamentary timetable, but the Government have had more than four years since the referendum, two years since the draft Bill was published and one year since the UK left the EU to get these plans in place. Their failure to do so is utterly incompetent. Will the Minister give us a precise date for both the next Report stage and the missing policy statement that is linked to the environmental principles? It is to those principles that I now turn, because my new clause 1 and amendment 1 are on the environmental principles, and I plan to push new clause 1 to a vote.
Ministers promised that, post Brexit, environmental standards would be not only maintained but enhanced, yet this Bill does not even come close to making up for what we have lost by leaving the EU. It sets out five important principles, including prevention, precaution and polluter pays. Under EU law, it is a requirement that those are actually applied when law making and that they cover all public bodies, not just Ministers. However, the Bill significantly weakens their legal status because they do not apply to public bodies, and there is no such duty on Ministers to act in accordance with the principles. Instead, there is only a duty to “have due regard” to a policy statement that the Government have not even bothered to published yet.
The Minister has tried to persuade us that “due regard” is at least as strong as “in accordance with”, yet her case simply does not stand up to scrutiny. In 2018, the Lords Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 found that the duty to “have regard” to contained in that Act was
“weak, unenforceable and lacks clear meaning.”
Adding the word “due” in front of “regard” does not change that. There are plenty of examples of other legislation in which public authorities are required by statute to act in accordance with or to take actions to comply with—for example, the Marine Strategy Regulations 2010 or the Planning Act 2008.
We can only conclude that, in this instance, the Government deliberately intend to weaken these provisions and, as a consequence, to drive a coach and horses through fundamental EU protections. New clause 1 would extend the duty to all public authorities and broaden the scope of the principles. Crucially, it would strengthen the duty from “have due regard” to “act in accordance with”, and it would apply directly to the principles, rather than a non-existent policy statement.
It is so tragic that the votes for this Clause were strongly supported by every political party apart from two. The Conservatives and the DUP. Their votes represented 366 MPs who included every single one of the 13 Sussex MPs who are Conservatives. The 266 MPs who voted to support Clause 1 represent every other political party and that included all 3 of the other Sussex MPs. It seems as though we need to get the Sussex Conservative MPs to explain why they have opposed the Clause.