One of the disturbing issues that occurred last week involving all of the Sussex MPs in the House of Commons was the debate and vote for an aspect of the Environment Bill. Caroline Lucas who launched the debate under the theme of Clause 1 began by explaining that it was “25 years since the last dedicated Environment Act was passed”. She went on to make a number of very strong points regarding why a new Bill like this is vital to our nation and indeed beyond our shores. However, she also pointed out that “this Bill has languished in Parliament for more than 200 days before Committee resumed” and 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.” She also then focused on some of the content in the Bill as it currently exists. It is clear to many of us who are not involved in politics that these delays and limitations will have a significant impact on our nation and in our environmental impact. Along with Caroline Lucas who started the debate and ended it, two other Sussex MPs also participated in the debate and apart from one minor comment from Tim Loughton, all three of them including Sally-Ann Hart raised themes and concerns that were consistent with one another and should have led to a very similar response when it came to the final voting. Loughton’s minor comment was “This is a ground-breaking Bill. There is much of merit in it, although you would not believe it to listen to some of the [opposition] contributions. “
Sadly, a number of the elements of the Bill do not go far enough and are not even consistent with an earlier statement from the Government when it first introduced the Bill. That related to the Office for Environmental Protection which is referred to as OEP. In October 2019 the Government stated that one of the main provisions of the Bill is to establish the OEP which it described as “a powerful new independent regulator that will hold the government to account, including through the courts if necessary.” However even at that stage and in that same statement the Government set out to defend its proposal. They pointed out that the media and in particular two mainstream newspapers were suggesting that the OEP will not have the teeth that is needed to hold the Government to account. This claim was that the OEP “will not be able to directly fine the government if it breaches its environmental responsibilities.” The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs explained in defence that “the OEP will scrutinise all government policy to ensure the environment is at the heart of decision making. Crucially, it will have the power to run its own independent investigations and enforce environmental law, including taking government and other public bodies to court where necessary. Courts would then have the power to issue fines, should they deem it appropriate.”
Now of course if this is the way that the OEP will operate, they will need to have the freedom to work Independently and at a clear distance from the Government’s own set of judgements. During last week’s debate, the Labour MP Barry Gardiner praised Dame Glenys Stacey who will run the OEP. Gardiner stated that “she is a robust regulator, with a proven record of independence, and I trust her” and he even pointed out that “The Secretary of State should set the criteria and the parameters that he expects the Office for Environmental Protection to work to, but he should then leave it to the regulator to regulate.” Sadly, however the efforts of Caroline Lucas and Barry Gardiner along with the other Political groups to make this a reality were prevented by the Conservatives and the DUP by blocking their clause. Tragically although all sixteen of our Sussex MPs voted on that occasion, the Conservative MPs all voted with the Government and in doing so prevented the clause that Caroline Lucas and many others had assembled to dramatically strengthen the new Act of Parliament and place more power in the hands of Glenys Stacey. As Rebecca Pow, the Minister in the debate made clear towards the end that the Government would oppose any change to their power to “issue guidance for the OEP. This is intended to address ambiguities relating to the OEP’s enforcement functions, and they are considered very important.” Caroline Lucas stated in response “That means that the Government will have a disproportionate impact on the OEP, which should be truly independent.” It is vital that all of our Sussex MPs are made aware of what a bad outcome last week’s debate achieved and thirteen of them need to be challenged for their votes.