A proposed amendment to the Environment Bill would give the government the power to direct the new green watchdog on its enforcement of environmental law. The amendment was tabled by the Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow, ahead of the Bill’s return to parliament for debate next week.
The Bill is intended to empower the government to introduce environmental legislation once the UK leaves the EU. To replace the role of the European Commission, it would to set up the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), a supposedly independent watchdog responsible for holding the government to account on its environmental commitments. However, the Minister’s amendment would provide Defra’s Secretary of State with the power to issue mandatory guidance on the OEP’s enforcement policy, including on its investigations into public authorities’ failures to comply with environmental law.
MPs were already concerned over the independence of the OEP when the Bill passed its second reading in February; a feature which environmental groups suggest is key to the government’s promise that Brexit will not reduce the UK’s environmental safeguards.
Weighing in on the amendments on twitter, Ruth Chambers of Greener UK said that changes were ‘only necessary if the government wants to control a body charged with holding it to account’ and provided a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the government.
(See NC24, at p.50, here: https://t.co/7wXBVhiP47)
— Greener UK (@GreenerUK_) October 21, 2020
Peter Jones, principal consultant at Eunomia, spoke to environment magazine Resource and said that ‘while the guidance could in principle be used to subvert the OEP, we can’t assume that this is its purpose. However, this type of concern could perhaps have been avoided if the OEP had been established on a different basis – for example, as an independent parliamentary body, like the National Audit Office, which is accountable to Parliament rather than to the Government.’
A further proposed amendment would only allow the OEP to bring ‘urgent cases’ for judicial review. To meet this threshold there would have to have been a serious failure on the part of the public authority to comply with environmental law.
These amendments come at a time when the government has already been criticised for seeking to evade its commitments in its attempts to exclude its actions from judicial scrutiny under the Internal Market Bill.