MPs have lambasted the Government’s draft Environment Bill for proposing a toothless watchdog after the UK leaves the EU.
The Environmental Audit Committee’s scrutiny of the Bill found it was inadequate, incoherent and had irrational exemptions from its provisions for certain Whitehall departments.
An Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) would be created by the Bill to supervise legislation that now falls to the EU.
But the committee said in its report Scrutiny of the Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill that the environmental principles which guide EU legislation and policy had been “severely downgraded” in the draft, while enforcement of climate change mitigation has been “purposefully excluded” from the OEP.
Committee chair, Labour MP Mary Creagh, said: “The Government promised to create a new body for governance that would go beyond standards set by the EU. The Bill, so far, falls woefully short of this vision.
“Far from creating a body which is independent, free to criticise the Government and hold it to account, this Bill would reduce action to meet environmental standards to a tick-box exercise, limit scrutiny and pass the buck for environmental failings to local authorities.”
MPs complained that a legal requirement for policy and all public bodies to seek to ensure a high level of environmental protection – and a presumption that environmental protection would not be reduced after leaving the EU – had been omitted from the Bill, and the Government had ignored an earlier call from the committee to require that all public bodies act in accordance with its principles.
They also expressed alarm that the OEP would lack independence since the Government would control its budget and appoint its chair.
OEP enforcement powers under the Bill would be limited to administrative compliance rather than achieving environmental standards, and its scope for acting against public bodies was “very tightly drawn”.
The committee also objected to plans to exclude from the OEP’s powers policies relating to the armed forces, defence or national security, taxation, spending or the allocation of resources within the Government.
A Defra spokesperson said: “We are grateful to the Environmental Audit Committee for its oversight of the draft clauses of our forthcoming Environment Bill.
“The Bill is the most ambitious in a generation, putting environmental ambition and accountability at the heart of Government. We welcome the publication of this report and will respond in due course having carefully considered the committee’s recommendations.”
A separate inquiry by MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs committee has voiced similar concerns in its report to those of the environmental audit committee over the lack of powers proposed for the OEP.
Its chair, Conservative MP Neil Parish MP said: “Although the Government has made a real attempt to establish a robust framework for environmental governance, the draft Bill clearly fails to meet its own ambition to ‘ensure the environment is even better protected in future’ as we exit the EU.
“In some areas it actually marks a significant regression on current standards.”
Parish said there would be no purpose in creating the OEP if it was unable to hold the Government to account.
“The new watchdog must not solely be a creature of Government but needs real independence,” he said.
He said Parliament – rather than ministers – needed a role in all decisions on membership of the OEP’s board and funding and that it should have “sharper enforcement teeth”.