Government must fix huge flaws in the Environment Bill
Empty words that the government has promised to protect food and animal welfare standards so there's no need to write it into law are not going to hack it.
On Monday the House of Lords begins its consideration of the deeply defective Environment Bill. It really says something about the collapsed state of the UK constitution that the unelected House is the chief means by which the many flaws and gaps in this crucial Bill can be tackled.
My inbox is full of calls for amendments and last Friday was packed with video calls, addressing practical details that might be possible to fix or at least ameliorate, such as the inadequacy of rules around the long-delayed bottle deposit scheme, the funding and degree of independence of the Office of Environmental Protection and a guarantee of at least monitoring of the widely acknowledged dangers of antimicrobial resistance.
Other calls were about the huge structural flaws in the Bill.
We owe a huge debt to the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law for setting out so clearly the huge issue with this Bill, that it “undermines the principle of legality with a presumption that unlawful acts by a public authority are valid”. Combine that with the Queen’s Speech outline of a Bill to curtail judicial review and the dangerous situation we face without the legal backstop of European law is obvious.
Where the shit hits the fan could hardly be a more appropriate phrase for this Bill
Another monumental failure of the Bill is to grasp that the protection of human rights and the environment are integrally related. When it comes to forest-related products - in fact all products - companies should have due diligence obligations matching up to those of the Bribery Act. That was a rare case where the UK lived up - in 2010 - to the government’s favourite description “world-leading”. This lack - when many other parts of Europe are making great strides - we may not be able to fix, although we might be able to make some progress. We can at least get into Hansard (and hopefully public consciousness) the disastrous weaknesses of the government’s plans, and their inadequate responses to challenges about them.
It is 25 years since the last major Environment Act, which established the Environment Agency, a body that in the past decade has been eviscerated by austerity and exposed as weak and ineffective. That was the year the New York Times marked the 25th Earth Day by noting that optimists hoped that the worst was over “and a green and healthy future lies ahead”.
How wrong they were. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere was 360 parts per million. It is now above 410. There were around 40% fewer vertebrate animals on the planet than in 1995. The losses now total more than 60%.
The State of Nature report, ranking the UK 187th in the world for its environmental outcomes, shows how Britain has been at the head of the failures. Much of the UK is a green desert of industrial monocultures, including, tragically our national parks, and particularly our first national park, the Peak District.
In the debates over the Agriculture Act and the Trade Act, we heard again and again in response to proposed amendments that “the proper place for this is the Environment Bill”. I’m not sure if “where the shit hits the fan” comes under the classification of parliamentary language, but there could hardly be a more appropriate phrase for this Bill.
If these many issues are not covered in the Environment Bill, then the government is - undeniably - planning to sweep them under the carpet. But they’re unlikely to stay there, as the furore over the proposed Australian free trade deal has demonstrated. Empty words suggesting “the government has said they’re going to do this (e.g. protect food and animal welfare standards) so we don’t need to write it into law” are not going to hack it.
There’s a good chance the House of Lords is going to stand up and be counted on this and many other issues in the Bill. Then some Tory MPs in the Other Place are going to be facing very hard questions from their constituents about why the government is failing to protect the environment in which we live and, particularly for farmers, the businesses on which the foundations of many local economies are built.
Baroness Bennett is a Green Party member of the House of Lords.