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Environment 'at risk' as watchdog won't be ready

Delays to the Environment Bill could see UK enter legal limbo
22 October 2020 , Katie Coyne

We are on the brink of losing our environmental protections at the end of the transition period due to continued delays to the Environment Bill, the Labour Party has warned. 

Legislative limbo is predicted if the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) is not established by 1 January 2021 under the Environment Bill, as we will no longer have recourse to the European Commission.  

Without the new OEP, once we finally sever ties with Europe there will be no higher body able to hold public authorities to account. And given the timescales involved, it seems “impossible” that the new OEP will be set up in time, Labour has warned. 

The Environment Bill was due back to the House of Commons imminently, but the [EDIT deadline for detailed scrutiny] has been put back to 1 December 2020. The ambitious legislation is aimed at addressing a whole swathe of issues from biodiversity and climate change to packaging and waste infrastructure.  

Shadow environment minister Daniel Zeichner said: “It is extraordinary because it's going to take many, many hours of discussion in committee and we're in mid-October. And the world shuts down – the world is pretty much shut down anyway – but the world shuts down in eight weeks [for Christmas].  

“That is not a lot of time to get complicated environmental legislation through two chambers of parliament. And even when they've done that, they've still got to use the legislation to set up the new OEP. They've got a long, long way to go. This should have all been sorted out months and months ago.” 

Zeichner said the attitude from the UK government was that complaints could be banked up and dealt with in time once the OEP was finally set up.  

“That doesn’t sound like a very foolproof response,” he said, “and this raises a whole series of legal questions for people as to what happens in the first part of next year”.  

The Cambridge MP is also concerned the government may attempt to rush the bill through but warned that proper scrutiny was necessary, particularly when it involves complicated legislation around issues like chemical regulation, biodiversity and nature that are currently in EU law.  

Zeichner also argued that the “deeply unpopular” Planning White Paper has caused “fundamental” problems and is holding up the progress of the Environment Bill. This is because, he said, there is an incompatibility between having a zoning system to encourage house building and the Environment Bill’s proposal to calculate on an almost site-by-site basis how to compensate for environmental loss. “How on earth do you do that?” he said. 

“This is entirely the fault of the government that said it was oven-ready, and that it was going to be really simple and easy. But of course, it isn’t. It’s really, really complicated and difficult. But it’s their fault and they need to sort it out.” 

Zeichner added: “All the Environment Bill is now is a desperate rush to try and sort out the mess they've created by leaving the European Union in the way that we're doing.  

“The positive bits have now got scuppered by the other daft proposals. I mean, they're a government in shambles, frankly.  

“But the problem is for those of us who are concerned about environmental protection is that we're going to be in this kind of very difficult area of law where it's not at all clear what the situation is.” 

Labour, alongside a coalition of charities and campaign groups, is also highly critical of the UK government’s refusal to enshrine environmental protection into the Agriculture Bill.  

The government has repeatedly said food, environment and animal welfare standards will not be undermined by any future trade deals, but campaigners are concerned that without legislative protections, governments could change their minds further down the road.  

On 12 October, the House of Commons returned all of the House of Lords’ amendments protecting standards and a so-called ‘ping-pong battle’ between the houses has commenced.  

Further rebellion is expected when an amendment – not heard on 12 October due to a technicality – is returned to the Commons. It aims to give teeth to the Trade and Agriculture Commission and ensure that any future trade deals have to be voted through by parliament.  

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