Ministers under pressure to show hand on environment

30th November 2022


The government is under severe pressure over its handling of post-Brexit legislation, environmental targets and land management following three separate interventions by influential bodies.

The Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) and the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) have both sharply criticised the government’s approach and demanded that ministers take action. The Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee is also pressing ministers to publish more information about a new farm subsidy scheme.

The EAC has written to Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey demanding that she immediately publish long-term targets for air quality, water and biodiversity under the Environment Bill, and tackle her department’s “culture of delay”. MPs also want clarity on the government’s Chemicals Strategy, Environmental Principles Policy Statement and National Action Plan for Pesticides. Defra has failed to meet the 31 October statutory deadline to confirm nature targets that are included under the Environment Bill, which received Royal Assent in November 2021.

“The committee is increasingly concerned to note delays in substantive policy progress at Defra in crucial areas where the government now has control of policy,” said EAC chair Philip Dunne. “The country is facing grave challenges as we look to reverse the decline of our precious biodiversity. Prompt, clear and decisive action is now of the utmost importance.”

MPs want the targets to be published ahead of December’s COP15 biodiversity summit, which will discuss a global biodiversity treaty.

The OEP is demanding that ministers introduce a safety net for environmental protection as the government reviews laws post-Brexit. In its submission to the Commons Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill Committee, it warns that “rushing” this review could damage environmental regulation and targets. The Bill, which had its first reading in September, aims to end the status of all retained EU law by 31 December 2023; the OEP wants this deadline to be extended.

“If done well, this review could make environmental law better, but done badly, or rushed unduly, it could compound environmental problems and create new uncertainties and burdens,” said OEP chair Dame Glenys Stacey. “Rushed lawmaking is not conducive to addressing environmental problems that are difficult, complex, interconnected and long-term. It runs the risk of undermining the UK government’s own environmental ambitions and international standing.

“Hundreds of environmental laws could be revoked or amended under the Bill. These laws are critical to solving pressing challenges such as nature depletion and the quality of air and water and marine environments.

“Worryingly, the Bill does not offer any safety net; there is no requirement to maintain existing levels of environmental protection.”

Meanwhile, Efra chair Sir Robert Goodwill criticised the government’s lack of detail on the future shape of the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, its criteria for payments or the level of funding farmers can expect. ELM is replacing EU farm subsidies based on the Basic Payment Scheme; farmers will be paid for providing public goods such as hedgerows that encourage biodiversity and support environmental and climate change objectives.

“If ELM is well managed and the payment rates are increased it would be a step forward, but this will only happen if farmers are given certainty over the future of farm funding,” Sir Robert said. “However, these new schemes can’t do everything. The government also needs to set out what support it’s going to provide above and beyond ELM to help farmers cope with a crisis in rising costs.

“This is urgent. Farmers are facing inflation of between 20% and 35% on the essentials they need to produce food and look after our land.”

Image credit | Shutterstock

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