Environment secretary Theresa Villiers has said the new Environment Bill gives more teeth to a proposed green watchdog. Photograph: Steve Taylor/Getty Images Environment secretary Theresa Villiers has said the new Environment Bill gives more teeth to a proposed green watchdog. Photograph: Steve Taylor/Getty Images

Environment Bill: Villiers defends green watchdog plans after MPs’ criticism

Environment secretary Theresa Villiers has sought to allay fears that the government’s post-Brexit green watchdog lacks independence, as part of DEFRA’s response to parliamentary scrutiny of the Environment Bill.

Villiers has said that the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), the body that would scrutinise the environmental performance of public bodies after Brexit, has been given extra safeguards on its independence in the newly published Environment Bill.

In a letter to Environmental Audit Committee chair Mary Creagh, she notes the bill includes “a new statutory obligation on the secretary of state, in exercising functions in respect of the OEP, to have regard to the need to protect the OEP’s independence”. 

In addition, the watchdog’s five year indicative budget is “formally ring-fenced by HM Treasury within any spending budget”, while the government has amended a section of the bill to ensure that the OEP “must act objectively and impartially, replacing the previous duty that the OEP must just ‘have regard to the need’ to act in this way,” Villiers says. 

However, Creagh has expressed concern that the environment secretary would still have the power to appoint the OEP’s chair and its members. 

In a letter to Villiers, she urges the government “to consider strengthening the links between the OEP and parliament to enhance the independence of the body”, pointing to “the governance model provided by the Public Accounts Commission and the National Audit Office”. 

But DEFRA has ruled out such a change. “Establishing the OEP as an emanation of parliament is not necessary for the OEP to be independent from government,” it notes in a response to EAC’s recommendations, published today. Instead, the watchdog will have a status similar to the Environment Agency and Natural England as a non-departmental public body. 

The EAC was also concerned by the bill’s sections on environmental principles and binding targets.

The government has noted that decisions on tax and spending are only exempted from “having due regard to” a policy statement on environmental principles for “resources within government”, and has removed an earlier clause that gave the environment secretary the power to add further exemptions. 

However, it refused to remove an exemption for land managed by the Ministry of Defence, as requested by the EAC, on the basis that the ministry has its own sustainability policies. 

The second reading of the Environment Bill will be held in the House of Commons on Monday. 

Read the full EAC report with DEFRA’s responses here.

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