Eustice defends OEP independence

The environment secretary has dismissed the idea that the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) would not be able to act independently, and said that the government “needs more time and space” on creating a specific target on species abundance.

In an evidence session for the Committee of Environment and Climate this morning George Eustice said that the OEP already has “far more powers than the Climate Change Committee does”. While acknowledging that “there’s been some debate around the provision for there to be guidance issued” by government to the body, he said that this wording “only mirrors a similar provision that was in the Climate Change Act” relating to the Climate Change Committee (CCC). 

He added that the OEP has the ability to bring environmental reviews and “in extreme cases to bring judicial review proceedings against government bodies”, saying that there is no such provision in the CCC. 

The secretary of state was also questioned on the contested wording of the species abundance target in the Environment Bill, where he defended what some green groups have termed more of a “loose encouragement” to halt species decline rather than a firm target.

He said: “The easiest thing would be to name the number as this is going through parliament [...] unfortunately we’re not quite at that stage yet, we need to do a bit more work.” 

He added that what the government is doing with the species target amendment is “creating space” to go on to work out what exactly the target should be. 

Eustice went on to add that he is “very passionate” about the target, saying he and Lord Goldsmith, minister for the environment, are “serious” about it, but that there is “complexity” around the issue. “We need some more time and space to do that”, he said.  

He also said that deciding on the exact target itself is more of a “technical judgement”, rather than a legal one, pointing out that the Environment Bill is a legal text. 

Eustice was also questioned on the exemption currently granted to the Treasury and Ministry of Defence (MoD) in the Environment Bill on the bill’s environmental principles, to which he said that just because they are exempt it would not mean “they won’t behave in a way which isn’t conducive to the environment”. 

On the suggestion that this be clarified better in the bill, Eustice responded by comparing the Environment Bill to the Climate Change Act, saying that “once you have those legally binding targets and the framework the Treasury takes that incredibly seriously”. 

Asked about what biodiversity measures the government would be pushing for at COP15 this October, Eustice confirmed it would be pushing for “a general commitment to curb biodiversity loss by 2030”, a specific target to halt decline of wildlife populations by 2030, and then an increase by 2050. He also added that it would be pushing for “something specific about extinctions”. 

He also confirmed that he had asked his officials to investigate the story reported recently that online giant Amazon is destroying millions of items of unsold stock from one of its UK warehouses every year. He said he has asked his officials to consider whether “there’s a need for a change to the law”.

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