OEP will ‘lack the power it needs’ unless government accepts amendments, warn peers

A cross-party group of peers has published a letter urging the government to accept “crucial” amendments to the Environment Bill concerning the new green watchdog, as debate recommences today in the House of Lords.

The letter, published in The Times today, comes as peers get ready to debate and vote on amendments including those regarding the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) in the House of Lords this afternoon. 

“Plans for the new OEP reach a welcome milestone today, as the Environment Bill continues its final stages in the Lords,” reads the letter. “Yet without a few late changes the new body will lack the powers and independence it needs to hold ministers and public authorities to account.”

The letter, signed by Lord Krebs (crossbench), Lord Anderson (crossbench), Lord Duncan (Conservative), Baroness Jones (Labour), Baroness Parminter (Liberal Democrat), and Reverend Dr Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, urges the government to accept “several crucial cross-party amendments”. These include one which would “reduce undue ministerial influence over the body’s budget, appointments and decision-making”, and another which the peers write would “remove barriers to the High Court enforcing the environmental duties of central and local government”.

The letter ends by saying that accepting these amendments “would show that a government with global ambitions was committing itself to enhancing nature and the quality of the environment at home” ahead of COP26.

On Monday the government got off to a bumpy start as the Environment Bill entered report stage in the House of Lords. Amendments to declare a biodiversity and climate emergency, and to adopt new targets on soil health and air quality were all passed by peers, despite government opposition.

Today the house is set to vote on the tabled amendments to the OEP, which as well as the ones referenced by the peers in their letter, include amendments seeking to shore up the watchdog’s independence in Northern Ireland. 

Green groups are also calling for the government to heed peers’ amendments on the OEP, with Ruth Chambers from NGO coalition group Greener UK saying without improvements the bill “will lack the durable and independent governance framework needed to realise [the government’s] ambitions”. 

With more than 100 amendments published by peers, Monday’s debate lasted late into the night, leading to calls for some “discipline”. 

Commenting on social media, Lord Anderson - one the co-signers to today’s letter to The Times - wrote: “Discipline is needed! Turnouts so far have been low, and it is in no one’s interest for Wednesday’s important debates on OEP independence and enforcement powers to be crepuscular or even nocturnal.”

Following today’s debate session, peers will have two more next week, after which parliamentary recess will resume ahead of party conference season.