Environment Bill: Government defeated on OEP and interim target amendments

The government was defeated on four big ticket amendments to the Environment Bill yesterday, including on those which seek to reduce ministerial influence over the new green watchdog, and in relation to making interim targets legally binding.

Environment minister Zac Goldsmith. Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images

Debating ahead of the vote on the amendments which would remove the power for ministers in England and Northern Ireland to provide guidance to the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), Lord Krebs (crossbench) said: “If we must get one thing right in this bill, it is the OEP”. 

“At the moment, the arrangement is rather like having a whistleblower who is told by the boss which areas he or she is not allowed to investigate. That is simply unacceptable. Unfortunately, we seem to be involved in a dialogue of the deaf,” he told the house. 

Despite cross-party support for the amendments, environment minister Lord Goldsmith argued that the government was “confident that our current position will set the OEP up to be genuinely independent and effective” - but peers were unconvinced, going on to pass the amendments 180 to 151 votes. 

A further vote was taken on an amendment seeking to strengthen the OEP’s enforcement system, which also passed by 10 votes, 153 to 143.

Speaking in favour of an amendment which would see interim targets on nature, air, water and waste become legally binding, Lord Deben (Conservative), who is also chair of the Climate Change Committee, said that interim targets in the Climate Change Act  had ensured “no government could put off the actions they had to take until a more convenient time arose”. He continued that he had been surprised by Lord Goldsmith’s response during a previous debate “that somehow everything that is true about the Climate Change Act does not count in the Environment Bill”.

Lord Deben said: “He does not believe that because he is a great supporter of the Climate Change Act... I fear that this is the result of some apparatchik somewhere who does not want anybody to be held to anything.”

In the minister’s response, he said that the government could not accept the amendment because keeping the interim targets as non-binding “allows us to set a clear trajectory towards our long-term ambitions while allowing us flexibility to innovate and respond to new evidence”.

Nonetheless, the amendment passed by 203 to 181 votes.

In a fourth blow to the government, peers narrowly voted through an amendment which removes an exemption in the bill for large parts of government, including the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence , from taking into account environmental principles in policy making. 

Although Lord Goldsmith said he understood where the motivation behind the amendment came from, he said the government’s view remains that “exempting some limited areas from the duty to have due regard provides vital flexibility in relation to finances, defence, and national security”.

Unconvinced, Baroness Parminter (Liberal Democrat) argued back that the MoD “is obliged to take the requirements of the Climate Change Act into consideration; it should have to do the same for this bilI. It is not right that the government is not prepared to do this”, she said. 

The amendment was passed by just two votes, 184 to 182.

The House of Lords’ report stage debate and voting will continue next Monday.