Environment Bill: The 10 government defeats in the Lords

The Environment Bill returned to parliament this week with the government having faced defeat on some key amendments, including on the governance of the Office for Environmental Protection and legally binding environmental targets. Here’s what you need to know.

The Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Gerard McAuliffe/Getty Images

1. Amendments to remove the power for ministers in England and Northern Ireland to provide guidance to the OEP

Despite cross-party support for a group of amendments which would reduce ministerial influence over the new green watchdog’s budget, appointments and decision-making, Lord Goldsmith argued that the government was “confident that our current position will set the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) up to be genuinely independent and effective”.

However, peers remained unconvinced, going on to pass the amendments 180 to 151 votes. 

Debating ahead of the vote, Lord Krebs (crossbench) said: “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.

2. Strengthening of the OEP’s enforcement system

Writing in The Times yesterday ahead of the debate, peers said that this amendment would “remove barriers to the High Court enforcing the environmental duties of central and local government”.

Arguing for his amendment, Lord Anderson said: “The OEP is stepping into the shoes of the European Commission, which was not hamstrung by time limits but which could still seek meaningful remedies from the European court. One wonders why our own courts should be barred from granting meaningful remedies to the OEP”.

Environmental minister Lord Goldsmith failed to persuade peers against voting for the amendment, and it was passed by 10 votes, 153 to 143.

3. Legally binding interim targets

Speaking in favour of the amendment, which would see interim targets for 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”. 

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.

4. Recognising the nature and climate emergency

On Monday, Lord Teverson (Liberal Democrat) successfully argued for a requirement for the government to make a formal declaration of biodiversity and climate emergency, both domestic and globally, to draw all of the Environment Bill’s themes together.

In the debate, he said that UN secretary general António Guterres’ description of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report as a “code red for humanity”, was an “absolutely accurate declaration”. 

Lord Goldsmith failed to convince the house otherwise, and the amendment was approved by 209 votes to 179.

5. A more ambitious approach on targets to tackle air pollution

Baroness Sue Hayman (Labour) brought an amendment which makes a direct instruction for the government to adopt a target on fine particulate (PM2.5) pollution that is “less than or equal to” the WHO’s guideline level of ten micrograms per cubic metre as an annual mean, “with an attainment deadline of 2030 at the latest”.

Although repeatedly mentioning the guideline in papers such as the Clean Air Strategy, the government has also repeatedly avoided a firm commitment to adopting it.

The chamber voted to approve the amendment by 181 votes to 159.

6. Making soil health a priority 

The government faced another defeat on Monday on Baroness Bennett’s (Green) amendment to include soil health as a priority for setting targets. 

Lord Goldsmith argued that if the government committed in the bill to setting a target by 2022, “without the reliable metrics needed to set a target, and then measure its progress, we could be committing to doing something that ultimately we cannot deliver or might not even know whether we have delivered it”.

Arguing back, Baroness Bennett said that making soils “a second-order issue” was to put it in “profoundly the wrong place”.

The chamber agreed with her, and the result came in at 209 to 166.

7. Exemptions for Treasury and Ministry of Defence voted down 

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 (MOD), 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 billI. 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.

8. Water industry to take ‘all reasonable steps’ to stop storm overflows

The Lords backed an amendment put forward by crossbencher the Duke of Wellington to intended to halt discharges of untreated sewage into rivers.

It would require sewerage undertakers to “demonstrate improvements in the sewerage systems and progressive reductions in the harm caused by untreated sewage discharges”. Both DEFRA and the Environment Agency would also be obliged to “exercise their respective functions… to secure compliance with this duty”.

Wellington said its purpose was to “try to eliminate, not simply reduce, the harm caused to the environment and individual and public health by the discharge of untreated sewage into rivers, and to ensure that the various agencies use their powers of enforcement”. An earlier private member’s bill from Philip Dunne, the chair of the Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee, had a similar aim.

The amendment was passed by 184 votes to 147.

9. ‘Throwaway society’ amendment backed

Labour’s environment frontbencher Baroness Maggie Jones and crossbencher Viscount Colville sought to allow regulations to be made to impose charges for all forms of single-use products, not just plastics as the government had proposed.

“Our amendment would make it clear that a new charging regime should be for all single-use materials, not just plastic. It would ensure that single-use plastics are not simply replaced with other single-use materials that also cause environmental damage,” said Jones, adding that the “simple but important amendment… goes to the heart of the throwaway culture”. The change had been backed by the Aldersgate Group and the Green Alliance.

Despite Goldsmith defending the government’s efforts to reduce the use of single-use products, and the view of former Conservative minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe that the amendment “goes too far”, the Lords endorsed the amendment by 203 votes to 167.

10. ‘Gap’ in pollinator rules for pesticides plugged

Baroness Joan Bakewell’s amendment aimed “to fix a gap in the pesticide authorisation process which currently omits any assessment on the long-term effects of pesticides on honey bees and omits any assessment of the effects on wild pollinators,” she said. It would prevent any pesticide product, active ingredient, safener or synergist from authorisation unless “no significant short-term negative effect, and no long-term negative effect” on the species is demonstrated, with a risk assessment drawn up and published by independent experts who are “free from vested interests in pesticide use”.

Goldsmith replied that the amendment was superfluous as, “Current legislation requires that pesticide products and their active substances have ‘no unacceptable effects on the environment, having particular regard to … its impact on non-target species,’ which includes impacts on bees and other important pollinators.”

The amendment was passed by 189 votes to 177.