The Environment Bill completed its third reading in the Lords yesterday, and will now return to the House of Commons where MPs will consider the multiple amendments made to the bill by members of the upper chamber.
In what was a short reading, peers acknowledged how far the bill had come since it arrived in the Lords for scrutiny earlier this year, with Baroness Jones saying that “the bill we had originally was a terrible bill and that is why we so heavily amended it - it is quite unusual to amend a bill to this extent”.
However, many peers issued veiled warnings that if the bill is to be passed before COP26 in November, MPs must not “unnecessarily delete” the Lords’ amendments.
Lord Cormack said: “It would be a great pity if in a fortnight, on the virtual eve of the conference, we began to indulge in a battle between the two Houses”.
Responding, environment minister Lord Goldsmith said that he could give no guarantee that “we will avoid ping-pong” - the term used to refer to the to and fro of amendments to bills between the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
“I encourage everyone to get their best bats, just in case,” the minister quipped.
Although the third reading of a bill is not a stage for debate, some peers took the opportunity to hammer home their disquiet over certain areas of the bill, including the “extent of the Henry VIII powers that it contains” - a reference to wording in the bill which gives ministers an exemption from its environmental principles.
‘Henry VIII clauses’ enable ministers to amend or repeal provisions even after a bill has passed into law, shifting power away from Parliament and towards the executive.
Lord Marlesford warned that the government must not be tempted to make announcements of targets “to help COP26 on its way which are unachievable for reasons of politics in a democracy or the realities of economic life”.
Goldsmith responded that although that was not the government’s intention, “there are some things, no matter how difficult, that simply have to be done”.
He said that the government’s recently introduced legally binding target to halt the decline of biodiversity by 2030 was one of these things, adding that “there is no possible justification for not making that commitment in law, and although we do not know all the steps we will have to take to achieve it, we know that it will be extraordinarily difficult and that it has to be done”.
The Environment Bill will return to the House of Commons on Wednesday 20 October.