Environment Bill: Peers vote to strengthen green watchdog and enforcement

Peers in the House of Lords voted last night to return the Environment Bill to the Commons with three amendments that would strengthen provisions relating to the Office for Environmental Protection, enforcement and raw sewage pollution in rivers.

The amendments will now be debated in the House of Commons The amendments will now be debated in the House of Commons

The bill is undergoing ping pong between the two houses as a result of the strength of feeling over issues such as the new green watchdog’s independence and the need to tackle water pollution. 

The government’s first defeat was over an amendment tabled by Lord Krebs who took issue with clause 24 of the bill, allowing the secretary of state wide-ranging powers to issue guidance to the OEP, including whether a failure to comply with the law is serious and how it exercises its enforcement functions.

Krebs’ amendment rewrites the clause to ensure the OEP has complete discretion in relation to its enforcement policy and in preparing its budget, bringing it in line with the Office for Budget Responsibility and the National Audit Office. Peers voted for the amendment by 223 votes to 172.

A related amendment allowing the OEP greater freedom to devise enforcement remedies for non compliance with environmental law was also voted through by 207 votes to 172.

Responding to the results, Ruth Chambers from the Greener UK coalition said: “Yesterday’s votes showed that this issue is not settled. The green watchdog will be vital for holding ministers and public authorities to account over enforcing laws that protect nature and public health. Peers share the view that current proposals are insufficient – and that ministers must now come back with suitable compromises. 

“It would be a brilliant boost ahead of COP if the government were to allow the courts to do their job and reduce ministerial interference in this vital new body.” 

The third defeat was over the Duke of Wellington’s amendment that would place a duty on “sewerage undertakers to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows into inland and coastal waters”.

The government said it could not support the amendment but would table its own in lieu of the Duke of Wellington’s that would place a direct legal duty on water companies to progressively reduce the impacts of sewage pollution from storm overflows. However, the peers were not persuaded and voted for the Wellington amendment by 216 votes to 60.

Amendments that did not succeed despite vigorous debate included a requirement on the government to set a target for soil quality and a motion to bring the government’s air quality targets in line with World Health Organisation guidelines, which have recently been tightened. 

Speaking in the chamber yesterday, environment minister Lord Zac Goldsmith said that “before setting targets, we need to understand what reductions are possible, the scale of measures required to achieve them and the impact and burdens that would be placed on society. 

“Members of the public will want, and deserve, to understand the specific health benefits and then we can decide upon the fundamental changes that would be required. So we will hold a public consultation on these targets early next year. Once we have carefully considered the responses to the consultation, we will bring forward the final, statutory targets by October 2022. That is a legally required date that we cannot and will not miss.”

On soil quality, the minister said it was not possible to set a target for soil health as the data on which it would be based did not exist but he added that DEFRA was undertaking work to understand the current state of soils and that a soil health plan was being devised.