DEFRA must ‘stop dragging its feet’ over environmental principles, say MPs

MPs have raised concerns over ministers rejecting elements of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP)’s advice on its environmental principles statement, adding that DEFRA must stop ‘dragging its feet’ over the implementation of the principles across Whitehall.

Big Ben. Image: Pixabay

In May, the government published its long-awaited environmental principles policy statement (EPPS), an environmental governance mechanism written into the Environment Act. It is intended to lay out just how environmental principles should be “interpreted and proportionately applied by ministers”, when making policy. 

When it was published, it was attacked as being a substantially weaker interpretation of the principles than that which underpinned environmental protections before Brexit, with green groups warning of a “downgrading” of the precautionary principle.

Today, the environmental audit committee (EAC) published its own report on the EPPS, which raises concerns that further delay to implementing the principles across government "will risk [them] being sidestepped by Whitehall rather than embraced". It also describes it as a “matter of some concern” to the committee that ministers rejected elements of the OEP’s advice to strengthen the draft principles in certain areas, such as the interpretation of the precautionary principle.

MORE: What has the precautionary principle ever done for us?

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“Given the OEP’s role in monitoring compliance with environmental law - including the duty on ministers to have due regard to the environmental principles policy statement, once it is commenced - we recommend that the government heed the OEP’s advice,” the report  reads. 

Commenting, EAC chairman, Philip Dunne MP, said: “The EPPS has been over four years in the making. The government must not continue to drag its feet over the implementation of this important element of the Environment Act.”

He added that championing environmental protection in the UK is a “major post-Brexit opportunity”, but that this potential win “risks being squandered while ministers figure out how the principles ought to be implemented in Whitehall”. 

“There is absolutely no reason, after such time has elapsed, for there to be any further delay in making the principles binding on policymakers.”

So far, the government has said that it intends to publish its final EPPS in autumn, after which an implementation period of “a few months” will be put in place to embed the principles across Whitehall. 

The EAC, along other parliamentary committees and some green NGOs, is calling for DEFRA to make this implementation period as short as possible. 

“Any delay in doing so will simply see the important principles, which parliament intended to be the foundation of environmental protection, being sidestepped rather than embraced,” said Dunne.

The EAC recommends that the draft EPPS be amended to “broaden the definition of the prevention principle to ensure urgent action to address environmental harm”, and calls for DEFRA to commit to a review, no later than 12 months after the final EPPS is issued, which would assess how the statement has operated in practice.

This review, says the EAC, should be accompanied by “worked examples” showing how the EPPS has been applied across Whitehall, including where it has been done so by statute, and where it has been adopted voluntarily, for example by those departments that are not obliged to show it due regard, such as the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury.

The committee also recommends that departments who are in a position to observe the EPPS on a voluntary basis should do so as soon as possible - and that DEFRA should lead the way on this. 

A DEFRA spokesperson said: “Our environmental principles will ensure we put the environment at the heart of the government’s work across Whitehall. We are committed to publishing the final statement in autumn this year.”