Government risks legal action if it misses environment target deadline, baroness warns

The government risks being taken to court if it does not set out its targets for the Environment Act by the end of this month, warned Baroness Jones of Whitchurch at the House of Lords on Tuesday.

Under the Environment Act, the government has a legally binding deadline to publish a set of environmental targets by the end of this month.

DEFRA under secretary of state Lord Richard Benyon told the Lords that the government is committed to its goals under the Environment Act, saying it “will not undermine [its] obligations to the environment in pursuit of growth”.

However, Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch highlighted that the targets to achieve the goals set out in the Act are not yet set.

She not only reminded the Lords that this is “unlawful and risks the government being taken to court” but added: “It also makes a mockery of all those months of hard work we put into debating the environment bill because without the targets we have no way of measuring the progress that the government is making on the bills implementation.”

“So is this another sign that the government are backtracking on their environmental commitments, as quite frankly, was becoming all too clear under the previous prime minister who sneered at the broad coalition of environmentalists?” she asked.

In response, Benyon first highlighted that he had sat on the board for “several NGOs” before taking on his role and would not “sneer at any environmentalists”.

He said: “I mind desperately that we continue to be a leading country in how we protect this environment.”

In terms of the delay to setting the targets, he added that the consultation on these targets had received 180,000 responses “which have taken some time to go through” and said they would ensure to “honour those commitments”.  

The targets have seen criticism during the consultation period. In March, when the public consultation on the targets was first published, ENDS reported that green groups saw the proposed new goals as a “step backward from the existing ambitions”.

After the uproar, DEFRA extended the consultation deadline to 27 June. The targets also saw another hitch, when in July the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) said the government’s flagship long-term target to increase England’s species abundance “does not appear to be lawful” under the Environment Act.