The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year. But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.
So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.
13. Environment Bill
This eight-part Bill covers environmental plans and targets; the Office for Environmental Protection, and environmental protection more broadly; waste and resource efficiency, air quality, products, water, biodiversity, conservation covenants and chemical regulation.
In addition to the Bill documents and impact assessment, there are separate documents on: environmental targets (two of these); environmental governance (factsheet), air quality (factsheet), water (factsheet), nature and conservation covenants and an Interim Environmental Governance Secretariat.
The Department of the Environment. So George Eustice, as Secretary of State, is in charge overall, and Lord Goldsmith has taken the Bill through the Lords.
In the Commons, Eustice opened for the Govenment in the Second Reading debate, and Rebecca Pow, the Under-Secretary of State, led in commitee.
Carried over or a new Bill?
Neither awaiting introduction, nor currently under consideration, but awaiting Royal Assent.
This is a mix of a post-Brexit Bill, a new measures Bill and a tidying-up Bill – intended, so the Government says, to “put the environment at the centre of policy making. It will make sure that we have a cleaner, greener and more resilient country for the next generation”.
Ministers are able to claim that the the Second Reading of the Bill in both the Commons and Lords demonstrated its merits – because on neither occasion was either House divided against it. “This is an okay Bill, but by no means the groundbreaking legislation we have been promised,” Labour’s spokesman, Luke Pollard, said in the Commons.
Never mind the quality, feel the amendments. Eight major Government ones in the Commons; seven in the Lords – and a mass of ones from the Opposition which were duly fell into the ambit of ping-pong. This mass of changes from the Government effectively concede the case made at the start by Pollard: “not quite there”.
“The Government has proposed a number of amendments,” DEFA announced in May. “It has strengthed its commitment to protect the Environment,” it declared in August. DEFRA proclaimed further improvements in October. Their critics would say not that Ministers were listening to advice, but that they didn’t know where they were going.
This Bill must be seen alongside Net Zero, COP26 and the three animal-related Bills in the Queen’s Speech as part of the Government’s push to gain more environmental ground. The give-and-take during its course – allowing ministers to introduce charges on all single-use items, not just plastics, for example, is all part of this manoevering.
However, Bills as big as this one offer hostages to fortune. For example, the Government’s opposition to Philip Dunne’s Commons amendment on sewage morphed into social media claims that Ministers were deliberately encouraging the pumping of raw sewage into water. The Government had to back off.
Controversy rating 7/10
The potential upside is that Ministers’ green message may reach voters directly. The downside is that the publicity harm done by a blunder, like the one over sewage, can outreach the publicity gain. And the measures themselves? The good in them must be traded off against any adverse effects on consumers and producers.