Today marks 200 days since the Environment Bill was last seen in parliament. The delays to this ‘landmark’ bill are holding back the government’s attempts at meeting its environmental ambitions and are set to leave a significant gap in the UK’s ability to enforce environmental law.
The passage of the Environment Bill through parliament was paused on Thursday 19 March due to the coronavirus pandemic. At the time this decision was understandable and appropriate, but as parliamentary business resumed in the summer we expected to see a bill ministers described as a ‘flagship’ return quickly.
A number of bills – including those on immigration, trade, pensions and the Commonwealth Games – have been brought back and progressed. The Environment Bill, by contrast, has not been seen. The government has extended its timetable three times, and the latest change pushes back the deadline for detailed scrutiny in the House of Commons until 1 December.
After that stage is concluded, the bill must again be debated by MPs and peers – a process expected to take several months. It is a considerable and complex piece of legislation, and only a small part of it has undergone pre-legislative scrutiny.
Why this matters
The bill is the fulcrum of the government’s ambitions to deliver the most ambitious environmental programme on earth. It will lay the foundations for a nature recovery network, introduce a framework for legally binding targets and establish a new domestic environmental governance system following EU exit.
This governance system includes a new independent environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, and a free to use system for citizens to lodge complaints about potential breaches of environmental law so that these can be considered and, where necessary, enforced by the new watchdog.
If the Environment Bill is not passed by 31 December, and the relevant provisions commenced, there will be a gap in legal enforcement and complaints will not be progressed until the new watchdog is up and running. The length of potential delay is not known.
Ruth Chambers of the Greener UK coalition says:
“The prime minister has said that we can’t afford 'dither and delay' when faced with nature loss, but the Environment Bill has now been missing for 200 days. Without it, the government’s environment programme is stuck and protections are at risk. Ministers need to get on with it and bring back the bill.”