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  • by Trevor Loveday

Government snubs calls for greater power for proposed green watchdog

The government has swerved calls from opposition and government benches to step up the powers of an environmental watchdog proposed in the Environment Bill to include powers to fine public authorities.

Environment secretary, Theresa Villiers (pictured), last week said; the watchdog – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – will “scrutinise environmental policy and law, investigate complaints and take enforcement action against public authorities, if necessary, to uphold our environmental standards,” but there were no amendments to the Bill to introduce powers to fine.

Villiers was speaking during the government’s re introduction of its Environment Bill last week after it fell at the second reading stage in October last year under General Election rules.

Defra had cast the OEP as the successor to European Union enforcement in upholding environmental law. But during Bill’s second reading there was widespread Parliamentary criticism arguing that it could not fulfil that role without the power to fine public authorities.

Speaking at the October reading, Conservative MP and now chairman elect of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, Neil Parish, said of the OEP: “This new watchdog might need to be given sharper teeth than is proposed. There are already better models, such as the Office for Budget Responsibility.” Labour and other parties called for the OEP to be granted the power to fine public bodies as the European Union could. And they called for greater Parliamentary say in appointments to the OEP.

Environment minister Rebecca Pow described those criticisms as “ongoing speculation that the Bill will weaken environmental protections currently provided by the European Union,” and added: “However, we are very clear this is not the case.”

“We have no intention of weakening our current environmental protections as we leave the EU,” Pow added.

Villiers said the Bill will establish a “world-leading environmental watchdog to hold [government] to account.” Defra’s account is more guarded. It said the OEP “will take a proportionate approach to managing compliance issues relating to environmental law.” In the event a public authority’s failure to implement environmental law Defra said “the new body will engage with public authorities to reach a solution. Legal proceedings will only be taken as a last resort or in truly urgent cases.”

Defra said the Bill will include a new commitment to use “the biggest developments in environmental legislation from around the world” when it considers the UK’s environmental plans. “By freeing ourselves from future changes to EU law we will be able to lead the way at home and abroad to deliver global environmental change,” Defra claimed.

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