MPs have questioned whether the government’s proposed Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will have the autonomy and power to hold ministers to account over environmental laws.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Defra undersecretary Therese Coffey faced questioning from the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee this morning on the OEP – which will replace the role of the European Commission in upholding environmental targets post-Brexit (see letsrecycle.com story).
Ministers were questioned on the funding for the new enforcement body, how its powers would relate to those of agencies including the Environment Agency and Natural England, as well as its powers in issuing advice and legal proceedings.
Mr Gove told the Committee that enforcement proceedings would be handled by the OEP in a similar manner to how they are currently administered by the European Commission, which can issue an opinion on avoiding potential infractions, before then pursuing potential legal action.
However, Dr Coffee later told the MPs that the OEP would not ‘rewrite policy’.
During the hearing, EFRA Committee chair Neil Parish, the Conservative MP for Tiverton told the ministers of his concern that the body, which will be established through the government’s Environment Bill, will be ‘far too heavy on local authorities and not heavy enough on government’.
He also questioned the powers it will have to take enforcement proceedings against government Departments if they fail to uphold legally binding environmental principles.
He said: “I am not convinced that an OEP will have the same teeth [as the European Commission], and that it will frighten our Department…”
Turning his question to the ministers, he asked: “Are you convinced that this OEP will be strong enough to take not just Defra on, but the whole of government?”
To this point Mr Gove replied: ‘absolutely’.
On the autonomy of the OEP, Mr Parish said: “We have got to be serious that there is a real concern from legal experts that it doesn’t need to be an arm’s length body from Defra. It would seen to be more independent and more powerful because of it.”
Former Labour shadow environment secretary Kerry McCarthy also put comments to the ministers issued by her Party today that Mr Gove has become the “minister for consultations”, as his Department has issued 76 during his time in office, compared to 16 in 11 months under his predecessor Andrea Leadsom.
Recent notable consultations include those on the Resources and Waste Strategy, which were launched last month (see letsrecycle.com story).
Mr Gove, responded: ”There is always a tension between acting as quickly as one can and following due process.
“The reason that there are a number of consultations is because we are acting and we are obliged to consult if we are making significant changes. Were I to make a change and not to have consulted there could be judicial review and that could become a much more protracted process.
He added: “Lots of consutlations are a sign of lots of activity.
“There aren’t many people who would say that since the time we have been at Defra that it has been a torpid backwater of government.”