The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) argued on Thursday (28 July) that there is no reason for any further delay to the roll-out of the Government’s Environmental Principles, which are intended to be binding on policymakers across many areas of central government.
The Government has been designing its environmental principles for over four years. Now that the requirement on policymakers to observe environmental principles has been enacted in the Environment Act 2021, there is concern that further delay in implementation will risk principles being sidestepped by Whitehall rather than embraced.
EAC is calling for rapid finalisation and implementation of the policy statement presented to Parliament in May 2022. The Government must deliver on its ambition for the policy statement to be finalised and embedded across government policymaking, as Parliament intended, not later than the autumn of 2022.
However, for this to happen, the new Government formed by the incoming Prime Minister must get a rapid grip on implementation. The UK was previously obliged to follow environmental principles in the EU Treaties, and is still bound by a number of international agreements on environmental protection. Brexit offered a significant opportunity to shape the implementation of environmental principles to domestic circumstances while maintaining a high level of protection for wildlife and the environment. For example, finalising the environmental principles policy statement presents an opportunity for Ministers to give substantive effect to the polluter pays principle when making policy for England.
Environmental Audit Committee chairman, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said:
“The environmental principles policy statement has been over four years in the making. The Government must not continue to drag its feet over the implementation of this important element of the Environment Act. It is a major post-Brexit opportunity, to champion environmental protection at home. Yet this potential win from Brexit risks being squandered while Ministers figure out how the principles ought to be implemented in Whitehall. There is absolutely no reason, after such time has elapsed, for there to be any further delay in making the principles binding on policymakers.
“The Committee calls for the rapid implementation of the Environmental Principles across Whitehall policymaking this Autumn. Any delay in doing so will simply see the important principles, which Parliament intended to be the foundation of environmental protection, being sidestepped rather than embraced.
“I look forward to the timely publication of the new Government’s finalised policy statement and the swift commencement of the statutory duty on policymakers to observe them. The Committee stands ready to examine how the principles have been implemented in practice once they have been in operation for 12 months.”
In June 2022 the Environment Secretary told the Committee that the Government wished to depart from the European Commission’s implementation of environmental principles in the Treaties. However, there is little detail about how the Government plans to implement the new statutory duty on policymakers in practice. EAC’s examination of the draft policy statement has identified significant gaps between the Government’s apparent aspirations and the expectations of many engaged in environmental protection.
Once the principles have been issued, and the statutory duty on policymakers to observe them has been commenced, EAC is calling on Ministers to commit to a review of their implementation by the autumn of 2023 to understand how the principles are being implemented in practice. Ministers should submit worked examples to the review across a range of government departments and policy areas, including at least one policy area—such as defence or taxation—where the statutory requirement does not apply but policymakers are observing the principles voluntarily.
EAC is concerned that the Government has rejected the Office for Environmental Protection’s (OEP) advice to strengthen the draft principles in certain areas, for instance in the interpretation of the precautionary principle. In its advice to Ministers, the OEP raised concerns that the draft policy statement suggested a narrow approach to applying the precautionary principle. EAC has recommended that Ministers heed the OEP’s advice in full. Specifically, EAC calls on the Government to strengthen its implementation of the prevention principle, by advising policymakers to apply preventative measures “without delay and as soon as possible” where environmental harm is already occurring.