Good news from the crisis front, although I’m afraid not the one we’re all thinking of: the government’s Agriculture Bill, which sets out its major post-Brexit agricultural policy, has recently passed committee stage and will soon (coronavirus permitting) be presented to the House of Lords. It shows ambition from the government to develop a post-Brexit agriculture policy with laudable commitments to harnessing the power of farmers to help address the climate crisis, and helps to address issues such as food security. Along with the Environment Bill, discussed here, it constitutes some of the core legislation aimed at achieving the government’s Net Zero by 2050 goal.
The government’s haunting refrain, since their 2018 ‘Health and Harmony’ consultation on post-Brexit agricultural policy, has been “public money for public goods”. The bill puts this into practice by giving the secretary of state power to dismantle the subsidy schemes of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and replace it with the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). Under this scheme, farmers will be awarded for specific activities with ‘public goods’: good practices that further environmental goals in areas such as biodiversity and soil health that the market does not sufficiently incentivise.
On 26th February, parliament held its second reading of the government’s revised Environment Bill 2020, setting out its agenda for environmental reform and governance post-Brexit. It would provide the secretary of state with powers to create new regulations on air quality, water usage, waste disposal and resource management, biodiversity, and environmental risk from chemical contamination, and would create a new non-departmental public body, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), as an environment watchdog. The government describes it as the most “radical” environmental legislation to date, and sees the bill as paramount to ensuring both its 25 Year Environment Plan and its Net Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050 goal.
The bill faced criticism both from parliament and from environmental groups. Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major environmental organisation, has said that as it stands, the bill “[would] not achieve what is has promised”, criticising it for lacking ambition and including no legal requirements for the government to prevent backsliding on EU environmental regulation. MPs, both Conservative and Labour, specifically criticised the lack of ambition in air quality. Others criticised the proposed structure of the OEP as being insufficiently independent of the government to match the ambitions of the bill to create “a world-leading environmental watchdog that can robustly hold the Government to account”.
The Bill in Brief
The bill, as it stands, is divided into eight sections, which can be grouped into three major areas: giving the secretary of state the power to amend regulations in areas of environmental concern, legally enshrining biodiversity targets, and creating an environmental watchdog called the Office of Environmental Protection. All three are intimately tied to Brexit, with the government intending to use the bill to “transform our environmental governance once we leave the EU”.
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