The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee held a hearing yesterday (July 7) to review the progress made so far in establishing the Office for the protection of the environment (OEP).
Dame Glenys Stacey, President-designate of the OEP, appeared as a witness, alongside Natalie Prosser, CEO-designate of the organization.
The all-party group of MPs, which approved the election of Dame Glenys as president-elect in December 2020, took advantage of the hearing to review the progress made so far in establishing the organization.
Much of the hearing focused on the OEP’s ability to hold the government to account for the implementation of environmental policy in England and to deal with complaints from members of the public regarding violations of environmental law in England.
Last week, the OEP was launched on an interim, non-statutory basis, with the body to be formally established in the fall, once the environmental bill receives royal assent.
The body is designed to provide independent oversight of the government’s environmental progress, as outlined in the 25-year Environmental Bill.
The interim OEP will be able to perform a number of functions, including producing and publishing an independent assessment of the government’s progress in implementing its 25-year environmental bill; develop an independent enforcement policy; and receive complaints from members of the public regarding the failure of public authorities to comply with environmental legislation.
The OEP will act “without fear or favor,” says Dame Glenys
Both committees reiterated their concerns about the independence of the OEP, but Dame Glenys Stacey and Natalie Prosser underlined their confidence in the capacities of the newly created body.
Stacey said she “deeply respects” the debate on the independence of the OEP, but has “no doubt” that the body will act independently “without fear or favor.”
The environmental bill states that the government should seek “expert advice” on environmental legislation, with Dame Glenys expecting the OEP to be contacted accordingly. She said that while it was up to parliament and government to define the constitutional provisions of the OEP, she expected to be consulted on the matter.
The OEP, according to Dame Glenys, wants to see alignment between the government’s 25-year environmental plan, the environmental bill, and its environmental principles and goals, adding that the organization is keen to push for a level of ambition during his meeting with the Secretary of State.
Witnesses were further pressed to recruit non-executive directors to the board.
Dame Glenys said she had been consulted extensively on the recruitment process, noting that although the Secretary of State had the final say, she had made her position clear.
She added that she had “absolute confidence” that the board was the best that could have been selected, praising the diversity of her experiences.
Natalie Prosser said the OEP would be “completely independent” from government, both front and back office.
Some limited services, she said, will be purchased from Defra, but the organization will be “functionally independent” for “everything that matters.”
It was revealed during the hearing that the OEP had already received 19 complaints, more than half of which concerned nature conservation.
Dame Glenys, however, said she expects the nature of complaints to change dramatically once the body is officially invested, envisioning complaints will become more detailed in their structure.
She added that the current complaints are not sufficient in number to be representative, Prosser also pointing out that only three complaints really fell within the competence of the OEP.
Both committees pressed witnesses on the enforcement issue, referring to recent performance by the Environment Agency (EA), which they say has “fallen off a cliff” in pursuing violations. environmental law.
When asked if the OEP would be ‘different’, Stacey said the issue of applying EA was a good example of how the newly created body needs to ‘think smart’ about its approach. . She emphasized her desire to take a âthematicâ investigative approach, asking âwhyâ situations arise and looking at the issue in a broader perspective.
According to Dame Glenys, the OEP would like to know more about how EA finances and prioritizes its activities, and understand the central issues it is grappling with.
She highlighted the enforcement powers of the OEP as set out in the draft environmental law, which the agency “may well” use against the EA.
Prosser added that enforcement is an “essential part” of his role as the designated Director General of the OEP, stressing the agency’s intentions to use its enforcement powers “as quickly as it can put the mechanisms in place to do so, “drawing on her experience as a law enforcement specialist.
OEP ‘is not afraid to speak out’
Witnesses were asked what the OEP’s recourse would be in the event that government ministers fail to follow advice, Dame Glenys emphasizing her experience in influencing ministers in response.
She added that the OEP has certain statutory powers, including the ability to point out problems in reports and to take legal action against the government for gross violations of environmental law.
The OEP, said Dame Glenys, is “not afraid to speak out” and is, in fact, more afraid “not to speak out”.
Witnesses were pressed to know if the OEP would speak out on environmental issues not addressed by the government’s targets, with Dame Glenys saying the body would not wait for the targets (which are due to be released in September 2022) to be established before speaking.
She pointed out that she had spoken publicly in interviews and events before, and that she had spoken to the government. Once officially invested, she said, the OEP would have “many opportunities” to hold the government to account using the body’s statutory powers.
Highlighting the OEP’s plans for an independent communications team and a press office, she told committees that the body would be “in charge” of its own voice, with the board agreeing over the next few months to “how that voice will sound”.
Natalie Prosser added that the OEP is currently making choices about when and how the organization will speak out and intervene on environmental issues.
Independent body or “toothless regulator”?
Proposals for the creation of the OEP were presented in 2019, described at the time by former Environment Secretary Michael Gove as a “sub-optimal” solution to bridge the gap in environmental governance created by a No-deal Brexit.
Gove stressed that the OEP would be able “to exercise full independence as a non-ministerial public body”, but the configuration of the organization has been a matter of doubt for many.
In October 2019, the EAC questioned the independence of the OEP.
The chair and members of the body have been proposed for selection by the Secretary of State, a matter of particular concern to the EAC in light of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, with the OEP set to replace the supervisory and enforcement powers of the European Commission.
Concerns were raised again in February 2020, with Anna McMorrin, Labor MP for Cardiff North, questioning: ‘Where is her independence to hold governments to account and what the consequences will be if the government does not meet goals ? It will be a toothless regulator with less power than the European Commission. “
Luke Pollard, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, said: âThe new regulator does not have real independence from government .
âHe has no legal power to hold the government to account as it needs to. Approving its chairman through a government-led select committee, in which the government has a majority, is not enough. “
In October 2020, an amendment to the Environmental Bill was announced, giving the Secretary of State of Defra the power to overturn the OEP’s enforcement policy, including inquiries into how a “Public authority may have failed to comply with environmental law”.
The amendment prompted another setback from critics, with Ruth Chambers of Greener UK, a coalition of 13 leading environmental organizations, commenting: “These changes are only necessary if the government wants to control a body charged with holding it to account.”
âThey are providing the government with a free prison release card to keep the watchdog away from awkward or inconvenient cases, completely undermining claims that he will be independent.
âThis is a clear and simple weakening of environmental protection. Our nature, the quality of the air and water are even more threatened. We urge ministers to reconsider their decision.
In December, it was announced that the OEP would be chaired by Dame Glenys Stacey, a decision supported by the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
Both committees, however, continued to reiterate their concerns about the independence of the OEP, calling on Dame Glenys to publicly convey to select committees any concerns about government interference in the OEP.