The creation of the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which will replace the European Commission’s oversight, has been mired by controversy after the government said it will be part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
The organisation is being set up as part of the delayed Environment Bill, which will introduce wide-ranging environmental reforms in the UK and replace many EU laws and structures.
The government has insisted the OEP will be independent, but experts have said it will have its board decided by Defra ministers, its budget set by the government, and the extent of its oversight also set by government.
As the Environment Bill is scrutinised at its committee stage in the House of Lords, peers have subjected the OEP’s placement in Defra to a barrage of criticism.
Speaking in parliament, independent crossbencher Lord Cameron of Dillington said: “The OEP will be at the centre of our country’s new environmental future post-Brexit.
“We all have great hopes and expectations for it – some, I suspect, possibly too high. But within all our ambitions to secure a cleaner, more sustainable and more biodiverse future, I cannot stress how important it is that we get the OEP right – and at the moment it looks as though it will be a mere tool of the very body it should be overseeing.”
He added: “My main point is that the OEP must not only always be independent of Defra, but it must be seen to be independent of Defra, and at the moment it is neither. I find that very worrying.”
Leading Oxford University scientist and former chairman of the Food Standards Agency, Lord Krebs, shared these concerns.
He said: “The government promised us a strong and independent OEP and... many of us feel that we have been short-changed.”
Independent crossbencher Lord Hope of Craighead, a former deputy president of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, stressed the need for the new body to be fully independent of the government, just as the European Commission has been.
He said: “The independence of the Office for Environmental Protection is crucial if it is to have public confidence.”
Tory former Commons deputy speaker Lord Framlingham said: “I speak to support the view that the Office of Environmental Protection must not only have teeth but must be totally independent from all strands of government.
“Independence is, in a way, self-explanatory and a good thing in itself, but it is even more important to spell out that it must be independent of government when the judgments it will have to make may well be on cases in which a government department is involved.”
Labour former environment minister Lord Whitty said: “We want a truly independent body on the environment to face up to the immense challenge of climate change and biodiversity diminution. This is not it.”
Sharing his concerns about the OEP, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oates said: “It has no strong enforcement powers, its members will be appointed, and its budget set, by the government.
“It will be subject to the guidance from the Secretary of State on enforcement – the Secretary of State who should be subject to that enforcement – and its effectiveness will be undermined by the constraints placed on judicial enforcement.”
Labour frontbencher Lady Jones of Whitchurch said: “Without guaranteed independence, the threat of political interference will always hang over the OEP and the organisation.”
Responding, environment minister Lord Goldsmith of Richmond defended the arrangements as set out in the bill.
He said: “I reiterate our commitment to delivering an independent body to hold government and other bodies to account.
“The OEP will be established as a non-departmental public body, and we believe that this is the best model to achieve a balance of independence, value for money and accountability.”
He added: “The bill grants the Secretary of State no power to interfere in the OEP’s decision-making on specific or individual cases. The Secretary of State cannot tell the OEP what to do in a way that undermines its discretion and obligation to reach its own decisions.”
The Lords’ warnings come after expert lawyers said the structure of the OEP could fundamentally undermine the rule of law and lead to worse protections for the environment than previously.
Additional reporting by PA.