The UK Parliament confirmed this week that it will adopt the Speaker’s ‘hybrid solution’, allowing it to continue its business with some MPs physically in the building, and others conferencing into the chamber digitally.
As a result, the month-long hiatus on the Government’s Environment Bill and Agriculture Bill may soon be at an end, and the crucial development of these pieces of policy should proceed. Given how fundamental these will be to building the framework for the UK’s future relationship with the environment, the IES is taking the opportunity to take stock of the latest developments in Parliament and what they will mean for the Government’s environmental approach in the future.
What do we already know?
Though there will still be some ambiguity as the situation unfolds, we should expect to see Parliament increasingly returning to its normal activity, albeit through the use of digital technology. Plans are already clearly laid out for how ministerial questions and statements will take place, particularly with regard to scrutiny for the ongoing crisis. Meanwhile, some Select Committees, like the EFRA Committee, are already taking their own approach to meeting digitally, though there are still questions about when the legislative process will resume, and what form that will take.
Subject to the success of the hybrid system, it should extend to Parliament’s legislative work soon. In order for this to take place, Parliament will also need to approve the ability to vote remotely, though given that other Parliaments across the world, and the Welsh and Scottish legislatures within the UK, have already begun remote legislative activity, it seems likely that this will go ahead. What remains to be seen will be what level of scrutiny is involved, and how quickly Parliamentary business will be back on its usual timetable.
This is particularly important for the Environment Bill, which is currently under consideration by a committee of MPs scrutinising potential amendments, as well as the Agriculture Bill, which is due to be brought before the whole House of Commons for a third and final debate. Both Bills are at a crucial stage for scrutiny, so it will be important for Parliament to ensure that these new working conditions do not reduce the level of detail in which the Bills are examined.
Prior to the pause in Parliamentary business, the Public Bill Committee responsible for scrutinising the Environment Bill was preparing to consider more than 50 pages of amendments, many of which would have considerable implications for the scope of the legislation and its impacts on the environment.
The Committee was originally due to meet again this week on Tuesday and Thursday, but since Parliament adjourned last month, it became unclear if this would happen. Ultimately, it was not able to meet when the House of Commons returned. This now means five days of evidence meetings have been missed due to the situation with COVID-19, and there has been no further update about whether further meetings will be arranged to make up for the ones which have not been possible during the crisis.
Given the importance of the legislation, it will be crucial for Parliament and the Government to work together to ensure that there is no lapse in scrutiny as a result of the past month, and that Parliamentary time is well spent giving close consideration to all relevant evidence and amendments. If the Public Bill Committee still seeks to return the Environment Bill to the House of Commons for a final vote by early May, there will inevitably be a process of prioritisation which will leave out some of the discussion which would otherwise have taken place. That prioritisation decision will be a fundamental one, and its outcome could have wide-reaching implications for the effectiveness and scope of the Environment Bill.
What implications will this have for the bigger environmental picture?
While these delays will be the most immediate consequences of COVID-19 for the Environment and Agriculture Bills, it is also important to be aware of how the shift in governmental focus may have further-reaching repercussions for the Bills and the wider environmental policy landscape of which they are a part.
This week also saw the UK virtually resuming its negotiations with the EU, and the Government took the opportunity to highlight their intention to stick to the initial deadline of 31 December for concluding transitional arrangements. In order to ensure that there is no regulatory gap between leaving the European Union and UK environmental regulations taking over, the latter will need to be fully in place within the next eight months.
If the Environment Bill, Agriculture Bill, and Fisheries Bill are all put back on the Parliamentary agenda before the end of May, the Government should be fully able to accommodate time in its schedule to get both pieces of legislation into law before the end of the year. Whether it does so in practice will depend on how high a priority the Bills are for the Government, while it rightly focuses attention on the immediate crisis. The situation will become clearer as the Leader of the House of Commons sets out those priorities over the next few weeks. Even if the Bills are not in place, the Government may have the option to maintain regulations in the short-term by extending transitional arrangements or temporarily aligning regulations with the EU.
Beyond the deadlines for filling European regulatory gaps, pushing back the Bills may also have a knock-on effect on the target-setting process which will follow on from the Environment Bill. We should also expect the pandemic to affect these targets in other ways, as environmental data collection and processing over the course of 2020 continues to be interrupted.
However, without speculating about the future progression of the pandemic and the manner in which social distancing measures will continue, there will remain some unavoidable uncertainty throughout the next month or so about how these timeframes will be affected. The Government will need to ensure that regardless of any delays, it continues to seek regulatory continuity and robust target-setting as part of its strategy for the environment.
Implications for food and agriculture
The situation has also given us another reason to think about food sustainability, both locally and globally, and it is clear that Parliament is taking these considerations seriously as well. The EFRA Committee has already posted a public survey about experiences of food security during the crisis, so we should expect to hear more from the Committee in the coming months as its inquiry develops and forms part of the country’s approach to learning from the situation.
These concerns were also highlighted when the G20 held a special digital meeting for Agriculture Ministers on Tuesday, emphasising the role of agricultural products and trade in responding to the pandemic. Though the goals of the meeting were focused on the current situation, the consequences of the discussion may have lasting repercussions on future planning and the Government’s wider approach.
As always, it will be important for both the Government and the EFRA Committee to keep sight of the ways that food security connects to other environmental issues, with particular consequences for land use, agriculture, and the future of tree planting commitments. If they are going to make a success of this opportunity to scrutinise the ways that the country plans for the future, they will need to embrace a systems approach which reflects the collective experience of disciplines from across the environmental sciences.
Of course, central to this question will be the role of the Agriculture Bill, and particularly its obligation on the Secretary of State to consider the need to encourage food to be produced in England and for it to be produced in an environmentally sustainable way. This consideration of environmental sustainability will need to be careful, and will be fundamental to ensuring that any attempt to address future self-sufficiency will not come at the expense of environmental progress elsewhere.
There are many questions still left unanswered about how COVID-19 will affect the Government’s landmark legislation on the environment, and whether the Government will continue to make environmental issues a priority going forward. While the Government responds to the pandemic, it will be important to continue to reiterate how vital it is to address these issues from a systems approach, and to maintain sight of the progress on environmental issues which was promised at the start of the year.