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Queen’s speech: twelve words to watch for

The environment sector is expected four major bills to be announced in the Queen’s Speech on 14 October: the Environment Bill; the Agriculture Bill; the Fisheries Bill; and the Animal Sentience Bill.

October 2019

Together, these bills have a huge amount to cover, harking back and looking forward. They must look back to ensure that protection provided by the European Court, Commission and Treaties are not lost if we leave the European Union. They must look forward to redouble efforts to tackle the twin environmental emergencies of climate change and species loss.

We already know much about the bills: two have been introduced in draft, two have been introduced in Parliament. In each bill, there were critical shortcomings that must be addressed to match EU standards and to take a step forward. So, simply promising that the bills will return would be a pallid pledge for a Queen’s speech. After all, there was no obligation to end the current Parliamentary Session and cause them to fall.

On the other hand, nor would it be reasonable to expect the Queen’s speech to set out great detail. These set-piece Parliamentary moments rarely have words to spare. So, as Mr Johnson prepares his advice to the Queen, and as all political parties prepare their manifestos in case there is a snap General Election, I hope they will find just twelve words to show their mettle:

“Legally-binding targets”: Today’s State of Nature report, which finds a quarter of species at risk of extinction, is another chapter in a long tale of relentless decline. The Environment Bill has a huge task to accomplish if it is to enable environmental improvement. Whether the bill is equal to that task will depend on the strength of the legal duty attached to targets for air, water, waste and wildlife. Simply setting goals is not enough. There must be a clear legally-enforceable duty to achieve long-term improvement. Those three words will determine the credibility of the whole bill.

“Sufficient public money”: The Agriculture Bill introduced the excellent concept of “public money for public goods”. Unfortunately, the current bill includes no obligation to maintain a scheme to pay for environmental land management nor any indication of how much money should be spent. Analysis by Link members suggests that farming funding in the order of £3billion a year will be needed to deliver just the UK’s existing environmental commitments. Additional funding will be needed to fully restore nature to a healthy state and deliver Government’s other ambitions of enhanced public access and animal welfare. When the bill returns, it should include a duty to assess the scale of need for investment in public environmental assets (just as government would for major infrastructure) and to provide funding accordingly.

“Restore our oceans”: The Fisheries Bill is weak. The EU Common Fisheries Policy includes an obligation to set Total Allowable Catch (fishing limits) in accordance with the principle of “maximum sustainable yield” to prevent over-fishing. The Fisheries Bill relegates that duty to a policy statement and the duty to abide by that statement is fatally qualified by the phrase “unless relevant considerations indicate otherwise”. Meanwhile, fish like mackerel and north sea cod are once again at risk. The bill should be refashioned with a new objective at its heart, replacing the current “MSY-lite” objective with a clear aim to restore our marine environment.

“All sentient animals”: The European Treaties include a duty on Member States to pay full regard to the welfare of animals as sentient beings. In UK law, sentience is only recognised for a subset of domestic and farmed animals. When the Sentience Bill is introduced it should cover all sentient animals, including lobsters, crabs, squid and octopuses. The recognition of sentience should be accompanied by a duty to ensure that new regulations respect that sentience, through expert advice, animal welfare impact appraisal and ethical review.

When the bills are published, there will be lots of detail to work through to ensure they can achieve our environmental and animal welfare aspirations. For now, I hope manifesto writers, the Secretary of State, and the Queen’s advisers will find room for these twelve words to show that their green rhetoric can be relied upon.

Dr Richard Benwell, Chief Executive, Wildlife and Countryside Link

Follow @RSBenwell and @WCL_News

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.