26 January 2021
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown tables amendments to the Environment Bill

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown introduces an amendment to the Environment Bill which would constrain the Bill's precautionary principle, which states that preventive action should be taken to avert environmental damage, so that is only applies to risks that are more than hypothetical in nature and serious and irreversible.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con) [V]

I will speak to my amendment 4. The precautionary principle is a whole new way for the Government to legislate on environmental matters which can be applied to a huge range of environmental principles. It could be used in the extreme—for example, to introduce policies such as stopping people from driving motor cars on the basis that they damage the environment. In an increasingly legislative field, my amendment is so important in ensuring that the Government can clearly define the purposes for use of the precautionary principle, beyond those in the mere principles statements outlined in clauses 16 to 18.

The Minister said in a letter to me this morning: “I can confirm that Ministers of the Crown are only required to have due regard to the policy statement when making policy by virtue of clause 18(1). The environmental principles duty is not designed to apply to individual decisions or other public bodies.” In other words, the statement of principles is pretty nearly toothless.

My amendment would clearly constrain when and where the precautionary principle can be used. I ask the Minister, when she sums up, to go further than just going into the principles; I ask her to include some of my amendment in the Bill. A particularly important part is subsection (3C), which says:

“The precautionary principle should only apply in response to risks that are…more than hypothetical in nature; and…serious and irreversible.”

I cannot see any reason at all why that should not be in the Bill. If the Minister is not inclined to include it, I hope that their lordships will pick it up when the Bill goes to the House of Lords.

The precautionary principle is not consistently applied to different activity; it is frequently used to constrain certain activities where any impacts are deemed to be unacceptable. For example, Natural England is currently seeking to restrict game shooting around European protected sites. Due to evidence of damage in only five—a mere 1.5% of all sites—it wants to introduce a licensing system.

In summing up, can the Minister please bear in mind all the constraints that are in my amendments? Otherwise, this principle could well become oppressive to people’s freedom in the future, and we may well rue the day that we put the provision in the Bill. I am looking to the Minister to tell me why some or all of my constraints cannot be included in the Bill, because that is where they should be. The statement of principles, as written in the Bill, is pretty nearly toothless, and the precautionary principle gives the Minister, or any future Minister, a huge overwhelming power, which we may well live to regret.