Houses of Parliament, Westminster drone shot

UK’s flagship climate bill not ready before COP26

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The UK’s key environmental legislation, the Environmental Bill, will not complete its passage through Parliament and receive royal assent before the COP26 climate talks begin in Glasgow.

Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg confirmed that amendments made by the House of Lords to the legislation will be brought before MPs on 8 November. By this point, the COP26 conference will already have completed its first week.

The passage of the Environment Bill has not been perfectly smooth, due to a wider public backlash; bilateral parliamentary criticism, and a government U-turn regarding regulations against dumping raw sewage into waterways.

The House of Lords has backed by 213 to 60 (majority 153) an amendment to place a statutory duty on water companies to “take all reasonable steps” to prevent raw sewage leakage into the environment. The upper chamber has also taken on the government over steps to ensure the independence of the new environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, and backed motions to strengthen courts to enforce public authorities’ compliance with environmental law.

The bill is now headed back to the Commons, where the government is expected to put forward its own amendment imposing the legal duty on water firms to “secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows”.

Only once agreement between the two houses has been reached, and the bill has completed its final passage through Parliament, can the bill be brought to the Queen for royal assent and thus pass into law.

Shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard criticised the government for flip-flopping over the issue, which he argued undermines the UK’s credibility as a world leader in climate action ahead of COP26.

“Days from COP26, I must tell the minister, the episode with raw sewage has not done Britain’s reputation going into that conference any good. Whipping [the government’s] own MPs to vote against an amendment to end the routine discharge of raw sewage does nothing to build confidence, and has sparked a public outcry, and rightly so,” said Pollard, addressing environment minister Rebecca Pow. “Raw sewage has been routinely discharged, today, right now and every single day throughout COP26.

“When the minister talks about progressive reductions, can she say how much raw sewage will be progressively reduced, each and every year, and, importantly, when will this disgusting practice come to an end?”

Pow insisted there have been many “untruths” over the sewage proposals and told the Commons: “I thank [Pollard] for that, but I do want to make it very clear that, actually, a lot of what we heard in this social media storm has been whipped up and there are many untruths flying around.”

Pow then misspoke, confusing the Duke of Wellington (the crossbench peer who tabled the amendment to the Environment Bill) with the late Duke of Edinburgh.

The minister said: “The amendment, as it was worded by the Duke of Edinburgh… excuse me, I’ll correct that right now, the Duke of Wellington, of course, with whom I have had many meetings, that would have legally binded ministers to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from overflows, eliminating them. That would have involved the complete separation of the sewer system and we have now data which is, I believe, going to be published today, which would show that could actually cost £600bn, between £300 and £600bn. We have to be mindful about that.

“But he asked when will these things start happening? They are happening already; £3bn is already being spent by the water companies to stop sewage going into our rivers. The measures in the Bill will further add to that.”

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