A group of agricultural lawyers has warned farmers cannot have any confidence in the ‘green watchdog’ being set up by Defra Secretary Michael Gove because it lacks independence.
The Agricultural Law Association (ALA) made its concerns known to the Government in its response to the draft Environment Bill.
This Bill will establish the watchdog, called the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which is supposed to replace the European Commission in holding the Government to account on environmental issues.
Mike Holland, consultant and adviser at the ALA, said: “As an independent body, the OEP will be giving advice on proposed changes to environmental law, but under the current wording of the draft Bill, the Minister will not be required to present this advice to Parliament, which has the real possibility of limiting the scrutiny of any future changes.
“Environmental law has a direct effect on land use and management. For the agricultural industry to have confidence in the OEP it absolutely must be transparent, open and independent, and for that to be the case it must report directly to Parliament.”
Mr Holland also raised concerns about how the Environment Bill would ‘dovetail’ with the Agriculture Bill, particularly with regard to regulatory baselines which will apply to the post-Brexit public money for public goods scheme.
“It is vitally important that the contents of the proposed Environment Bill reflect the direction of Government policy contained in Defra’s Health and Harmony consultation in 2018,” he said.
“While baseline data will be used to measure the success of environmental schemes, it is not clear how the data will be collected or used, or how those baselines will be established.
“It is fundamental to the agriculture sector that the Government is clear on the evaluation methods that will be used and supported at farm level.”
Other legal experts giving evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee raised similar concerns about a lack of independence during pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill last Wednesday (January 30).
David Wolfe QC, from Matrix Chambers, told the committee Ministers should not have the power to appoint the body’s chair or members.
“What is the need to have the Secretary of State involved in any of the appointments?” Mr Wolfe asked.
“There are plenty of other ways of appointing people. If it was to be truly independent, there should not be more than Government advisory input.”
Mr Wolfe also suggested if Government had the power to set the watchdog’s budget, Ministers could use ‘soft hints’ about cutting future funding to influence its decisions.