Debate on environmental issues has been stifled in the run-up the general election leaving voters in the dark , opposition parties have claimed, as a result of the Lobbying Act and government determination to avoid criticism over problems such as air pollution.
Green groups have privately raised concern, along with other charities, over the impact of the law, and now have the support of all major parties apart from the Conservatives.
Key environmental concerns, from climate change to green spaces, waste and renewable energy, have received little attention in a campaign dominated by immigration, Brexit, the economy and national security.
However, the next parliament is expected to face a series of tough choices on green policies that will shape the UK’s natural environment and role in combating global problems for decades to come. These include measures on air pollution, protecting habitats and wildlife, reducing carbon dioxide emissions, subsidising farmers, and building new homes.
Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow trade secretary, slammed green groups for failing to take on the Conservative government. “Some very august organisations should be ashamed of the way they ducked out of the referendum debate because of fear of the Lobbying Act,” he told the Greener UK Hustings, organised by a group of 13 environmental organisations including the Green Alliance, RSPB and the Woodland Trust, on Tuesday night.
Gardiner accused unnamed green groups of failing to “stand up for the environment”, and so contributing to the decision to withdraw from the EU, which he said would be disastrous for environmental protections.
He called for the urgent repeal of the act, which requires civil society organisations and business lobbyists to register and restricts their activities in the run-up to polling day. “It makes it impossible for people [in civil society groups] to tell the truth, but it does not stop Shell [and other big companies] – it stops environmental NGOs from doing what they were set up to do,” he said.
Soon after the election was called, Greenpeace revealed it was fined in an “act of civil disobedience” for refusing to be regulated under the Lobbying Act. Senior figures in other charities concerned with social welfare have also told the Guardian they have felt unable to speak out on policies they fear will be disastrous for disadvantaged and vulnerable people.
Caroline Russell, the Green party candidate challenging Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the Islington North constituency, agreed that the Lobbying Act should go. “It is a pernicious piece of legislation,” she told the Guardian. “It has the potential to be very, very damaging to democratic debate, and it is really scary.”
She said green issues were a vital concern to millions of voters, citing air pollution, flooding, waste disposal, climate change, green spaces and fuel poverty as problems that were frequently raised on doorsteps.
Baroness Parminter, Liberal Democrat environment spokeswoman, also called for “review and reform” of the Lobbying Act. The legislation was passed under the coalition government with the support of the LibDems, but it had not been intended to prevent debate, she said.
“It is always a struggle to get green issues on the election agenda, but the Lobbying Act has made it very difficult. It had a pernicious effect on the referendum, and is now having a chilling effect on the election. Look at air pollution – the government has been desperate to keep that out of people’s minds. Democratic debate is not happening and the government itself is stifling it,” said Parminter.
Clive Anderson, the broadcaster and president of the Woodland Trust, who chaired the event, told the Guardian: “If NGOs feel that they can’t debate during elections, and raise issues, then that is a bad thing. Big companies can get the ear of government but individual people need NGO groups to represent their views.”
Therese Coffey, minister for the department of environment, food and rural affairs, who is seeking re-election in the safe Conservative seat of Suffolk Coastal, said the government was committed to environmental protection, and pledged that safeguards and regulations under EU law would be transposed to the UK’s statute books in the Brexit legislative reforms.
She said the government, if re-elected, would seek to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, encourage greener transport. She called for protecting and improving the environment to be seen as cross-party issues: “We want to leave the environment in the state we inherited it, and we are making good progress, and we want to keep making progress. This does not need to be a partisan issue – we can all work together.”
The future of the Paris agreement on climate change, of which the UK has been a strong supporter, has also been called into question as US president Donald Trump on Wednesday promised an imminent decision on withdrawing from it. Gardiner challenged Theresa May to tackle Trump on the issue, noting that the prime minister was the only G7 leader to have failed publicly to urge the White House to support the Paris pact.