MPs say environmental protections under threat after Brexit

Draft Tory plans are "not equivalent to the current environmental protections provided by membership of the EU."

Last December, the government published its draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill – setting out how the Tories plan to maintain environmental standards as we leave the European Union.

But a new report from the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee says that while we’ve heard a lot of promises about how environmental protections will be maintained after Brexit – the government’s bill doesn’t match the rhetoric.

The report – which draws on evidence from environmental groups – states:

“The overwhelming narrative from the evidence to our inquiry is that the draft Bill’s provisions for principles and governance are not equivalent to the current environmental protections provided by membership of the EU.

“In some areas they mark a significant regression on current standards. Although the government has made a real attempt to establish a robust framework for our future environmental governance, it still has some way to go to match its ambition ‘to ensure the environment is even better protected in future’.”

Campaigners had previously criticised the government’s planned Office for Environmental Protection as ‘toothless’. Now it looks like MPs are backing that warning.

The Committee calls for six key changes that ministers must make if the rhetoric is to be met by reality:

  • Set out a clear overarching objective for the UK’s future environmental governance and to ensure that environmental principles do not lose the legal status and priority they currently possess in European law.
  • Ensure that Ministers and all relevant public authorities must act in accordance with environmental principles, rather than the weaker duty proposed in the draft Bill that Ministers must “have regard to” environmental principles [as the bill currently states].
  • Strengthen the Office for Environmental Protection’s independence from Government by ensuring all decisions relating to the membership of its board require the consent of our Committee, and by committing to a multi-annual budgetary framework in the Bill.
  • Sharpen the teeth of the Office for Environmental Protection’s proposed enforcement powers by providing it with further compliance tools beyond review in the courts and empowering it to issue emergency and interim measures in urgent cases of environmental harm.
  • Provide the Office for Environmental Protection with the necessary powers to enforce Government targets and objectives relating to Climate Change to ensure there is no governance gap after we leave the EU

Professor Charlotte Burns, who leads the Brexit and Environment research team at the University of Sheffield, went further:

“This Bill cannot guarantee the UK won’t fall behind the EU on environmental standards.

“It excludes taxation, spending or the allocation of resources, despite evidence that successful environmental policies often hinge on decisions in these areas, and while it pays lip service to the principle of co-designing policy with the devolved nations, there is no concrete detail on how and when this will happen.

“It’s crucial that ministers commit to a wider goal of securing a high level of environmental protection after Brexit, and the Bill must enshrine important environmental principles like the polluter pays and the precautionary principle in law.

“Climate change is conspicuous by its absence in the Bill, so ministers must take a more inclusive approach and increase the independence of the planned Environmental Protection Office.”  

Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.

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