Government suffers damaging defeat in Lords over Withdrawal Bill amendments
The House of Lords has demanded the government bring in added environmental protections and worker's rights after Brexit, as part of a rebellion in Parliament last night that delivered a bruising blow to the government's Brexit plans.
The upper house approved two amendments to the government's Withdrawal Bill - the first to require the government to explore the option of a post-Brexit customs union with the EU, and the second to ensure additional environmental and labour protections.
The vote on the customs union was won by a huge margin - more than 100 votes - and although not seen by the government as legally binding, could spell trouble for the UK's plan to exit the single market and customs union after March 2019.
It is the official policy of the Labour Party for the UK to be part of "a customs unions" with the EU after Brexit, and speculation is mounting that the government could face a rebellion in the elected Commons chamber over the issue.
"Theresa May must now listen to the growing chorus of voices who are urging her to drop her redline on a customs union and rethink her approach," Labour's shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer warned.
Meanwhile the amendment on stronger protections - amendment 314/217 - was approved with a majority of 97 votes, including 14 Tory peers. It says that after Brexit ministers should not be allowed to amend retained EU law in certain areas, particularly environmental matters, unless by primary legislation.
It comes in response to fears that ministers could re-write environmental law in the UK without scrutiny from Parliament. Writing for BusinessGreen just before Easter, cross-bench peer Lord Krebs warned that in its original form the Withdrawal Billl "omits key elements of the body of EU environmental law which are needed to ensure future protection. It also fails to deliver the necessary arrangements to ensure that the public can effectively hold the government to account."
Meanwhile in February the Environmental Policy Forum - which represents a range of environmental membership bodies, including IEMA, the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, and the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management - raised concerns over the level of Parliamentary scrutiny green rules changes will be subject to.
During the debate yesterday Lady Hayter, a shadow Brexit minister, argued the amendment 314/217 would help Theresa May fulfil her government's promise that standards will not be diluted after Brexit.
She rejected claims from DExEU Minister Lord Callanan that the government has already tabled amendments to the bill that would stop the EU Withdrawal Bill being used to water down existing EU rights, arguing they are not robust enough.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Prime Minister Theresa May have repeatedly promised to deliver a 'green Brexit' where environmental standards are maintained and even raised in the UK after it leaves the EU.
Speaking in front of the Environmental Audit Committee yesterday, Gove confirmed he does not want to see environmental standards diluted. He said he hopes to bring forward an Environment Act in the Queen's Speech next year, which would enshrine green protections from the EU into UK law.
Although the news was welcomed by many campaigners, some want to see action happen sooner. "Waiting until after March 2019 for a new Environment Act, and for the proper protections and targets for nature, clean air and clean water, could provide loopholes for polluters and waste time the environment doesn't have," Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace, warned.
"The government has repeatedly stated that environmental protections will not be weakened after Brexit, but such ambitions should really be enshrined in law," Ruth Chambers of the Greener UK coalition added.
Meanwhile Gove rejected EU threats to impose a "non-regression" clause on the UK as part of any future trade deal, to ensure the UK does not water down standards, as unnecessary.
Amy Mount, of the Greener UK coalition, said there is no reason why the UK should want to reject this out of hand. "An agreed non-regression clause would work both ways, holding the UK and the EU to high standards," she commented. "Rather than binding the UK to EU whims, it would reflect the government's ambitions for world-class environmental protections and global leadership. Ruling this out now would be a mistake."
While the government is clearly engaged on the issue of post-Brexit green governance, campaigners and opposition politicians are unlikely to ease the pressure on Whitehall until firm legislative proposals are produced. With plans for a post-Brexit green watchdog reportedly stuck in a Departmental tussle, and further votes to come on the Withdrawal Bill, this issue is set to run and run.
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