Crucial Commons vote to decide whether or not the government's proposed green watchdog is given legal powers of enforcement
The government is expected to back an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill that would give its proposed green watchdog some level of legal enforcement over environmental law after Brexit, ahead of a crunch Commons vote later today.
The critical Brexit legislation suffered 15 defeats in the House of Lords last month - including over green enforcement powers - and MPs' are this week debating the Peers' proposed amendments in the House of Commons.
Frantic negotiations have been underway as the government tries to rally support for as little modification as possible to Bill, but it is likely to be forced into compromises over several issues due to its slender majority and warnings from a number of backbench MPs that they are prepared to rebel against the Tory whip.
Yesterday Justice Minister Dr Phillip Lee quit the government in protest at its Brexit strategy and Ministers narrowly avoided a defeat on the crucial issue of whether parliament should be granted a "meaningful vote" on the final Brexit deal, but only after offering a series of concessions to the rebels, reportedly including a pledge to offer a new Parliamentary motion if the Brexit deal is voted down by MPs and peers this autumn.
Now another knife edge vote could await on the key issue of how environmental law will be enforced post-Brexit, with several Conservative backbench MPs suggesting the government is willing to back down from its current position and provide some legal 'teeth' to its proposed green watchdog.
Plans for a "strong and objective" post-Brexit green body were initially launched for consultation by Environment Secretary Michael Gove last month. But the plans sparked fierce criticism from green groups, which argued that in their current form the proposals would result in a "toothless" watchdog that would lack the ability to launch legal action against the government or impose fines.
Gove is known to be in favour of giving the watchdog stronger enforcement powers, but is said to have encountered resistance from the Treasury.
As such, MPs are expected to debate 'amendment 3' tabled by Lord Krebs last month, which seeks to ensure any new green watchdog has the same powers that EU authorities currently enjoy to regulate environmental standards across the UK, including the ability to initiate legal action against the government and impose fines in the event of infringements.
Number 10 declined to comment on whether it would give its backing to any amendments tomorrow. However, a group of 23 Conservative MPs - including both Remainers and Brexiters - have tabled a separate amendment "in lieu" of that backed by Peers in a bid to tempt ministers into throwing their weight behind a compromise agreement that would grant the planned regulator some additional powers.
Yesterday Conservative MP Richard Benyon - one of the backers of the amendment alongside Sir Oliver Letwin, Zac Goldsmith, and Justine Greening - published a copy of the "in lieu" amendment document claiming it had secured government support.
Brexit-backer Goldsmith also gave evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee yesterday suggesting he had been told the government would give its backing to an amendment that gave the new green body the power to take the government to court on issues of environmental law.
But while the Tory MPs' amendment would give legal enforcement powers to the proposed green body, it would only be over decisions made by central government departments and not local authorities. Observers noted that it also provides fewer assurances on the green body's independence than the Lord Krebs amendment.
The amendment would add a clause that the government must, within six months of the Act being passed, publish a draft Bill enshrining in law a set of nine stipulated environmental legal principles - including the critical 'polluter pays' principle - and setting out provisions for a public body with enforcement powers over environmental law.
It states the new green watchdog must have "functions for taking, in circumstances provided for by or under the Bill, proportionate enforcement action (including legal proceedings if necessary) where authority considers that a Minister of the Crown is not complying with environmental law…"
It comes amid reports earlier this week that Business Secretary Greg Clark will also apply to stay in the European standards system for products and services after Brexit, ensuring EU environmental standards are maintained and enabling a smoother transition for the UK's green industries.
But while environmental campaign groups welcomed the Conservative MPs' intervention, they highlighted several areas where the "in lieu" amendment fell short of that offered in Lord Krebs' amendment.
In a briefing note released yesterday afternoon, Greener UK - a group of 13 environmental organisations campaigning on Brexit - explained that it fully supported the Lord Krebs amendment as it offered the strongest assurances for environmental enforcement post-Brexit. Should that amendment fail to gain support in the Commons, however, Greener UK would then support the Conservative backbenchers' "in lieu" amendment as a second preference, it explained.
Amy Mount, who heads up the Greener UK unit, told BusinessGreen the Tory backbenchers' intervention was a "good step in the right direction", but insisted it was "still up in the air" as to whether the government would lend its full backing to the proposals.
"It will be interesting to see whether the government does back it, because it would be progress on its existing position," said Mount. "So far, all I've seen is that the government is considering it, so I think it's still up in the air."
It is also possible the government could table its own revision to the Bill relating to its green watchdog plans, but Mount said "it would be odd if the government doesn't back this amendment, which has so much Conservative backbench support".
"It's got quite high profile backing," she explained. "It's clear that everyone agrees we need to do something here, it is just down to the details of exactly what to commit to."
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