Watchdog will get legal enforcement powers under amendment, but green groups say compromise still doesn't go far enough to guarantee environmental standards
Proposals for a new UK green watchdog to oversee environmental law post-Brexit now look set to include a degree of green enforcement powers, after the government agreed to back an amendment put forward by a group of backbench Conservative MPs.
Brexit Secretary David Davis has added his name to amendment three to the EU Withdrawal Bill, which includes provisions for the establishment of a new body that has the ability to take "proportionate enforcement action - including legal proceedings if necessary".
The amendment, which was initially put forward by a group of 23 Tory MPs from across the Leave and Remain camps, also sets out that the nine existing EU legal principles - including 'polluter pays' and the precautionary principle among others - will continue to apply in the UK after Brexit.
A crunch vote on the amendment is set to take place later today as the government frantically seeks to negotiate enough support to ensure safe passage of the EU Withdrawal Bill through Parliament. 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.
However, the legal enforcement powers set out in the amendment signed by Davis would only apply to decisions made by central government departments and not to other public bodies. Observers noted that it also provides fewer assurances on the green body's independence than the original amendment backed in the House of Lords last month.
Assurances over legal principles and enforcement powers had long been called for by green groups, after Defra's initial plans published for consultation last month failed to include provision for the proposed green body to launch legal action against the government or impose fines.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove is known to be in favour of giving the watchdog stronger enforcement powers, but was said to have encountered resistance from the Treasury.
Amy Mount, who heads up the Greener UK group of environmental campaign groups fighting for a 'Green Brexit', welcomed the news Davis had agreed to back the amendment. However, she warned the stipulations in the clause were still far from strong enough to ensure optimum environmental protection.
The amendment is a "welcome step in the right direction, though it doesn't go far enough", she said. Specifically, she called for legal principles to applied to all public authorities and for the government to set out how it will ensure the new green watchdog is completely independent.
1. The Letwin #WithdrawalBill amendment on environmental governance is now a government amendment, signed by David Davis - a welcome step in the right direction, though it doesn't go far enough. #GreenerUK pic.twitter.com/LxQtr9fhaQ— Amy Mount (@ASmallAMount) June 13, 2018
The amendment was initially put forward by 23 Tory MPs including Sir Oliver Letwin, Richard Benyon, Zac Goldsmith and Justine Greening in a bid to secure government backing for stronger 'teeth' for the green watchdog "in lieu" of a more stringent amendment from the Lords' failing to secure support.
Both amendments will be voted on by MPs later today.
Separately, a group of Labour MPs led by Environmental Audit Committee chair Mary Creagh has also tabled an amendment to the government-backed "in lieu" amendment in a bid to further strengthen the green watchdog's powers by specifically including the ability to impose fines. However, BusinessGreen understands the Labour MPs' intervention is unlikely to have a substantive impact on the Bill at this stage, as Parliament is not expected to vote on the new amendment.
The news came as Gove confirmed Defra hopes to shortly publish its much anticipated Agriculture Bill setting out how the subsidy regime for farming will operate after the UK leaves the EU and its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Giving evidence to MPs on the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee this morning, Gove said he expected to publish the legislation before Parliament's summer recess, which starts next month on July 20.
The Environment Secretary has previously suggested a new domestic payments regime could reward farmers for undertaking work for 'public goods', including actions to boost environmental protection, flood management and climate change mitigation.
However, last week MPs criticised Defra's post-Brexit farming plans for lacking detail, adding the government would have a "huge task" on its hands to deliver its vision.
With all eyes on the Commons votes today, the government may well have averted a major row over its watchdog plans. But it is by no means out of the Green Brexit woods just yet.
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