Cross party group of MPs seek vote on wide-ranging amendment demanding government to make good on Green Brexit promises
MPs are today seeking a vote on the latest round of amendments to the government's Withdrawal Agreement, including a sweeping new package that calls on Ministers to significantly strengthen green protections post-Brexit and rule out a 'no deal' scenario that could prove "disastrous" for the environment.
Today's Order Paper for the House of Commons confirms two amendments that specifically reference the environment are seeking votes this afternoon as part of the latest high profile debate on the government's controversial withdrawal plans.
Firstly, the Labour leadership has tabled a new amendment that sets outs its proposed Brexit deal, calling for primary legislation to require the government to seek "a permanent and comprehensive customs union with the EU [and] close alignment with the single market underpinned by shared institutions and obligations".
It also calls for "dynamic alignment on rights and protections" and specifically proposes that the UK continue to participate in EU agencies and funding programmes, "including in areas such as the environment, education, and industrial regulation".
Theresa May has already rejected Labour's overtures for a cross-party Brexit deal, insisting the government will not countenance remaining in a customs union with the EU. As such the amendment is likely to be defeated, despite the government's repeated insistence it is will working with Labour on securing stronger post-Brexit protections for the environment and workers right. The anticipated defeat could pave the way for Labour to formalise its support for a second referendum, although Westminster insiders said it remained unclear if there was a parliamentary majority for a public vote on the government's deal.
A second cross party amendment that is hoping to be selected for a debate and vote this afternoon focuses exclusively on the environment and calls on the government to reinforce its previous pledges to enhance environmental protection post-Brexit, while ruling out a no deal Brexit.
Tabled by the Greens Caroline Lucas, Labour's Mary Creagh, Alex Sobel and Kerry McCarthy, the Lib Dem's Tom Brake, and Plaid Cymru's Liz Saville Roberts, the amendment is also backed by former Labour leader Ed Miliband, the SNP's John McNally and Tommy Sheppard, and a raft of opposition MPs.
The amendment "expresses alarm at the disastrous implications of a No Deal Brexit for the UK's environment, including vital protections for wildlife, nature and the marine environment, and calls on the government to urgently rule out a No Deal scenario".
It also highlights strong public support for maintaining environmental protections and notes how the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, and other political leaders, have all stated that environmental protections "should be protected and enhanced rather than weakened following the referendum on the UK's relationship with the European Union".
As such it calls on political leaders to make good on their previous pledges and strengthen the Political Declaration agreed with the EU that will inform future trade deal negotiations to "take a more dynamic and ambitious approach to regulatory protection for the environment, including by making reference to close co-operation on a wider range of transboundary issues, for example nature protection, climate change and air quality, and continued UK membership of the European Environment Agency so as to maintain a robust continent-wide evidence base on the state of the environment".
Both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration brokered between the UK and EU stress the need for continued close co-operation on environmental policies and institution. But critics have warned the current texts leave the door open for UK environmental standards to diverge from EU standards over time, potentially allowing for weaker future protections.
Theresa May has sought to alleviate these concerns by floating proposals for new legislation that would allow parliament to vote on whether or not to adopt new EU environmental rules post-Brexit.
Today's proposed amendment calls on the government to now publish those proposals "as soon as possible".
The amendment also highlights widespread concerns that the government's plans for a new environmental watchdog are not advanced enough, especially given the UK could crash out of the EU within weeks.
It states that "replacing the roles of the European Commission and European Court of Justice in terms of oversight of and compliance with domestic environmental law requires the embedding of environmental principles in UK law and the establishment of an independent and adequately resourced environmental body or bodies across the UK".
It also stresses that the current proposals for an Office for Environmental Protection in England need to be "significantly strengthened to guarantee its independence from government, include climate change within its remit and provide it with the necessary powers to ensure the monitoring, reporting, oversight and enforcement of environmental law, including both domestic and international obligations".
Finally, the amendment seeks greater clarification on the role of the devolved administrations in managing and enforcing environmental governance post-Brexit.
The amendment raises a raft of issues the government has previously acknowledged and promised to address. For example, Environment Secretary Michael Gove has repeatedlty signalled he would like to see legislative protections for the environment strengthened.
However, hopes that the new Environment Bill would put the most ambitious components of the government's plans on a legal footing have been eroded by reports of a major row between Defra and the Treasury over the powers that will be granted to the new watchdog and the extent to which the new legislation should include binding targets.
MPs and campaigners are also hugely concerned that if the UK does leave the EU without a deal next month then there will be insufficient time to pass new legislation and as such a major governance and enforcement gap will open up with relation to reams of environmental rules.
There is thought to be widespread cross-party support for the government to clarify and strengthen its Green Brexit plans, but it remains unclear if today's amendment would pass if selected given the call for the government to "urgently rule out a no deal scenario" - something May has been loathe to do despite her controversial decision this week to accept that a delay to next month's Brexit date may be required.
The government has repeatedly stressed that it wants to deliver a "Green Brexit", but it remains unlikely that this afternoon's debate or votes will provide much more detail on precisely what it means by the term at a legislative level.
There is now less than five weeks to go until the UK is scheduled to leave the EU.
In the end Labour's amendment was defeated by a majority of 83. The cross party amendment on environmental issues was not selected for a vote.
This amendment wasn't chosen by the Speaker for this evening's debate. But it's significant such a broad group of MPs has raised the environment up the #Brexit agenda, after disappointingly feeble attention given in the Prime Minister's statement yesterday https://t.co/8X6pi51EkB— Amy Mount (@ASmallAMount) February 27, 2019
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