Greg Clark sketches out latest green governance thinking, but questions remain over what the UK's environmental policy framework will look like next month
Are the government's post-Brexit environmental governance plans starting to take shape? Well, yes and no.
If you are able to stitch together the evidence from parliamentary statements, committee appearances, and media briefings then the government's current plan does look a bit less amorphous than it did this time last week. But the full spectrum uncertainty surrounding the wider Brexit debate and Ministers' repeated insistence that they remain "open minded" on much of the fine-point detail that will govern their Green Brexit plans means a host of questions remain unresolved. There are 15 working days until the UK is scheduled to leave the EU.
The latest critical update came yesterday afternoon in the form of a single paragraph in Greg Clark's Commons statement on "Protection for Workers". The pre-briefing on the announcement had focused on Workers' Rights, prompting complaints from campaigners that the government was still yet to clarify its latest thinking on enhanced environmental protections - proposals which the Prime Minister had previously signalled would be fleshed out alongside improved guarantees on workers' rights.
Starting his statement, Clark confirmed his intention was to deliver a "statement about workers' rights when we leave the European Union" - a statement that had been savaged by Labour and trade union leaders before it was even delivered for failing to provide sufficient protections for workers. However, he did manage to sneak in an update on the latest plans for post-Brexit environmental protection, detailing how work on the Environment Bill was proceeding and offering a few more tantalising glimpses on Theresa May's previously floated proposal to allow MPs a say on whether the UK should match changes to EU environmental rules in the future.
Clark confirmed the framework for environmental protections would be "similar" to that provided for workers' rights and would be implemented through the Environment Bill, reiterating the draft bill's plans for a "world-leading" watchdog and a "statutory policy statement on the interpretation and application of nine environmental principles, including the four contained in EU treaties".
However, he also confirmed the government will legislate to ensure that where future Bills could affect environmental protections, Ministers will have to make a "statement of compatibility to Parliament and provide explanatory information". It is a proposal that is likely to be welcomed by green groups and should go some way to ensuring Departments across government have to better consider the environmental consequences of their decisions.
However, the most notable part of Clark's statement came when he fleshed out May's previous proposal for giving parliament the chance to ensure UK environmental protections do not lag behind the EU, not least because in doing so he also sparked fears the proposals were already being watered down.
Last month, as part of her bid to secure support for her Brexit deal from Labour MPs from Leave voting areas, May told the Commons that the government "must and will embed the strongest possible protections on workers' rights and the environment". She added the government would "ensure that after Exit Day the House has the opportunity to consider any measure approved by EU institutions that strengthens any of these protections".
The comments were widely seen as raising the prospect of MPs being guaranteed a vote on whether the UK should mirror future changes to EU environmental rules, giving Parliament the ultimate final say over whether or not UK standards should diverge overtime from evolving EU standards or not.
This interpretation was further reinforced when May wrote to Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn to reject his calls for a cross-party Soft Brexit strategy. "The government does not support automatically following EU rules in these [workers' rights and environmental] areas because, given their importance, we believe these decisions should be taken in our parliament by our elected representatives," the Prime Minister wrote. "We have, however, made legally binding commitments to no regression in these areas if we were to enter the backstop… and are prepared to consider legislating to give these commitments force in UK law." She added that "in the interests of building support across the House" the government was "also prepared to commit to asking Parliament whether it wishes to follow suit whenever the EU changes its standards in these areas".
Yesterday Clark provided further details on this plan to consult with Parliament, and it turned out that it was not quite as firm a commitment as the Prime Minister had suggested. Or perhaps it was. To be honest it was hard to tell.
Clark confirmed the government intended to create a new statutory duty on the government to "monitor any strengthening of environmental protections and regulations by the EU, and to report regularly to Parliament about the government's intended course of action in those areas" - a legislative proposal that was cautiously welcomed by green groups.
But he then added that these reports would "give Parliament the information it needs to consider whether or not domestic protections need to be strengthened accordingly". If May's proposal to "ask" parliament about whether it wishes to embrace EU changes to environmental standards implied a vote in the Commons, it is unclear whether Clark's promise MPs would have the opportunity to "consider" whether domestic changes need to be made is similarly cut and dried.
"It's not a cast iron guarantee," argued Amy Mount of the Greener UK campaign. "It is a good acknowledgement that the government does not want standards to fall behind the EU and it is a recognition that this is of concern to parliamentarians. The government would have a statutory requirement to report on changes at the EU level, but there is nothing there on independent scrutiny of the government's response to those changes, nor clarity on how Parliament would consider any report. It is very vague."
She added that the new proposals could represent a "helpful tool" for ensuring that UK standards do not lag behind the EU, but argued they were just "one part of the puzzle". "It needs to be part of a bigger framework if it is to make sure our standards are strengthened and not weakened post-Brexit," she said, adding that green campaigners and business groups were still calling for a non-regression principle, legally binding environmental targets, and greater independence and powers for the new Green Watchdog to all be embedded in the new Environment Bill.
Is there a difference between "asking" and "considering"? If the government does want to give MPs a say on whether to adopt changes to EU rules in the UK, why not spell out that they will be guaranteed a vote? The failure to come forward with such a guarantee is telling.
The latest proposals suggest the government would have to report to parliament each time the EU strengthens air quality standards or fuel efficiency rules, for example, before then setting out how it intends to respond. But precisely what happens then remains opaque. The government could presumably decide to match EU rules or diverge from them. What would then happen if Parliament wanted to contest the executive's plan is unclear. BusinessGreen understands that the precise details of how the government would allow Parliament to consider its plans is now subject to on-going discussion with stakeholders.
Of course, much of this debate could prove hugely hypothetical if the UK and EU finalises a trade deal that requires the UK to largely honour EU environmental rules. But if the UK were to crash out of the bloc without a deal the precise role of government and parliament in determining the future of environmental rules and standards would become hugely important.
And what of the wider environmental governance landscape, which Clark yesterday declared would "provide a robust framework for maintaining and strengthening environmental standards as the UK leaves the EU"?
Environmental campaigners are continuing to push for large chunks of the draft Environment Bill to be strengthened, while legal experts have warned that as it stands the bill would create significant loopholes and would not be as robust or independent as the system it replaces. These long-standing fears come before you get to the concerns about how the UK's new environmental governance regime will simply not be ready in time should the UK leave the EU without a deal at the end of this month.
Moreover, the debate within government over many of the crucial details is still on-going. At a hearing of the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee this week Environment Secretary Michael Gove reportedly stressed that the department was "open to suggestions" and "open-minded" about how desired outcomes could be delivered. Rumours that much of the Bill - including the level of independence and powers the new Watchdog will enjoy and the extent to which legally-binding environmental targets are adopted - are the subject of a stand-off between Defra and the Treasury look set to persist.
Gove also suggested that many of the proposed new enforcement mechanisms were modelled on the approach taken by the European Commission. "There are lots of other things where we wish to do things differently," he said. "But given that we will have had a degree of confidence in the process - whereby the commission can give an opinion and then if necessary go with infraction proceedings - people have a high degree of confidence that, whatever else are the defects of the EU, that is a good working model. And therefore we've sought to replicate it."
Businesses and campaigners will likely welcome any continuity they can get, but many of the crucial questions surrounding the precise nature of the government's Green Brexit remain unresolved as the clock ticks down.
As with so many other areas of the Brexit debate the government is clearly struggling to balance competing pressures, attempting to convince moderates and wavering Labour MPs that it is fully committed to a hugely robust green governance framework, while also hinting to those in favour of a Harder Brexit that the possibility of a lighter touch approach remains alive and well. The net result is continuing confusion over precisely what the UK's environmental governance will look like next month, let alone next year.
Again, there are 15 working days until the UK is scheduled to leave the EU.
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