Draft Environment Bill sets out worse environmental and climate change safeguards for UK than current EU policy, EFRA committee warns
With MPs back in Westminster after the Easter break and Extinction Rebellion protestors having headed home - for the time being at least - Brexit is yet again on the political agenda. And, as ever, it seems there are still widespread concerns that unless there is a major shift in government plans, environmental protections and climate action could both be a key casualties of the UK's exit from the European Union.
A cross-party group of MPs today provided further ammunition for those who fear a dilution of the UK's environmental rules and climate change governance is imminent, warning green protections will be far weaker after leaving the EU unless the government makes "significant revisions" to its proposed Environment Bill.
The Bill has still not been published in full, but is expected to emerge either in the coming weeks before Parliament's summer recess, or potentially when MPs arrive back in Westminster in September, just weeks before the UK is set to exit the EU on October 31.
Yet despite the government's oft-stated aim to maintain green standards in the UK after Brexit, Parliament's Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee said provisions set out so far in the draft Environment Bill do not match current environmental protections provided by membership of the EU.
A report by the Committee today said that at a minimum any future UK legislation relating to environmental principles should replicate the legal status and current levels of protection granted in European law, and slammed the existing draft Bill as a "significant regression" on EU standards.
The MPs argued the government's proposed new green watchdog - the so-called Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) - which would aim to ensure environmental rules are adhered to after Brexit, needed to be given "greater independence and sharper teeth".
As currently drafted, the Bill does not allow the OEP to operate with sufficient independence from government, they warned, and it should therefore be given further compliance tools beyond the threat of judicial review in the courts, as well as the power to issue emergency measures in urgent cases of environmental harm.
The OEP should instead be modelled on the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR), which offers independent advice to the government on its economic plans and forecasts which feeds into the Budget, the report states. That would mean ensuring all appointments to the OEP's board have the consent of the EFRA committee, and would require the government committing to a multi-annual budgetary framework in the Environment Bill in order to guard against onerous budget cuts.
It also noted worrying gaps in governance on climate change laws after Brexit, with climate change having been excluded from the remit of the planned OEP. At present, European climate change legislation is enforced in the UK by the EU, and the EFRA Committee called on the OEP to be given powers to oversee climate change standards in order to cover the potential governance gap.
Neil Parish, chair of the EFRA Committee, blasted the draft Environment Bill for its failure "to meet its own ambition to ensure 'the environment is even better protected in future' as we exit the EU", adding that in some areas "it actually marks a significant regression on current standards".
"Given this unique opportunity to rethink how we protect the environment in the future, we cannot afford to see the standards we currently adhere to slip," he said. "There is also little point in setting up an environmental watchdog if it is unable to fulfil its essential function of holding the government to account… It is imperative to future generations that the government does not squander its chance to get this right - it is unlikely they will get another any time soon."
Michael Gove has made delivering a "Green Brexit" a key pillar of his tenure as Environment Secretary, and in stark contrast to today's report Defra maintains it has "set out a clear vision for a Green Brexit in which environmental standards are not only maintained but enhanced".
"The forthcoming Environment Bill will put environmental ambition and accountability at the heart of government, with a world-leading, independent new body that has the power to take government to court," Defra said in a statement, adding that it would "carefully consider" the EFRA Committee's recommendations and respond fully in due course.
Yet today's report is just the latest in a litany of studies warning the government's post-Brexit environmental governance plans are not under scratch. Green campaigners, MPs, and business groups have all repeatedly called for stronger protections and enforcement measures than the government is proposing to be introduced as a matter of urgency. But fears that a flawed post-Brexit green governance framework could allow a future Prime Minister to drastically weaken UK environmental standards in pursuit of new trade deals ora short term economic boost remain unaddressed.
Just last week, MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee government's offered another damning critique of the Environment Bill, stating that green proposals fell "woefully short" and served to "severely downgrade" environmental principles that underpin current EU rules. Largely mirroring today's conclusions from the EFRA Committee, the EAC criticised the lack of independence and enforcement powers afforded to the proposed OEP and highlighted governance gaps on climate change policy.
The EAC even said it believed enforcement of climate change mitigation had been "purposefully excluded" from the remit of the OEP, adding that unlike the current EU Commission approach to enforcement, the proposed Bill "shifts responsibility for failing to comply with environmental law to individual public authorities rather than the whole of government".
The government also faced warnings yesterday from former World Trade Organisation chief Pascal Lamy, who argued Brexit risks damaging the UK's leadership on climate change. He warned the government's existing trade policy preparations would not prevent damaging roll-backs of environmental standards.
Trade deals can have a profound impact on the management of environment and climate change, Lamy said, adding that the government's Withdrawal Agreement and Political Statement fall short of what is needed to provide strong green safeguards, and ministers have done little to suggest they are committed to green protections in any new trade deals.
Moreover, even a customs union - as supported by Labour - and Irish backstop would do little to deliver stronger green protections on their own, as such measures do not necessarily ensure regulatory alignment with EU standards, which Lamy argued was absolutely critical for post Brexit trade with the EU.
"It is vital that any new trade deal or environment treaty between the UK and EU protects the region's global leadership position on climate change," he said yesterday. "Without new safeguards to ensure there is strong continued cooperation and alignment, Brexit could destroy environmental protections - well beyond allowing chlorinated chicken imports."
Lamy: there shouldn't be significant regulatory disalignment between UK and EU. There are two options to achieve this: a UK-EU trade deal, with specific environment provisions, or a specific environment agreement with trade provisions. #greenertrade— Dustin Benton (@dustin_benton) 29 April 2019
Clearly, Gove faces an uphill struggle in persuading many MPs, campaign groups, and green businesses of the merits of the government's existing plans to safeguard the environment after Brexit, and provide business with certainty over their environmental obligations.
Ruth Chambers, senior parliamentary affairs associated at Greener UK - the coalition of environmental groups campaigning for a green Brexit - said the government must now listen and act upon MPs' advice.
"It is clear on the basis of both EFRA and the EAC evidence that the government must significantly re-draft the Environment Bill if it is going to be fit for purpose," she told BusinessGreen. "I've never seen such a compelling and consistent set of evidence, and a compelling and consistent pair of Committee recommendations. There's hardly a paper's width between any of us and any of the Committees."
All that is needed, she argued, was the government to tweak and strengthen its existing proposals. "It should be easy for the government to move on this, as it's not as if all of our recommendations are drastically different," she said.
Cross party talks between the Conservatives and Labour over securing a Brexit agreement that can win enough support pass through the House of Commons soldier on, with little sign of a breakthrough yet. Labour has put environmental protections and workers' rights front and centre of its demands for backing Theresa May's Brexit deal, but it remains to be seen whether she will budge, and, in any case, whether such demands would provide the requisite green safeguards campaigners are calling for.
A number of government ministers are understood to broadly accept the case for stronger environmental protections, but others are continuing to tout plans for a deregulatory push post-Brexit and are demanding as much legislative flexibility as possible to make it easier for future governments to diverge from EU rules or strike new trade deals with the US or China.
But with climate change and environmental issues having been thrust into the limelight by Extinction Rebellion protestors - who are due to meet Gove and other leading politicians this week - pressure on the government to back up its pledge to deliver a Green Brexit through sufficiently robust legislative action increases by the day. Especially, indeed, given the government's green critics now appear to be completely united in their analysis of where the Environment Bill and post-Brexit trade provisions are lacking, and what the solutions should be.
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