EU environment law could turn to ‘zombie legislation’ post-Brexit, say MPs
MPs have called for a new Environmental Protection Act to be introduced during the government’s Brexit negotiations to ensure that protections for the nation’s environment are not weakened by the UK’s departure from the EU.Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has today (4 January) produced a report, ‘The Future of Natural Environment After EU Referendum’, in which it emphasises the need for government to allow full parliamentary scrutiny of its plans for environmental legislation post-Brexit.
Prime Minister Theresa May last year pledged to invoke Article 50 and begin the two-year negotiation period for withdrawing by the end of March, and the government has said that it will introduce a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to transpose and retain European legislation into UK law when it leaves the EU.
However, according to the report, ministers have indicated that ‘approximately a third of the over 800 pieces of EU environmental legislation will be difficult to transpose into UK law’.
An EAC report into the UK environment’s relationship with the EU published prior to last June’s referendum found that membership of the union had been ‘crucial’ in shaping domestic environmental policy since 1970, adding that ‘if the UK were free to set its own environmental standards, it would set them at a less stringent level than has been imposed by the EU’.
Today’s report concludes that environmental protections could be weaker after the UK leaves the EU if the government doesn’t take action before, or in the early stages of the Article 50 process.
Speaking to the EAC for the inquiry, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom continually claimed the government wanted to ‘be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it found it’. However, the EAC report notes that a number of international, legislative and financial issues must be managed by the government in order to follow through with this commitment.
In particular, it notes that there is a risk that where EU legislation is transposed into UK law but is no longer updated and no longer has a body enforcing it – so called ‘zombie legislation’ – that it could be eroded through statutory instruments with ‘minimal parliamentary scrutiny’.
Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP said: “Changes from Brexit could put our countryside, farming and wildlife at risk. Protections for Britain’s wildlife and special places currently guaranteed under European law could end up as ‘zombie legislation’ even with the Great Repeal Bill.”
Another of the fears noted by the EAC is the capacity of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) to meet the additional pressures of Brexit in a cost-effective manner alongside its non-environmental priorities. Following swingeing cuts to the department’s budget and staffing in recent years, the report highlights the need for it to assess the resources necessary to replace funding and allay scepticism over its ability to provide sufficient environmental protections.
Waste could be looked at more closely in future
While the report focuses mainly on environmental issues primarily linked to land management and agriculture, it acknowledges that waste, alongside ‘air and water quality, the marine environment and many other areas besides’ would be impacted by Brexit and that future committee inquiries may examine these areas in further detail.
Questioning during the inquiry did touch on the government’s waste goals, with Leadsom saying that there is no why reason why the government’s ‘clear goals around waste’ would be watered down after Brexit.
Waste Minister Therese Coffey, also responsible for the natural environment, rural life opportunities and floods, water and waterways, added during a different session that the circular economy measures being developed by the EU ‘must be looked at carefully’ to avoid ‘perverse’ outcomes and that the government will “be seeking views on what outcomes matter so that people can go ahead and invest with some certainty”.