Government

EAC criticises ‘woolly’ government commitment on future environmental policy

The government has been criticised as “woolly” in its approach to environmental policy post-Brexit after it responded to recommendations made by Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) – and failed to commit to replacing EU legislation that cannot be easily transposed into UK law.

The EAC made the recommendations regarding the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan (25YEP), which was published in January after several delays and outlined the government’s long-term plans for safeguarding the environment.

The EAC, which provides oversight into the environmental impact of government policy, launched an inquiry into the 25YEP in February, and published its findings in July, which include recommendations to develop legally-binding targets relating to the 25YEP’s objectives, to be scrutinised by an independent oversight body – an Environmental Enforcement and Audit Office (EEAO).

EAC criticises ‘woolly’ government commitment on future environmental policy
Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the EAC

However, upon today’s release of the government’s response to these recommendations, Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the EAC, has expressed her dissatisfaction at the government’s commitments contained in the response.

Creagh said: “The government’s woolly response makes no firm commitments on the future governance of the environment after Brexit, which is of great concern, given that the Agriculture Bill is making its way through Parliament.

“If we want a world-leading environment, we need a strong, independent environmental watchdog which ministers cannot quietly put to sleep. The government’s draft Bill must make the new watchdog accountable to Parliament.”

The EAC has previously stated that an EEAO should both monitor government performance and have ‘effective and proactive enforcement powers’, including the ability to take government departments and agencies to court, as well as to hand out fines. Furthermore, the EAC recommended that an EEAO should report to Parliament on a bi-annual basis to ensure independence and transparency and that its budget should be set by a statutory body to ensure it is not cut.

Creagh continued: “It is deeply worrying that the response does not commit to replace the one third of EU environmental legislation that cannot be copied and pasted into UK law after Brexit. It should set five yearly wildlife budgets, so people can see taxpayers’ money being spent on public goods like flood prevention, protecting species from extinction and restoring our soils.”

Mixed commitments

In summary, the government’s response:

  • Does not commit to replace the one third of EU environmental legislation (air, waste, water, chemicals) that cannot be copied and pasted into UK law through the EU Withdrawal Act, stating that ‘the government has extensive legal targets for the environment ranging from water quality to air quality to waste management. These targets exist in domestic law and will continue to have effect after the UK leaves the EU’;
  • Commits to produce annual progress reports on the 25YEP, refresh the 25YEP ‘at least every five years’ and to report on changes in a comprehensive suite of environmental indicators and metrics that are currently under development;
  • Agrees with the EAC’s recommendation to undertake an audit of the main existing environmental targets that contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and states that the results of the audit will be ‘published in due course’;
  • Makes clear that no devolved administration has agreed to the proposal of a UK wide body to replace the role of the European Commission and European Environment Agency;
  • Commits to bring forward draft clauses on the oversight and scrutiny functions of the body this Autumn; and
  • Suggests that it is preparing to make sure a new statutory body is in place ‘as soon as is practically achievable’ in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

The government has been far more proactive on the environment in recent times, and on resources and waste in particular. As well as the 25YEP in January, its Clean Growth Strategy and Industrial Strategy both give increased attention to resources and waste, while the long-awaited Resources and Waste Strategy is also expected to be published at the end of the year.

However, there is much uncertainty regarding how well the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is coping with the extra demands thrown up by Brexit. The department has to accommodate £147 million of cuts across 2017/18 and 2018/19, while at the same time expanding its workforce to deal with Brexit. It was recently revealed that the department is still short of 1,400 staff ahead of the Brexit deadline of March 2019, while last week’s Budget showed that the squeeze on funding is set to continue – Defra’s departmental resource budget is set to be reduced by a further £100 million between 2018/19 and 2019/20.

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