Environmental laws to be transposed through Great Repeal Bill

The government has confirmed that it plans to transpose all current European environmental regulation into UK law after Brexit.

In its Brexit White Paper, ‘The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union’, published yesterday (2 February), the government set out its vision for what it hopes to achieve through departure negotiations with the EU.

Ratification of the European Union bill this week in Parliament, which led to the resignation of Shadow Environment Secretary Rachael Maskell, means that it just needs to be sanctioned by the House of Lords before the government can trigger article 50 and begin the withdrawal negotiation process.

The government announced in October that it would use a Great Repeal Bill to convert EU requirements into British law as soon as Britain leaves the EU, and the White Paper, though not giving much in the way of specific policy, does confirm that the bill will be used to retain environmental laws.

The paper repeats the government’s oft-stated commitment to ‘ensuring we become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it’ and confirms, in sections 8.41 and 8.42, that the Great Repeal Bill will be used to bring the current framework of environmental regulation into UK and devolved law.

It reads: ‘The UK’s climate action will continue to be underpinned by our climate targets as set out in the Climate Change Act 2008 and through our system of five-yearly carbon budgets, which in turn support our international work to drive climate ambition. We want to take this opportunity to develop over time a comprehensive approach to improving our environment in a way that is fit for our specific needs.’

The ‘devil will be in the detail’

Environmental groups have welcomed the confirmation, but Samuel Lowe, Friends of the Earth campaigner, says the “devil will be in the detail”. He added: “We need more information regarding how this will work in practice, and additional measures and institutions will be needed to ensure it continues to be properly upheld and enforced. The Great Repeal Bill must ensure that any future changes are made by parliament, and not on the whim of ministers.

“The fact the government has chosen not to throw the baby out with the bath water and leave open the possibility of remaining part of certain EU regulatory bodies is sensible. Continuing to maintain a level regulatory playing field on issues such as chemical safety with our European neighbours is not only good for people and the environment, it makes sense for business too.”

Repeal bill brings risk of ‘zombie legislation’

Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) reported last year, ahead of the EU referendum, that the EU has been a ‘crucial factor’ in shaping UK environmental policy, and a great number of directives, including the Waste Framework, Packaging and Packaging Waste and Landfill Directives, dictate environmental regulations in the UK.

The Circular Economy Package, currently making the rounds in European chambers ahead of final amendments in the second half of the year, proposes amendments to several European directives to improve measures on resource efficiency, and in January Resources Minister Therese Coffey indicated that the government is working under the assumption that the package will apply to the UK.

Last month, following an inquiry into the effects of Brexit on the UK’s natural environment, the EAC, which monitors the environmental impact of all government departments, called for a new Environmental Protection Act to be introduced during the negotiation period to ensure that environmental protections are not weakened by the Great Repeal Bill.

According to a report from the committee, approximately a third of over 800 pieces of EU environmental legislation would be difficult to transpose into UK law. Moreover, it warned of the possibility of laws becoming ‘zombie legislation’, where, despite being initially transposed into UK law, the EU laws governing environmental protection could be weakened as they would no longer be updated and would have no regulating bodies tied to them.

Chair of the EAC, 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.”

The government’s Brexit White Paper can be read in full on its website.

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