MPs fear ‘deficient’ environmental policy after Brexit

A sign for Defra, which is developing the UK's environmental policy for after Brexit MPs have expressed serious concerns with proposed environmental policy after Brexit, saying that environmental principles are being ‘severely downgraded’.

The draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill, published in December 2018, sets out proposals for how the UK’s environmental protections will be maintained if we leave the European Union. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) describes Brexit as offering an opportunity to ‘help make our planet greener and cleaner, healthier and happier’, and says that the draft Environment Bill ‘shows the strength of our commitment to a Green Brexit’.

MPs in Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) feel otherwise. The EAC, a cross-party group of MPs brought together to scrutinise the impact of government policies on the environment, has published its response to the draft Bill, saying that it is ‘deficient’ in multiple areas.

Environmental policy ‘falls woefully short’

There is a list of environmental principles contained in the draft Bill, including measures such as the polluter pays principle, which requires those responsible for pollution to bear the costs of cleaning it up.

The EAC report claims that the list misses out a key principle: that ‘policy and all public bodies will seek to ensure a high level of environmental protection and a presumption that environmental protection will not be reduced.’ This principle currently applies to the UK under EU law, so its absence represents what the EAC calls a severe downgrading.

How will policy be enforced?

The report also takes issue with the government’s proposed Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). This is a new enforcement body that would hold the government to account on its environmental policy and principles, and ensure that environmental law is followed.

However, there are fears that the OEP may not be sufficiently independent to properly scrutinise government actions, especially as it would be funded by Defra and its Chair would be appointed by the Environment Secretary. In a previous report, the EAC recommended that any enforcement body would need to report to Parliament twice a year, with a body of MPs scrutinising its actions in much the same way as the Public Accounts Commission scrutinises the National Audit Office.

Furthermore, in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, environmental governance would be upheld by an ‘interim secretariat’ of 16 full-time civil servants, prior to the OEP being set up. This plan was described by Environment Secretary Michael Gove as “sub-optimal” during an EAC hearing in March.

Climate change enforcement gap

Defra states that six areas of legislation fall under environmental law, and therefore under the enforcement remit of the OEP: air quality (although not indoor air quality); water resources and quality; marine, coastal or nature conservation; waste management; pollution; and contaminated land.

Image of EAC Chair Mary Creagh, who leads the committee in scrutinising environmental policy
Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the EAC, who leads on scrutiny of the government's environmental policy
MPs have expressed concerns that greenhouse gas emissions are not included in this list. “It’s shocking that enforcement to act on climate change has been deliberately left out of the remit of the OEP,” said Mary Creagh, Labour MP and Chair of the EAC. Since enforcement of climate change mitigation measures is currently the responsibility of the European Commission, there will be no UK body with this power once we leave the EU.

Gove did tell the EAC that he was “open-minded” about how climate change could be included in the Bill and said he “would be grateful for the Committee’s advice”.

“Weaker environmental principles, less monitoring and weaker enforcement”

Commenting on the draft Bill more widely, Creagh added: “If we want to be a world-leader in environmental protection, we need a world-leading body to protect it. The government promised to create a new body for governance that would go beyond standards set by the European Union. The Bill, so far, falls woefully short of this vision.

“Far from creating a body which is independent, free to criticise the government and hold it to account, this Bill would reduce action to meet environmental standards to a tick-box exercise, limit scrutiny, and pass the buck for environmental failings to local authorities.

“The draft Bill means that if we leave the EU we will have weaker environmental principles, less monitoring and weaker enforcement, and no threat of fines to force government action.”

The Environment Bill is expected to be introduced later this year. Defra has the most Brexit workstreams of any government department and last year was accused of “raiding” 400 staff from the Environment Agency to work on EU Exit work streams. The most recent reports say that more than 2,700 staff had been moved onto Brexit work within Defra by the end of 2018.

The full report from the EAC into the draft Environment Bill can be read on the Parliament website.

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