Gove fails to guarantee current environmental standards won’t fall after Brexit

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has refused to guarantee that current UK environmental standards will be maintained following Brexit as he was accused of “papering over the cracks” when facing questions from Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

Having emerged unscathed from the ministerial churn that followed the agreement of the government’s Brexit negotiating position on Friday (6 July) and the ensuing fallout, Gove then faced a grilling from MPs yesterday morning as part of the cross-party committee’s inquiry into proposals for an Environmental Principles and Governance Bill, which are currently being consulted on.

The legislation would seek to create a new environmental watchdog and policy statement to govern the UK’s environmental policy. The governance body will provide scrutiny and advice on existing and future government environmental law and policy, respond to complaints about government’s delivery of environmental law and hold the government to account on its delivery of environmental law. It could potentially even exercise enforcement powers where necessary.

Gove fails to guarantee current environmental standards won’t fall after Brexit
Environment Secretary Michael Gove faces questions from Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee.

The government has been far more proactive on the environment in recent times, releasing its flagship 25 Year Environment Plan in January and giving increased attention to resources and waste in its Clean Growth Strategy and Industrial Strategy, both released in the autumn. The long-awaited Waste and Resources Strategy is also expected to be published at the end of the year, as Gove confirmed yesterday.

Keeping standards high

Many of the questions from EAC members regarded the maintenance of environmental standards, with several expressing anxiety that following the UK’s departure from the EU standards would be watered down, without adequate monitoring and enforcement powers for an independent environmental governance body equivalent to those of the European Court of Justice. This would be especially worrying during negotiations for trade agreements with countries that do not share the same level of environmental standards as the EU.

Gove was evasive when responding to direct questioning on whether he could guarantee that standards would not fall. When Mary Creagh MP, EAC Chair, remarked that Brexit supporters want divergence on environmental and social standards, Gove stated that “being different can sometimes mean being better” and that leaving the EU will allow the UK to set higher standards than those currently enjoyed in the EU, while his response to Geraint Davies MP’s question on whether Gove would ensure standards don’t simply fall over time was “we want to use every means available to ensure that”.

The EU has expressed anxiety over the future of environmental standards in the UK, especially in the context of a future free trade deal between the bloc and the UK, with EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier insisting that any deal would have to include a non-regression clause, legally obligating the UK to maintain standards it currently adheres to through EU membership.

When questioned on the non-regression clause, Gove stated that “something similar to a non-regression clause may well be the best means of providing appropriate reassurance”, before going on to state that trade agreements between countries see the two parties agree a common set of principles and appropriate course of arbitration in the event that one party reneges on the agreement. While two countries agree a common set of principles when negotiating any trade deal, this response did not reveal whether the UK’s current standards would fall or be maintained as a red line in any trade negotiations.

Gove: ministers are ‘one happy family’

Gove was then asked about division between HM Treasury and Defra and whether the new environmental watchdog would be able to hold other departments and local authorities to account over failure to meet targets and comply with environmental policy.

When it was suggested by Creagh that Gove was doing a “good job of papering over the cracks” the Secretary of State sought to assure that “underlying the operation across government is a commitment to higher environmental standards and also a commitment to recognising that there should be no tension between those and economic growth”, and that, contrary to claims of interdepartmental friction, everyone in government was “on the same page, singing from same hymn sheet, in harmony, as one, ad idem, one happy family, a nest of singing birds”.

‘Stepping up preparations’

One often-overlooked issue is what would happen in the event of a ‘no deal’ situation, the UK leaving without an agreement over the future of the relationship with the EU trade bloc – will an environmental watchdog with adequate powers be in place by March 2019, to uphold standards in the event that the post-Brexit transition period is scrapped?

Lucas put this question to Gove, who responded that the government was “stepping up preparations… in order to make sure that operationally and legislatively we are in a position to make sure that there is no or at the very least a minimal air gap”, while stating that work is being done to ensure that, in the event of a ‘no deal’, there would be “legal, statutory or other protections” to prevent a governance gap.

On whether the new environmental watchdog would have sufficient enforcement powers to hold government to account, Gove stated that “if the government were to break the law that it had put in place on anything environmental, then of course we could be taken to court”. He added that the policy statement containing the environmental principles against which the government’s actions would be judged would be developed by government and subjected to the appropriate consultation procedures – though how exactly the House of Commons could provide scrutiny is still to be decided.

Matthew Offord MP questioned the Secretary of State on how the independence of an environmental governance body could be guaranteed, to which Gove replied that the best set of principles to guide the role of the body should be established early, with the first Chair of the body undergoing pre-appointment scrutiny by the EAC and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, before having the freedom to pick their own CEO and control their own budget. Clear accounting would be required to allow the body to “blow the whistle” in the case of its funding being eroded.

You can view the consultation on the Environmental Principles and Governance after EU Exit Bill on the Defra website. The consultation closes on 2 August.

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