UK may not keep EU environment laws post-Brexit, MPs told

The government cannot rule out diverging from EU environmental laws transposed into UK law post-Brexit, new Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers told MPs.

Villiers was giving evidence to Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee on the topic of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) preparations for Brexit, yesterday (9 September) after taking over from Michael Gove as Secretary of State in July following Boris Johnson’s appointment as Prime Minister.

During the session, Labour MP Kerry McCarthy questioned Villiers on the maintaining of environmental standards following Brexit, referencing a comment from Johnson to President of the European Council Donald Tusk in a letter on 19 August saying ‘our regulations on environmental and product standards will potentially diverge from the EU’s’.

Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers
Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers giving evidence to the Efra Committee.
The government under the premiership of Theresa May previously stated in its Repeal Bill White Paper that it would ‘ensure the whole body of existing EU Environmental law continues to have effect in domestic law’.

Commenting on Johnson’s comment to Tusk and promising that high standards would not be watered down in pursuit of trade deals – it is feared that environmental protections would on the table in negotiations over a trade deal with the US – Villers said: “What we mean by that is we are committed to maintaining the same high standards and outcomes but the means by which we deliver those standards and outcomes may diverge from the EU over time. There are different ways to get the same result. We’re determined to retain the highest standards, but we may well take a different view in the future over how best to deliver those, because there may be mechanisms better suited to deliver those domestically.”

Continuing, Villiers stated that the way the EU goes about enforcing standards can be “sub-optimal” and it is “misguided” to think the EU will always have the best answers, saying that Brexit will allow the UK to tailor regulatory systems best suited to its domestic context.

She added: “A commitment to maintaining our current high standards doesn’t mean a commitment to writing out and keeping forever the exact same EU laws”.

‘Interim arrangements’

Villiers also faced questions on the Environment Bill and the proposed Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which has been called for by MPs to replace the monitoring and oversight powers currently deployed by the European Commission.

The Secretary of State stated that bringing forward the Environment Bill “as soon as possible” was “hugely important” and that “interim arrangements” were in place to cover the governance gap between the UK leaving the EU on 31 October and the establishment of the OEP to ensure “complaints and concerns can be investigated from the start and passed on to the OEP once its established”.

When asked to confirm the independence of the OEP from ministerial interference, Villiers stated that proposals made by the Efra Committee will be taken on board in the revised Environment Bill, with the suggestion that the OEP should be modelled on the Office for Budgetary Responsibility having “much to recommend it”, and that the Bill would guarantee the OEP a sufficient degree of independence.

Villiers was also asked by Angela Smith MP about the status of the chemicals regime intended to replace the EU’s REACH regulation – Smith stated that the chemicals industry had recently called the government’s plans for chemicals registration post-Brexit ‘unworkable, unrealistic and costly’, while the government previously admitted that the cost of taking on the roles currently provided by the European Chemicals Agency could be in the “tens of millions of pounds”. In response Villiers said the government was “determined” and “confident” that there will be a functioning chemicals regimes come Brexit day.

Resources and waste a ‘key priority’

The resources and waste industry has been looking on at developments at Defra with some anxiety following Boris Johnson’s ascent to power. Michael Gove, one of the most active and respected Environment Secretaries of of recent times, was moved on in Johnson’s cabinet purge in July, while Resources Minister Therese Coffey was appointed Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on Sunday (8 September) following the resignation of Amber Rudd over the government’s approach to Brexit.

In words seeking to reassure the industry, Villiers stated that tackling waste, litter and the pollution of our oceans were a “key priority” for her and that she wanted to “harness the public enthusiasm” for this. She added that she hoped to put her own “individual stamp” on these projects, while continuing the work of Michael Gove.

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