Caroline Lucas calls for new Environmental Act to strengthen green policy post-Brexit

The UK must create a new Environmental Act, subject to legal oversight and accountability mechanisms, which replaces and strengthens environmental protections post-Brexit, Green Party Co-Leader Caroline Lucas has said.

The Brighton Pavilion MP was speaking in Westminster yesterday (29 November) at the launch event of Policy Connect’s series of Parliamentary sessions that will examine the impacts Brexit will have on Britain’s environment, energy and climate change, resources and built environment sectors.

Lucas stressed the necessity to establish legislation which both maintains the “very best” of EU environmental standards and accelerates business innovation.

“Let’s have a new Environmental Act to replace and strengthen environmental protections once we leave,” Lucas said. “The Government has said it wants to have an even better environment when we leave the EU than the one we currently have. Let’s hold them to that, and make sure it’s really going to happen.

“We are very proud of the innovation that we have in this country, but I don’t think we need to have a contradiction between UK innovation and a recognition that most of the environmental issues are cross-boundary in nature.”

Proper scrutiny

Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom recently confirmed that the majority of EU environmental legislation will be transferred across into UK law in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, but uncertainty looms for around a third of green regulations which Leadsom admitted “won’t be easy to transpose”.

Lucas spoke yesterday of Leadsom’s “somewhat worrying” reluctance to specify which parts would be immediately transposed. She also expressed concern about the Government’s proposal of a “sunset clause” which would drop legislation that fails to be transposed within two years of Article 50 being triggered.

The EU referendum did not give the Government a mandate to weaken standards in water, air or wildlife, Lucas said, citing a recent YouGov poll which showed that 83% of the public want new UK laws that provide the same or a higher level of protection than current EU regulation.

“We need to know that until we leave the EU that existing protections will remain in place and that crucially they will be enforced,” she said.” The so-called Great Repeal Bill must involve a full carry-over of existing EU environmental laws into domestic laws.

“The Government must not be allowed to amend or repeal any aspect of this legislation without having the proper scrutiny from Parliament.”

Legal oversight

Lucas called for compliance mechanisms to replace those currently provided by the European Commission (EC) and the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The Environmental Audit Committee member also noted the success of the EU’s regulatory functions, stating that, since 1981, the Commission has acted on more than 200 complaints related to UK reported breaches on the nature directive alone.

She also highlighted environmental law firm’s ClientEarth’s recent air pollution litigation against the Government, a key issue of which centred around the circumstances of which the EC could grant an extension of time for compliance with mandatory EU standards.

“It’s precisely these enforcement mechanisms, and the fact that there are fines and real teeth attached to it, which has enabled Britain to have a better outcome on environmental standards we meet than otherwise we would have had,” Lucas added.

“The UK must establish new legal oversight and accountability mechanisms for EU law to replicate what we currently get through the Commission and the ECJ. After Brexit we have to ask ourselves who is going to play the role of the Commission and the ECJ. How can we make sure that the environmental law that we have brought across from the EU is properly enforceable?

“We need to be very clear that Ministers can’t just be judge and jury themselves over that legislation but that there needs to be incredibly strong enforcement.”

Greener direction

Lucas identified several areas where the green agenda could be pushed in a positive way, both in the short-term and post-Brexit.

Specifically, she mentioned the opportunity to amend and update current EU standards, such as the REACH regulation – adopted to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemicals. Since REACH was enacted in December 2006, the regulation has been amended on at least 38 separate occasions. New UK legislation would help simplify such standards for businesses, Lucas said.

She stressed that the new £23bn infrastructure fund – announced in the Autumn Statement – in addition to the Industrial Strategy, represent crucial tools to accelerate innovation to meet stronger environmental outputs.

“We must make sure the Industrial Strategy is a green Industrial Strategy and work very hard on that to make sure that we have some common messages on what we want to come out of it,” she said. “Similarly, we’ve got that infrastructure budget. I can’t understand why energy efficiency isn’t being deemed an infrastructure priority, but it should be.

“While we still have all of these unknown unknowns, we should also make sure that we don’t take our eyes off the infrastructure budget and Industrial Strategy because they are two places that we could quite soon hold the Government to their word. If they are serious about moving in a greener direction, let’s make sure they do that.”

George Ogleby

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