Draft Environment Bill ‘severely downgrades’ environmental laws from EU standards, MPs warn

The implementation of the UK's new Environment Principles and Governance Bill would lead to key national environmental policies becoming "severely downgraded" from those currently mandated by the EU, MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) have warned.

Draft Environment Bill ‘severely downgrades’ environmental laws from EU standards, MPs warn

The EAC has warned that the Draft Bill falls "woefully short" on the UK's vision to maintain or better EU environmental standards post-Brexit. Pictured: Derwentwater in the Lake District

Published today (25 April), the EAC’s scrutiny of the Government’s Draft Environment Bill claims that the document is “lacking coherence” and leaves “many Governmental departments exempt” from environmental responsibilities.

Specifically, the Committee is concerned that the Bill in its current form would allow the Secretary of State to exclude policies considered “not relevant” or with “no significant environmental benefit” – including those concerning general taxation and spending. The policy framework also excludes select landowners from taking environmental responsibilities, a clause which would exempt the Ministry of Defence from the scrutiny of the UK’s new post-Brexit green watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP).

According to the Draft Environment Bill, the OEP will have the power to take businesses, public bodies and the Government to court over any breaches of environmental law. However, it will not be able to issue fines, call senior representatives to attend Government hearings or place non-compliant organisations into ‘special measures’.

While Environment Secretary Michael Gove has argued that these factors will make the OEP “world-leading”, the EAC’s scrutiny report concludes that the Government has failed to prove that it will give the body “the independence it needs” to achieve such status.

It recommends that the Bill should be amended to ensure that the OEP should report to Parliament; that MPs should be given a greater role in the appointments process for the body; that the Government should put a five-year budget for the OEP to a vote in the House of Commons and that the OEP should be given greater powers to tackle climate change challenges. The latter recommendation comes after greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were chosen to be excluded from the definition of the term “environmental law” the Draft Bill.

“It’s shocking that enforcement to act on climate change has been deliberately left out of the remit of the OEP,” EAC chair Mary Creagh said.

“If we want to be a world leader in environmental protection, we need a world-leading body to protect it. But 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, limiting scrutiny and passing the buck for environmental failings to local authorities.”

Wider concerns

The EAC’s scrutiny was published after a four-month inquiry period which saw the Committee receive evidence from dozens of green bodies and environmental experts, including the Environment Agency (EA), WWF, the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) and Natural England. Industry bodies such as Energy UK and Oil & Gas UK, as well as individual companies including Thames Water and Anglian Water Services, were also consulted.

In addition to concerns over the Draft Bill’s measures for the OEP, the EAC report additionally states that the implementation of the policy framework would lead to the “severe” downgrading of current environmental principles outlined in EU legislation – regardless of whether the UK leaves the bloc with or without a deal.

While noting that the Prime Minister’s current Withdrawal Agreement would require the UK to continue conforming to the EU’s environmental laws through a non-regression clause, the report argues that the Draft Bill does “not yet meet” these requirements.

As for the ramifications of a no-deal scenario, the document argues that the Draft Bill will result in a gap between the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice ending and the OEP being set-up. The Government has pledged to “bridge” this gap with the creation of an interim body, but the EAC has criticised its decision to allocate a maximum of 16 staff to this facility.

In order to prepare for either scenario, the EAC is urging the Government to “significantly upgrade” the position of the non-regression clause in the final Environment Bill, and to clarify the remit of the interim OEP.

“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,” Creagh concluded.

The finalised Environmental Principles and Governance Bill is due to be published before this summer but will not be introduced until the next session of Parliament in autumn. Existing EU protections will expire after the transition period closes at the end of 2020.

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Sarah George

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