EU Withdrawal Bill: MPs vote to ‘give teeth’ to post-Brexit green watchdog

MPs have voted in favour of an amendment which promises legislation on environmental principles and a new post-Brexit watchdog, but green campaigners have expressed concern over a watering down of current standards.

Last night’s (13 June) vote in the House of Commons saw the amendment pass through by 320 votes to 296. It came after the Government’s late decision to back down from its widely-criticised initial stance, as ministers aim to push the EU Withdrawal Bill through Parliament.

Tabled by 23 Conservative backbenchers, the amendment ensures that a post-Brexit environmental watchdog will be given the power to initiate legal against the Government. It will also force a set of environmental principles to be established in primary legislation, including a ‘polluters pay’ principle.

It forms a counter-amendment to a previous Lords revision which called for environmental protections to remain the same as those enjoyed under current EU regulations.

‘Tamest poodle’

Green campaigners broadly praised yesterday’s Commons vote for addressing some of the gaps left by Brexit, but concerns remain that the proposed changes fall short in many key areas.

A major sticking point centres around the fact that the amendment only requires environmental principles and a watchdog to apply to central Government, not other public bodies.

WWF’s executive director Tony Juniper said: “This amendment is better than nothing, but only offers the tamest poodle of an environmental watchdog.

“It does not maintain our current protections nor achieve the Government’s own level of ambition to leave the environment in a better state than it inherited. We still urgently need a Westminster Environment Act to restore our nature – without which we may never see a ‘Green Brexit’”.

His thoughts were echoed by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management’s (CIWEM) senior policy adviser Heather Jones: “We are pleased that MPs have recognised the importance of enshrining the environmental principles that have protected and improved our natural habitats for decades in primary legislation, and for a new watchdog with the necessary teeth to hold the Government to account on its implementation of environmental law.

“However, there the amendment falls short is that it requires only the Government, and not all public authorities, to be accountable to the watchdog,” she added.

Withdrawal Bill ping-pong

The House of Lords will now consider the amendment again next Monday (18 June) as Withdrawal Bill debates continue, but the Commons will have a final say on the matter if discussions drag on.

Under the newly proposed amendment, a draft Environmental Principles and Governance Bill will also be published within six months of the EU Withdrawal Bill being passed, including a policy statement on how the environmental principles will be interpreted and applied.

Jones concluded: “We look forward to the publication of a robust and stringent Environmental Principles and Governance Bill and call on Government to extend the remit of the new watchdog to all public authorities, to guarantee strong environmental protections after exit day to safeguard and enhance our natural environment for future generations and to ensure that citizens have a means of affordable access to environmental justice.”

George Ogleby

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie