Government set to back down in post-Brexit green standards dispute

The Government will reportedly this week give its backing to an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill which aims to ensure that environmental standards are maintained post-Brexit.

The Withdrawal Bill is being sent back to the House of Commons on Tuesday and Wednesday (12-13 June) for consideration of proposed amendments tabled by the Lords last month.

One of the changes put forward aims to ensure that a new post-Brexit green watchdog will keep the same powers as EU bodies currently enjoy to regulate environmental standards across Britain, including the ability to initiate legal action against the Government.

It is understood that the Government is willing to make these concessions to get the Withdrawal Bill on the statute book before the end of June.

Speaking at an Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) hearing this morning, Conservative backbencher and environmentalist Zac Goldsmith said he also expected primary legislation to be published before the end of the year setting out environmental principles.

“We are hearing that Defra have won part of their argument with the Treasury in relation to the establishment of this post-Brexit body,” Goldsmith said.

“We are told there will be Government backing for an amendment that would ensure that we have a Bill within six months, that the new body will have the ability to take the Government to court – which was a sticking point in the consultation – and that all of the environmental principles underpinning EU law are there in primary legislation.”

The move will be welcomed by green campaigners who claim the Government’s draft plans for a new watchdog would leave the body without the power to adequately enforce green laws.

‘Start of the journey’

Goldsmith noted that one of the outstanding issues remains over whether the body can issue fines to the Government or any public body that fails to apply any of the environmental principles. But Ruth Chambers, senior parliamentary affairs associate at Greener UK, who spoke during the EAC hearing, warned that prosecutorial powers was not the “only missing piece in the consultation”.

“We are absolutely clear that the need for the body to be a prosecutorial authority is essential if it is to do its job effectively of holding Government and other public authorities to account on their implementation of environmental law.  

“But I don’t think that we should limit our ambition there. The amendment that hopefully will be passed tomorrow is a good starting point but that is all it is. We are at the start of a parliamentary journey… although this amendment will hopefully be in the Withdrawal Act, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the final Environmental Principles and Governance Bill that comes out of the pipe after parliamentary scrutiny and consultation is necessarily going to contain everything that we want.”

The Environmental Principles and Governance Bill will be published in draft in the autumn. It will not, however, be introduced until the next session of parliament in autumn 2019. Existing EU protections expire after the transition period expires at the end of 2020.

Chambers said the body would need to be able to intervene in legal proceedings brought forward by other bodies, and that it would also “considerably benefit” from having the power to conduct inquiries into the “systemic failures” of bodies in relation to compliance with environmental law.

“There are a range of other powers that we believe will be necessary for the body to do its job effectively,” she said.

“If all of those powers were given the body then we think it would be able to effectively do its job and be approaching the world-leading standards the Secretary of State (Michael Gove) has promised. But if you just have a piecemeal approach or a weak body from the start then we are very fearful it is not going to be able to do its job properly. “

George Ogleby

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