Great Repeal Bill raises environmental concerns for green groups

The Government's white paper for the Great Repeal Bill has faced criticism from green groups for failing to guarantee that existing environmental laws will be maintained as primary legislation post-Brexit.

The document was published yesterday (30 March), a day after the UK officially invoked Article 50 to begin the EU departure process. The white paper contains a pledge to preserve the whole body of EU environmental law immediately after the UK’s departure to provide “maximum certainty” for businesses. It also implies that product standards will remain in place to foster EU trade negotiations.

The text does not, however, rule out the future possibility to amend, repeal or reverse European green regulations, stressing that any potential changes will be consulted on through parliamentary scrutiny.

Green experts have warned that the absence of a tangible commitment to convert environmental laws into primary legislation could wreck the Government’s aim to “become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it”.

“The Government’s white paper is far too ambiguous and fails to guarantee existing environmental laws will be safely kept on our statute books as primary legislation,” ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton said.

“Unfortunately this creates more uncertainty to businesses and for the millions of people across the country who want their natural environment protected. The Prime Minister promised to leave the environment better off for the next generation. This is a high ambition but if she weakens the laws that safeguard our environment she will break that promise.”

Unanswered questions

Thornton warned that Brexit must not be used as an excuse to avoid action on air quality – a piece of law he highlights is “noticeably absent” from the white paper. The UK’s continuous struggle to comply with the EU’s Air Quality Directive has led to numerous court battles, with the Government last year defeated by ClientEarth in a High Court case over a failure to tackle illegal air quality levels across the country.

An estimated 80% of environmental regulations originate from the EU, with the area of resource efficiency a particular concern for UK businesses. The Great Repeal Bill includes provisions to continue the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), an important instrument in the interpretation of UK waste law.

The inclusion was welcomed by CIWM chief executive Dr Colin Church, who insists that rigorous environmental policy post Brexit means “promoting and supporting innovation and resource efficiency in all its forms”. But in a general alignment with other green experts, Church highlighted concerns about the application of EU laws post-Brexit.

Church said: “A number of significant questions remain unanswered, however, including the status of European Commission guidance designed to assist in the interpretation of legislation and the question of enforcement and especially what mechanism will replace the role of the CJEU and the Commission in this respect. 

“Just last month, the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee warned of an impending ‘vacuum’ in the enforcement of environmental law as the UK leaves the EU and the Government must not duck this issue.”

Precautionary principles

With Article 50 now triggered, the UK has two years to negotiate its withdrawal. Currently, the UK enjoys high environmental and wildlife standards such as the ‘precautionary principle’, which prevents policies that might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, and the principle that the ‘polluter pays’, which seeks to shift the responsibility in dealing with waste from governments to the entities producing it.

Green charity Friends of the Earth (FoE) wants the Government to commit to these overarching principles, and allow MP scrutiny, to ensure the long-term protection of the environment.

“The Great Repeal Bill is necessary but on its own, it isn’t enough to protect nature and our environment,” FoE campaigner Sam Lowe said. “We must commit to bringing over the precautionary principles which underpin our high environmental and wildlife standards.

“The Government must also create an independent body with teeth to make sure rules which protect nature and the environment are upheld. As the recent legal cases on air pollution have shown, the government does not always uphold its own laws without being pushed.

“More clarity is also needed regarding the scope of powers set to be granted to ministers. Whilst the Government will need the power to adjust rules to make them work in UK law, they should not be able to change their purpose or meaning without proper scrutiny. Any substantive changes to these laws should be made by primary legislation only.”

George Ogleby

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