Mary Creagh: Ministers running out of time to establish post-Brexit green legislation

EXCLUSIVE: On the same day that MPs launched an inquiry into the role of sustainability in the policymaking of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the Environmental Audit Committee's (EAC) chair Mary Creagh has chastised the Government for failing to place climate change and resource efficiency at the heart of its agenda.

The EAC is today (15 March) calling for written evidence about the MoJ’s ongoing programme to close HM Courts and expand prison places as part of an overarching sustainability review of the department. The Government watchdog is concerned that a decision to reduce maintenance and running costs may have long-term environmental implications.

With the closure of more than 200 British courts and creation of nine new prisons in the last seven years, the EAC is keen to hear evidence about the arrangements in place to support, promote and monitor the sustainability of MoJ estate infrastructure.

Speaking exclusively to edie earlier today, Creagh said: “I want to hear from MPs and local people about what the strategy is to dispose of those buildings, or even if there is a strategy. Sustainability is about the environments where people live and work.

“Cities and towns are already suffering from an epidemic of empty shops as people turn to online shopping, so it’s about how does the MoJ’s strategy contribute to this ceiling in these city centres.

“We’re also looking across the state at prisons. New prisons are being built, old prisons are being closed. What does that mean for the department’s sustainability strategy and what are they doing about adaptation?”

Series of challenges

The EAC wants to hear how the MoJ works with other Government departments, agencies and service providers to improve sustainability. The review comes a fortnight after the watchdog asked the Treasury to respond again to its recommendations in a recent report which castigated the department for failing to adequately factor in long-term sustainability risks into its decisions.

Creagh emphasised that the Treasury’s inadequate response reflects a wider malaise within Government to place sustainability at the forefront of its forthcoming Industrial Strategy.

“It’s clear from the Industrial Strategy that climate change and resource efficiency are not at the heart of what this Government is doing,” she said. “The plans to leave the European Union (EU) are throwing into question the future of air pollution, waste and water management, and potentially risking the regulatory uncertainty that industry has.

“There are a whole series of challenges across Government where we think the smart thing to do is to put sustainability and resource efficiency at the heart of the Government’s plan. In the green paper Industrial Strategy, we saw a lot of talk about green energy, but very little on mitigating and adapting to climate change, nothing on how to meet the reductions agreed in Paris.

“There was no real roadmap set out for the Emissions Reduction Plan. There was very little on sustainability and resource efficiency where we are seeing the recycling sector stalling.”

Environmental Protection Act

Given that the UK is currently struggling with some of the existing recycling targets, a debate has emerged around whether UK Government would benefit from the implementation of EU-based targets around resource efficiency in the run up to, and after, leaving the EU.

Yesterday, the European Parliament voted to restore recycling and landfill targets that had been lowered by the European Commission in its re-tabled Circular Economy Package. Creagh considers it very unlikely the UK will remain part of the Package post-Brexit, noting Theresa May’s intentions to pull the country out from the single market and customs union.

“I can’t see a model where we stay in,” she said. “We will not be a formal part of the EU single market and that has a massive impact on all of our trading goods and environmental legislation. We have the difficult one-third of legislation that cannot be neatly cut-and-pasted into our country’s law.”

Instead, the UK should seek to implement a fresh national Environmental Protection Act for issues around resource efficiency, air pollution and chemicals regulation, Creagh said. The Wakefield MP insists that new mechanisms would deliver protections against “zombie legislation”, whereby EU environmental laws are transposed into UK law but no longer updated.

“We know that Defra is asking for new legislation to look after agriculture and fisheries. What we don’t hear Defra calling for is for new legislation to protect the environment and that’s why my Committee has said that we need a new Environmental Protection Act to set out the principles that are embedded in EU law but are not in the UK law.

“Pollution should be dealt with as close to source as possible. As with the precautionary principle – if you know something is going to be bad, don’t do it, rather than doing it and paying for it afterwards. Those principles must be written into UK law.”

‘Get the conversation started’

The Government has repeatedly faced calls to swiftly implement its long-term respective plans for emissions reduction and the environment. In regards to the latter piece of legislation, Creagh told edie that the EAC had asked Defra only yesterday about a likely publish date.

Creagh insists that the 25-year Environment Plan must be issued before the Government triggers Article 50, likely before the end of March, so that “we can get the conversation started.”

“All these plans are in a green paper and a talking point,” Creagh said. “We need to move quickly to publication, quickly to a white paper, and then we need to move very, very swiftly because this legislation needs to be in next year’s Queen’s Speech in 2018 if we are to have something in place before we come to present our Brexit plans to the European Parliament in September 2018.”

George Ogleby

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