Appearing before an Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) hearing yesterday (1 November), Gove also revealed that the Government’s long-awaited 25-year environment plan could be published before Christmas.

On the issue of the UK’s post-Brexit environmental landscape, MPs heard that a consultation for a new regulator would likely take place ahead of the Britain’s departure in March 2019, with Gove stressing his “open-mindedness” about how the Government should replace the judiciary functions of the European Commission and European Court of Justice (ECJ).

“The need for a body or bodies has been clearly identified… as a need to safeguard the environment,” Gove told MPs.

“Outside the EU, the question is what replaces the Commission. How do we have the ECJ’s role replicated? I think that this is an absolutely important question, and my thinking is that we should consult on what type of body would be appropriate to replace the role that the Commission and Court have played.”

Zombie legislation

As things stand, EU institutions can take forward complaints made by individuals and civil society organisations about the actions or inactions of governments or businesses that affect the environment. The ECJ can also fine governments if they fail to comply with judgements, a power which green groups say gives the process teeth.

The UK has been defeated 30 out of the 34 times it has been taken to court for refusing to follow environmental laws – ClientEarth’s High Court case over illegal air quality levels being the most recent example.  

The Government’s Repeal Bill pledges to preserve the whole body of EU environmental law immediately after the UK’s departure. But the EAC and green groups have warned that copying EU rules over without also putting in place an equivalent governance architecture could result in “zombie legislation”, whereby EU laws are transposed into UK law but no longer updated.

But in a departure from the rhetoric of his predecessor Andrea Leadsom – who argued that existing courts and parliamentary committees will be sufficient to maintain standards – Gove said there was a “strong and powerful case” for an independent body to improve on the EU’s judicial system.

“It’s right that… we ensure there is a right balance between ensuring people continue to have recourse to the court through judicial review, but also recognise that you might need an agency, body or commission that has the power to potentially fine or otherwise hold government and public bodies to account.

“We could have a system in that UK that is stronger and more effective than the EU’s because the Government could be held to account in a way that the EU itself currently cannot,” he said.

25-year plan

Later in the two-hour debate, the Defra Secretary was grilled on the whereabouts of his department’s promised long-term domestic strategy for the environment.

Defra had initially planned frameworks for two separate 25-year environment and food & farming plans, but Gove told the Committee that there would now be only one document published, which he said would be released either before Christmas or, at latest, in January 2018.

The plan, which will be open for consultation, will be followed by a command paper on the future shape of agriculture, Gove said, as a prelude to the agricultural bill expected in early Spring.

Without getting drawn into the specifics of the plan, Gove assured MPs that the document would feature new policies in key areas such as recycling and biodiversity. He also hinted that the plan could see the Government step up its voluntary approach on food waste targets.

“I am very keen that we should try to reduce food waste at every stage in the cycle,” he said. “Having an ambitious target to reduce avoidable waste is an incredibly useful tool and discipline.”

Mechanisms within the new plan would help to ensure that Ministers are held accountable over claims that they will be the first Government to “leave the environment in a better state than we found it”, he said. He also expressed his hope that there would be “space for future legislation”.

“We will try to ensure that we can create appropriate measurements so that people can see whether or not there has been genuine environmental improvement under this Government or future governments.”

China ban

Gove was later forced to admit he had “not given sufficient thought” to the possible impacts of China’s ban on 24 grades of waste material, due to come into force in January. The UK exports around 4.5 million tonnes of waste to China for recycling or recovery, but when asked what bearing the ban would have on the UK waste eonomy, Gove simply replied, “I don’t know what impact it will have.

“It is a very good question and something to which I’ll be completely honest I have not given sufficient thought,” he said.

After being reminded by Labour MP Anna McMorrin that the ban is due to come into effect in eight weeks’ time, Gove was handed a briefing sheet by an adviser. He then told MPs that the ban will affect everyone apart from China, but insisted that the UK would have enough capacity to process the extra material it would be forced to keep.

George Ogleby

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