MPs call for ‘watchdog with teeth’ to oversee environmental standards post-Brexit

MPs have called on the Government to strengthen the commitments made in its 25-year Environment Plan in order to prepare for the event of a no-deal Brexit scenario, claiming that the UK is currently at risk of losing one-third of green legislation if no agreement with the EU is agreed.

After writing a report citing its concerns about the UK’s 25-year Environment Plan earlier this year, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has today (6 November) published the Government’s response.

The EAC’s initial report, published in July, called on the Government to create legally-binding targets for environmental issues that can be scrutinised by a new independent oversight body. Specifically, the report called for issues such as air quality, waste, water and soil to be subject to five-year reports – similar to the UK’s carbon budgets.

It additionally recommended that the UK’s new green watchdog should have the power take the Government and other public bodies to court where standards are breached, as well as the remit to oversee all public authorities and to initiate its own investigations that can be adjudicated by the courts.

Responding to the report, the Government claimed that it “already has extensive legal targets for the environment” which have been enshrined into UK law.

It additionally suggested that it is preparing to make sure a new statutory body is in place “as soon as is practically achievable” in the event of a no-deal Brexit – but provided no information on what powers the watchdog will have, or how these powers will be exacted.

The Prime Minister has been clear that we will use the opportunity Brexit provides to strengthen and enhance our environmental protections – not to weaken them,” the Government’s response letter to the EAC states.

A strong and objective voice that champions and enforces environmental standards will help the Government achieve our objectives of a Green Brexit and the vision set out in the 25-year Environment Plan.”

The letter of response was criticised by EAC chair Mary Creagh MP, who claimed that it failed to show a commitment to replacing the 33% of EU environmental legislation which has not yet entered into UK law.

“The Government’s woolly response makes no firm commitments on the future governance of the environment after Brexit, which is of great concern, given that the Agriculture Bill is making its way through Parliament,” Creagh said.

“If we want a world-leading environment, we need a strong, independent environmental watchdog which Ministers cannot quietly put to sleep. It is also deeply worrying that the response does not commit to replace the one-third of EU environmental legislation that cannot be copied and pasted into UK law after Brexit.”

Despite Creagh’s concerns, the Government’s response does include a fresh commitment to publish annual reports on progress towards the 200 goals included in the 25-year Environment Plan.

It contains a pledge to bring forward draft clauses on the oversight and scrutiny functions of the regulatory body to this Autumn.

Business action

In related news, a group of 20 big-name businesses have this week joined the EAC in calling for Environment Secretary Michael Gove to create new, legally-binding targets for peatland restoration, soil quality and water health.  

In a letter sent to The Sunday Telegraph businesses including Ikea, Siemens, Marks & Spencer (M&S) and Kingfisher have called on ministers to use the forthcoming Environmental Bill to bolster the ambitions of the 25-year Environment Plan.

The document, also signed by green businesses including Triodos BankZipcar and Ecotricity, states: “Britain’s first environmental Bill in over 20 years is a unique opportunity to improve the competitiveness of the British economy and demonstrate continued environmental leadership after Brexit.

“We believe that ambitious, well-designed and properly enforced environmental regulations make good business sense.”

The call to action, which also recommends new targets be set for net biodiversity gain and resource efficiency, comes amid claims that the Treasury is looking to avoid strict and legally binding environmental targets over fears they could be anti-business.

Sarah George

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