New Environmental Protection Act vital post-Brexit, MPs say

MPs and green campaigners are today (4 January) calling on the UK Government to build environmental safeguards into the Great Repeal Bill during Brexit negotiations, with a fresh report proposing the introduction of a new Environmental Protection Act to maintain current standards.

Government watchdog the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) warns that green regulations must not be weakened during or after the process of leaving the European Union (EU). Ministers must take action in the early stages of the Article 50 process, MPs say, if the Government is to achieve its manifesto commitment to “be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it found it”.

Key environmental legal protections could lapse into “zombie legislation”, whereby protections for farming, wildlife and habits are transposed into UK law but no longer updated post-Brexit, unless immediate steps are taken to secure the future of environmental legislation, the EAC states.

EAC chair Mary Creagh MP said: “Changes from Brexit could put our countryside, farming and wildlife at risk. Protections for Britain’s wildlife and special places currently guaranteed under European law could end up as “zombie legislation” even with the Great Repeal Bill. The Government should safeguard protections for Britain’s wildlife and special places in a new Environmental Protection Act.”

‘Triple jeopardy’

It has previously been suggested that, with an estimated 80% of environmental regulations originating from the EU, there is a real danger that withdrawal might result in many protections being removed. Indeed, uncertainty looms for around a third of green regulations which Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom recently admitted “won’t be easy to transpose”.

In today’s report, the EAC has made recommendations for legislative, trade and financial issues, which it believes could ensure the Government provides an equivalent or better level of protection after the UK departs the EU. A new Environmental Protection Act created before Brexit would prevent safeguards from eroding under minimal parliamentary scrutiny, MPs say.

The Committee suggests that UK farmers face a ‘triple jeopardy’ from changes in the UK’s trading relationships post-Brexit. Firstly, leaving the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which makes up 50-60% of farm incomes, could threaten the viability of some farms. Tariff and non-tariff barriers are cited as threats to food business incomes, while new trading relationships with non-EU states could lead to increased competition from larger economies with lower environmental standards, the EAC claims.

Total UK CAP expenditure last year was £3.5bn, much of this through direct payments under Pillar One. According to the report, any new farm subsidies introduced to replace CAP should provide a better balance between support to agriculture and environmental protection. MPs say that future schemes should be more supportive to allow technologies to protect the environment.

Creagh continued: “UK farming faces significant risks – from a loss of subsidies and tariffs on farm exports, to increased competition from countries with weaker food, animal welfare and environmental standards. The Government must not trade away these key protections as we leave the EU. It should also give clarity over any future farm subsidies.”

‘Right to be concerned’

Green campaigners have echoed the Committee’s message to Government, with Friends of the Earth (FoE) urging that environmental laws should not be “deleted on a minister’s whim”.

Commenting on the EAC report, FoE campaigner Sam Lowe said: “MPs are right to be concerned about how Brexit could erode our nature and environment. The Great Repeal Bill must contain democratic safeguards to make sure that no significant amendment to the scope or purpose of EU environmental legislation can be made without being subject to full parliamentary scrutiny.

“No one voted to ‘take back control’ for the UK Parliament, only to hand it straight over to a minister, brandishing a red pen, with the power to delete vital nature protections on a whim.”

The report follows on from Green Party leader Caroline Lucas’ recent call for the UK to create a new Environmental Act, subject to legal oversight and accountability mechanisms, which replaces and strengthens environmental protections post-Brexit.

George Ogleby

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