The criticism is made in an Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee report into the implementation of the Environmental Liability Directive (ELD) published this month.

It says: “It is surprising that Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has not been more robust in its defence of the environment; it appears that the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry*) ‘business-friendly’ agenda has been predominant.”

The European Union directive, which came into force in 2004, is aimed at preventing environmental damage by making industrial polluters liable for any damage but it allows members states wide discretion in implementation.

The committee blames the lack of ELD implementation on government anxiety to avoid accusations of “gold plating” – the practice of national governments tagging on measures to EU directives when putting them into law.

Business lobbyists argue it puts the UK at a commercially competitive disadvantage compared to other EU states where directives are implemented more literally.

But the committee says the country is missing out on some of the potential benefits of the directive as a result and it is up to the government to show its decisions are reasonable, proportionate and evidence based.

It cites the government’s unwillingness to extend the ELD to nationally protected wildlife and habitats alongside EU-protected ones as an example of where the minimum implementation approach is unsatisfactory.

It recommends nationally-protected biodiversity, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, are included within the cover of the directive.

Committee chairman Michael Jack said: “This directive provides Europe with a chance to harmonise a uniform and high level of environmental protection across the community.

“Given the government’s commitment to environmental protection I hope that once they have read our report they will decide to apply this important measure to all of England’s key areas of important biodiversity.”

*The Department of Trade and Industry has been replaced by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

David Gibbs

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