The House of Commons has passed an amendment requiring Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, to take steps to maintain the EU’s environmental principles within domestic law after Brexit.
The amendment relates to the powers of a new environmental body which is being established to hold government to account post-Brexit. It will form part of an environmental principles and governance draft bill which will be put forward in the autumn.
As a result of the amendment being passed last night (13 June), which was put forward by Sir Oliver Letwin MP, the new environment body will focus on the “most significant” national issues in “national government” rather than the devolved nations.
The new body is likely to take on the role of ensuring environmental regulations are met, ranging from recycling targets to air pollution limits, said Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).
It will also respond to complaints, and publicly hold government to account, with regards to the delivery of environmental law.
House of Lords
MPs also debated an original amendment put forward by Lord Krebs. Commenting on the proposal, shadow Brexit secretary, Kier Starmer, said the Lords amendment suggests helpful developments in policy, including proposals to enable the watchdog to initiate legal proceedings. However, he said it “does not go far enough”.
The Lords amendment was also seeking for the new body to be able to check environmental performance in detail at different government departments in a way which the European Commission currently doesn’t have the powers to do.
For the government, solicitor general, Robert Buckland said the Lords proposal would create “legal uncertainty” and would not take into account “that a significant proportion of environmental legislation and policy is devolved”.
Instead, the solicitor general cautioned that the government should “tread very carefully in the field of domestic law before expanding too widely upon policy areas” in Wales and Scotland.
The original amendment also required the government to have power over all public authorities – including local authorities. “That goes much further than the European Commission, which can take action only against a member state, not individual public authorities within that state,” the solicitor general said.
Richard Benyon MP said Sir Letwin’s amendment “sets a framework on which we can build, as legislators, under future legislation”.
The passing of the amendment has been welcomed by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM). Heather Jones, senior policy advisor at CIWEM, said she was pleased by plans for “a new watchdog with the necessary teeth to hold the Government to account on its implementation of environmental law.”
But, she added: “where the amendment falls short is that it requires only the government, and not all public authorities, to be accountable to the watchdog. The amendment has also removed the reference from the Lord’s amendment that required the secretary of state to take steps to ensure that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU does not remove or weaken environmental protection, which could put the health of our environment and natural habitats at serious risk.
“We look forward to the publication of a robust and stringent Environmental Principles and Governance Bill and call on Government to extend the remit of the new watchdog to all public authorities, to guarantee strong environmental protections after exit day to safeguard and enhance our natural environment for future generations and to ensure that citizens have a means of affordable access to environmental justice.”