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MPs find ‘severe downgrades’ in environment Brexit bill

Words: Laura Edgar
Protecting the environment / iStock-155097842

MPs on a select committee are concerned that environmental principles that guide European legislation and policy have been ‘severely downgraded’ in the draft Environment (Governance and Principles) Bill.

The bill aims to protect the environment when the UK leaves the European Union.

The Environmental Audit Committee, however, finds the principles to be “limited to minister’s action rather than all public bodies; they are subject to a number of exclusions; and to the veto of the secretary of state. They do not link to the rest of the bill or other legislation”.

The committee says the “weak” drafting of the duty could create a great deal of litigation. It recommends that an overarching objective to achieve a high level of environmental protection should be included in the bill to guide environmental policy, and that all public bodies “act in accordance with the principles”.

It also notes that the bill does not identify a government agency as having responsibility to enforce climate change mitigation measures, while the proposed new body Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) is limited to administrative compliance and not the failure to attain environmental standards and targets.

“This is at odds with the government’s claim that the bill places environmental accountability at the heart of government and is not equivalent to the procedure of the European Commission,” states the Scrutiny of the Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill.

The bill would mean local authorities or arm’s-length bodies could be held to account for failings outside their control. The committee says the whole of government should be accountable for the achievement of environmental standards and targets, rather than individual public authorities, unless the OEP deems that a specific body is at fault.

The report goes on to say that the enforcement of climate change mitigation has been “deliberately excluded from the scope of the OEP, yet this will become increasingly important as carbon budgets become harder to achieve in the coming years”.

“With only 12 years to halt the most devastating impacts of climate change, it is vital that mitigation is put on the same footing as the rest of environmental law.”

A bespoke enforcement procedure would help to address failure by public bodies to address climate change. The committee recommends an “expanded role for the first-tier tribunal, which could resolve more cases before the need for judicial review and undertake a more considered review of decision-making by expert members”.

Environmental Audit Committee chair Mary Creagh said: “If we want to be a world-leader in environmental protection, we need a world-leading body to protect it. The government promised to create a new body for governance that would go beyond standards set by the European Union. The bill, so far, falls woefully short of this vision.

“Far from creating a body which is independent, free to criticise the government and hold it to account, this bill would reduce action to meet environmental standards to a tick-box exercise, limit scrutiny, and pass the buck for environmental failings to local authorities.

“It’s shocking that enforcement to act on climate change has been deliberately left out of the remit of the OEP.

“The draft bill means that if we leave the EU we will have weaker environmental principles, less monitoring and weaker enforcement, and no threat of fines to force government action.”

Scrutiny of the Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill can be found here on the UK Parliament website.

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