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The government’s missing principles


Maggie Jones on cross-party attempts to retain the UK’s existing environmental protections, post-Brexit

This week, in the EU Withdrawal Bill, the Lords will debate a package of amendments designed to ensure the full range of environmental protections are transposed into UK law. Peers from across the House have been working with environment charities through the umbrella body, Greener UK, and many of the amendments have wide cross-party support.
Our key amendment spells out the core principles of environmental law currently found in the treaty on the functioning of the EU, as well as in a number of international treaties to which the UK is signed up by virtue of our membership. Some also appear in preambles to directives but not the body of the legislation, which is why they are not due to be retained via this Bill.
The amendment would restate and spell out these principles within the legislation in order to deliver the government’s promise of equivalence of environmental standards post-Brexit. Crucially, these include: the precautionary principle, the preventative action principle, the principle that environmental damage should be rectified at source, the polluter pays principle, and the principle that environmental protection should be integrated into policies to achieve sustainable development.
In the past, the precautionary principle has been applied to the use of pesticides when the impact of neonicotinoids on bee populations was suspected but not backed by full scientific certainty. Subsequently, new evidence has confirmed that the ban was justified and should be maintained.
Similarly, the polluter pays principle has been used to apply the water Framework Directive to water companies that have polluted rivers and streams – requiring them to repair the damage and invest in preventative measures.
Our intention therefore, is that all of the environmental principles set out in EU law should be part of domestic law the day after we leave the EU – so the public can rely on them, the courts can apply them and public bodies can follow them.
Other amendments address the governance gap that will open up when we lose the EU institutions and mechanisms that now robustly enforce standards. The aim being to establish a new UK independent environmental watchdog that would be responsible for ensuring implementation, compliance and enforcement of environmental law, policy and principles.
Ministers have accepted that a gap exists and promised a consultation over a new environment watchdog – but to date, nothing had appeared. That’s why there is real concern that any future proposal will lack the teeth needed to hold the government to account. And as Brexit draws closer and completion for legislative time becomes more intense, there is a real need to have a statutory body in place for day one.
Another amendment would ensure that the UK applies the EU Directives which protect air quality, as well as the UK Air Quality Standards Regulations that transpose them. Under the current proposals, these could be amended or repealed with minimum parliamentary scrutiny. The concern is that the government’s reluctance to comply with the directive, which has led to the Courts ruling the action unlawful, will pave the way for an attempt to back out of the obligations.
Finally, an amendment has been tabled which addresses the need for the four governments of the UK to work together to establish minimum common standards in the context that environmental protection is a devolved matter. Of course, each country would be free to be more ambitious. But without shared standards, it will be hard to take a truly green approach to trade negotiations and other deals.

Taken together, this package of amendments will go some way to reassuring everyone who cares about the environment that Brexit will not see the UK revert to being the dirty man of Europe.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl

Published 5th March 2018

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