A principled stand

Maggie Jones on cross-party moves that could help shore up Michael Gove’s ‘green’ credibility

What does Environment Secretary Michael Gove really think about the promises he has made on the environment? While he gives the appearance of genuinely caring, even his most ardent supporters are starting to question if he has the commitment and political will to turn promises into reality. And the contradiction will be confronted at tomorrow’s Third Reading of the EU Withdrawal Bill.

A cross party amendment, tabled by crossbencher Lord Krebs and with formal support from myself, Conservative Lord Deben and LibDem Baroness Bakewell, seeks to set out the environmental principles that should underpin UK law post-Brexit.

It should not be necessary. Last November, Mr Gove acknowledged the need to set out such principles and the remit for the statutory body which would hold public bodies to account. Then, late last week, we had first sight of a much delayed consultation document addressing these issues. Meanwhile, rumours abound that Gove has lost a battle with Cabinet colleagues on the proposed powers of the watchdog. It certainly seems that way.

The document out for consultation is a bitter disappointment to NGOs and individuals concerned about our environment standards post Brexit – particularly when we have relied on Europe to deliver for us in the past. For example, it makes it clear that the application of any principles would be subservient to other government priorities. The environment is portrayed as the enemy of growth rather than complementary; and there is no understanding of the advantages of an environmental net gain principle in wider government policies.

Although the document stresses the role of Parliament to hold the Executive to account using existing mechanisms such as select committees, there is scant acknowledgement of the advantages of external scrutiny and accountability.

In addition, the proposed watchdog is a toothless imitation of current EU institutions’ powers to intervene and compel governments to act. Instead, it will advise and lay reports to Parliament – with any formal action only possible at the end of a long line of bureaucratic hoops. This is a long way from reflecting the powers of the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, whose very authority helps to deliver compliance before formal legal action is necessary.

Finally, as Mr Gove has already admitted, there will be a governance gap. The consultation proposes a Bill in the next Queen’s Speech, so would not be enacted until the end of 2019 at the earliest. A lot could go wrong before then. Gove’s previous promises for legislation are already beginning to stack up, with more and more questions being asked about when they might see the light of day. This new Bill will take its place in that long queue, and his more antagonistic colleagues will no doubt help hinder its progress.

Our amendment addresses these failings. It sets out the existing EU environmental principles which should apply in the UK and requires an independent body with appropriate enforcement powers to be in place within six months of the Act being passed. This would ensure continuity of standards from Brexit day and, who knows, may even be welcomed by the Defra Secretary and help shore up his credibility as a new found champion of green causes.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl

Published 15th May 2018


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