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A Nod to a New Environmental Protection Act

Yesterday whilst debating amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, Oliver Letwin MP, with a nod of approval from Michael Gove, announced a new Environmental Protection Act. This is a significant step and indeed, has long been requested by environmental organisations.

November 2017

The announcement came as members of both sides of the House passionately articulated the vital role that the EU environmental principles play in shaping our environmental laws. What most MPs agreed on was that the EU (Withdrawal) Bill fails to bring the principles into domestic legislation and on leaving the EU we will be faced with a “governance gap” as we lose the functions of the Commission and European Courts.

Environmental Principles

Wildlife and Countryside Link and Greener UK have long advocated that environmental principles should be saved in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. However, several MPs during yesterday’s debate argued for the environmental principles to be placed in a National Policy Statement (NPS) that would be consulted on, debated in Parliament and backed up by an Environmental Protection Act. It was stated that such an Act would ensure the definitions and details of the principles would be enacted by Parliament, rather than determined by the courts. It was further stated that an NPS could also translate environmental principles into UK law in a more detailed form than amendments to the Withdrawal Bill could deliver and be enforced by the courts when challenging the Government.

Last night saw passionate and knowledgeable MPs speaking about the importance of the environment, and there is no doubt that MPs proposing an NPS hold a genuine belief that it would be the best method to protect nature. However, any NPS would need to address a number of points to provide at least equivalent status to the current principles:

  1. An NPS is not a fixed long-term commitment in the same way as the environmental principles currently contained in EU law. Statements are revised and updated, so do not provide the legal certainty of primary legislation. This would potentially subject the principles to the political will of changing governments.
  2. An NPS will have a more limited scope of application than the environmental principles do currently.
  3. Secretary of States have a great deal of control over the content of an NPS as opposed to primary legislation. Therefore, if an NPS was used to hold government and public bodies to account, government could potentially amend the NPS to make it less effective.
  4. An NPS lacks the binding character of legislation, meaning courts could give it little or no weight.

The Governance Gap

When appearing before the Environmental Audit Committee last week, Michael Gove announced the need for a new “commission like body” to hold the Government to account, and yesterday Oliver Letwin and Richard Benyon provided more welcome detail in Parliament.

It was stated that this new Environmental Protection Act will establish a new enforcement body with real teeth and that such Act will start its passage through Parliament before we leave the EU. According to Mr Letwin, this body will be independent of the Government, have the power to take the Government to court and also take on complaints from NGOs and others. The points made are all welcome, and it is vital too that any new body be adequately funded, with technically qualified staff to enable it to comment on the performance of competent authorities and challenge the Government when necessary. The questions of the bodies’ enforcement powers (as judicial review alone is inadequate) and whether each country of the UK would have its own body, must also be addressed. Despite these remaining concerns, it is encouraging that Michael Gove is listening to environmental organisations and trying to create solutions to the questions he is being asked.

It is also vitally important that there is no void between us leaving the EU and a new body, or bodies, coming into being. If it is not established before we lose the roles of the European Commission and Courts, interim arrangements must be put in place.

If the Secretary of State wishes to create a gold standard of environmental protections as we leave the EU, the questions raised above need to be answered and overcome. There is no guarantee that an Environmental Protection Act will be in place before we leave the EU and no guarantee that the environmental principles, as we know them, will be included in such an Act. It is therefore crucial that the environmental principles be saved by the Withdrawal Bill, which is why, following the many inspiring remarks, it was disappointing that MPs rejected an amendment that would have saved the principles last night.

The words of some Conservative MPs and promises of a new Environmental Protection Act are a source of great optimism that we can protect our environment for future generations. However, for the time being at least, they are just words…..and nods. That is why it remains important that the EU (Withdrawal) Bill saves the environmental principles and ensures there is no governance gap.

Matthew Stanton
Solicitor, WWF-UK

Find WWF on Twitter @WWF_UK

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.