15 November 2017
A major coalition of twenty-eight environment and wildlife organisations  are today warning that despite welcome commitments on environmental protections, the UK Government could still create loopholes in environmental law as part of the Brexit transition. This could have damaging consequences for the environment and animal welfare.
The warning coincides with amendments being debated during ‘environment day’ (today Weds 15 Nov) in the Committee stage of the (EU) Withdrawal Bill. These amendments could help close these legal loopholes if they are backed by MPs.
Environmental groups have warmly welcomed recent commitments to a strong new environmental regulator in England and to consult on retaining environmental principles.  However, they are concerned that the UK Government has omitted vital EU legal principles, which protect our environment, from the current Withdrawal Bill. They are warning that unless the full range of environmental principles are underpinned with legislation, we are at risk of drastically weakened environmental legal protections which could have major repercussions.
Elaine King, of Environment Links UK , said: ‘Michael Gove has said that he wants to achieve a gold standard on the environment , but the EU Withdrawal Bill without these principles is set to provide tin can protection. It is essential the UK Government offers the same or stronger legal protections as the EU if we are to protect the UK's natural world.’
Martin Spray CBE, Chief Executive of WWT, said: ‘The environmental integrity of decision-making could be compromised if MPs leave out these core green principles. But by integrating them properly in law and policy the UK could set a new global standard in environmentally-rational thinking. We welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of a consultation and urge him to give the House confidence that any principles policy will have a strong foundation in law.’
Kierra Box, Friends of the Earth campaigner, said: ‘Michael Gove has, in the last few days, outlined proposals to create a new policy statement setting out the environmental principles. But we need legal certainty. So if Mr Gove is serious about getting this right, then why not commit to fully bring the principles into UK law to provide this assurance? The UK government has repeatedly been criticised for trying to lower the bar set by the EU on the environment and the Withdrawal Bill in its current form is looking too weak to deliver, failing even to maintain existing standards. Our environment deserves an ambitious, no-compromise approach.’
Debbie Tripley, Head of UK and EU Advocacy at WWF, said: ‘Our environment faces a risky future if the EU Withdrawal Bill does not include the environmental principles that have been key to protecting nature and the environment for decades. The Government wants the UK post-Brexit to be the “gold standard” in respecting nature, but without the right principles being enacted into law we risk falling well short of that.’
Claire Bass, Executive Director of Humane Society International UK, said: ‘Ministers have repeatedly stated their ambition to make animal welfare standards a unique UK selling point in the post-Brexit world. But if this is to become a reality, Britain must put into UK law the need to take animals' welfare into account. Without the overarching principle of animal sentience, animal welfare risks being sacrificed on the altar of trade, which would be a disaster for animals and for Britain's reputation as a compassionate nation.'
Further quotes from the coalition of charities can be found here.
Around 80% of our environmental law and policy is currently based on EU law. Standards jointly adopted with our European neighbours have enabled the UK to meet national and international environmental targets. So it is essential that these EU environmental and animal welfare protections are completely translated into domestic law as part of the EU Withdrawal Bill. The Withdrawal Bill does not currently set out a clear pathway for this, and the risk is that essential environmental protections will be lost if amendments to the Bill are not made.
In addition to specific EU directives relating to environmental and animal welfare protection, the main principles guiding EU environmental action are enshrined in law, as part of the EU treaties. They are essential requirements for governments, statutory agencies, as well as businesses, and if necessary an aid to interpretation by the Courts, and include:
the polluter pays principle; which states that those who cause pollution should pay for the damage. This acts as a financial deterrent to businesses and others polluting the environment.
the dealing with damage at source principle; which ensures that the cause of any pollution or damage to the environment has to be addressed at source to prevent further harm, rather than just dealing with the resulting damage in the wider environment.
the precautionary principle; which means where there is a possibility of serious environmental harm, the absence of scientific certainty can’t be used as a reason not to take action
and the animal sentience principle; that recognises animals as ‘sentient beings’ and requires that their welfare is ensured.These legal principles have been responsible for massive environmental wins, such as:
The current version of the Withdrawal Bill would fail to ensure all the principles from EU law are specifically brought across into domestic law. The coalition is supporting essential amendments to the Withdrawal Bill which include enshrining these principles into law. These amendments will be debated on Wednesday 15 November 2017 and the group urges MPs to give them their backing to help protect our much loved natural world.
On Saturday 11 Nov in an article in the Telegraph Michael Gove committed to ‘create a new policy statement setting out the environmental principles that will guide us’ and this would ‘underpin future policy making.’ The EU principles currently underpin law-making as well as policy and NGOs believe that they should therefore be founded in primary legislation.
Powers relating to most environmental matters are currently devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is therefore essential for the UK and devolved governments to work together to address these concerns. 
The coalition is calling for:
EndsNotes to editors:
In this section: