In the early stages of the bill, consultation commitments were enough to buy time. The “governance gap” in environmental justice without the European Commission and Courts was bridged by the promise of a powerful environment watchdog. The legal lacuna left by the loss of vital principles of environmental law—like precaution and polluter pays—was spanned by an undertaking to create a statutory principles policy.
So far, Ministers have asked MPs and Lords to take it on trust that the laws and institutions needed to achieve a green Brexit will be provided, rather than amend the EU Withdrawal Bill itself. Taking the word of the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister (who has pledged to pass on our environment in better condition) members of both Houses have shown restraint in pressing the will of Parliament over government.
But now a new gap has opened: a political rift between parliamentarians committed to upholding and improving environmental law and others who perceive environmental protection as an obstacle. The result has been that the consultation on Mr Gove’s proposals for a statutory watchdog and principles policy has been seriously delayed.
It would be a shortcoming in democratic process and an affront to Parliament for Lords and MPs to be asked to pass the Withdrawal Bill without the chance to consider the Government’s proposals for policy problems it has acknowledged so clearly.
Now a cross-party group of Peers (Baroness Brown, Lord Deben, Baroness Jones of Whitchurch and Lord Inglewood) have sponsored amendment 27 to lock the consultation promises in law. Working with Greener UK, in collaboration with Wildlife and Countryside Link, they have tabled a proposal that would oblige Government to bring forward legislative proposals to (1) establish an independent expert body to uphold environmental law and (2) to ensure that the principles of environmental law inform decision-making.
Speaking to the Environmental Audit Committee this week, Mr Gove gave his clearest articulation yet of the potential for a new Environment Act to create world-leading laws to restore nature. That could be a splendid step forward for our environment, if it can finally turn the tide on species loss and pollution.
But a promise built on a promise built at the edge of a political precipice is a shaky foundation for a policy as ambitious as restoring nature. Before that work can begin, we need legal guarantee that the institutions and principles that protect nature will be in place after Brexit. The EU Withdrawal Bill should be amended. Please support amendment 27.
Richard Benwell, Head of Government Affairs, WWT
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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