Government on course to weaken post-Brexit environmental principles

Amy Lewis

The Wildlife Trusts call for rigorously enforced protections for nature and climate in law

The Wildlife Trusts welcome the launch of the consultation on the Draft Policy Statement on Environmental Principles. Almost three months after the end of the transition period and after waiting over three years for clarity on how our environmental principles will be applied outside the EU, it is a relief to finally have a consultation on how they will be replaced in UK law.

Unfortunately, the draft policy statement indicates that these principles will be applied more weakly than the EU. The Government’s flagship Environment Bill provides no legal duty to apply the principles – instead, Ministers must have "due regard" to a policy that can be changed by government whenever it likes. The climate and nature emergency demands more than a ‘noted’ marked down in the minutes of civil service meetings. The environment can no longer be an afterthought in decision making; it must be front and centre.

We need clear and rigorously enforced protections for nature and wildlife and climate in law.

There are also legal exemptions for complying with the principles when it comes to matters of national security, defence and almost anything to do with the Treasury – including taxation and spending decisions. Unless these get-out clauses are removed, it will be difficult to prove the UK is maintaining environmental standards, let alone enhancing them.

On top of this, we are also worried that the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will lack the power to enforce the environmental principles effectively. The OEP will be much smaller than the EU institutions it replaces, so it is critical that it has the resources and independence it needs to do its job. Regrettably this isn’t the case. The Environment Bill currently requires the OEP to follow “guidance” from the Secretary of State. This means the Government can influence its decision making, including in cases where the Government itself may be at fault.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said:

“The massive declines in nature are deeply worrying and will have irreversible consequences for wildlife, for people’s health and for nature’s ability to store carbon and help us to tackle the climate crisis. Now is not the time to shirk our responsibility to the next generation with warm-meaning intentions and legalise, we need clear and rigorously enforced protections for nature and wildlife and climate in law.

“Disappointingly, it looks like our environmental principles, which should guarantee the environment is at the heart of government decision making, will only be weakened further. With get-out clauses meaning that the principles don’t apply to government taxation and spending decisions on the environment, you have to ask do they really apply at all?

“This year we have already seen the Secretary of State incorrectly use the environmental principles as justification for giving an emergency authorisation for the use of toxic bee-killing pesticides. Alongside the weak application, get-out clauses and Ministers giving themselves powers to direct the Office for Environmental Protection’s work, it does not fill us with confidence that government is taking its environmental commitments seriously.”

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