As the United Kingdom hurtles towards Brexit with a suspended parliament, numerous facets of the countries post-Europe laws are unknown. Among the grey areas are the government’s plans for environmental protection laws once the plug is pulled on participation in the EU. A lack of clarity on the matter has driven 36 leading organisations to push the new Prime Minister to detail his post-Brexit environment plans.
Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested firmly that the UK will diverge from environmental protection rules laid out by the European Union. Johnson said the country will have the ability to create and introduce its own laws and not be tied to the regulatory framework of the EU.
Despite the admittance, Johnson’s government has been vague on details. Leading organisations that focus on environmental issues have joined forces in a joint letter to Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers to press for more details.
Among the co-signers of the letter are Amnesty International, Buglife, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Campaign for National Parks, CPRE, ClientEarth, Compassion in World Farming, Friends of the Earth, Global Witness, Greenpeace, RSPB, Sustain and Wild Justice.
Previous environment secretary Michael Gove had said the UK’s environment laws would remain in line with Europe but would be “enhanced” after Brexit. Furthermore, Gove also detailed a new environmental watchdog – the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) – to be launched in December under the Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill.
OEP will investigate complaints made against public authorities accused of breaking environmental laws. However, a cross-party committee of MPs reviewing the watchdog said its is not capable of acting autonomously and is not independent from The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
In other words, while investigations would be confirmed, details of them would remain classified. In the joint letter, the 36 organisations said OEP “would impose a degree of secrecy which does not apply to any other UK environmental regulator”. Not disclosing the information “is wholly at odds with the public’s right to information”, the letter reads.
Speaking to The Independent, Rebecca Newsom, head of politics for Greenpeace, said making information regarding environmental investigations available to the public should be a fundamental part of democracy.
“If ministers can dictate what the new environmental watchdog can or cannot disclose, that’ll be the first step towards muzzling it. This new agency will bear the huge responsibility of replacing powerful institutions like the European Commission in enforcing rules and targets on pollution and nature protection after Brexit, so it’s absolutely vital for the public to be able to see it operate effectively.
“Britain prides itself on having some of the strongest transparency laws in the world, and the new nature watchdog should be no exception.”
All signatories of the letter say UK citizens have right of access to environment information through the country’s Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) laws. There are times when information can be withheld, such as when disclosing information would directly affect an investigation. Even in these cases, the information must still be made available if it is in the public interest.
Under the new draft bill, none of these provisions are in place, allowing OEP to retain information.
“If the OEP, public authority or minister (as the case may be) did not wish the information to be released, it would be withheld,” the letter reads. “There would be no need to show that disclosure would be harmful. The public interest in the information would be irrelevant. This would reverse decades of progress in opening up environmental information.”
Environment Protection standards are “under threat”
While the UK prepares to overhaul its environmental laws after departure from the EU, the country’s current infrastructure is already under scrutiny before it leaves the bloc. According to a recent report, environmental protection standards in the UK are eroding and are “under threat” from red tape and budget cuts.
Unchecked.uk analysis published in late August points to a reduction in budget and staff for regulatory and enforcement agencies tasked with managing environmental protection laws. In the report, the campaign suggests an “enforcement gap” has been created that harms the UK’s ability to govern on environmental issues.
Twenty organisations signed a joint letter sent to The Times that warned “steep reduction in inspections and monitoring of regulated business in recent years risks undermining the achievement of public policy objectives.”
Co-authoring organisations suggest the creation of a regulator that is backed by enough funding to underpin environmental protection laws. Furthermore, the group says there must be a clear distinction of reward and punishment between companies that effectively develop compliance frameworks with environmental regulations and those that do not.
Emma Rose of Unchecked.uk said: “The analysis we are publishing today is alarming and is cause for serious national concern. With important regulators operating with on average 50% less funding than ten years ago, there is a need for a closer look at the state of our public protection infrastructure.”
Free from EU Regulation
It is clear Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a long-time and fierce proponent of Brexit, believes the UK will be better off out of the EU, and that extends to environment regulations. However, there are concerns amongst environmental groups that the country will adopt a weaker framework for environmental governance without EU influence.
Johnson and his government may prefer such an outcome. Certainly, there has been a growing air of frustration about European laws directing UK environmental policy, for better or for worse.
For example, the EU has recently criticised the UK government’s failure to fulfil its regulatory obligations regarding the protection of important wildlife. Despite promises of improvement, EU regulators said last month no progress has been made.
Under the European Union’s habitats and birds directive, members of the bloc must commit to improving the protection if individual species and developing breeding and resting sites for endangered animals. As a member of the EU, the UK would have been held to account by the European Commission for its failures. However, with Brexit imminent the commission has stopped hearing complaints against the UK regarding environmental law.
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