This Queen’s speech will chart the course to our environmental future

17547513394_f6a29c5fb5_bIf the past month has taught me anything it’s that making political predictions is a mug’s game. Most of the political commentariat seemed as far off as me in their expectation of a parliamentary majority. Likewise, it’s hard to guess what exactly will be in the Queen’s speech, but here is what Green Alliance thinks it should contain. 

It is becoming ever clearer that this new parliament will be one of the most important in a generation for the environment. Domestically, leaving the EU provides opportunities to recreate our food and farming system (free of the Common Agricultural Policy) and to go further with environmental legislation, but it also raises the issue of maintaining our current environmental protections. Meanwhile, as the UK starts to establish itself anew on the global stage and lay the groundwork for future trade deals, the next five years sees a number of important milestones for international environmental conventions. One of the most significant of all, the Paris Agreement, just had one of the world’s biggest emitters of carbon pull out.

So tomorrow, once Black Rod has banged on the Commons door, MPs and peers have gathered in the House of Lords, and Her Majesty has opened up the goatskin parchment, it is vital that the speech which sets the parliamentary agenda for the next two years includes a bill for a continued high level of environmental protection so that the UK can be a world leader on some of the challenges that will define the twenty first century.

The biggest piece of legislation for the environment
Someone with the nerve to make predictions in the current climate might assume that the Repeal Bill will be the biggest piece of legislation in tomorrow’s speech. We will be watching closely, as this will be the first big test of the new government’s resolve to leave the environment in a better state than it found it.

Announcements from the government that it intends to transfer all existing EU environmental protections across to the UK have been very welcome. But clarity is still needed in some areas. To keep all the benefits we currently get from EU protections, all EU laws and principles will have to be transferred across into domestic law. So far, there has been no indication whether the bill will include the transfer of principles, such as the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle, which have been fundamental in effective implementation of current laws.

We also need to see laws transferred into primary legislation. There is an understanding that, with the amount of legislation to be transposed, secondary legislation (or statutory instruments) will have to be used. These instruments give ministers the power to scrap or amend laws without full parliamentary scrutiny. The Repeal Bill must assure the public and parliament that these powers will only be used to transpose the laws faithfully and not be used in the future to amend them in a way to weaken environmental protection.

Clarification is also needed around how laws will be implemented once we leave the EU. Currently, monitoring, oversight and enforcement functions of these laws are provided by EU institutions. The bill should make it clear how these functions will be replaced and who will carry them out. (For more detail on what the Repeal Bill should include to look after and enhance our environment, see Greener UK’s briefing.)

Sustainable farming and high food standards
The government promised in its manifesto to keep the amount of subsidies paid to farmers the same for the next five years before creating a new regime in the next parliament. If legislation to implement this is included in the speech tomorrow, it must ensure a clear public benefit in return for taxpayers’ money. Leaving the EU allows the UK to create world-leading sustainable farming and land use policies that deliver real value and provide clean water, climate change mitigation, beautiful landscapes and abundant nature. Any new legislation that starts to lay out the groundwork for the UK’s future international trade must protect our farmers from the threat of lower food standards. This also goes for businesses which need stability around product standards.

Setting the vision for the future
My one uncontroversial prediction is that the unexpected general election result will mean that tomorrow’s speech will be nowhere near as full or as ambitious as the prime minister would have planned it to be when she called the election in April.

We stand at a crossroads. The bills passed over the next two years will start the legislative underpinning for the vision of what the UK will look like in ten, twenty, fifty years’ time. Will we have the capacity to be a global centre for innovation? A world leader on climate change, setting the global standard on environmental protections? We will see in tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech, which will start us on the journey.

[Image: Queen’s Speech, courtesy of UK Parliament from Flickr Creative Commons]

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