Why the House of Lords is holding out for a strong environmental watchdog

 

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The EU (Withdrawal) Bill is being debated in the House of Lords and peers have been raising their concerns about the bill’s gaps and deficiencies. They have tabled over 100 amendments to the bill, several of which are being voted on and mostly passed.

The worry that Brexit might erode environmental safeguards has featured heavily  throughout the bill’s parliamentary passage. The environment has vied successfully with constitutional law issues for airtime. And yesterday’s debate was no different. Environmental governance and principles were discussed alongside the rights of UK citizens and a proposal to give the European Court of Justice some say over UK laws after exit day.

A cross-party amendment, led by the crossbench peer Baroness Brown of Cambridge and co-signed by Conservative peers Lord Deben and Lord Inglewood, and Labour’s shadow environment spokesperson Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, would require the government to follow through on its commitment to set up an independent green watchdog and ensure EU environmental principles continue to have a footing in UK domestic law. The peers’ argument was that the amendment just reflected what the government has said it will do and would hold it to its promise that Brexit would not weaken or diminish environmental protections.

Greener UK has been working tirelessly on the bill since it was published to highlight its environmental deficiencies and flaws and to work with parliamentarians from all parties to address these. Cross-party collaboration was reflected in the debate: amendment 27 had the support of Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour, Green, Plaid Cymru and crossbench peers. This was also clear in the letter a number of peers sent to The Times calling for the new watchdog and a set of environmental principles to be in place by exit day.

That question again: where’s the consultation?
A question that has been vexing many was raised in the debate, namely, where is the government’s consultation on environmental principles and the new watchdog? It was first promised in November, has been alluded to many times since, but has yet to materialise.

Peers aired an open secret on why the proposals have been delayed: whilst the Environment Secretary Michael Gove and his department are fully behind the proposals, other parts of government are less enthusiastic. This lack of cross-government buy-in risks undermining the government’s commitment to leave the environment in a better state than it found it and is one of the many reasons the bill must be amended.

Critically, peers pressed the government to act with urgency. Exit day is less than a year away, the promised transition period is not agreed until everything is agreed with the EU and there are a number of practical considerations in setting up any new body of this nature. They wanted reassurance and evidence of government commitment to address these important issues, making it clear that if they didn’t get it, in full, they would raise it again at Third Reading.

Warm words aren’t enough
In response, the minister, Lord Callanan, welcomed the sentiments behind amendment 27 and asked peers for more time to bring forward the necessary reassurances. He said the government’s intention was to publish the consultation in time for the Third Reading of the bill on 16 May.

At this stage, warm words aren’t enough to assuage the extensive parliamentary concerns being expressed. While publishing the consultation document is a critical first step, it really is just that. The consultation has to have robust proposals at its heart. These must set out the government’s commitment to and ambition for a strong, independent watchdog and a set of principles that are legally binding. And these can’t be either/or options.

With such severe pressure on the parliamentary timetable, we need more than hints and nods from the environment secretary at this stage. We need firm commitment on when legislation will be brought forward. And an unequivocal statement from the prime minister would go a long way to providing assurance that the government is fully committed to setting up a watchdog with teeth and to enshrining the principles in law by exit day.

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