This post is by Georgina Holmes-Skelton, head of government affairs at the National Trust and former House of Commons clerk.
I wrote in January about the Retained EU law Bill and why we should all be worried about it, despite its dry content and uncertain effect. Now, in June, the bill is on the brink of passing into law, which seems like a good moment to take stock of where we stand.
The bill has changed, in some ways substantially, since it arrived in the House of Lords. The government has removed the automatic sunset clause which threatened to sweep away a host of retained law at the stroke of midnight on 31 December 2023. This drastically reduces the risk laws will fall out of the statute book simply because they have been overlooked. Or because the whips office has underestimated how long it would take to get statutory instruments in place to retain or amend thousands of existing laws through both Houses of Parliament by the end of the year. If that sounds hyperbolic, then it’s worth recalling that the government’s Dashboard of Retained EU law has been updated twice since I last wrote, with the total currently standing at 4,917 laws. As 687 of these laws are to be repealed at the end of the year, that leaves over 4,000 that would presumably have had to be retained through secondary legislation processes in the limited weeks parliament sits between now and 31 December.
The bill is passing with very little parliamentary scrutiny
This was a helpful change but, unfortunately, parliamentarians were given very little notice of it, or of the details of the 687 laws being swept away. Fewer than 24 hours were available to examine this list and identify anything of concern before the deadline for tabling amendments. It has been done in a way that minimises public and parliamentary scrutiny. And there are a handful whose sudden loss would be concerning; for example, the National Emission Ceilings Regulations 2018 which helps to protect air quality in the UK. The short timescale has made engagement with either the government or MPs and peers to remedy this very difficult.
This is concerning in the context of a bill that still contains extraordinary powers for ministers to amend retained EU law through secondary legislation as they see appropriate, with no requirements to consult the public, and very limited parliamentary oversight, up to June 2026. One amendment was made by the Lords to add a non-regression requirement, which would ensure the bill’s powers could not be used to weaken environmental and food standards. But this was opposed by the government in the Commons.
In spite of this, we are still expected to take the government at its word that these powers will not be used to undermine some of the most important underpinning environmental legislation we have.
This bill has continued to be challenging to work on, not only because there are a limited number of policy nerds with an appetite for bills which span issues of law, parliament and environmental protection (shout out to that rare but wonderful crowd who have been working with Greener UK on this).
It has also posed challenges to organisations like us at the National Trust in understanding its potential impact on organisations’ operations and ambitions. For us, promoting natural beauty is hardwired into our statutory purpose as a charity. Protecting our rich natural heritage is as important to us as ensuring that the houses, collections and historic buildings in our care are there for future generations to enjoy.
Regulations are needed that apply to all
Given that we have so much land under our protection already, you might question whether this legislation should really affect us that much. Surely we can ensure high standards for nature on National Trust land, regardless of what wider environmental protections dictate?
That is true up to a point. But, like all landowners, there are constraints on our ability to make progress. Not least, the fact that ecosystems do not abide by the boundaries of land ownership. What happens in a river upstream, for example, can have a huge impact on the ecology and habitats throughout the wider catchment. Even on the land that we own, we work with and alongside a range of others: tenant farmers, local communities and visitors, public bodies and other landowners. We can’t directly control all the factors that affect nature on our land.
Regulations set a level playing field, in terms of the expectations of all parties, including the National Trust. They represent an agreed standard that everyone must uphold, to avoid damage and improve the state of our environment across whole ecosystems and habitats.
Weakening already inadequate laws will benefit no one
It’s also the case that even at our organisation’s scale, our efforts on our land cannot do the job alone. The UK has made a global commitment to protecting 30 per cent of land for nature by 2030. The National Trust’s and other NGOs’ contributions to this are not insignificant, but they are a long way from achieving that scale of change. The existing protections we have, vital though they are, are already inadequate, and have left us a long way from a healthy environment. Weakening them further will not benefit people or nature.
Fundamentally, the National Trust is not solely concerned with the land and buildings under its direct care, but also with promoting the permanent preservation of animal and plant life. Development, climate change and biodiversity loss all affect our ability to deliver on this cause.
It’s a reality of recent history that vital protections for our most important nature sites are contained in retained EU law. This bill and the powers it contains risk worsening the crisis that nature is already facing, and so we continue to press the government to ensure that environmental standards are protected on the face of the Retained EU Law Bill and to accept the sensible amendments that peers will propose on Tuesday 6 June, when the bill returns to the Upper House.