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European Union: Environmental Policy

Volume 777: debated on Monday 12 December 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their current priorities concerning United Kingdom participation in the development and implementation of European Union environmental policy.

My Lords, until exit negotiations are concluded, the UK remains a full member of the European Union and the Government will continue to negotiate, implement and apply EU environmental legislation. We aim to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it. Whatever the new relationship, we will work closely with countries and institutions in the EU and beyond to achieve our shared environmental goals.

My Lords, a European Union environment policy promoting improved air and water quality and higher standards generally has been a positive area of European action and one where the UK has often been proactive. Will the Minister give us more clues about whether the Government will continue with this action post Brexit? Will he tell us when his own department’s environment framework will be published as it is already overdue? How does he propose to ensure continued British influence and involvement in an area of policy so important to our citizens?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. This country has been at the forefront of global environmental initiatives—indeed, that was the case before we became members of the EU—and many of the challenges do not respect national borders, so co-operation with our friends within the EU and globally will remain of utmost importance. The UK is a party to about 30 multilateral environment agreements in its own right. The environment framework will, I hope, be published shortly, and will give an opportunity in the consultation process for everyone to play their part. Whether we are talking about invasive species, biosecurity, air quality or marine conservation, we want to work with our partners very closely.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that, in fact, our very costly carbon reduction targets are actually ahead of those of the rest of the EU, contrary to the requirements of the Climate Change Act 2008, which said we should take account of these things. Is it too much to hope that Brexit might provide an opportunity for us at least to be more in line with the European Union carbon targets rather than above them or, even better, that we should devise our own in a less costly way than the present very heavy burden on industry and poor families?

My Lords, there will be differing opinions on this. We have a very strong record on the carbon budgets, whatever one’s view. The issues of climate change are real, as my noble friend Lord Ridley said in the Times this morning. So it is very important that we take these matters seriously, and when we leave they will continue to be important for us.

My Lords, one of the key ways that we meet our European environmental standards is by investment from the European Investment Bank, which has already invested £50 billion in wastewater, clean technology for energy, flooding and waste. How are we going to replace that vital funding stream in two years’ time?

My Lords, it is right that the noble Lord mentioned flooding. That is why we have record sums of capital investment: £2.5 billion in flooding investment, as well as a record £1 billion investment in maintenance. That is an example of the UK Government investing strongly in our defences.

My Lords, given that a number of rather nasty tree diseases in Europe are just awaiting their opportunity to get into this country, will the Minister use the opportunity that Brexit provides to strengthen our import controls to make sure those diseases do not get in?

My Lords, I should declare an interest: as Minister for Biosecurity I take these matters very seriously. Our preparations are much advanced. I have been working with the Chief Plant Health Officer and we are in a much better position. Of course we should use the opportunity to see what works in the national interest, and I shall be looking at this very carefully.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that European environmental standards will all be transferred to UK law when the so-called great reform Act comes through; that none of them can then be disposed of without an order going through both this House and the other place; and that therefore we will have an opportunity to stop any unnecessary rollback?

My Lords, the great repeal Bill will provide an opportunity to ensure that there will be no gaps, to provide certainty for businesses, stakeholders and everyone. It is precisely the case that those standards will be coming back to this country and if there is any requirement for alteration, it would come before Parliament in the normal manner of scrutiny by both Houses.

My Lords, health and flooding have been mentioned, but is it not true that without EU environmental laws on air pollution and clean water, we would have had an even worse situation on air pollution, particularly in London, and would not now be building a supersewer to stop the discharge of raw sewage into the Thames, which is still happening in 2016?

My Lords, what the noble Baroness said about the Thames Tideway project is extremely important: raw sewage is going into the Thames; we must reduce it and work on it. That is why it is a very important investment. However, when I looked into the matter, much of what the noble Baroness mentioned is domestic legislation which even predates our membership of the EU. We will be continuing with our environmental course so that we have a better environment.

My Lords, once the UK has left the EU, in the absence of the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, what bodies will be responsible for ensuring that the UK complies with present EU environmental standards, even taking legal action against the Government when it fails to do so?

As the Government intend that we will leave the environment in a better condition, I very much hope that will not be the case, but the point is that the Government are accountable to the UK Parliament and the electorate, and there are the domestic courts as well.

My Lords, if we are to leave our environment in a better condition, is it not essential that we maintain one of the things that the country can be most proud of: namely, our green belt policy?

My Lords, in my view, the green belt has been one of the great successes, ensuring that we do not get urban sprawl. It is very important that it remains. I think my notes will tell me, if I can find them, that a considerable proportion—it is 13%—of the land area in England is covered by green belt. It is very important to ensure that it remains.

My Lords, what action are the Government going to take to help the solar industry and the insulation industry, which have been so badly damaged by government policy?

My Lords, with reference to what my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford said, it is important that we have a mix of energy, and that people do not pay more for their energy than is strictly necessary. Those things are an important feature, but we need to be mindful of costs. That is why the Government took the action that they did.