Skip to main content

Brexit: Environmental Standards

Volume 778: debated on Thursday 2 February 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they will put in place following Brexit to safeguard environmental standards and biodiversity.

My Lords, we already have domestic law that safeguards the environment. The great repeal Bill to be introduced in the next parliamentary Session will incorporate EU law relating to environment and biodiversity into domestic UK law. The UK is also a party to around 30 international environmental agreements and treaties in its own right. We are bound by the obligations that they contain; this will not change on exit from the EU.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I am sure that he appreciates how much the farming policies of this country have an influence on our environment—everything from the quality of water to the state of our wildlife and our soil fertility. At the worst, can he envisage a point where we have a trade deal with the US, with all its implications for food production, and a farming scenario where we would have a countryside of prairies interspersed with feed-lots? Will the Government therefore combine their 25-year farming strategy with their 25-year environmental strategy? We have only one land area, and it would make great sense for those two to be combined.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that agriculture plays a crucial role in our environmental policy: 70% of our land is farmed, so it is very important. That is why the two forthcoming Green Papers for consultation, to which we look forward to many responses, are about enhancing and handing over a better environment than the one we have inherited, including a vibrant agricultural system. As I have said before to your Lordships, I believe that both are compatible.

My Lords, I want to push the noble Lord on the Question that was just asked. Will he guarantee to the House that any future trade deal with the United States will be based on our existing high environmental standards, which will not be sacrificed in some sort of grubby trade deal further down the line? This is really important to the House, and we have debated it many times.

My Lords, obviously I am not privy to what will be in the forthcoming negotiations, but what we have said and will continue to say is that we are not prepared to see a diminution of our environmental standards. We are subject to obligations and treaties, and we wish to hand over a better environment than the one we have inherited.

My Lords, is our departure from Europe not also a great opportunity to support and encourage our very important horticultural industry?

My Lords, I am taken with what my noble friend has said. Clearly, this provides an opportunity for a boost in domestic horticultural trade. I am very keen, for instance, on Grown in Britain, in terms of our trees. We have, unfortunately, imported many pests and diseases over the years, so I think that this provides us with a great opportunity, and I would encourage domestic tree production.

My Lords, we are all reassured that EU environmental legislation is going to be enshrined within UK law, but we will probably be coming out of the single market and entering into a series of trade negotiations with, for example, the United States. Trade negotiations are just that: we will have to make compromises. Will the Minister assure the House that we will not be producing our food to lower standards or consuming food that has been produced more cheaply by undercutting our industry—for example, chicken washed in chlorine and beef reared on growth hormones?

My Lords, as I said before, it is important to note that this country has had a very long history of being in advance even of EU law. In fact, our Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was enacted a decade before the EU habitats directive. The whole direction of travel in this country has been to lead on these matters. We will be working hard in my department to ensure that there is no diminution in standards. We wish to encourage our farmers to produce the best food possible because brand Britain is about high animal welfare standards and high environmental standards.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that more than 1,100 individual pieces of European Union legislation affect Defra directly, so they are of enormous importance to the future of our agriculture and environment? It is clear that not all of this can be immediately transferred under the great Bill which we are promised by Ministers, but can the noble Lord guarantee that there will be no diminution or reduction in environmental and agricultural standards, to safeguard the environment in this country?

My Lords, I want to be absolutely categoric that the whole direction of travel on this is to enhance our environment. All that we are seeking to do, in our negotiations and considerations on the future, is about the brand of Britain as one of high animal welfare standards in the production of livestock and environmental protections. We have a very long and positive history on this.

My Lords, when we pass the primary legislation, if we do, on the great repeal Bill, how are we to know what effect that will have when we will not by then have agreed the terms of our trade and many other matters with the European Union?

As I say, because of the construction of our environmental protections which are part through domestic law and part through our EU law requirements, all of it is coming back so that it will be exactly the same continuum of laws relating to environmental protection. That is the whole point of the great repeal Bill, so there is certainty for the consumer, the producer and business.

My Lords, the Minister referred to an upcoming consultation on the 25-year environment plan. Some matters that are not open for consultation are matters of principle. One of the principles in Europe has been that environmental protection has been maintained by the precautionary principle. Will the Minister guarantee that this Government will uphold the precautionary principle?

My Lords, as I have said, we wish and intend to leave the environment in a better position than the one we have inherited. That surely means that we will want a situation where we are advancing our protections rather than not.