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Brexit: Environmental Regulation

Volume 800: debated on Monday 4 November 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what will be the arrangements for environmental protection and upholding environmental standards between the date of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and the establishment of any new environmental regulation regime.

My Lords, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and secondary legislation will bring existing EU environmental law into domestic law so that it continues to operate after exit. We will enhance standards through the world-leading Environment Bill and the office for environmental protection, the OEP. Our intention is for the OEP to be operational from 1 January 2021. Before that, we will remain subject to EU oversight during the transitional period in the withdrawal agreement until 31 December 2020.

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. There is concern that the level of “appropriate” standards has been reduced to “adequate” standards in the revised EU withdrawal legislation. Can my noble friend put my mind—and the minds of environmentalists at large—at rest that that will not mean a reduction of standards and that the Government are committed to keeping the highest possible level of environmental standards and protection? What will the compliance mechanism be in the interim period before the OEP is legally given effect?

My Lords, as I said, the interim arrangements would not apply under the description of events that I have, which is that we bring forward a deal, that deal is agreed and there is a withdrawal Act. As my noble friend said, that legislation is very important, and I am sure that during its passage it will be made absolutely clear that we intend to champion the environment. We want the highest possible standards and understand that the situation is grave. As to “adequate” and other measures, I am not a lawyer but I can only assure your Lordships that we are very determined to enhance the environment.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why the Boris Johnson version of the withdrawal Bill specifically left out the clause—known as the non-regression clause—which guaranteed that we would not fall below current environmental standards? Can he clarify what plans are now in place to reverse that decision and introduce legislation to give legal certainty on that issue? I know that the Environment Bill is coming our way, but will the precise issue of non-regression be in it?

My Lords, perhaps the easiest thing is to read out the Prime Minister’s text, in reply to a question precisely on non-regression:

“The crucial thing that will reassure her is that in the event of the EU bringing forward new legislation, we in this Government will bring forward an amendable motion so that the House may choose to match those standards”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/10/19; col. 831.]

We are very clear. We are in the market not of non-regression but of moving forward. We need to enhance the environment. That is the predication of the OEP and the work of the Environment Bill whenever it comes forward.

My Lords, on the carbon side of environmental standards, is it worth noting that the EU has not done well at all, what with the banning of nuclear power and rising emissions in Germany and a vastly greater intake of Russian gas? Does he not agree that, once we are outside the European Union—provided that we are successful in our replacement of nuclear power—we can go for much higher standards than those that prevail within the European Union?

My Lords, my noble friend has hit on something absolutely crucial. We need to ensure that we lead. That is indeed why this country was the first in the world to introduce legally binding greenhouse gas emission targets. We were the first country to set a legally binding target to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions. All this is the direction of travel in which we wish to go. We should be ambitious about that; I agree with my noble friend.

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that all this works only if we do not undermine those things by agreeing international trading arrangements that allow other people to export into this country goods and services that do not reach the same standards? Is it not true that those in charge of international trade in this Government have not been as committed to our environmental standards as other members of the Government?

Well, this member of the Government is delighted to say that the United Kingdom is a world leader on animal welfare and environmental standards. We will not water down our standards as part of trade negotiations; I have said that before. We are committed to making sure that any future trade agreements work for consumers, farmers and businesses across the United Kingdom.

My Lords, what would happen to complaints already with the Commission? Are any arrangements in place for them to be received and acted on during the interregnum?

Yes, during the period up to 31 December, under the relevant clause—I cannot remember which—of the withdrawal Bill, there would be EU oversight of all the arrangements. The point, as I mentioned, is that the OEP is due to come in on 1 January 2021. It would then take over the oversight.

My Lords, will the Government confirm that there would be nothing to prevent them adopting the European standards and going further if they wished?

My Lords, I hope I used the word “ambition”. This country has been world-leading and we have an ambition to continue to be world-leading. Yes, we want to enhance the environment and do better than the rest of the EU.

My Lords, we have heard a lot of promises from the Minister, which I am sure he will keep. One was about the office for environmental protection. We have had three Brexit extensions and it is well over a year since we were first promised that it would exist. Why has this been so slow? There is no way of enforcing any of the challenges to what is happening.

We have the ability to challenge through the Commission’s oversight. The point is that the OEP is designed precisely to replace that Commission oversight. There is a lot of ambition about the OEP. We will obviously consider it during the Environment Bill. It will be a very powerful independent body, which will hold public authorities to account. I think that is what we all want.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the withdrawal agreement is only the end of the beginning? If the Government are already talking about diverging from EU regulations and standards, what are the chances of a free trade agreement with our biggest trading partner, which makes up 50% of our trade?

My Lords, as I said, we are very clear that we will not compromise any of the standards I have described, whether on animal welfare, the environment or food safety. We have a reputation for those things in this country and we want to build on it.

My Lords, I can perhaps give you an idea of why we might be negative. Those of us who worked on the Trade Bill very much addressed the issues that the noble Lord, Lord Deben, just spoke of, on enshrining in law the security of regulation going forward. That Bill was scrapped. Does the Minister understand why some people might be somewhat sceptical when they hear the things they are hearing now, given the evidence of that Bill being scrapped?

My Lords, the truth is that the Bill was not scrapped; with the passage of time and where we are—having a general election—we will have to start again with the Environment Bill, too. The noble Lord is pushing the language a bit. On the Trade Bill, I think I said that we will reflect on what your Lordships said on those matters. What happened in this House was very important. I have put it on the record once and will do so again: your Lordships were extremely helpful and constructive in considering those matters.