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Environmental Protection

Volume 615: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2016

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered policies, strategies and funding for environmental protection.

Like many MPs, I have a constituency with a large number of local nature reserves, special areas of conservation and two national nature reserves, one of which, Kenfig, is also a special area of conservation under the EU habitats directive, the Bridgend biodiversity action plan and the UK biodiversity action plan. It is a site of local, Welsh and European nature conservation importance. I have secured this debate to ask questions on the future protection of these sites and others like them across the UK, which urgently needs addressing following the Brexit decision.

I begin by recognising the excellent work of members of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environmental Audit Committee and by acknowledging their lead in this field. The EAC’s report on UK and EU environmental policy should have been compulsory reading before voting in the Brexit referendum. We need answers to questions such as whether we have the technical, financial and legal expertise and capacity to respond to the environmental challenge of Brexit. The Wildlife Trusts, including my local Glamorgan wildlife trust, have said:

“The EU has the single largest body of environmental legislation in the world.”

The EU has had an exceptionally positive impact on our efforts to produce policy, influence development and safeguard our wildlife.

One conclusion of the EAC’s report is that

“the UK’s membership of the EU has improved the UK’s approach to environmental protection and ensured that the UK environment has been better protected.”

Many witnesses implied that if the UK were free to set its own environmental standards, it would set them at a less stringent level than has been imposed by the European Union.

My constituency contains the Newport wetlands, the Gwent levels, the River Usk and more. We should acknowledge that the Welsh Government have taken a great lead on environmental legislation in the UK. However, they can only do so much. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as with the Brexit negotiations generally, it is crucial that the Government work closely with the Welsh Administration in Cardiff for the good of the environment in Wales?

I intend to address that later in my speech, but it is a central part of the way forward as we find our way through the tangle that is Brexit.

The UK imposing less stringent levels of environmental protection was a major concern for the people who approached me to initiate this debate. I was asked how confident we could be that nature conservation would be protected and a priority post-Brexit. Lest we forget, in the biodiversity intactness index, which assesses how damaged nature is across the world, the UK is ranked 189th out of 218 countries—we are not exactly doing well at the moment. France and Germany are miles ahead of us because we have been less vigilant in implementing EU environmental legislation. It is clear that there was little thinking about what would happen if the UK voted to leave the EU and what the decision would mean for this policy area.

It is difficult to draw a clear conclusion until we know the terms of our exit, but it is vital that we have an assurance today that EU environmental legislation will be maintained in its entirety so that we have a semblance of stability and breathing space while we develop our own mechanisms and expertise. There are concerns that a full transfer post-Brexit may not be practical, that much of the transfer of directives might be done with little scrutiny through secondary legislation and that this may lead to the weakening of directives. I hope that the Minister, when she arrives, can tell me how she will ensure that that does not happen.

We need to know how we will update legislation and ensure progress. We need a commitment from the Minister that, as an absolute minimum, existing levels of protection for species, habitats and the wider environment will be maintained, and will not be weakened in the longer term through our inability to update legislation or through a lack of enforcement controls.

Richard Benwell of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust reminded me that:

“EU law is not some static monolith with commandments set in stone, it is an evolving regime brought to life by shared objectives and the rulings of the European courts. Without the trajectory provided by the Commission and the accountability provided by the courts, there is a risk that EU legislation becomes out-dated and unenforced, a kind of ‘zombie legislation.’”

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me how we are going to enforce legislation. The EU’s mechanisms of oversight, accountability and enforcement ensure that robust implementation and monitoring take place. What will be the legal recourse for those concerned about the loss of important habitats and species? Judicial review is costly and out of the reach of most citizens and non-governmental organisations. Brexit means that we will lose two key accountability mechanisms: the European Court of Justice and the European Commission. What will we replace them with? What will fill that vacuum? We need a commitment that any future changes to this legislation will be subject to robust scrutiny and debate, with provisions for legal challenge to ensure that there is no attempt to roll back environmental protection.

How are we going to fulfil our international obligations? Brexit will not change our obligations such as those under the Bern, Rio and Ramsar conventions, yet once we leave the EU we will not have the support that membership offers in relation to those agreements. How will we meet them? How will we avoid fragmentation in the UK? What plans does the Minister have to quickly develop common values with the devolved Administrations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) mentioned? Much of our environmental policy is entirely devolved. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds argues that transferring EU legislation will require changes to the Scotland Act 1998. We need to know whether the Minister is prepared for that.

Where will the needed capacity and technical and scientific skills come from? The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has noted:

“The Department’s…resource spend over the last Parliament includes cuts of £254 million… Defra’s main resource budget will reduce in 2015-16 by £135 million, or by 7%”.

The 2015 spending review announced that that budget will be reduced by a further 15% over the next few years. The Minister needs to tell us how we are going to replace the range of technical and scientific capacity and skills that will be lost when EU expertise is no longer accessible. Will any of the promised battle bus money come to DEFRA?

Local authorities are at the forefront of environmental protection, given their key role in deciding planning applications. Research commissioned in 2012 by DEFRA established that good outcomes for biodiversity are most likely to be obtained when expert ecological advice is available to the local planning authority.

As the hon. Lady may be aware, I have joined a big campaign for the future of hedgehogs, numbers of which have unfortunately declined by about 50% over the last 15 years. It would be useful if local authorities had policies to ensure that they have hedgehog superhighways.

I will come to that eventually, if the hon. Gentleman gives me a little time.

I was discussing making expert ecological advice available to local planning authorities to enable them to develop sufficient ecological information and understand it when considering planning applications. Local authority ecologists currently play a vital part in the process, helping to guide developers towards sustainable solutions that enable development and protect our most valuable natural assets. In the post-Brexit environment, how well equipped will local authorities be to provide expert advice on the natural environment? Not terribly well, particularly given the dire situation that has developed over the past few years.

The Association of Local Government Ecologists, aptly called ALGE, found as far back as 2011 that only 35% of local authorities in England employed an ecologist; perhaps that is why we do not have hedgehog superhighways. ALGE’s conclusion was that

“local government’s capacity to assist in the delivery of a wide range of biodiversity initiatives”,

such as hedgehog superhighways,

“is already limited and is being further eroded”.

ALGE sounded a warning bell, pessimistically concluding that if the capacity of local authorities was in such a state in 2011, the unrelenting pressure on local government budgets would not give the situation any chance to improve.

Local environmental audits are essential if planners are to know how to manage favourable conservation status legislation, which was designed to protect at-risk species such as great crested newts and bats. Environmental audits are essential. If we do not understand the local populations of such species, it can result in overcompensation in planning decision making. Will environmental impact assessments become irrelevant if we do not adapt and update them, as would happen if we were in the EU?

Does the Minister know how many local planning authorities now have access to their own ecological expertise? Are the Government able to review whether capacity is currently adequate and consider what improvements within the system might be achieved if more LPAs had access to their own expertise? How much more effectively could the Government aims and objectives set out in the 2011 natural environment White Paper “The natural choice” be achieved with just a modest increase in ecological resources within local government? I hope that the Minister will assure us that DEFRA’s proposed new 25-year environmental plan will give true recognition and resources to support the important role that local authorities can play within this vital new initiative.

We need to know who will be responsible for dealing with legislation, regulations and concerns raised by industrial chemicals and pesticides. At present, we follow EU-wide regulations that protect human health and the environment from dangerous chemicals. The vast majority of our expertise in chemicals and pesticides is based in the EU. Can we replace it? Can we afford to? We are already facing a scientific brain drain thanks to Brexit. Does the Minister have a plan to recruit the skills, expertise and competencies that her Department needs?

In February 2013, the Government published the UK national action plan for pesticide use, to fulfil a requirement under the EU directive on the sustainable use of pesticides. It is another example of the UK’s half-hearted response to environmental legislation. Buglife stated:

“The plan lacks ambition and fails to set out a clear direction for achieving sustainable use of pesticides and preventing damage to pollinator populations.”

Who cares? We all do; we all must. Wild pollinators in the UK include 250 species of bumblebees and other bees, 2,600 species of butterflies and moths, and 7,010 species of flies and various other insects such as beetles, wasps and thrips. Some 84% of crops and 80% of wild flowers rely on pollinators; they are worth a minimum of £430 million a year to the UK economy. How will we influence EU pollination action plans? In the 2016 national pollinator strategy, the Government promised £691 million for agriculture to support the plan. When will the funding start, and how long will it last?

What will we do about invasive species? Currently, we deal with them at EU level. We often work with Ireland in adding new species to the list; how will we move that forward? How will we comply with ESTA, the European seed treatment assurance scheme? To quote the industry:

“Any serious incident in an individual member state could again lead to product withdrawal. In addition, there is a need to ensure free movement of treated seed across the Community unhampered by individual Member state legislation.”

After Brexit, it will not be possible for the UK to develop UK-only seeds. On fisheries, we might be able to set quotas, but we will not be able to influence EU quotas. Does the Minister know what British waters will consist of? Will it be 12 or 200 miles? How will we ensure that stocks are not put under pressure?

Non-governmental organisations and their volunteers already plug major gaps. An estimated 7.5 million hours are given to species monitoring each year. NGOs are reporting being approached by local government to take over responsibility for managing local nature reserves and even national nature reserves. NGOs currently employ much of the UK’s environmental and scientific expertise. Will the Minister pledge to work with those NGOs in agreeing a way forward?

Why is any of this important? The “State of Nature” report findings show that in the UK alone, 10% of species are at risk of extinction and nearly 60% have declined since 1970. We face increasing problems of air and water pollution. The focus in the Brexit debate to date has been on the economy. Whatever “Brexit means Brexit” means, it does not mean habitat and species loss, more air, chemical pesticide and water pollution or more invasive species. Does the Minister have a plan, and when will she share it with us?

Finally, I have been asked to make a personal plea from Mr Stanley Johnson, one of the authors of the EU habitats directive. He is especially keen on continued UK participation in the Natura 2000 network of protected areas. I agree totally, and I hope that the Minister will include that in whatever plans she outlines to us in her response.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and to the House for my discourtesy in arriving late. Unfortunately, something happened en route. I will send my apologies personally.

I know the Minister well. There is no way that she would ever have been late unless there had been a personal or departmental crisis. We understand fully.

I thank the hon. Lady for those kind words. She has chosen an exceptionally important topic for discussion. I am grateful to her for sharing some of the themes of her speech in advance, so that we can give her as comprehensive an answer as possible. A lot of this is still in formulation, but I am conscious that the questions and issues that she raised will be absolutely central to some of the answers that we hope to find as we develop our route out of the European Union. I hope that she will continue to take an interest in this topic over the next few years. On our exit from the European Union, she asked how European legislation would be transferred into national legislation, and what the implications were for nature conservation. She also asked specific detailed questions.

I reiterate from the outset our absolute commitment to delivering on our manifesto promise to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. Even before the EU referendum, work had started on developing our 25-year environment plan to deliver against that target, building on our 2011 natural environment White Paper.

I fully recognise the importance of devolved policy in this area, and as the hon. Lady represents a Welsh constituency, I cannot be entirely specific about the situation directly affecting her constituents. Instead, I will develop more broadly the argument about the UK Government’s role in leading the work to exit the European Union; I will also refer to some of our plans in England. We have been able to increase spending in the past five or six years, and any decisions we make in the future to increase expenditure will result in changes that the Welsh Government will be able to take advantage of to continue to enhance the wonderful environment across our country.

Understandably, the decision to leave the European Union has raised questions about what might change, and what leaving might mean for the environment. The Government are well aware of the desire for certainty about what Brexit means for our environmental policy and legislative framework. The Prime Minister recently announced our plans for the great repeal Bill, which will not repeal all the protections given to the environment over many years—there are protections that predate our joining the EU, by the way—but will repeal the European Communities Act 1972. The Bill will be specifically about how we take European law into British law—whether that is Scots law, English and Welsh law, or the legislative framework for Northern Ireland—and will ensure that, the day after we leave, we still have an enforceable legislative framework, and that the environmental protections that we take for granted will continue.

Without prejudging our future relationship with the EU or future decisions of Parliament, I want to provide as much certainty as possible about the fact that we expect existing laws to be applicable. A smooth and orderly exit is in the interests of both the UK and our EU partners. There are decades of EU law to consider, and about a quarter of EU legislation affecting the United Kingdom affects the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We want to ensure that the statute book works on exit, and that we provide the maximum possible stability. We will engage widely, including with Parliament and the devolved Administrations, on the plan to ensure that when EU law ceases to apply, it is converted into domestic law. All Departments are reviewing the EU laws that apply in their policy areas and how withdrawal from the EU will affect their operation. Some elements of EU law are directives, which have to be transposed into UK law, and others are regulations. We need to ensure that no gaps are left.

I stress the considerable technical expertise to which all devolved Administrations have access. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee advises the UK on nature conservation, and the Health and Safety Executive advises on pesticides and chemicals; I see both organisations playing an important role, especially in regard to the hon. Lady’s concern about keeping the integrity of the United Kingdom. While we may be leaving the European Union, we are keeping the United Kingdom, and we know that the environment does not stop at the border.

As the Prime Minister has signalled, we will no longer be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. It will be the role of Parliament to hold the Government to account, along with mechanisms such as judicial review, though I recognise that that is costly, as the hon. Lady said. Understandably, people talk about the role of the European Commission and the ECJ, but their procedures still require people to initiate them. There are non-governmental organisations that are certainly not shy about taking the Government to court on certain matters, but at the moment, they can also use the avenue of the European Commission to do that.

The decision to leave the EU means that we have quite an exciting opportunity to design a set of environmental policies linked to the UK’s needs in the context of the 25-year environment plan. The hon. Lady and I were both remain campaigners and voters, but leaving the European Union will allow us, in due course, to consider whether the prescriptive nature of some of the current directives is the best way to achieve the outcomes we want. A phrase I often use nowadays is “cling to nurse for fear of worse”. Sometimes it felt as if that was the theme on which the remain campaign was based, but the phrase also sums up how people have clung to directives instead of thinking beyond them, saying, “We know that there are directives that are no longer fit for purpose, but there is no appetite to change them.” We want to ensure that any changes in the law are subject to appropriate scrutiny and debate.

The hon. Lady raised a number of detailed points about matters that are still being worked through. It would not be right for me to provide a running commentary, because there is no commentary; the options are still being worked through. She referred to the UK’s international commitments. A lot of European legislation is arrived at by multilateral agreements to which we have already signed up. We will certainly continue to honour our multilateral environmental agreements, which have been reached as a result of global action on environmental protection. We will continue to work closely with our European and international partners to improve the environment.

I stress that this area is a shared competence. Take plastic bags; the Welsh were the first to take action, and England eventually followed. That issue was being discussed just yesterday at the European Council in Luxembourg, and I was able to say, “The United Kingdom has already taken unilateral action on this, and other countries can do that if they wish—they do not need to wait for the EU to legislate on it.” Well done, Wales, for showing the way.

Marine conservation zones are another example. We have created our own designations, so we do not entirely need to rely on Natura 2000 and other elements. Some of those sites are already in place anyway because of international agreements, but we need to work through the designation framework for sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding national beauty. Our recently launched national parks plan is a good example of good practice: it continues to outline and enhance the protections we will have, as well as encouraging children to connect with nature.

We have all sorts of unilateral initiatives; I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome, and will contribute to, our consultation on banning the sale and manufacture of personal care and cosmetic products with microbeads. We recognise her point about the “State of Nature” report, and we want to ensure that the environment will be at the heart of any future replacement we design for the common agricultural policy. As she says, there has been a decline in species; we are determined to restore them. We have certainly seen some changes over recent decades, and we need to address them now. As I say, the environment plan and the framework, which I really hope will be published soon, will be a good opportunity to contribute to how we deliver that. I recognise that the environment plan is for England, but I am sure that other nations of our United Kingdom may wish to consider it.

The hon. Lady asks whether it is joined. I am sure that we will not be violently misaligned, but as I said at the start, this is a devolved matter, so we cannot dictate our policy to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, though I am sure that they will watch our plans with interest.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of invasive non-native species. The UK has long been the leading player on that issue within the European Union. The recent EU regulation was based heavily on our strategy for this country, which in turn is based on international principles acknowledged by the convention on biological diversity. We are committed to continuing that approach.

On funding via the national pollinator programme, the countryside stewardship agreements in the pipeline are now guaranteed. The Chancellor has also stated that new rural development programme projects signed after the statement will be funded, as long as they are good value for money. On local planning authorities, I take the hon. Lady’s point that only about a third of councils employed an ecologist. People can buy in the resource, and they do, but I recognise her point.

I do not have time, I am afraid.

The hon. Member for Bridgend will also want to know about trialling a more strategic approach to great crested newts in Woking, which should result in an overall net benefit to the population and to planning restrictions. I will write to her about the fisheries policy. In conclusion, I appreciate her patience, and assure her that we will continue to engage with the public and stakeholders.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).