The UK’s preparations to leave the EU are picking up pace as ‘exit day’ looms large on the horizon. Whilst media headlines are focused on the Government’s ongoing negotiations with the EU, the Environment Secretary and Defra civil servants are right now working out the practical implementation of legislation, related strategies and other scenarios.
One of their key challenges is around the so-called ‘governance gap’ that the Society, alongside the wider environmental community, raised in the run-up to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill being brought before Parliament. The challenge arises because the Bill-turned-Act directly lifts and transfers EU legislation into the UK, which includes all of its references to its component legal bodies and processes, and, though these references can be readily edited, the UK currently does not have a body or bodies that can replace those we have under the EU system and replicate their accountability mechanisms, hence the gap.
Take, for example, the issue of air quality, which has gained significant media attention in recent months. The UK, as well as a number of other EU member states, has air pollution levels that contravene EU legislation, thus the European Commission is able to take these member states to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU, or sometimes referred to as the ECJ), which can impose financial penalties (more here).
This jurisdiction of the CJEU (indeed, the overriding authority of EU bodies in general) is a key source of tension for many pro-Leave campaigners. The Government has to manage this alongside its promises to ensure that the environmental protections and standards we currently enjoy and now expect are maintained. And turning this into a workable set of measures is now perhaps the single most pressing issue for the full range of environmental and sustainability professionals because the legislation and strategies developed for specific sectors, such as the forthcoming replacements for the EU Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy, should be enforceable against the governance system that now needs to be established.
The Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, has recognised and accepts this need. Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan, published in January 2018 (just as the EU Withdrawal Bill was moving from the House of Commons to the Lords), set out Gove’s intention to “ensure strong governance” and “set up a world-leading environmental watchdog, an independent, statutory body, to hold Government to account for upholding environmental standards” – or at least to consult on plans to set such up.
Defra opened this 12-week consultation on 10th May. Almost immediately (18th May), the Environmental Audit Committee launched an inquiry into Defra’s consultation paper. And just a few weeks later (on 13th June), the EU (Withdrawal) Bill was amended to include an obligation for Environment Secretary to bring before Parliament, by the 26th December 2018, a Bill that sets out a full suite of environmental principles, a statutory statement about their interpretation and plans for the establishment of a public body dedicated to environmental governance.
The Society responded to this consultation, both individually and as part of the Environmental Policy Forum, and these responses can be viewed below by clicking on the menus.