This amendment is better than nothing, but only offers the tamest poodle of an environmental watchdog.
MPs have agreed an amendment proposed by the government as a concession to campaigners who have repeatedly raised concerns that the UK will lose aspects of environmental protection after it leaves the EU.
The EU Withdrawal Bill has been heavily criticised by environmental organisations and MPs such as Caroline Lucas (the Green Party) and Mary Creagh (Labour) for omitting principles that are enshrined in EU law - such as the polluter pays principle - which means that the cost for environmental damage falls on those responsible for creating it.
The bill also contains no provision for an independent watchdog to replace the enforcement power of the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, both of which can take the UK government to court if it does not comply with EU environmental law.
The government in May published a consultation to establish an environmental watchdog, but this fell short of expectations as it would not have the power to issue legal proceedings. Environment secretary Michael Gove accused the Treasury of having weakened the proposals.
The amendment passed by the House of Commons means that the watchdog will now have this power, and will also set environmental principles in primary legislation.
However, its remit would be limited to central government, rather than all public bodies such as local authorities and the Environment Agency, meaning that issues such as decisions on planning applications would not be covered.
The amendment, tabled by Conservative MP Oliver Letwin and supported by Brexit secretary David Davis, overturned a stronger amendment passed in the House of Lords which would have given the watchdog the power to regulate all public bodies.
The bill will now go back to the House of Lords to consider. Environmental campaigners were encouraged by the government’s steps towards ensuring the environment is protected after Brexit, but said the bill was still not good enough.
ClientEarth law and policy advisor Tom West said: “As it stands, the EU Withdrawal Bill is still not good enough and risks our environmental protections being much weaker by the time Britain leaves the EU.”
Amy Mount, head of Greener UK, a coalition of environmental organisations campaigning to prevent loss of environmental protection after Brexit, said that the amendment was “a step in the right direction, though it doesn’t go far enough.”
Lucas said that it “seriously waters down” the Lords amendment. “So-called ‘Green Brexit’ looks more ridiculous by the day,” she tweeted.
Paul Keenlyside, the political advisor for Greenpeace UK, said that it was good news that the government had accepted that the watchdog needed to have enforcement powers. However, he added: “Ministers missed a chance to reaffirm the watchdog's independence, and they should correct this at the earliest opportunity. Beyond 'having regard' for environmental principles, ministers should also be required to act according to them.”
Anything less would represent a loss of environmental protection at a time when British wildlife is facing an “existential threat” from pollution, climate change and habitat loss, he added.
Environment Act needed
WWF executive director Tony Juniper said that the government needed a “much more determined approach” towards the protection of the natural world in the face of the “unprecedented collapse” in wildlife populations in the UK.
“This amendment is better than nothing, but only offers the tamest poodle of an environmental watchdog. It does not maintain our current protections nor achieve the Government’s own level of ambition to leave the environment in a better state than it inherited,” he said. Juniper wants to see new legislation to restore nature after Brexit.
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.