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MPs grapple with Brexit

The All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (APSRG) hosted a panel at RWM with Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) chair Mary Creagh MP, former shadow energy minister Dr Alan Whitehead and deputy leader of the Green Party Amelia Womack on sustainable resource policy after Brexit.

The panellists agreed that environmental regulations could be the “most affected” areas of law affected by Brexit because many UK targets have been driven by EU legislation such as the Landfill and Waste Framework Directives. Creagh was particularly concerned about this because the Government has not yet finalised a strategy for the environment in light of Brexit.

The MP for Wakefield said: “I don’t think there are other areas that will be more affected by the referendum result than the environment. Eighty per cent of our national regulations and legislation on the environment comes from the EU. We have heard that the negotiations are going to be complex, they are going to be long and they are going to be difficult.

“We heard last week from ministers from Defra and the new Department for Exiting the EU. The message I took from our evidence session was that there is no process, they can’t say if they are going to repeal the European Communities Act, and then reverse engineer back in the stuff they want.”

All panellists highlighted the risk of the UK experiencing a policy and legislator void because Brexit may overlap with the completion of the EU’s circular economy (CE) package. According to Whitehead, “there is a danger that while the CE package reaches its conclusion, we will be in complete no-man’s land as far as what it is we do next and as far as [our resource] strategy is concerned”.

Creagh agreed with Whitehead that, without the obligation to meet the targets set out in these directives, the UK could in effect have “zombie legislation”, with no potential legal recourse from Europe if targets are not met.

Whitehead also outlined his concern about the UK’s limited ability to influence the CE package once Article 50 has been triggered. The directive coming out of the package will “come into place pretty much at the same moment that it is suggested the UK will exit the EU. But, of course, Article 50 will have been pressed early next year and, immediately after that, the UK will have no say in defining and shaping the CE package.”

Both Creagh and Whitehead highlighted the need for further policy direction around waste exports, in particular on refuse-derived fuel (RDF), if the UK does not remain a member of the single market, because this may affect RDF exporting businesses in the UK.

The MP for Southampton Test expressed concern on whether the industry would be able to absorb changes positively, without new policy developments, saying: “The positive is that we could make rapid advances in energy from waste and gas provision, and see waste as a method of producing green gas. But the negative is that if that waste is repatriated to the UK in the next few years, landfill levels may go up rather than down as a result of waste not having any outlets outside the UK.”

Womack touched on the potential of the current political environment providing a breeding ground for innovation: “At the moment we have such disruptive politics that these ideas could provide opportunities to push forward, but it could also provide opportunities for us to fall back behind the rest of the EU.

“With the changes to the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis), it will be vital for this department to embrace the idea that waste and resource policy plays an important role in the wider economy, working for industry and for business. When we are looking at Brexit, there are risks and there are opportunities. And those opportunities can be building a stronger waste sector in the UK, but it will take all of us to create that.”

Creagh was more sceptical about the creation of Beis, stating: “What’s in a name? Energy and climate change – you give parity to both. Once you get rid of climate change, the lessons from other countries are that the energy needs and the economy will always triumph over climate considerations, and that’s worrying.”

Although unable to join the panel in Birmingham, Caroline Spelman MP, a former Conservative Defra secretary who has engaged extensively with the APSRG on its inquiries into waste exports and remanufacturing, said: “We need to nurture a sustainable resource and waste industry in this country as finite natural resources become scarcer. Brexit brings challenges and opportunities. The UK will have to consider which European measures to enact into national legislation. The Government wants to hear from the industry on this. If we foster innovation here, it will help us to improve our export performance in this crucial area and offset some of the risks of leaving the EU.”

John McNally, SNP MP for Falkirk and member of the EAC, said: “The impact of Brexit on our waste policies and sustainable goals, as in many other areas, is wholly uncertain. What is required is clear, unequivocal Government and all-party agreed policies on long-term commitment to the environment as the top priority of Government action.”

Long-term APSRG co-chair Baroness Jenkin of Kennington added: “As a trustee of WRAP, I am particularly keen to see that any potential changes caused by Brexit take into account that we need to ensure the sustainable use of finite resources. There are real opportunities including, of course, the sustainable development goals to ensure we use our resources in an efficient and sustainable way that will help to build a better future for us all. Given the magnitude of negotiations and discussions that will likely be a priority for the Government, we need to work hard to prevent sustainability falling down the list of priorities.”

Concluding his presentation, Whitehead outlined that “one of the tasks for the groups in Parliament, in particular this group, is to make sure we get the best possible platform for that early [post-Brexit] legislation, to make sure the overall future for waste and resources is secure.”

In the coming year and beyond, Policy Connect and APSRG will continue to organise Parliamentary events to facilitate strong links and communication between business, industry, academia and Parliament and inform post-Brexit policy developments.

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