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Watchdog needs teeth to have bite

Peter Jones

Environment secretary Michael Gove has been working hard to paint Brexit green.

For those concerned that leaving the EU will remove environmental protections that might inhibit trade deals or economic growth, he has offered a reassuring promise to “consult on using the new freedoms we have to establish a world-leading body to give the environment a voice and hold the powerful to account”.

The body would be “on a statutory footing, independent of Government” and “able to speak its mind freely”. Its ambition would be “to champion and uphold environmental standards, always rooted in rigorous scientific evidence”.

What’s not to like?

Of course, there was little to stop such a body from being created while the UK remained in the EU. It sounds rather like the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), to which the EU had no objection. It, too, is a statutory, independent body, free to speak its mind. Could a similar body replace the EU mechanisms that hold the Government to account?

The emissions reduction target is defined in the climate change act 2008, and any future government could weaken it. The CCC would have no power to demand the higher target be retained or apply sanctions.

Creating a new body could have the effect of prompting the UK to set long-term environmental targets. The CCC’s role is to report on progress towards agreed emissions reduction targets, using five-year carbon budgets as a pathway to reducing emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050.

Similar long-term policy goals would be helpful for other environmental sectors. But such targets are not set in stone. The emissions reduction target is defined in the Climate Change Act 2008, and any future Government could weaken it. The CCC would have no power to demand the higher target be retained or apply sanctions.

Therein lies the difference between the EU and a UK statutory body.

I can think of no UK organisation that can set and enforce standards the Government must meet. You might consider the Health and Safety Executive or the courts. But each is set up within UK law, applying rules and aiming for targets that our sovereign Parliament can amend if it decides they are no longer useful or convenient.

The CCC is weaker than either of the bodies mentioned above. It cannot require Whitehall to take action, and some of its prominent recommendations have been largely ignored. Embarrassing a Government is about the limit of its “holding to account”.

While the UK could benefit from setting its own targets and creating an organisation to monitor progress, these would always be subject to change by the Government of the day. As a result, there appears to be no way to fully replicate the EU’s independent role within UK law.

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