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Defra urged to prove its Brexit capacity

MPs have called on Defra to provide evidence of its capacity to handle the transposition of EU environmental laws when the UK leaves the union.

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) expressed concern about the department’s resources in its report entitled The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum.

It calls for the Government to legislate for a new Environmental Protection Act, to prevent complex EU environmental laws being transposed ineffectively.

Such transpositions would create what it describes as “zombie legislation”, which describes laws that are “no longer updated and which can be eroded through statutory instruments with minimal parliamentary scrutiny”.

In October, environment secretary Andrea Leadsom (pictured) was questioned on the possible impact of 18% cuts in Defra staff since 2010.

At the time, Leadsom said: “Where the expertise lies and the capacity for the Brexit work lies, we absolutely do have the capability.”

But in the latest report, the EAC has called for Leadsom to back up her words, saying the cuts threatened the Government’s pledge to “be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it found it”.

“The Government must also provide evidence to allay our scepticism over the capacity of Defra to meet the additional pressures that exiting the EU creates for meeting the Government’s manifesto commitment in a cost-effective manner alongside its non-environmental priorities,” it says.

It says Whitehall must also assess the resources needed to replace the EU funding that is given to farm businesses.

Defra is set to publish two 25-year plans in the near future, one of which will concern waste.

The EAC has called for the plan frameworks, which will precede the full strategies, to be published and consulted on before Article 50 is triggered.

While the committee’s report primarily looks at land management and agriculture and does not focus on waste, it does note the influence that European policy has had on the industry.

The Environmental Services Association’s executive director Jacob Hayler welcomed the report, which he said underlined the EU’s importance to the UK’s environmental protection.

“It is therefore imperative that the UK Government puts in place an alternative long-term legislative framework for the environment, including waste and resources. The big question is whether this can be achieved by 25-year plans or if we need to put something else in place,” he said.

Meanwhile, Leadsom has announced her plans to cut red tape for farmers post-Brexit. They include reducing farm inspections, cutting down paperwork for flood-hit farms claiming for repairs and simplifying definitions.

She also plans to ditch the ‘three-crop rule’, which sets out how many different crops farms must plant each year. She expects this to “free 40,000 farmers to grow the foods people want – adding millions of pounds to the economy”.

Announcing her plans at the Oxford Farming Conference, she said: ”By cutting the red tape that comes out of Brussels, we will free our farmers to grow more, sell more and export more great British food while upholding our high standards for plant and animal health and welfare.”

Steve Lee, Resources & Waste UK (R&WUK) director general:

“While this report focuses primarily on the impacts of Brexit on wildlife, land and farming, the committee’s recommendations reflect the concerns of many in the waste and resource management field. UK waste policy has been shaped and underpinned by EU legislation for over two decades, during which we have made significant improvements in the safe and sustainable management of waste and secondary resources. The considerable uncertainty about the impact of Brexit in this policy area is, therefore, of significant concern.

“The report rightly flags up the potential pitfalls ahead, including the difficulty of transposing some of the key environmental legislation into UK law, the risks of zombie legislation, and the level of resource that will be available within Defra to manage the transition. There are also question marks about the process and level of parliamentary scrutiny should UK governments then seek to change some of this legislation, and how performance and standards will be monitored and enforced in future in the absence of the current EU infraction system and resort to the ECJ.

“In the longer term, the committee has also captured the concern that environmental standards may be compromised in the pursuit of new trade deals, with potential long term impacts not just on the quality of our environment but also on jobs, competitiveness and the UK’s future economic prospects.

“In light of these important issues, R&WUK welcomes the committee’s suggestion that a thorough assessment of the body of environmental legislation to be transposed is undertaken, that the frameworks for the 25-yr Environment and Food & Farming plans are published in time to inform the Article 50 negotiations, and that consideration is given to the development of an overarching UK-wide legislative framework to ensure that similar or better environmental standards are maintained. While this would clearly take some time, it would also address the somewhat piecemeal nature of the current body of legislation, drawing together and rationalising the environmental protection regimes for biodiversity, land, air, water and waste, and reducing the risk of antagonistic policies. It would also help to avoid the otherwise inevitable divergence in environmental policy across UK countries that will occur if a shared vision and set of high-level objectives are not articulated.

“It is all very well for the government to say that it wants to be “the first Government to leave the environment in a better state than it found it” – now we have to see action to make this happen and clear evidence that this will be one of the underpinning principles in the forthcoming Brexit and trade negotiations.”

 

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