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EA ‘should hold Government to account’ after Brexit

Climate Change Committee chairman Lord Deben has said the Environment Agency (EA) will need to be given powers to hold the Government to account if the UK is to enforce environmental regulations effectively after leaving the EU.

Speaking at the launch of a Policy Connect report on the future of environmental regulation following Brexit, Lord Deben said the UK needed a mechanism under which ministers are not the “final arbiter”.

The EA was established in 1996 by Lord Deben, who was then environment secretary John Gummer. The agency took over over responsibilities from local waste regulation authorities.

He said that, once the UK leaves the EU, there will need to be more mechanisms to protect environmental regulations, and cited bodies such as the Climate Change Committee, which has a remit to provide independent advice to the Government.

“Unfortunately, we have emasculated many of our protections,” he said. “When I set up the EA, I insisted on it being independent, making independent statements and keeping the Government to account.

“Successive Governments have removed that. It is no longer an independent body but it’s got to become that.”

The comments echoed those of former EA chair Chris Smith, who wrote a critical blog for the Green Alliance in February.

Shadow business, energy and industrial strategy minister Alan Whitehead also spoke at the event, saying agencies such as the EA needed guaranteed long-term budgets.

Lord Deben was also sceptical about the suggestion that Brexit could allow the UK greater flexibility in getting businesses to contribute more to cover the full waste management costs of packaging, for instance through changes to VAT.

“We can do all those things, frankly, under our present regime,” he said. “We could do it through producer responsibility or through the packaging note recovery system. The fact is, we haven’t done it.

“I think that, post-Brexit, the Government of any kind is going to be so strapped for cash that there is not going to be any chance of using any sort of flexibility.”

Lord Deben is chair of compliance scheme Valpak, which recently launched the PackFlow 2025 report to assess whether future packaging targets under the circular economy package were achievable and the estimated likely cost to industry.

But the report drew criticism from Paul Ekins, professor of resources and environmental policy and director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources.

He told the CIWM conference on 28 June: “As long as we talk the language of ‘cost’, the politicians are not going to be interested. The report not only put up a huge picture of cost but, actually, it was extremely misleading.

”I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it is bound to be misinterpreted. That will be taken to be the cost to society as a whole.”

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