Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) has convinced environment secretary Michael Gove to extend the scope of the Government’s Environment Bill.
The Bill sets up the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) to handle powers in England at present exercised by the EU.
A letter from Daera permanent secretary Denis McMahon explained that, with the Northern Ireland Assembly having not sat for two years – and so no ministers in place, powers existed to senior civil servants to take decisions they consider in the public interest.
He said he agreed with Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee’s view that the OEP “should have a UK-wide remit, and [with] concerns that the inability to address gaps in environmental governance will result in Northern Ireland having less effective environmental protection after leaving the EU”.
Gove has agreed to include Northern Ireland in the draft Environment Bill, committee chair Mary Creagh said.
She explained: “The secretary of state’s decision to extend the remit of the OEP to cover Northern Ireland remit has ramifications for the whole of the UK.
“It highlights the importance of our recommendations that the OEP must be co-designed and co-owned by all the nations of the UK in order to be more resilient, independent and effective.
“It also raises questions about whether the application of the Environment Bill to Northern Ireland will necessitate the rest of the UK maintaining regulatory alignment with the EU under the Irish backstop, effectively requiring the whole of the UK to stay within a customs union and single market.”