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Lords slams ‘green watchdog’ plan as still not good enough

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The House of Lords has warned that the proposed green watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), designed to replace EU enforcement bodies after Brexit, will not be powerful enough.

The Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee has written to  environment secretary Michael Gove making a number of recommendations on how the OEP could be strengthened. He has backed criticisms from various environmental groups which argue that a UK replacement should at least be equal to the current status quo.

Currently, the European Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union enforce environmental legislation, and can take legal action and issue fines to member states for non-compliance.

But the proposed OEP will not have equivalent powers to protect the environment. There are also concerns that it will be beholden to the secretary of state, that it explicitly excludes climate change within its remit, and will not be ready for Brexit day.

These points has been hammered home repeatedly by many groups. At the end of last year, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Mary Creagh described the Government’s environmental post-Brexit plans as “woolly”.

Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee chair Lord Teverson said: “Two years ago, our Committee published a report which highlighted the gap that leaving the EU would create in upholding environmental law. Given the lukewarm response from the minister at the time, we are pleased that the Government has now accepted the need for a domestic enforcement mechanism.

“We share the concerns raised by environmental lawyers, academics and NGOs, however, that the proposals do not go far enough. The OEP must be, and be seen to be, independent of Government, but this will not be achieved if its membership and funding is determined by the secretary of state.

“The body’s remit and powers should be at least as comprehensive as the EU institutions it is replacing. And to avoid any gap in protection, the Government should put interim measures in place to cover the period between the UK leaving the EU and the OEP being fully operational.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We are thankful for the advice and engagement from the House of Lords’ Sub-Committee and will factor these views into our ongoing development of the draft environment (principles and governance) clauses.

”The draft clauses are also undergoing parallel parliamentary pre-legislative scrutiny with the EFRA and EAC select committees.

“We are committed to being the first Government to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it. The EU Withdrawal Act already ensures that existing EU environmental law will continue to have effect in UK law after we leave so that we can deliver a green Brexit.

”The Government has also consistently made clear that our high environmental protections will not only be maintained but enhanced outside the EU, whether we leave with or without a deal.

”These measures on environmental principles and governance will form part of a wider Environment Bill which will also cover air quality, nature recovery, waste and resource efficiency and water resource management. ”

This article was updated on 1 March to include comment from Defra

The committee recommends:

  • The OEP’s members and budget will be determined by the secretary of state when one of the main functions of the OEP is to hold the secretary of state to account. The Committee is calling for Parliament to be given a greater role, and suggests the governance model adopted for the National Audit Office offers a template of how a much greater level of independence can be implemented.
  • Climate change should be included in the OEP’s remit, and the committee wants to know how the secretary of state is working with the devolved administrations to ensure environmental protection is upheld in all four UK nations.
  • The committee emphasises the need for enforcement powers to be at least as strong after Brexit as beforehand. The OEP may not be in place when the UK leaves the EU. The committee, therefore, calls for interim measures to be put in place to maintain at least some level of environmental protection.

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