A major UK-wide coalition of over twenty-eight environment and wildlife organisations1, including Scottish Environment LINK members, are warning that despite welcome commitments on environmental protections, the UK Government could still create loopholes in environmental law as part of the Brexit transition. This could have damaging consequences for the environment and animal welfare.
The warning coincides with amendments being debated during ‘environment day’ (Wednesday 15 November) in the Committee stage of the (EU) Withdrawal Bill. These amendments could help close these legal loopholes if they are backed by MPs.
Environmental groups have warmly welcomed recent commitments to a strong new environmental regulator and to consult on retaining environmental principles.2 Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham has also underlined the need to maintain EU environmental principles3.
However, environmental groups are concerned that the UK Government has omitted vital EU legal principles, which protect our environment, from the current Withdrawal Bill. They are warning that unless the full range of environmental principles are underpinned with legislation, we are at risk of drastically weakened environmental legal protections which could have major repercussions.
Elaine King, of Environment Links UK4, said: ‘Michael Gove has said that he wants to achieve a gold standard on the environment5, but the EU Withdrawal Bill without these principles is set to provide tin can protection. It is essential the UK Government offers the same or stronger legal protections as the EU if we are to protect the UK’s natural world.’
Jen Anderson, Chief Officer of Scottish Environment LINK, said: ‘Actions speak louder than words. So while we welcome commitments made by the Scottish and UK governments regarding the need to support EU environmental principles and address the environmental governance gap, what we now need is for MPs to make the relevant changes in the EU Withdrawal Bill. Similar action needs to be taken in the other parliaments of the UK. Members of the Scottish Parliament must prioritise the protection of our environment.’
Further quotes from the coalition of charities can be found here.
What environmental groups are calling for:
Around 80% of our environmental law and policy is currently based on EU law. Standards jointly adopted with our European neighbours have enabled the UK to meet national and international environmental targets. So it is essential that these EU environmental and animal welfare protections are completely translated into domestic law as part of the EU Withdrawal Bill. The Withdrawal Bill does not currently set out a clear pathway for this, and the risk is that essential environmental protections will be lost if amendments to the Bill are not made.
In addition to specific EU directives relating to environmental and animal welfare protection, the main principles guiding EU environmental action are enshrined in law, as part of the EU treaties. They are essential requirements for governments, statutory agencies, as well as businesses, and if necessary an aid to interpretation by the Courts, and include:
- the polluter pays principle; which states that those who cause pollution should pay for the damage. This acts as a financial deterrent to businesses and others polluting the environment.
- the dealing with damage at source principle; which ensures that the cause of any pollution or damage to the environment has to be addressed at source to prevent further harm, rather than just dealing with the resulting damage in the wider environment
the precautionary principle; which means where there is a possibility of serious environmental harm, the absence of scientific certainty can’t be used as a reason not to take action
- and the animal sentience principle; that recognises animals as ‘sentient beings’ and requires that their welfare is ensured.
These legal principles have been responsible for massive environmental wins, such as:
- the largest ever UK marine area closure in Lyme Bay, protecting swathes of sealife from over-fishing
- playing a key role in decisions like the EU ban on imports of hormone-fed beef, and control of the release of Genetically Modified Organisms in the EU.
- instrumental in driving £8 billion of investment in UK waste water treatment since 1990
- helping to prevent the decimation of our native bee populations by non-native invasive Asian hornets
The current version of the Withdrawal Bill would fail to ensure all the principles from EU law are specifically brought across into domestic law. The coalition is supporting essential amendments to the Withdrawal Bill which include enshrining these principles into law. These amendments will be debated on Wednesday 15 November 2017 and the group urges MPs to give them their backing to help protect our much loved natural world.
On Saturday 11 Nov in an article in the Telegraph Michael Gove committed to ‘create a new policy statement setting out the environmental principles that will guide us’ and this would ‘underpin future policy making.’ The EU principles currently underpin law-making as well as policy and NGOs believe that they should therefore be founded in primary legislation.
Powers relating to most environmental matters are currently devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is therefore essential for the UK and devolved governments to work together to address these concerns. 6
The coalition is calling for:
- Environmental legal principles to be put into domestic law through the Withdrawal Bill amendments to ensure that they are binding and enforceable.
- The legal principles which are translated across into domestic law should include the Lisbon Treaty Article 191 principles and the other environmental principles that have been incorporated into the EU Treaties – these are listed in proposed amendment NC28 to the Withdrawal Bill.
- These principles should apply across all parts of governments in the four nations, and should be applied as over-arching requirements to future legislation and policy as the current EU principles do.
For more information, please contact:
- Daphne Vlastari at Scottish Environment LINK (0757 211 33 79, firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Emma Adler at Wildlife and Countryside Link (020 7820 8600, 07881785634, email@example.com)
Notes to Editors:
- The coalition will be following each stage of the Bill which affects environmental protections carefully and are happy to provide media briefings, comment and interviews on any related issue.
- Location filming can be carried out at case study sites where the environmental legal principles had big wins. Please use the contact details above if this is of interest and for further details of these case studies.
- For members of the public who would like to get involved in protecting environmental and animal welfare standards in the UK – Friends of the Earth and Compassion in World Farming both have actions you can take (see links).
- The coalition includes: A Rocha UK, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, The Angling Trust and Fish Legal, Bat Conservation Trust, Born Free Foundation, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Campaign for National Parks, Campaign to Protect Rural England, Freshwater Habitats Trust, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Humane Society International UK, Institute of Fisheries Management, Marine Conservation Society, Plantlife, The Rivers Trust, RSPB, Salmon and Trout Conservation, Scottish Environment Link, Wales Environment Link, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the Wildlife Gardening Forum, WWF-UK, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), Wildlife and Countryside Link, Woodland Trust, ZSL.
- See Michael Gove’s piece in the Telegraph.
- Read the full statements made by the Cabinet Secretary here.
- Environment Links UK brings together environment and animal protection organisations to advocate for the conservation and protection of wildlife, countryside and the marine environment. The network comprises the combined memberships of Wildlife and Countryside Link, Scottish Environment LINK, Wales Environment Link and Northern Ireland Environment Link. Taken together, Environment Links UK members have the support of over eight million people in the UK and manage over 750,000 hectares of land.
- One example of Michael Gove’s comments on this issue is from a speech given at WWF-UK on 21 July 2017 where he said that leaving the EU was an opportunity to be ‘a setter of gold standards in protecting and growing natural capital, an innovator in clean, green growth and an upholder of the moral imperative to hand over our planet in a better condition than we inherited it.’ See The Unfrozen Moment – Delivering a Green Brexit
- Powers relating to most environmental matters, including agriculture, fisheries, and aspects of energy policy, are devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In fact, of all the policies areas where EU powers intersect with devolved competences, the greatest number relate to the environment. The loss of these common EU frameworks could risk significant regulatory divergence and a less coordinated approach to environmental governance. In addition, it could lead to an environmentally damaging process of competitive deregulation across the UK’s different jurisdictions.