Days to go before crucial vote to protect Scotland’s environment post-Brexit

18 Dec 2020

The Firth of Lorn is protected from scallop dredging thanks to the EU Commission’s ability to take enforcement action on individual cases. ©Calum Duncan

Scottish Environment LINK, a coalition of Scotland’s leading environmental charities, has warned Scotland’s natural environment and wildlife remain at grave risk unless major gaps in new Scottish nature laws are closed before Brexit.

The warning comes just days ahead of a crunch vote on the EU Continuity Bill in the Scottish Parliament next week (22 December), which embeds a new set of legislation to replace those Scotland will lose once it leaves the EU on 1 January 2021.

The coalition is calling on the Scottish government to commit to strong laws that don’t water down the very EU legislations that have protected Scotland’s nature for decades. It has also stressed that failure to do so would undo decades of progress that could seriously set back Scotland’s environment and economy as the nation battles with the impact of climate change, Brexit and the coronavirus – bringing home the very real dangers Scotland is facing.

Scottish Environment LINK went on to raise concerns about plans for the new Scottish environment watchdog, Environmental Standards Scotland, also created under the Scottish government’s EU Continuity Bill. Unlike the EU watchdog, the proposed environment watchdog for Scotland will not be fully independent of government, risking its ability to hold ministers to account.

Furthermore, unlike the rights enjoyed as EU citizens, the new watchdog will not have the power to enforce action on specific cases relating to people’s concerns about their local environment in Scotland. An example of this includes the case brought forward by marine biologist, David Ainsley who in 2007 won a landmark ruling at European Court of Justice to halt the damaging practice of scallop dredging in the Firth of Lorn. The coalition points out that the new environment watchdog will be excluded from taking enforcement action on cases such as these whether the complaint is made by an individual, a charity, a community group or indeed whoever.

It has stressed that the watchdog will in effect be ‘toothless’ unless MSPs step up to the plate and use a crucial vote next week to give it the power to protect Scotland’s people and nature.

Marine biologist David Ainsley, who was part of the group which won the case at an EU level to protect the Firth of Lorn from scallop dredging, said:

Unless MSPs vote to amend the EU Continuity Bill to give the new watchdog powers and duties to address citizens’ complaints, it will be nigh on impossible to persuade a future government to enforce legislation protecting Scotland’s wildlife.

In 2007, after a long campaign to stop the damaging practice of scallop dredging, we won our case at an EU level and dredging in the Firth of Lorn Special Area of Conservation (SAC) was ruled as illegal. It’s amazing the difference this had made. Wildlife in and around the Firth of Lorn has recovered and is thriving. A healthier natural environment has also helped to support local businesses and create more jobs than when dredging was allowed. The recovery came about because as EU citizens we could raise concerns about damaging environmental practices and have an independent watchdog investigate it and enforce action against it.

As the Scottish government’s EU Continuity Bill stands, this will no longer be possible. This is tragic and comes at a time when one in nine species in Scotland is at risk of extinction. This in itself should be a ‘wake up call’ for the Scottish government to do more and not less for the health and wellbeing of its people and natural environment.

Vhairi Tollan, Advocacy Manager, Scottish Environment LINK said:

Without enforcement powers for individual cases, when citizens make official complaints about harm to a local coastline or greenspace, for example, the new watchdog won’t be able to do anything about it. This will deprive Scotland’s people of an important means of seeking justice on environmental matters – and a right we’ve enjoyed for decades as members of the European Union.

The Scottish government has promised to maintain or exceed environmental standards after Brexit – but by leaving this hole in the new Scottish system, it manifestly fails to do so. We urge MSPs to give the new watchdog the power it needs when they vote on 22 December, just nine days before EU protections cease to apply in Scotland.

We also urge the people of Scotland to contact their MSPs ahead of next week’s vote to ensure Scotland’s environment and its people are not let down at this critical time in our history.”

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