Michael Gove has hired an “eminent” environmental lawyer to head the new body that is being set up to oversee the environment protection regime if the UK leaves the EU without a withdrawal agreement.

Giving evidence to a House of Lords committee yesterday (3 April), the secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that a legal heavyweight had been secured to head the shadow environmental watchdog in the event of “no deal” Brexit.

The government is planning to set up a new body, called the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), to take over from the European Commission the enforcement of EU environmental law that the UK government has pledged to uphold post-Brexit.

Under the proposed terms of the UK’s withdrawal agreement, the commission will retain this role until the end of the Brexit transition period in 2020 when the OEP is due to be up and running.

However in the event of “no deal” exit from the EU, the commission will no longer have a remit in the UK, prompting the government to set up a small interim secretariat to bridge the gap until the OEP is operational.

Gove told the House of Lords EU energy and environment committee, that he had secured the agreement of a “distinguished” environmental lawyer to lead the shadow body.

Describing the appointee as “nobody’s patsy”, he said: “The individual concerned is someone with impeccable environmental and legal credentials.

“In the sub optimal situation where we leave without a deal, we have secured an eminent, energetic and effective watchdog.”

Gove said the shadow body’s principal job will be to advise, monitor and refer to the OEP any breaches of EU environmental law.

“If anyone thinks no deal provides the opportunity to play fast and loose, it will be very clear that we will use the full rigour of the law.

“If there is any need for the government to be brought to book, we will make sure that when the OEP comes into being appropriate action is taken.”

The secretary of state added that it is “important” that the new body is seen as truly independent and that it would be located outside Defra’s office in an already identified space.

And he said that just eight pieces of Defra Brexit-related “no deal” secondary legislation still require approval but expressed confidence that they will have made their way through by the end of next week.