The government’s plans for a new environment protection regime have suffered a setback after they were rejected by the House of Lords last night (16 May).
During the final debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill, peers voted for a stronger environmental protection framework than that outlined in a consultation paper issued last week by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
A new green watchdog, which the paper proposes setting up to ensure that existing EU environmental standards are upheld, will not have legal powers.
Instead of taking government and other public bodies, which flout these environmental standards to court, it will only be able to serve “advisory notices” on them.
And key elements of the EU framework, such as the precautionary and the polluter pays principles, will be included in a policy statement instead of being enshrined in legislation.
Baroness Young of Old Scone, former Environment Agency chief executive, said: “we should have smelled a rat” when the consultation paper was not published as promised in November 2017.
The Labour peer said: “This is a sign of cold feet in a range of departments—BEIS, the Treasury, the Department for Transport and, indeed, number 10.
“There is a total lack of cross-government agreement and that means that the consultation is late, the governance gap is opening up under our feet and there is no chance of getting even these weak proposals in place before Brexit day.
“The watchdog is more like a watchpoodle and simply will not do the task that has been carried out by the Commission and the European Court of Justice very successfully.”
The baroness was backed up by the agency’s former chair Lord Smith, who said the threat of court proceedings by the EU had boosted the UK watchdog’s ability to take legal action over issues like sewerage discharges into the River Thames.
He said: “If we lose that lever, we lose the ability to tackle these major environmental issues.”
Lord Krebs, moving the amendment to beef up the environmental protections outlined in the bill, warned that the current mechanisms for enforcing environmental protection rules will disappear under the government’s plans.
Arguing that the proposals fell far short of Theresa May’s promise to create a “world leading” watchdog when launching the government’s 25-year environment strategy, he said: “The government’s proposals open the door to weaker environmental protection after Brexit day.”
Opposing the amendment, which was backed by 294 votes to 244, government minister Lord Callanan, said the move would prejudge the government’s consultation on environmental protection.