24 October 2019
By Adam Vaughan
The UK government’s plans for environment laws after Brexit are still not fit for purpose in parts, and there remain questions over the independence of a new environmental watchdog, MPs warn today.
The criticism of the draft environmental bill by the Environmental Audit Committee takes on greater importance in light of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s main EU withdrawal agreement bill, which was published on Monday night. The bill contained no mention of protections over air pollution, water quality and other environmental issues. These issues were instead addressed in a second document, the Brexit political declaration, which is not legally binding.
MPs today will welcome the government shifting on some concerns raised previously by the committee. For example, the watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, will now cover climate change issues, meaning there would be enforcement if future carbon targets were missed.
But EAC chair and Labour MP Mary Creagh says she is still worried in particular about the independence of the OEP.
“At the moment we have the European Commission judging whether we meet environmental targets, and they are clearly independent and can use a judicial route. We are very concerned the OEP will be funded by government, monitoring targets set by government and with a chair appointed by government,” she told New Scientist.
Instead, the watchdog should have greater independence, with the EAC taking a role in appointing the OEP’s chair, she says.
Creagh adds that only four key targets on air quality, water, biodiversity and waste reduction are explicitly set out in the draft environment bill, with targets on other issues such as access to nature deferred to a policy statement. That statement has not been published yet and, Creagh points out, is not in the legislation so could be easily overturned by future governments.
The intervention by the MPs follows London mayor Sadiq Khan yesterday calling on the government to amend the bill to adopt the World Health Organization’s targets on air pollution for 2030. There is no date yet for a second reading of the draft environmental bill, but it is thought it could take place next week.