The permanent secretary of Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has sought permission for the devolved administration to be covered by the new environmental governance body being created for when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.
However, the chair of Westminster's Environmental Audit Committee has warned the move risks creating anomalies for policing clean-air standards and other environment-related legislation across whole of the United Kingdom.
UK environment secretary Michael Gove last year announced the creation of the Office for Environmental Protection to hold government and public bodies to account after Brexit, replacing the oversight of the European Commission. As a devolved administration, Northern Ireland would have been free to make its own arrangements for environmental protection.
But Northern Ireland's Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs perm sec Dr Denis McMahon said that the two-year absence of a sitting assembly or executive in the devolved administration made it impossible to address legislative gaps in its environmental-protection governance arrangements that Brexit will create.
McMahon told Westminster’s Environmental Audit Committee that he had asked Gove to extend the provision of the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill to cover Northern Ireland so that the region would have greater environmental protection under the OEP post-Brexit. He added that Gove had “responded signalling his agreement”.
After a period when officials in Northern Ireland have come under increased scrutiny – and court challenge – over the legal exercise of their powers in the absence of an executive, McMahon said strengthened powers for officials introduced last year supported the environmental move.
“Officials have undertaken the considerations required by the [Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018] and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland’s guidance issued under the Act and concluded that it is in the public interest to ask for the Bill’s extension to NI,” he wrote in a letter to Mary Creagh.
“In reaching this conclusion we have noted the [Environmental Audit] Committee’s own recommendation that the Office for Environmental Protection should have a UK-wide remit and concerns that the inability to address gaps in environmental governance will result in Northern Ireland having less effective environmental protection after leaving the EU.”
Creagh said Gove’s apparent decision to extend the OEP’s remit to Northern Ireland had “ramifications” for the whole of the UK.
“It creates an anomaly for Scotland in terms of animal and plant protection and highlights the importance of our recommendations that the Office for Environmental Protection must be co-designed and co-owned by all the nations of the UK in order to be more resilient, independent and effective,” she said.
“It also raises questions about whether the application of the Environment Bill to Northern Ireland will necessitate the rest of the UK maintaining regulatory alignment with the European Union under the Irish Backstop, effectively requiring the whole of the UK to stay within a customs union and single market.”