A group of MPs has urged the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to revise its plans to maintain environmental standards after Brexit as the current system will fail to live up to the government’s pledge to not only maintain but surpass existing protections.
Legislation is due to be passed shortly that would establish a domestic environmental watchdog to take over responsibility for ensuring the UK upholds the EU’s environmental standards from the European Commission.
But bill would neither give the proposed Office for Environmental Protection neither enough power to fulfil its role, or enable it to “operate with sufficient independence from government”, according to parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
“The Office for Environmental Protection must not be seen to be just another arm’s length public body attached to Defra, given its elevated watchdog status,” the committee said in a report today.
“We also do not consider that the Office for Environmental Protection will have anything close to the same level of independence as currently exercised by the European Commission.”
It said the bill must be redrafted to give the watchdog its own, multi-annual budget framework, in the same way as the “respected” Office for Budget Responsibility, to help ensure its independence.
The committee said its members should be able to scrutinise and approve OEP board appointments. The board’s independence is “crucial to its ability to hold the government to account”, and it would therefore be “inappropriate” for members or the chair to be appointed solely by a secretary of state, the MPs said.
The regulator should also be given greater enforcement powers, beyond the power to threaten a judicial review as set out in the bill, the committee said. It should also be empowered to issue emergency and interim measures in “urgent cases of environmental harm”, the MPs said.
The report also noted that the OEP’s proposed remit does not include the enforcement of climate change law, which is currently enforced at EU level. It said the OEP’s remit should be expanded to cover this potential “governance gap”.
Committee chair Neil Parish said there would be “little point” in setting up a watchdog that was “unable to fulfil its essential function of holding the government to account”
“The new watchdog must not solely be a creature of government but needs real independence,” he said.
“Although the government has made a real attempt to establish a robust framework for environmental governance, the draft bill clearly fails to meet its own ambition to ‘ensure the environment is even better protected in future’ as we exit the EU. In some areas it actually marks a significant regression on current standards.”
The committee's report comes after environment secretary Michael Gove told another parliamentary group, the Environmental Audit Committee, that the arrangements for environmental oversight in the event of a no-deal Brexit were “sub-optimal”.
Under prime minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement – which has been voted down by parliament on multiple occasions – the European Commission would continue to enforce the UK’s compliance with EU environmental directives until the end of the Brexit transition period in 2020.
If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, an interim secretariat of 16 officials will carry out some but not all of the OEP's functions until the watchdog becomes fully operational.