For regulations with teeth

The Labour Party’s consultation document, A Greener Britain, seeks proposals about different aspects of environmental policy. In this series of articles, Redgreenlabour supporters offer their thoughts. Please comment on these contributions which the authors may well revise and submit to the consultation in due course.
We also urge you to submit your own responses to the Party – whether as individuals or through your branches, CLPs, unions, SERA or other environmental groups. The deadline is 24th June.

Q: How should environmental rules and regulations be adapted for the future?

The Tory government claims it is committed to leaving the environment in a ‘better state’ after Brexit than it is now. It says that its EU Withdrawal Bill will ‘ensure that the whole body of existing EU environmental law continues to have effect’, writes Sean Thompson. But, as currently drafted, the bill will leave our environment less well protected than it is now.

In particular:

  • There is no commitment to convert all existing EU environmental law (including preambles, principles and jurisprudence) as well as the relevant parts of the Common Agricultural Policy, Common Fisheries Policy and energy policy, in line with a principle of non-regression, into domestic law.
  • There is no commitment to keeping domestic laws made through secondary legislation to implement our current EU obligations.
  • There is no commitment to confining the use of any delegated powers by Ministers to the faithful conversion of EU law by putting time limits and genuine parliamentary scrutiny on such powers.
  • There is no commitment to ensuring that changes beyond those necessary for the legislation to continue to operate post-Brexit are made by primary legislation only, and no commitment to giving each of the four constituent parts of the UK a full and proper role in monitoring, developing and implementing environment protection policies within their regions.

So Labour must make an explicit commitment that all the EU laws and regulations that protect our environment, as well any existing secondary legislation that puts those laws into effect, will be retained and converted into British law in full. It should pledge that any subsequent changes will be made only by primary legislation. In addition, Labour must make clear that all environmental policy areas that are currently devolved to the regions by the EU, particularly those of fisheries and agriculture, should remain so.

However, even the best environmental protection laws and regulations are worthless unless they can be monitored and enforced. The Environment Agency, Natural Resource Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency are responsible for over 40 different areas of regulation, ranging from controlling the pollution of water, air and land, through regulating angling, commercial fisheries, tree felling and Sites of Special Scientific Interest, to the licensing of landfill, incineration and recycling facilities. They are also responsible for flood forecasting and prevention.

Since 2010, they (especially the Environment Agency in England) have, in the words of Unison, been ‘cut and cut again’.  The Agency has seen cuts to its budget for environmental protection of 55%, from £113m in 2010/11 to £50m in 2016/17, while Natural England has had cuts of 60%, from £263m in 2009/10 to £106m in 2016/17. Labour must commit not only to a radical strengthening of environmental protection laws post Brexit but also ensure that the regulatory agencies have the resources needed to enforce them.

But even good environmental protection laws and well-funded enforcement agencies are pointless if the government itself can ignore the law with apparent impunity. The British government has been at the forefront of resistance to EU laws aimed at curbing air pollution deaths, and in violation of the EU’s NO2 limit since 2010. It has twice been told by the UK’s courts (once by the High Court and once by the Supreme Court) that its refusal to produce adequate proposals for dealing with the shocking problem of air pollution in much of urban Britain is unlawful. It has repeatedly failed to meet EU targets, continues to refuse to publish the details of its latest proposals and is likely to face heavy fines in the coming months. Yet the government seems to be quite unconcerned – the public purse will pick up the bill.

Labour should commit to introducing two key reforms. First, Ministers and Council Leaders should be made personally liable for at least a share of any fines, legal costs or compensation costs incurred when the government is found guilty of flouting environmental, public safety and human rights laws and regulations.

Second, an independent umbrella body covering the main environmental NGOs, such as the current Greener UK group, but open to trade unions and other civil society groups, should have legally enforceable ‘super complaint’ powers such as those enjoyed by the Consumers Association in the area of consumer protection.

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