MPs have warned environmental protection laws could be under threat after Britain leaves the EU.
In a report published today, the environmental audit committee claims European regulations designed to protect the countryside, wildlife and farming could end up as ‘zombie’ laws, unless the UK government acts now to enshrine them.
It calls on the government to introduce a new Environmental Protection Act in order to protect the regulations currently in place as it claims current Whitehall plans to copy existing EU legislation onto the UK stature books, under the Great Repeal Bill, will not be enough.
The report also comes a day after the resignation of the UK’s ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, prompting fresh speculation about divisions in Whitehall over Britain’s strategy to leave the EU.
‘Protections for Britain’s wildlife and special places currently guaranteed under European law could end up as ‘zombie legislation’ even with the Great Repeal Bill,’ warned committee chair, Mary Creagh.
‘The government should safeguard protections for Britain’s wildlife and special places in a new Environmental Protection Act.’
According to the report, EU membership has been a key factor in shaping environmental policy over the past 40 years.
The regulations range from land management to directives on birds and habitats.
The report also calls on the government to set out how it plans to honour its manifesto commitment to ‘be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it found it’, particularly in light of leaving the EU.
When the environment secretary, Andrea Leadsom, appeared in front of the committee in October, she told MPs approximately a third of the current 800+ pieces of EU environmental legislation would be difficult to transpose into UK law.
The environment secretary said around two thirds of EU environmental legislation ‘will actually be able to rolled forward with just some technical changes’ into UK law.
‘It is absolutely our intention that in leaving the EU, we are better able to meet our own environmental objectives, and we will be able to focus what we do in future on what works for the UK, rather than what works for 28 member states,’ she told the committee.
‘Ambitious’ new agricultural policy needed
The report also states Brexit could have a huge impact on British farmers, particularly if Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments, which account for 50-60% of farm incomes, come to an end.
It also claims farmers may face new tariffs and other trade barriers if the UK chooses not to remain in the single market.
It adds that any payments made to farmers will also be subject to World Trade Organisation rules. At present, the EU has its own agreement with the WTO to cover such payments.
And British farmers could also face competition from food producers in other countries, which have lower standards.
‘UK farming faces significant risks – from a loss of subsidies and tariffs on farm exports, to increased competition from countries with weaker food, animal welfare and environmental standards,’ added Ms Creagh.
‘The government must not trade away these key protections as we leave the EU,’ she said. ‘It should also give clarity over any future farm subsidies.’
The report states any new agricultural subsidies should have clearly defined objectives linked to the delivery of public goods, like the promotion of biodiversity, preventing flooding and storing carbon, rather than simply providing income support to farmers.
It also recommends any possible future scheme should also encourage the use of new technology to protect the environment.
Belinda Gordon, head of rural affairs at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said the environmental audit committee report is ‘right to recognise that future support for land management should encourage innovation’.
‘We also agree that funding should be tied to public benefits beyond food production, and be tailored to the local landscape,’ added Ms Gordon.
‘Brexit could have a huge impact on farming and the natural environment, but it also gives the government a chance to develop an ambitious agricultural policy that supports the distinctive attributes of English farming that make our countryside so beautiful and vibrant,’ she said.
‘We should also look to redirect public funding towards things that really benefit the public as well as farmers – wildlife, distinctive and varied landscapes, and flood and soil protection, alongside food production.’
The vice president of the National Farmers Union, Guy Smith, said the EAC had ‘rightly recognised that farming and the environment go hand-in-hand and that producing quality, home-grown food is critical to the future of the country’.
‘The EAC recommended that support payments should be linked to public goods. It is our view that food security and food production should be regarded as strategically important for the country and good for the public. It is disappointing that the EAC failed to mention this,’ added Mr Smith.
‘The NFU urges government to commit to working with farmers to establish a domestic farming policy designed to ensure a resilient farming sector alongside work to protect and enhance the environment.
‘The domestic agricultural policy should seek to deliver competitive, profitable and progressive farm businesses through a number of measures which also address price and market volatility and improvements in sectoral economic performance.’
Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said: ‘The UK has a long history of wildlife and environmental protection and we are committed to safeguarding and improving these, securing the best deal for Britain as we leave the EU.’
Photo by BenCremin