COMMONS

New Environmental Protection Act needed after Brexit

04 January 2017

MPs are warning the Government that environmental protections must not be weakened during the process of leaving the EU or afterwards. The Environmental Audit Committee is calling on the Government to introduce a new Environmental Protection Act during Article 50 negotiations to maintain the UK's strong environmental standards.

Chair's Comments

Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP:

"Changes from Brexit could put our countryside, farming and wildlife at risk. 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.

The Government should safeguard protections for Britain's wildlife and special places in a new Environmental Protection Act.

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. The Government must not trade away these key protections as we leave the EU. It should also give clarity over any future farm subsidies."

The Environmental Audit Committee report suggests that protections for wildlife and habitats could be weaker after the UK leaves the EU if the Government doesn't take action before, or in the early stages of the Article 50 process.

The MPs looked at the legislative, trade, and financial issues and make recommendations for action to secure the future of the natural environment. They call on the Government to allow full parliamentary scrutiny of its plans for the future of environmental legislation after Brexit.

Legislative issues - 'Zombie Legislation'

The EU provides the UK with key environmental legal protections. Merely copying EU legislation into UK law will not be enough for up to one third of the UK's environmental protections. There is a risk where EU legislation is transposed into UK law but is no longer updated, has no body enforcing it and can be eroded through statutory instruments with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. A new Environmental Protection Act should be passed before Brexit.

To achieve its manifesto commitment to "be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it found it" the Government must set out how it will provide an equivalent or better level of protection after leaving the EU.

Trade issues – impact on UK farmers

Leaving the EU will involve changes with the UK’s relationships with international markets. UK farmers face a 'triple jeopardy' from changes in the UK’s trading relationships negotiated after Brexit. First, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) makes up 50-60% of farm incomes, so leaving the CAP will threaten the viability of some farms. Second, trade agreements which impose tariff or non-tariff barriers on UK farm exports threaten farm and food business incomes. Third, new trading relationships with the rest of the world could lead to increased competition from larger economies with lower animal welfare, food safety and environmental standards.

Financial issues - Farm subsidies

It is not clear whether there will be subsidies for farmers after we leave the EU. Any new farm subsidies which the Government introduces to replace CAP should provide a better balance between support to agriculture and environmental protection. New 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. The determination of which public goods to support should be evidence-based, with the aim of addressing market failure. Any possible future scheme should be more able to allow innovative technologies for protecting the environment.
 
Mary Creagh said:

"It was concerning that the Environment Secretary gave my Committee no reassurance that there would be subsidies for farmers after we leave the EU."

Background

The Government has said it will introduce a 'Great Repeal Bill' to transpose and retain European Legislation into UK law when we leave the EU.

  • The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told the Committee that approximately a third of the over 800 pieces of EU environmental legislation will be difficult to transpose into UK law.
  • Over 70% if the land area of the UK is in some form of agricultural use.
  • EU farm subsidies currently make up to around 50-60% of UK farm income.
  • Total UK CAP expenditure last year was £3.5 billion, much of this Pillar 1.
  • CAP provides subsidies to farmers on a per hectate basis for land actively farmed (Pillar 1) and for rural development activities, including those intended to have an environmental benefit (Pillar 2).
  • Payments to farmers are subject to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. The EU has a specific agreement with the WTO covering those CAP payments.
  • If the UK chooses not to enter into an arrangement with the European Single Market the UK farming industry may face tariffs and non-tariff barriers when exporting produce to the EU.
  • The Committee was told that sheep exports could face in excess of 30% tariffs and beef 50% if the UK did not have free access to the Single Market.

Case study: the Bird and Habitats Directives: 

The Birds and Habitats directives protect wild birds, and Britain’s the most important wildlife and plant habitats. These directives will no longer apply in their current form in UK law, even if the UK remains in the Single Market. The report warns that this could have potentially far-reaching negative consequences for the UK's biodiversity.

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

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