Government vision not supported by basic protections for environment

New analysis acknowledges desire to be free to diverge from EU rules, but indicates environmental standards and protections likely to be weaker from 2021

Greener UK has today concluded (19 June 2020) that all areas of the environment are set to see lower standards and protections from January.

In our latest Risk Tracker, we have found that areas including agriculture, air quality, chemicals and fishing remain at high risk of seeing protections lowered [1]. While ministers and negotiators have emphasised the importance of having the freedom to ‘diverge’ from EU rules, the UK government is yet to establish in law that existing standards will be maintained [2]. This opens the door to potential deregulation and the import of products produced to lower standards.

A rigid approach to the transition period has also revived the threat of no deal, with significant environmental risks, and raises the prospect of a poor UK-EU deal that fails to maintain high standards and lessens cooperation, particularly in crucial areas such as climate change [3].

The UK has chosen not to prioritise sustainable fishing in negotiations with the EU, while the domestic Fisheries Bill fails to mandate sustainable limits for fish stocks [4]. Meanwhile, ministers have confirmed they are not seeking ‘associate membership’ of the EU’s world-leading chemical safety system, REACH, preferring to develop a UK-only system [5]. There are serious questions over the new body’s staffing, budget and access to safety data.

The prospect of US agri-foods undermining UK environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards continues to raise concerns, with ministers reluctant to prevent the import of lower quality products via the Agriculture Bill. Recent proposals to introduce a dual-tariff for agri-products do not resolve concerns over animal welfare and more unscrupulous production methods, and would allow future ministers to lower such tariffs without sufficient scrutiny [6]. The Trade Bill currently going through parliament does not offer enough protection.

On environmental governance, the analysis finds that the UK government has significantly strengthened the Environment Bill, with a welcome new framework for legally binding targets and extending the Office for Environmental Protection’s (OEP) remit to cover climate law [7]. At the same time, the OEP’s board and budget will be under ministerial control, compromising its independence, and delays to the bill are a growing concern. The Scottish and Welsh governments, developing their own systems for enforcing environmental laws from January 2021, are yet to propose detailed plans.

Sarah Williams of the Greener UK coalition said:

“For all the government’s good intentions, it has still not committed to maintain our existing high standards in either domestic law or trade negotiations. Without urgent action, it will be harder to enforce environmental laws in January than it is now.

“Ministers have promised again and again that our environment will not be compromised. From the food on our plates to the products on our shelves, time is running out to prove it.”

Notes to editors

[1] All previous Greener UK Risk Trackers can be found here.

[2] David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator for the EU talks, has emphasised the importance of the UK being able to diverge from EU rules. ‘We won't budge on escaping EU rules, says UK's Brexit negotiator’, The Guardian, 17 February 2020. Meanwhile, ministers have continually asserted that environmental and other standards will be protected and enhanced through Brexit: Michael Gove as Defra secretary in July 2017, here; Zac Goldsmith, then environment minister in September 2019, here; Prime Minister Boris Johnson in February 2020 here.

[3] ‘Boris Johnson to threaten EU with no-deal if Brexit talks stall’, The Times, 15 June 2020; ‘Climate change in the Brexit negotiations’, E3G briefing paper, May 2020.

[4] ‘How fish are derailing the EU negotiations and why we should care’, Green Alliance Inside Track, 15 May 2020; ‘The new UK Fisheries Bill: learning from past mistakes or set to repeat them?’, MCS briefing, 2020; Risk Tracker 10, Greener UK, 18 June 2020.

[5] Letter: ‘New chemicals strategy and the future of chemicals regulation’, Minister Pow to Philip Dunne MP, 22 May 2020.

[6] ‘US trade deal that promised tariffs on chlorinated chicken questioned by animal welfare groups’, The Daily Telegraph, 7 June 2020.

[7] Risk Tracker 10, Greener UK, 18 June 2020. 

Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash