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ClientEarth Communications

4th October 2022


Recent Government announcements risk a ‘perfect storm’ for environmental degradation

We share the concerns of fellow environmental groups, wider civil society organisations and politicians across the political spectrum over recent announcements made by the UK Government in relation to environmental protection and climate change. We are deeply concerned about the implications for the environment, climate change and people’s health. They signal a deeply troubling shift away from commitments made to the British public in the Government’s own manifesto – commitments which, if met, would benefit the people of the UK and our planet, for generations to come.

The Government is poised to adopt a course of rapid and reckless deregulation less than one year after the UK hosted the 2021 international COP26 summit in Glasgow. This approach is likely to lead to a perfect storm of environmental degradation married to the shrinking of business investment, stemming from the contagious uncertainty that will surely follow the chaotic deconstruction of our regulatory framework. Such an outcome has the potential to lock in a ‘levelling down’ of future opportunities for businesses, communities and nature-restoration across the whole of the UK, for a generation or more.

In this context, the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is particularly troubling. In its current shape the Bill, if passed, would on 31 December 2023 revoke all retained EU law, except for those provisions which the Government assesses to be worth keeping. This raises the possibility that a complex framework of protections, built up over decades, will be stripped away with nothing equivalent put in place. Such an outcome threatens major fundamental environmental and public health laws and regulations including:

  • Laws setting standards for water pollution levels in our rivers and on our beaches.
  • Regulations setting limits on toxic air pollution to reduce health impacts.
  • Rules protecting habitats and wildlife from destruction.
  • Regulations designed to protect people and wildlife from the harmful impacts of pesticides.

There is no requirement for the Government to save any retained EU law and its window for doing so is implausibly small – it is entirely possible that, at the end of next year, vast swathes of our legislative framework designed to protect the health of people and our environment disappear overnight.

This potentially means more pollution in our rivers, dirtier air, unprotected countryside and threatened species – nobody wants this.

The Bill is a clear attack on nature, the climate and people’s health, but it will also have dangerous implications in other areas – protections that could be thrown on the scrapheap include, for example, employment rights, food safety standards and consumer protection laws.

The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill also empowers Ministers to amend, revoke or replace retained EU law before the ‘sunset’ date of 31 December 2023, using secondary legislation. This has important implications for the democratic process: secondary legislation, unlike an Act, affords Parliament almost no opportunity for scrutiny.

The effect of the Bill is that it will be possible for Ministers of the Government to change or revoke legislation in important areas (examples of which are set out above) without oversight from the legislature. That represents government by decree and can be added to the list of examples of the Government acting anti-democratically and seeking to undermine the rule of law – a list that includes the weakening of the judicial review regime by the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022 and the Government’s stated aim of repealing the Human Rights Act 1998.

Environmental protections are popular with voters across the political spectrum and businesses have sounded the alarm at the Government’s aggressive deregulatory intent. Furthermore, the Government has a mandate to strengthen, not weaken, environmental protection and its recent actions threaten its ability to deliver its promised targets and policies, such as those under the Climate Change Act 2008, the 25-year plan to improve the environment and the ‘30x30’ biodiversity pledge. The Bill threatens to make a greener, cleaner and healthier future for this country all but unattainable.

Abandoning clear manifesto commitments will only serve to drive away voters at the next election, who were expecting the Government to put environmental protection at the heart of decision-making.

In July this year, the High Court concluded that the Government’s net zero strategy breached the Climate Change Act and needed to be strengthened by setting out how it would deliver the UK’s targets.

The Government must change course and start producing sound policies that stand up to the scrutiny of Parliament and the voting public, who are concerned about having an environmental and climate change framework in place that will protect our communities and country.

We will be watching closely and commenting further on the potential threats these developments pose.

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