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Press release: 21 June 2019
Two environmental groups have launched a High Court challenge to the UK government’s Brexit laws, over sweeping new powers that may weaken protection for seas and wildlife in the UK.
ClientEarth and the Marine Conservation Society, working with lawyers at Leigh Day Solicitors, are challenging a decision of the UK Government made under the EU Withdrawal Act, which they say is an unlawful misuse of Brexit powers.
The measures the government has introduced, behind the scenes, put seals, otters, dolphins and seabirds and many other vulnerable animals, plants and precious sites around the UK, at risk.
The legal challenge focuses on new powers that will allow ministers to alter and reduce standards for protected sites – that will fundamentally change how the law operates in the UK.
If the change was allowed to happen, the groups argue, it would be a total breach of the UK government’s promises of a “green Brexit” and repeated assurances that only technical changes would be made to modify our laws under the Act.
ClientEarth UK law and policy advisor Dr Tom West said: “The UK government has repeatedly promised that the environment would be safeguarded after Brexit. So, it is extremely concerning that the government has quietly and unlawfully introduced sweeping new powers behind the scenes that weaken environmental protection.
“Quite rightly the public has been concerned by the use of so-called Henry VIII powers that give too much discretion to ministers to make new laws, with little scrutiny from parliament, the public or civil society.”
Marine Conservation Society CEO Sandy Luk said: “Whatever you think of Brexit, the government must keep its promise to the UK public that its seas, countryside and wildlife will not be worse off if EU protections are no longer in place.
“The management of marine protected areas is not strong enough under current legislation and allowing these changes will mean weaker protections for vulnerable species and habitats. We could even see the possibility of protected areas being abolished after Brexit.
“We cannot allow hard-won ocean protections, which will safeguard future generations and marine wildlife such as treasured dolphins and seabirds, to be lost or watered down.”
Specifically, the charities are challenging the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) over parts of a statutory instrument, made under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act of 2018, which change the existing regulation of habitat and species conservation.
Defra’s changes include potential changes to the obligation to manage recognised conservation sites, and potential limits to the types of areas set aside to protect marine animals that range over wide areas.
Defra has created 122 statutory instruments under the Act, which will replace EU laws after Brexit, and more than 500 have been submitted by other government departments.
Dr West added: “This legal challenge focuses on the unlawful nature of just one of the hundreds of pieces of legislation that government departments have quietly been rewriting with little or no scrutiny.
“We fear that without improved scrutiny, we will continue to see the government using its powers in this way.”
Marine Protected Areas are parts of the sea that are partially or fully protected from damaging or extractive activity. MPAs have traditionally been put in place to protect habitats or species or both from damage and/or allow wildlife or habitats to recover in places that have been damaged. The UK has over 300 sites set up under the Habitats and Birds Directives (from EU laws). Many of these could be under threat because of the new legislation. These sites have been hard-won, and established over two decades, with a raft of sites that ensure that marine habitats work better for people and wildlife. MCS and ClientEarth have fought for many years to ensure that sites like the beautiful Fal and Helford Special Area of Conservation (SAC) in Cornwall are protected from dredging and trawling. Such changes as proposed by Defra could lead to large-scale industrial dredging being permitted in such a vulnerable site.
The Withdrawal Act created a number of new ‘Henry VIII’ powers for government ministers to be able to pass laws that ‘correct’ retained EU law so that it functions properly once Britain leaves the EU.
ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.