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Report: Ministers are misleading the public over Brexit bill, jeopardising UK environment

The government is misleading the public by claiming all EU environmental law will be saved during the Brexit process, when swathes of environmental law will be lost under the current Withdrawal Bill.

In its white paper, the government claimed that the whole body of EU environmental law would be maintained, but the Withdrawal Bill fails to make this a reality.

It fails to convert EU Directives in full, it fails to guarantee environmental laws will not be weakened by ministers during and after the Brexit process, and it fails to retain key environmental principles. This means the UK will lose important safeguards, which could threaten people’s health and the environment.

Around 80% of environmental protection laws in the UK stem from the EU and a substantial part of this is found in directives. As a policy area, the environment has the most to lose.

ClientEarth programme director Karla Hill said: “In its current form, the Bill will jeopardise the environment and leave environmental law in tatters. The government’s promise that the whole body of EU environmental law will be maintained simply does not stack up against any reasonable reading of the Withdrawal Bill. Ministers are playing Russian roulette with the future of the UK’s environment.

“March 2019 cannot be a cliff edge for protection of our air, water, nature and wildlife and we will need to see big changes to the bill before it’s passed. We need certainty that the UK will have a complete, functioning body of environmental law which can’t be swept away at a ministerial whim once we leave the EU.”

In a report being sent to the government and MPs, environmental lawyers ClientEarth have made 15 recommendations to improve the bill and safeguard the environment.

Among the top 3 recommendations:

  • The Government should meet its stated aim of retaining the whole body of existing EU environmental law including environmental principles and incompletely transposed elements of EU Directives.
  • The Government should acknowledge the special status of existing secondary legislation that implements EU law, since 80% of environmental law is derived from the EU.
  • The Withdrawal Bill should include a clause specifying that retained EU law can only be modified by an Act of Parliament once the UK has left the EU.

Many EU environment laws are not completely or correctly transposed in the UK. Keeping just the UK version of these laws would seriously weaken legal protections for the environment.

For example, EU directives require member states like the UK to report to the European Commission on their compliance with environment laws. These reporting rules, which are key to accountability, are only set out in the directives and are not transposed into UK law.

Strong penalties for breaches of air quality laws will be lost, along with rules that order the UK to review nature protection laws every six years. And these are just two of many.  The ‘polluter pays’ rules that underpin chemical and industrial emission laws will also be lost. 

The government must rectify this in the Withdrawal Bill to ensure there is a functioning statute book once the UK has left the EU. The future of the UK’s countryside and wildlife depends on it.

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