The Green Party has accused the government of “ripping up” environmental protections in the UK after Brexit.
Co-leader Jonathan Bartley said that it was “clear” that the UK leaving the European Union would leave weaker protections from the environment, and the formation of a new Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) watchdog will not alleviate those fears.
A proposed amendment to the Environment Bill from ministers would give the environment minister the power to issue mandatory guidance on the new watchdog’s enforcement policy – including on its investigations into public authorities’ failures to comply with environmental law.
He said: “The government’s vague long-term plans to deliver environmental improvements, ‘enabling’ local authorities and ‘promoting’ resource efficiency amount to little when compared with the European law it intends to replace.
“It was clear that Brexit would weaken environmental protections and the government’s proposed Office of Environmental Protection was a toothless watchdog. But the government amendments to the Environment Bill would allow the Government to basically tell the Office of Environmental Protection what to do.
“Given that the inspiration for Brexit amongst many Conservative MPs was precisely ripping up the ‘red tape’ that has protected our countryside, waterways, and natural habitats for decades, to have no route to independent legal redress would be a source of considerable concern.
“The Green Party is campaigning for a strong, independent environmental regulator with legal powers to prosecute the government for breaches of environmental law. We are supporting amendments to the Environment Bill that will create powerful environmental protections for decades to come.”
Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “We were promised a world-leading enforcement body in the Office for Environmental Protection, but sadly the government has consistently reduced the resources that they say will be available for it and the powers for it.
“We’ve seen the Environment Bill delayed in parliament for over 200 days.”
Ruth Chambers of Greener UK said that the government’s amendment was “only necessary if the government wants to control a body charged withholding it to account” and provided a “get out of jail free” card for the government.
She said: “These changes are only necessary if the government wants to control a body charged withholding it to account. They provide a ‘get out jail’ free card for government to direct the watchdog away from awkward or inconvenient cases, completely undermining claims that it will be independent.
“This is a clear and simple weakening of environmental protection. Our nature, air and water quality is being put at further risk. We urge ministers to reconsider.”
But environment minister George Eustice has denied the allegations, insisting the new office will be “independent”, despite the government choosing the chair.
Eustice told the Today programme: “The OEP will be independent, with an independent chair, that recruitment process is well under way and it’s got very clear powers set out on the face of the bill.”
He acknowledged he would appoint the chair, adding: “That’s right but somebody has to appoint a chair of all of these bodies and on any other public body and regulator, the Government appoints the chair but their powers are very clearly set out in the Bill, they’ve got a very clearly set out independent role and that doesn’t change.”
On the new amendment, Eustice insisted it was a “normal” clause.
He explained: “All this amendment does is enable the government to issue guidance about the approach that it should take in performing its functions. It’s a very normal, standard clause.”