The Brexit train continues to head towards the buffers. Today sees the EU Withdrawal Bill (aka The Big Brexit Bill) return to the House of Commons, where MPs will consider what to do with its tattered remains, after it received a thorough mauling at the hands of the “Traitors in Ermine” (™ Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail), otherwise known as the House of Lords. The Lords inflicted 14 separate defeats on the Government during the passage of the Bill, including a significant one for the Environment.
Lord Krebs (an eminent ecologist, who led the research project investigating the effectiveness of Badger Culling against Bovine TB) introduced an amendment (no.58), which greatly strengthened the powers of the Green Watchdog, which I wrote about in a previous column. The amendment received widespread support in the Lords and passed with a healthy majority. Although it could still be rejected in the Commons, the message that the Lords sent to Environment Secretary Michael Gove, was a powerful one; and that message was echoed by commentators and environmental NGOs.
And the Government clearly does not have an easy job of rejecting these amendments to its flagship Brexit legislation. It seems quite possible that the Tories will split along Brexit lines, with the hard Brexit European Research Group (led by the subject of my previous column, Jacob Rees-Mogg) on one side, and a smaller but just as significant group of soft-Brexiteers led by MPs including former Attorney General Dominic Grieves and former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, on the other. Equally, Labour could also succumb to factionalism, with some back benchers supporting Lords’ amendments which bring the UK closer to the EU, including into the European Economic Area (as Norway is).
It is in this context that Michael Gove made some very telling comments at an event at his favourite right-wing Thinktank, Policy Exchange, on the 6th June. Having given a very wide-ranging speech about the need to reinvent capitalism (which could arguably be seen as part of a nascent leadership campaign), Gove, in response to questioning, recognised that the Lords’ amendment was a significant moment, and that he would need to respond to it.
It seems pretty clear now that it was the Treasury, who spiked Gove’s guns and prevented him from bringing forward stronger proposals before, using the tired old argument that regulations to protect the Environment would just add up to Red Tape throttling economic development. Intriguingly, yesterday’s Farmers Guardian suggested that it was the useless former Environment Secretary Liz Truss, who is proving to be a blockage to Defra ministers access to the Treasury. Could she also have been doing the Chancellor’s work, blocking proposals for a stronger environmental watchdog?
Bearing all this in mind, it was with some surprise to see my MP Sir Oliver Letwin (chair of the Red Tape Initiative), helped by Gove’s old friend, Zac Goldsmith MP (and former editor of the Ecologist flagship website) table an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. This seeks to give that Green Watchdog more teeth, without agreeing to everything proposed by the Lords.
It remains to be seen whether Letwin’s amendment will be sufficiently toothy to satisfy all groupings within the Commons. Indeed 20 Labour MPs subsquently tabled an alternative, stronger, amendment (see both here, pages 31 and 32.) Whatever the case, it is clear that the argument is now shifting away from Hammond and towards Gove.
While the UK continues to struggle with the many consequences of Brexit, the European Union Court of Justice continues to make decisions that impact on the way the UK protects its own environment. A recent case known as “People Over Wind”, has put the cat amongst the pigeons. Based on a complaint about the impacts of building a wind-farm on a population of a very rare Freshwater Pearl-mussel in Ireland, this Court decision is already forcing councils to change the way they deal with developments which affect nature sites. While the details of the decision are quite technical, relating to how impacts on European designated nature sites are considered in the planning process, and at what stage mitigation of those impacts can be considered, the implications are significant. Housing developments and Local Plans are already being delayed as Councils come to terms with the new legal judgment from the European Court. There is more information about it here.
And the real point of all this is that a group of concerned citizens, like “People Over Wind”, in an EU country, can take their Government to the EU Court of Justice, challenging decisions by the Authorities. This route to environmental justice will be removed when we leave the EU; and Gove’s original proposal for his toothless Watchdog would have done nothing to remedy that loss of access to justice.
There is no small irony in the unelected House of Lords challenging the Government to restore that access to justice and it is now incumbent on MPs like Zac Goldsmith, who recognise how valuable that access to justice is, to ensure that the Government does fill the gap, by creating a powerful new Environmental Watchdog.
This is an updated version of an article which appeared in Lush Times.