Government ministers have stated that existing environmental regulations from European law are not currently at risk as part of the UK’s plans to leave the EU, despite concerns from MPs.
At a hearing of the government’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) on 7 September, Robin Walker, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the new Department for Exiting the European Union, said: “No one is suggesting it would be a good idea to scrap [environmental] legislation that exists to date”.
The hearing follows a published letter from the committee to the secretary of state for exiting the EU, David Davis, seeking “reassurance about the government’s plans for the large proportion of UK environmental law that originated from the EU level, the government’s approach to ongoing negotiations around EU measures such as the Circular Economy Package and how the government intends to maintain the benefits of transnational cooperation on environmental issues such as climate change”.
According to Mary Creagh, chair of the EAC, around 80 per cent of the UK’s environmental legislation comes from EU law and is not yet clear how this will be renegotiated.
Theresa Coffey, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was also present during the hearing.
“I would not want anyone to be under the illusion that just because we’re leaving the EU that has [made] any difference in our environmental ambitions for the people of this country”, she said, adding that Brexit represented an opportunity to take a “more holistic approach focused on outcomes” rather than “prescriptive inputs and specific rules”.
However, there was no indication of what the government sees as the priority areas going forward.
One of the areas which is feared to be most at risk is air quality. The EAC’s letter expressed concerns that the government “only began to address air pollution following court action based on EU air quality limits and we are concerned that the government may now deprioritise this issue”.
Another area of concern is the UK’s relationship with the ongoing development of the EU’s circular economy package, which could potentially affect a wide range of regulations from waste and recycling to product design.
Coffey stated that the UK will continue to play an active part in the development of the package at an EU level, but did not state whether the UK would adopt the package if it was finalised before the UK left.
Commenting on the package, Coffey suggested that the UK’s position was to avoid being too “prescriptive” with rules and regulations.
“The general principles I think most in industry would get; do more with resources, do more with design…[but] we should focus on outcomes. That’s what really matters, rather than being prescriptive. So we’ll be taking a particularly close look at this policy issue.”