It’s fair to say that you have all noticed the buzz surrounding COP23 for the last two weeks. While the negotiations are of course very important for the future of climate change decision making, there are other important decisions happening right now in the UK.
And would you believe it, the UK government have quietly, in the background, been tinkering with our environmental protections as they finalise the European Withdrawal Bill. A piece of legislation also known as the Great Repeal Bill – although I beg to differ on the ‘great’ part.
The Withdrawal Bill has been constructed to ensure that on the day we exit the European Union, all EU laws will be transferred into UK law as they currently stand. This is to account for any possible loopholes, chaos, and general confusion that may occur once we have ‘officially left’. Following this, the government will gradually review every aspect of the law, picking and choosing what stays and what goes.
Now in theory, the Withdrawal Bill makes sense. However, it is not quite as simple as hitting ctrl+c on EU legislation. Much of EU law involves reporting to EU institutions for example, which obviously cannot be carried forward into a post-Brexit world. Of course, the government knows this, (they wouldn’t just make things up!?) and is accounting for this discrepancy using statutory mechanisms. This means that it has the power to alter and adapt these policies without going through the tedious, long process of parliamentary voting.
Woahhh now. Hold Up. Let me get this straight gov.?
If there is no one to regulate the government’s decisions on policy within the Withdrawal Bill, then surely no one is there to ensure the survival of key environmental legislation (and other areas of public interest)?
Unfortunately, this is the reality. And even if the environmental policies are left untouched, unless they are transferred from domestic to primary laws, ministers will retain the power to change the rules on a whim, instead of passing decisions through parliament.
And the news just keeps on getting worse.
Just two days ago, Labour proposed an environmental amendment to the Withdrawal Bill, which aimed at ensuring the status of EU environmental principles within UK law. The proposal would ensure that environmental laws were transcribed directly into primary laws, making the process of their removal much harder. Crucially, this would involve retaining the following principles which originally existed in article 191 of the Lisbon Treaty of the EU:
- the need to promote sustainable development in the UK and overseas;
- the need to contribute to preserving, protecting and improving the environment;
- the need to contribute to prudent and rational utilisation of natural resources;
- the need to promote measures at international level to deal with regional or worldwide environmental problems, and in particular combating climate change;
- the precautionary principle as it relates to the environment;
- the principle that preventive action should be taken to avert environmental damage;
- the principle that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source;
- the polluter pays principle;
- the principle that environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of policies and activities, in particular with a view to promoting sustainable development.
- the need to guarantee participatory rights including access to information, public participation in decision making and access to justice in relation to environmental matters.
The importance of most of these principles is obvious. Yet, the necessity of the precautionary principle and the prevention principle are often neglected. These two areas of environmental law are applied across the EU, and have been used widely in case law to limit the ability of nations to cause unforeseeable damage. For young people, this is worrying (to say the least). Sustainable development is connected to principles of inter-generational justice. And although this rarely translates into anything concrete in court, it influences decision-making. Removing these principles removes our right to an environmentally conscious future, and removes consideration for future generations from the agenda completely.
On Wednesday, 297 voted in favour of Labour’s proposal, 313 voted against. The cherry on top of the cake? Our Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove, voted against. What an inspiration to us all…
But are hands are not tied. Government have not yet finalised the Bill. There is still time.
We need to mobilise and expose the government. They thought they had got away with this unnoticed, but we can catch them with their pants down!
If you are as furious as we are, then get posting on Facebook, get tagging on twitter, and use the hashtag #letstalkaboutprinciples