Campaigners fear that laws put in place to safeguard the environment could be ‘accidently’ lost if the Retained EU Law Bill is implemented

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MPs have voted to pass a bill environmental campaigners say will put thousands of laws that protect the UK’s nature and wildlife at risk. 

The Retained EU Law Bill was introduced during Liz Truss’ short-lived premiership by then Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg.

At the last count, there were an estimated 4,000 retained EU laws which the Government plans to update, retain or scrap by the end of 2023.

Any regulation that has not been dealt with during that time will automatically be abolished under a ‘sunset clause’, leading to critics of the bill fearing that laws put in place to safeguard the environment, public health, working conditions and food standards could be ‘accidently’ lost.  

Prior to the vote on the bill this week, environmental organisations across the UK had campaigned for it to be scrapped. 

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) – the UK’s leading marine charity – released a report on the same day as the vote, highlighting the economic value of the UK’s seas and the risks of removing or weakening key, long-standing marine laws. 

Sandy Luk, CEO at the MCS, said:At a time of climate, nature and ocean crises, we need to invest in the ocean and the important role it fulfils for our very survival, not remove protections and undermine its functions. 

“From supplying coastal flood defences and locking in carbon, to tourism and fishing, the economic value of our seas and coastal habitats is extraordinary. Weakening or scrapping laws that act to protect our seas, and some of the industries that depend on them, will cost us billions.”

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Referring to a report also published this week by Wildlife and Countryside Link – the largest environment and wildlife coalition in England – RSPB’s director of conservation, Katie-jo Luxton, said the bill could cost the taxpayer more than £1 billion over the next 30 years simply by opening the door to a weakening of current environmental protections. 

“Having just published legally binding targets for nature recovery through its own Environment Act, it is baffling that the UK Government is now seeking to dismantle the legal protections to achieve them,” Luxton added.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts (TWT), spent the days before the vote lobbying the Government and conducting interviews on radio stations including LBC and the BBC. He believes there is no way that Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs can make sensible decisions about the “staggering number of laws” in such a short time. 

Bennett accused Rishi Sunak of not caring about the environment and challenged him to “rip up this piece of legislation” that he said posed such a “massive attack on nature”. 

“This appalling bill means a huge number of laws will cease to exist on 31 December this year unless a minister decides to keep or amend them individually. This is fundamentally anti-democratic because it should not be ministers that make this decision, it should be Parliament that decides – and only Parliament,” he said.

Speaking in the debate ahead of the vote, Conservative MP David Davis appeared to agree with Bennet. “I voted and campaigned for Brexit to improve democracy,” the veteran backbencher said. “I wanted to take back control and to give it Westminster not give it to Whitehall.” He questioned the legitimacy of the bill with ministers “being asked to sign a blank cheque” because the Government didn’t know how many pieces of legislation there were or what they were for.

His colleague, Conservative MP Peter Aldous, also expressed concerns regarding the timescale for implementing the bill. “The requirement to revoke all EU legislation by the end of this year is unrealistic and such a sudden ‘sunset clause’ sets down a framework for bad and hasty law making,” he said.

But the majority of Conservative MPs appeared to be more concerned about being seen to “get Brexit done” rather than the potential negative impacts that losing laws and regulations might have on biodiversity. 

In his 13-minute address to the House of Commons, Conservative MP Sir William Cash focused on the virtues of Brexit and the failures of the EU. 

His fellow Tory MP Lia Nici dismissed concerns about the bill as “Project Fear 2”, while Conservative MP David Jones suggested that the ‘sunset clause’ was “intended to encourage and incentivise government departments to press on quickly with the exercise of identifying and reviewing individual items of retained EU law that affect them”. 

The opposition benches were unanimous in their condemnation of the bill, arguing that it is anti-democratic and the ‘sunset clause’ unrealistic, and highlighting the lack of a definitive list of retained EU laws that fall under the scope of the bill.

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Amendments proposed by the Labour Party to address these issues where voted down by the Conservatives.

The EU Habitats Directive – written by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s father Stanley Johnson when he worked in the environmental division of the European Commission in Brussels in the 1970s – is the cornerstone of nature conservation policies in Europe.

When transcribed into UK law in 2010, it led to the creation of 286 ‘Special Protection Areas’ for birds and 656 ‘Special Areas of Conservation’ for rare habitats and a list of vulnerable animals and plants, including all bats, otter and great crested newt and all whale and dolphins – being added to a register of European Protected Species

Both Rees-Mogg and Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani assured Parliament that the Government is committed to maintaining and enhancing environmental standards. 

However, in the Office for Environmental Protection’s submission to the Retained EU Law Bill Committee in November, its chair Dame Glenys Stacey said: “If done well, this review could make environmental law better. But done badly, or rushed unduly, it could compound environmental problems and create new uncertainties and burdens.” 

Dame Stacey also advised that rushed law-making is not conducive to addressing difficult, complex, inter-connected and long-term environmental problems and that it runs the risk of undermining the Government’s own environmental ambitions and international standing.

She also noted that hundreds of environmental laws, critical to solving pressing challenges such as nature depletion and the quality of air and water and marine environments, could be revoked or amended under the bill. “Worryingly, the bill does not offer any safety net, there is no requirement to maintain existing levels of environmental protection,” she said. 

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