While we were EU members, the UK adopted some legislation created by the EU. Jacob Rees-Mogg called them “diktats” and promised that after Brexit we’d “take back control of our laws”. This is disingenuous: the UK was fully involved in drawing up EU law.
To reduce disruption after Brexit, the UK converted EU law to domestic, naming it “retained EU law” (REUL). Pre-Brexit statutes in areas like employment, animal welfare and industrial standards were kept for a period to maintain continuity.
The government’s REUL Bill currently passing through Parliament has this week had its second reading in the House of Lords. It is designed to cut all links with any law associated with the EU. It includes a “sunset clause” which means that any EU laws still remaining at 31 December 2023 will automatically be revoked by default. In the debate on 7 February, the Lords expressed regret at the timetable for the repeal of retained EU law. There was also concern about environmental standards, the weakened role of Parliament in scrutinising the Bill and the uncertainty created for businesses, amongst other issues. The Bill will reach Committee stage on 23 February.
The government has been distracted by Covid, Ukraine, the cost of living crisis and leadership changes. Scant time remains to properly assess which legislation to keep, amend or revoke. As the clock runs down, it’s a blistering schedule: there may be 4,000 laws to evaluate by 31 December. Government departments could grind to a standstill as civil servants plough through reviewing a staggering pile of documents. Businesses could be thrown into chaos next year, trying to determine what rulings to follow after a “bonfire of regulations”.
The REUL bill allows all EU legislation to expire on the deadline unless Ministers decide to preserve it – yes, Ministers. The lack of parliamentary scrutiny leads the devolved governments to label it a “power-grab”. MPs as different as Stella Creasy and David Davis have vigorously complained that Whitehall, not Parliament, is “taking back control” from Brussels.
Wildlife organisations are seething about the bill.
The RSPB calls it an #AttackOnNature and wants it “binned”. The Government is “ripping up nature protection”, says the Essex Wildlife Trust CEO. It’s a threat to marine life, asserts the Marine Conservation Society. The Norfolk Wildlife Trust CEO is shocked by the “utterly astonishing and reckless policy making.”
Craig Bennett of the Wildlife Trusts describes the bill as “deeply ideological”. He visited Hazlewood Marshes on Suffolk’s Alde Estuary to demonstrate what could be lost. This conservation area is protected by the EU Habitats Directive. If this is repealed, the estuary could lose its special status conserving threatened animal and plant species. (Ironically, this 1980s Directive was drafted by Boris Johnson’s father Stanley, for which the RSPB awarded him a medal.)
Which laws are wildlife organisations particularly worried about losing?
- Habitats Regulations 2017
- Urban Waste Water Treatment Regulations 1994
- Conservation of Offshore Marine Habitats & Species Regulations 2017
- Environmental Assessment of Plans & Programmes Regulations 2004
- Town & Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011
- Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) Regulations 2017
They concern preserving habitats and rare species, curbing invasive development and preventing sewage or pollution discharges in waterways. Moreover, because of intricate links between them, legislation such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act will be rendered ineffective if we lose the Habitats Regulations. Fifty protected native species would be threatened, including dolphins, otters, dormice and fen orchids.
Following a regulatory free-for-all, we could see dirtier air, polluted water, soil erosion and smaller harvests, causing illness and food shortages for humans and extinctions for animals.
The UK has set demanding targets for nature recovery, and signed the COP15 agreement to reverse biodiversity loss. By 2030 it aims to preserve 30% of land for nature, and reverse the decline in species abundance. If environmental laws are wiped off the statue books without replacements, these targets are practically unachievable. Already, the government is permitting “emergency use” of a banned pesticide just days after the EU tightened its own restrictions. This neonicotinoid can kill millions of bees, and we all know how crucial bees are to eco-systems. The underlying concern with REUL is that despite ministers’ verbal assurances, they will have sweeping powers to revoke good laws which benefit the environment. Also, continued government rhetoric promising the removal of “red tape” makes it hard to believe in their “roadmap for a cleaner, greener country”.
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