Lords call for green watchdog to be independent and more powerful

In a letter to environment secretary, Michael Gove, the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee has called for changes to the proposed Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), to ensure environmental standards are not weakened after Brexit.

In its letter the Committee recommended the following for the OEP: greater independence; a wider remit; unchanged powers post Brexit; and a interim to be in place immediately post-Brexit.

Independence

The OEP’s members and budget will be determined by the secretary of state when one of the main functions of the OEP is to hold the secretary of state to account. The Committee called for Parliament to be given a greater role, and suggested the governance model adopted for the National Audit Office offers a template of how a much greater level of independence can be achieved.

Remit

The Committee said climate change should be included in the OEP’s remit (it is currently explicitly excluded) and asked questions about how the secretary of state is working with the devolved administrations to ensure environmental protection is upheld in all four nations of the UK.

Powers

After hearing concerns from witnesses that the OEP’s powers would not mirror those of EU institutions, the Committee emphasised the need for enforcement powers to be at least as strong after Brexit as beforehand.

Interim

With the possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit in a few weeks’ time, the OEP may not be in place when the UK leaves the EU. The Committee called for interim measures to be put in place to maintain at least some level of environmental protection.

Lord Teverson, chair of the Committee said: “Two years ago, our Committee published a report which highlighted the gap that leaving the EU would create in upholding environmental law. Given the lukewarm response from the minister at the time, we are pleased that the government has now accepted the need for a domestic enforcement mechanism.

“We share the concerns raised by environmental lawyers, academics and NGOs, however, that the proposals do not go far enough. The new Office of Environmental Protection must be, and be seen to be, independent of government and this will not be achieved if its membership and funding is determined by the secretary of state. The body’s remit and powers should be at least as comprehensive as the EU institutions it is replacing. And to avoid any gap in protection, the government should put interim measures in place to cover the period between the UK leaving the EU and the OEP being fully operation.”

Within the EU, the European Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union play a vital role in ensuring adherence with environmental legislation, with the potential for instigating legal proceedings and issuing fines to Member States for non-compliance. The Committee first highlighted the gap that leaving the EU would create in this regard in 2017, when it called for the establishment of an independent domestic enforcement mechanism to replace the role of these EU institutions.