Returning from the summer Recess, Ros was back in action pretty quickly. As the former Chair of the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on Energy and Environment, you might have expected her to have something to contribute to a debate tabled by Kate Parminter...
Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD)
My Lords, I join noble Lords in thanking my noble friend for tabling today’s debate and giving the House an opportunity to debate an aspect of Brexit which was underdiscussed both during the referendum campaign and subsequently.
At the outset, it is worth reflecting on how far we have come in the last 40 years. Occasionally you still hear people of a certain age refer to London as “The Smoke”, which reminds us of what the air quality was like here in our capital just four decades ago. Many people who swam off Britain’s beaches will regale you with horror stories about doing the breaststroke through pools of raw sewage; just last week the Guardian published some pretty gruesome photographs of Blackpool beach 40 years ago, which showed just that. Standards of animal welfare have increased significantly, and measures to reduce the harmful effects of pesticides and fertilisers have had a significant impact.
However, of course there is still a lot to do. The World Health Organization recently warned that dozens of British cities were failing to meet air pollution standards and it is estimated that over 16,000 deaths in 2012 were caused by ambient pollution. Recently, 4.9% of bathing sites in the UK were revealed to have poor water quality. We are just beginning to understand the impact of tiny plastic microbeads in our oceans on marine ecosystems. The threat to native species from habitat destruction, alien species, or diseases such as ash dieback is very real. The State of Nature 2016 report found that more than 10% of species are at risk of extinction in the UK and nearly 60% have declined since 1970.
It seems to me that, in reflecting on how we have made the progress we have, we find the pointers to how we will deal with the challenges we have yet to face. It is true that some change has been effected by individuals and organisations who are motivated to do the right thing, and in some cases the power of public opinion alters behaviour. But overwhelmingly, public policy drives change, through fiscal instruments, regulatory measures or by using targets to alter behaviour.
The development of environmental policy in the European Union has taken place over the last 40 years and continues today. In doing so, it has revealed some of the many strengths—and, if we are honest, some of the weaknesses—of a common EU approach. However, it is based on the inarguable logic that most environmental issues are cross-border in character or impact, and are better addressed by co-operative action than unilaterally. The transboundary and sometimes global nature of many environmental issues means that a collective approach is either more efficient or simply essential to address them effectively. Obvious examples apart from climate change include the protection of migratory birds and air and water pollution.
The importance of the single market and its development has also given an impetus to create common EU rules, particularly for environmental and technical product standards, which enables benchmarking and target setting to take place. Negotiating common standards can allow a degree of environmental ambition which would not be available to individual Governments acting alone because of fears about short-term impacts on competitiveness. Common standards also inhibit the possibility of economic advantages accruing to those countries that have lower environmental standards. A further advantage of the EU system is that it has a range of legislative, funding and other policy measures which can work in combination, and of course EU environmental legislation is backed up by hard legal enforcement mechanisms of a kind that is rare in international agreements.
It is also true that the EU has several institutional advantages that other international fora lack. First, contrary to Eurosceptic myths, EU institutions make decisions on a democratic basis, through a process of debate and adoption by both the European Parliament and the Council, which gives them the authority to monitor, report back and enforce binding legislation. The requirement for member states regularly to report on progress has created a culture of transparency which allows citizens to see how their country is performing.
A practical example of that is air quality. Our Supreme Court ruled that the UK was in breach of the 2008 directive, which resulted in the UK Government publishing a new air quality plan last year. I am not convinced that British citizens would have known about the scale of the problem or that government would have done anything about it had we not been subject to EU law. Indeed, the breaching of EU quality regulations was cited by Zac Goldsmith as a reason not to extend Heathrow, which shows that even the most ardent Brexiteer is not above praying the EU in aid when it suits their argument.
In the debate about “taking control” very little has been said about what that means for the future of our environment. The outcome closest to where we are now, the so-called soft Brexit, leaves the UK outside the common fisheries and common agricultural policies. I argue that that is a mixed blessing. But both the birds and habitats directives and the bathing water directive would no longer apply, and those policies have provided the backbone of conservation in the EU and have generated significant improvements for species and habitats. Of course, if we were to maintain some sort of access to the single market, we would still have to comply with a whole raft of EU environmental legislation, while having no say in its creation.
However, it looks as though we are heading for hard Brexit, and there is a wide consensus that this will create identifiable and substantial risks to future UK environmental ambitions and outcomes. Either because of political ideology or necessitated by a damaged economy, there is a significant risk that environmental standards will be lowered to seek competitive advantage outside the EU.
As we move towards the date identified by the Prime Minister for triggering Article 50, we should be seeing much more clarity from the Government on the relative priority they intend to give to environmental issues. If the approach is, as we have heard, to keep all the legislation at the point of exit and then to review it as we go along, that seems perfectly sensible, as it will mean that we will not have immediate legal uncertainty and can debate individual elements as time goes on. However, it is worth reading the report, published today, from the House of Lords EU Select Committee, which shows that even this relatively straightforward-sounding approach is not as simple as one might think. In the longer run, there is no reason why we cannot adhere to EU standards, if that is what we agree, but of course we will then fall outside the legal enforcement mechanisms, so we would have to think about how we would do that.
What business needs above all is regulatory certainty, and ironically it is often the slow pace of getting agreement in the EU that provides that certainty. Things, once agreed, are not easy to change. There is now a significant period of uncertainty, which could go on for some years.
Taking control means taking responsibility. We now have to decide as a nation what sort of agriculture we want. Is it about the production of cheap food or do we continue to put value on the environment, landscape and animal welfare? And if we do, are the Government prepared to reframe financial support for farmers to sustain this? What sort of framework do the Government envisage for managing fisheries in a sustainable way, and how do they intend to work with our European neighbours to achieve this?
The EU sub-committee which I chaired until May produced a report on regional marine co-operation which suggested that national Governments need to do much more in working together for the marine environment. I am afraid that the Government’s response to that was pretty tepid. They will need to rethink that because, outside the EU, that will be the only show in town. In any event, the WTO is about to start discussions on a global fisheries scheme, so taking control may not be as easy as it sounds. In addition, are we going to hold on to the principles enshrined in the habitats directives, and the targets for recycling and ending land-filling?
It seems to me that as we go forward, while we cannot expect detailed answers, especially today, from the Government on how they will tackle all these things, we should expect a sense of how they are going about it. Whom are the Government talking to? Whom are they consulting to identify the risks and opportunities as we go forward? Significantly, from the point of view of this House, how is Parliament to be involved?