January 1 2021 will mark the first time in 48 years that the UK is no longer bound by European Union laws, the single market and the customs union*. With the countdown clock ticking until the end of the Brexit transition period; what is happening to the vital laws that are needed to protect nature?

Grey heron, black-headed gulls and black tailed godwits. Photo credit: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Grey heron, black-headed gulls and black tailed godwits. Photo credit: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

With Northern Ireland being a devolved nation, Brexit is bringing huge changes to how we protect nature here and RSPB has been working tirelessly with a coalition of environmental organisations to try and secure ambitious new laws to drive the recovery of our local wildlife and wild spaces. This includes:
  • Nature-friendly agriculture and land-use policies that reward farmers for enhancing the environment, tackling climate emissions and delivering essential public services including water quality and clean air
  • Sustainable marine and fisheries policies that safeguard the health of our seas to protect commercial fish stocks, fishing communities and our delicate marine eco-system
  • Nature and environmental protection policies that collectively address pressures on the natural world to ensure our most precious species and environments don’t just survive but thrive

You can find out more about these new laws - the three Bills - and why they’re so important here.

Although our news streams have been dominated by the headlines that we highlighted through the Revive Our World campaign - such as the UK Government’s commitment to protect 30% of land by 2020 and the NI Executive’s failings to prevent nature decline – over recent weeks crucial votes have been taking place in Westminster and the NI Assembly that will impact the future of environmental, farming and fisheries governance in Northern Ireland. 

Here’s what you need to know…

UK Agriculture Bill
As Northern Ireland's biggest industry, agriculture has a direct impact on the health of our environment, economy, climate and rural communities.

Curlew chick. Photo credit: Neal Warnock
Curlew chick. Photo credit: Neal Warnock (rspb-images.com)

The Agriculture Bill returned to the House of Commons last week, when MPs voted on a number of amendments that would strengthen the Bill. Perhaps the most critical of these was an amendment - backed by Northern Ireland MPs – to protect our high UK food standards by enshrining animal welfare, health and environmental standards in law as part of any future trade deals.

Despite widespread public support and calls from RSPB and a range of food, farming and environmental organisations backing this amendment, the UK Government voted against it; risking the safety of our wildlife, countryside and farming communities. The pressure is now on the UK Government to outline how it will meet its commitment to maintain animal welfare and high environmental standards in future trade deals in the absence of this crucial amendment to the Bill.

The Agriculture Bill will once again come to the House of Commons where we hope amendments are put back into the Bill to ensure it delivers a prosperous future for farming and the environment in Northern Ireland.

UK Fisheries Bill
Over 50% of Northern Ireland’s biodiversity is found in the sea, making the UK Fisheries Bill an essential piece of post-Brexit legislation that will set the framework for future fisheries management and marine restoration in the UK and Northern Ireland.

Blacked headed gulls. Photo credit: Hazel Watson
Black-headed gulls. Photo credit: Hazel Watson (rspb-images.com)

A vital element of the Bill’s progress into UK law is the requirement for devolved consent, and last month the NI Assembly gave its support to the clauses within the Bill that apply to Northern Ireland through a Legislative Consent Motion. This debate raised numerous important issues around sustainability, remote electronic camera monitoring on fishing vessels and the impact of poor governance on fishing communities and the environment.

We welcome this Bill as a piece of framework legislation for the future management of marine fisheries, however, restoring our seas will require the Bill to have sustainability at its heart. We believe the environmental aspects of fisheries management must be strengthened through further national policies so we can have healthy, thriving seas that are good for our coastal communities and wildlife.

UK Environment Bill
The Environment Bill sets out how the UK Government plans to protect and improve our natural world post-Brexit, covering huge areas of environmental policy and law; from pollution and plastics, to water, waste management and habitat restoration. Various aspects of the Bill apply to Northern Ireland, most notably a new environment watchdog - the Office for Environmental Protection - and environmental improvement plans.

Puffin. Photo credit: Hazel Watson (rspb-images.com)
Puffin. Photo credit: Hazel Watson (rspb-images.com)

Such an important ‘flagship’ piece of legislation must set the right ambition and be given the parliamentary scrutiny it deserves. Yet the Environment Bill appears to be missing. It’s been over 100 days since the Environment Bill received consent in the NI Assembly and over 200 days since it was last debated in Westminster.

Ministers have repeatedly said that they want the Bill back, but while other key pieces of legislation leapfrog it, the absence of the UK Environment Bill remains a mystery. If the Bill does not pass by the end of the transition period on December 31 2020, there will be a significant gap in the UK’s (and so Northern Ireland’s) ability to enforce environmental law.

So what happens next?

With the end of the Brexit transition period fast approaching, we’ll continue to advocate for crucial amendments to strengthen the three Bills as they continue their passage through Parliament, and will keep applying pressure on the NI Assembly to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to introduce new national policies that will bring nature in Northern Ireland back from the brink.

Through the New Decade New Approach agreement, the NI Executive has committed to protecting and restoring nature in Northern Ireland. Now they must act on their promises, and we need your help to make sure they do.

If you want to make a difference, sign our petition to revive our world and together we can ensure the Executive acts now for nature.

 *  With exceptions relating to Northern Ireland as a result of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol