Last week, the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) Minister, Edwin Poots, asked members of the Assembly to endorse the provisions of the Westminster Environment Bill that apply to Northern Ireland. This proposed motion of endorsement is called a Legislative Consent Motion.

Stormont. Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Stormont. Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

But what does this actually mean and why does it matter?

While the last few months might have felt like groundhog-day, time is still flying by at a fast pace (it’s July already!). And with this rapid pace comes another looming deadline that has been muffled during the Coronavirus pandemic. End of the Brexit transition period.

As things currently stand, on January 1 2021 the UK will no longer be under European Union rule. Therefore, the need to have crucial governance in place is more urgent than ever.

The Environment Bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation to help drive the restoration and protection of nature and the RSPB has been campaigning for a strong Environment Bill for the last decade. The Bill must set the right ambition, establish the right legal protections and have the right enforcement powers to succeed and prevent our natural world falling into even further, irreversible decline.

Some of the clauses within the Bill that apply to Northern Ireland need consent from the NI Assembly to apply here. These clauses were highlighted by the Environment Minister in a Stormont debate last week and the Assembly agreed to consent to the Legislative Consent Motion.

What happened during the debate?

Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots asks Members to endorse the extension to Northern Ireland of the provisions of the Environment
Minister Edwin Poots asks Members to endorse the extension to Northern Ireland of the Environment Bill

The Bill, in its current state, does not offer the same level of protection and accountability as the European courts and during the debate, concerns were raised by most of the parties in reference to these gaps. These gaps were highlighted by RSPB NI and colleagues from The National Trust and Northern Ireland Environment Link during an AERA Committee Oral Session. They included:

• Clear timeframes, targets and long-term funding to achieve high-level environmental protection
• Non-regression standards to ensure any future legislation cannot reduce the level of protection afforded under EU laws
• An independent Environment Protection Agency that can enforce specific standards and financial penalties, as the proposed structure of the Office of Environmental Protection does not have the power to financially hold the government to account
• An Office of Environmental Protection that has a local office in NI and is adequately resourced to fulfil its functions

Some great questions, which need urgent answers, were also put forward. Both Rosemary Barton MLA and Matthew O’Toole MLA referenced the lack of clarity around the Irish Protocol, and Clare Bailey MLA wanted to see a much stronger commitment to non-regression of environmental law. Many party members also highlighted the need for Northern Ireland to have its own Environment Bill, reflective of our unique environmental state and ambition.

The Westminster Environment Bill can ensure Northern Ireland doesn’t fall into an environmental governance gap on leaving the EU, and while the current Bill does not go far enough to secure the restoration and protection so urgently needed, we hope Northern Ireland MPs will table amendments to the legislation in Westminster to ensure we have a robust Bill with the ambition, vision and funding to drive nature’s recovery.

If you would like to help, please use your voice (and penmanship) to write to your local MP and ask them to make the Environment Bill stronger for nature in Northern Ireland. If you need guidance or support in contacting your MP, please email: campaigns.ni@rspb.org.uk
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