Christopher McAteer, RSPB's nature recovery campaigner in Northern Ireland

 

Christopher McAteer, our nature recovery campaigner in Northern Ireland, gives us an update on the progress each of the four nations of the UK has made since we asked you to call on your politicians to work together earlier this year.

 

Back in February many of you got involved in our campaign action to tell elected representatives to address the glaring governance gap the UK will be facing post-Brexit. With your incredible support we reached government ministers and party leaders in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England, demonstrating that the public is firmly behind strong environmental governance.

Since then we have seen the Westminster Government launch proposals for a new watchdog to enforce environmental laws in England. Far from being the ‘world-leading’ environmental body that we were promised by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, the proposals amount to more of a ‘green poodle’ than the green watchdog we were hoping for. If you live in England, please take action to call for better.

 

We have seen some encouraging signs too

Westminster

As consideration continues at Westminster of the EU Withdrawal Bill, the amendment on environmental principles and governance proposed by Sir Oliver Letwin, and supported by the Government, was passed by the Commons. A number of aspects of this Bill are helpful including:

  • The requirement for a draft Bill to be published within 6 months of the EU (Withdrawal) Act being passed
  • The inclusion of a minimum set of environmental principles in primary legislation
  • Provisions for a new environmental body to take enforcement action when there may be a breach of environmental law.

This important amendment is cause for hope and it is down to the campaigning of people like you that the Government has taken it forward. So while Brexit is awesomely complex and constantly shifting, we can see that an impact can be made by getting behind campaigns.

Wales
In Wales the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning, and Rural Affairs had committed to fixing the governance gap and enshrining EU principles in Welsh law at the ‘first opportunity’. We know that Welsh Government are hoping to work on governance issues in Wales over the next few months, but we will continue to work with them to make sure their plans are robust.

While this is promising, we are concerned that the Welsh Government is relying on some form of transition period if we leave the EU in a ‘no deal’ scenario. This is seriously risky as we may not have a transition period and will therefore have no governance arrangements in place on exit day.

Scotland
The Scottish Government Roundtable on Environment and Climate Change has published a key report, which sets out various options for tackling the environmental governance gap and ensuring that nature continues to be strongly protected regardless of the outcome of Brexit. We hope that this will form the basis of the Scottish Government’s consultation on this topic, which is due to come out later this year.

On this issue Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Land Reform, and Climate Change Roseanna Cunningham said in a recent blog "It is unfortunate that the Scottish Government, and a number of Scottish stakeholders, were not fully engaged by the UK Government in the development of the proposals set out in their recently published consultation so I will take care not to repeat this mistake. We are ready to co-operate with the UK Government and other devolved administrations, both to ensure continuity of EU law and to seek to agree common approaches across the four administrations in the UK where this is in the best interests of Scotland’s environment and people."

Northern Ireland
Well over a year after the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed, there is still no government in Northern Ireland. With no signs of talks resuming before the autumn, this looks set to continue well into 2018 and possibly beyond. The dangers of political uncertainty in Northern Ireland so close to exit day – which is potentially as soon as March 2019 – cannot be understated. The region is in total limbo and being left behind the other three countries of the UK.

We have been advocating with party leaders and senior civil servants in Northern Ireland, as well as Northern Ireland Office ministers, to push for better collaboration with their counterparts across the UK. We believe that any new environmental watchdog should be co-owned and co-designed by all four countries and have a strong presence in all regions.

 

Let's keep the pressure on

rasian jay Garrulus glandarius, adult perched in tree with crest raised, Regent's Park, London, November. Credit: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

While there is much to be optimistic about, we are still far away from a ‘green Brexit’. There is a lot of room for improvement in what Westminster and the devolved governments have been proposing and we would like to see assurances that future environmental governance has fully independent oversight to effectively hold our governments to account.

To do nothing will risk widespread lowering of environmental standards. That might be a risk some of our politicians are willing to take, but as campaigners and members of this society, we need to show them that’s not good enough.

So, if you live in England, don’t forget to make your voice heard and demand the UK Government significantly strengthen their proposals. And if you live in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland and you’ve campaigned with us before, we’ll be in touch with any further opportunities to secure progress.

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