European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:19 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon Conservative, Newbury 4:19 pm, 7th September 2017

I will curtail my remarks to focus on the parts of the Bill that deal with the transposing of EU laws and regulations as they concern environmental protection.

I have every faith in the Government’s determination to transpose the full suite of regulations that have been successful in protecting many aspects of our environment and in Ministers’ frequently stated wish that we will leave the environment in a better state than we found it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for DEFRA has made a superb start, and what he says about the environment warms the cockles of my heart. However, what we are talking about here is for ever—certainly for the foreseeable future decades ahead, and it can be amended by future Governments. Who knows what forces will be pulling on Governments of the future that could result in much-valued environmental protections being dumped?

We therefore need to implement measures that are backed by a new architecture of governance. I find myself attracted to some of the remarks being made by Caroline Lucas. That is probably to the consternation of some of my colleagues, but I think her sentiments are right. We might disagree on what that architecture is, but she is right to raise the matter. We want to prevent future Governments from playing fast and loose with protections that have cleaned up our beaches and our rivers, started to clean our air, and could and should be extended to our soils, our seas and other fundamentals of our very existence and the future of our economy.

One measure that is, on the face of it, impossible to replicate in the Bill is the process of infraction—fines with lots of noughts on the end that are imposed on a member state’s Government for failure to comply with a directive. I can assure hon. Members that this is something that keeps Ministers awake at night. For example, the potential failure of the UK to comply with the urban waste water treatment directive has resulted in a £4 billion-plus scheme to build a new sewer a few yards from where we sit to clean up one of the greatest rivers in the world running through one of the greatest cities in the world. When I was a Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2010, infraction hung over me and the Government. It ensured that every action the Department took was compliant with the directives of the EU. If it was not, we would face the risk of a huge fine.

While I am glad that the Government intend to transpose all EU law into UK law, as set out in clause 2, the question then emerges of how we can properly enforce those changes. The water framework directive is the only show in town in terms of cleaning up our rivers. Only one fifth of the chalk streams in this country are fully functioning eco-systems—a national disgrace, to my mind. But we are on a glide path to correcting that through the clear and unequivocal measures set out in that directive. A supra-national body like the EU is obviously able to fine a member state for failure to comply, but it is hard to imagine circumstances where a Government could, or would, fine themselves. It concerns me that judicial review seems to be seen in the Bill as sufficient on its own. In fact, to ensure that the environment is protected, a proper body with the ability to audit the Government, working with non-governmental organisations, needs to be put in place.

As I have said, I have great faith in people like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and others to protect the directives, but I fear that future Governments may not be so rigorous. Our constituents need to have the reassurance that we are protecting the protections. We need assurances that we can fill the gap that the loss of measures such as infraction would create. I have no silver bullet to solve that, but I am looking to achieve it through the progress of the Bill and possibly future pieces of primary legislation.

I believe that it is our absolute duty to scrutinise the Bill. I utterly reject some bizarre comments I have seen in the press saying that scrutiny somehow undermines the will of the people. I intend to vote for the Bill on Second Reading. I believe it can be improved in Committee. It is absolutely vital that we assist the Government in trying to make something that is workable not just now but for the very long term.