About one-quarter of all EU legislation deals with environmental protection—environmental regulations that have given us safe food, clean rivers and beaches, homes for our wildlife and life support for our beleaguered bees. The Government have committed—through the great repeal Bill, as alluded to in the gracious Speech—only to incorporating EU regulations into UK law wherever practicable. Clearly, by itself that is not unreasonable; practicality is an important test and many EU regulations will not be able to be incorporated exactly as they are. While that may be necessary, though, it will not be sufficient. Will the Government commit that any adjustments to EU environmental laws needed to fit the realities of a post-Brexit UK will provide the same or a higher level of environmental protection as those in the original regulations?
I ask that as there are real concerns that a Government who have consistently seen “red tape” as a burdensome and unnecessary initiative will use this to lower environmental standards. We have to think only of the Government’s attempt to oppose air quality standards; how they had to be brought kicking and screaming to produce a plan to bring emissions within EU limits; the dropping of promised legislation to reform water abstraction licences despite the pressures on water supplies from erratic weather patterns and the massive housebuilding programme; or the evidence in the repeal Bill White Paper, which states that the requirement in the Offshore Petroleum Activities (Conservation of Habitats) Regulations to gain an opinion from the European Commission could be removed altogether. While clearly there may be a need to make changes, the removal of the need to seek an independent opinion is not merely a technical change to allow the conversion of EU law into domestic law, and the use of this by the Government as a case study signals a threat to vital protections.
This is a time of acute anxiety in the countryside. Leaving the EU puts farming and agricultural businesses in huge danger, from potential disastrous tariffs on exports to cuts to the support that underpin farmers’ livelihoods, and from an inability to find workers to harvest produce or care for livestock to new trade deals delivering cheaper products with lower standards for animal health and welfare. It is why Liberal Democrats believe that maintaining membership of the single market is fundamental to ensuring that British farming remains competitive. However, we also need early certainty about future support for farmers to replace the common agricultural policy, and I therefore welcome the commitment in the gracious Speech to legislate on both agricultural and fisheries policies.
We need to ally a new agricultural and land management policy to the provision of public goods: providing safe and healthy food, access to the countryside and building up natural resources such as water and healthy soils, delivering carbon storage and preventing flooding. There is no doubt that there will be pressure to divert the £3 billion that our farmers get annually away from agriculture. I noted that the Minister was careful in his opening remarks to say that the funding would be guaranteed only for the lifetime of this Parliament. Currently, the CAP gives to our farmers the equivalent of the sum of £48 a year for every citizen in Britain. We spent £215 for every citizen on administering central government management alone, so to me it would seem remarkably good value if a new policy could deliver clear public goods while maintaining the support critical to sustain farm businesses, particularly those in environmentally sensitive areas, such as the uplands.