Environment Bill: Legislative Consent Motion

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 7:15 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP 7:15 pm, 30th June 2020

While we debate the extension of the provisions of the Environment Bill to Northern Ireland, let us not forget that the Bill before us is a complex one with very limited scrutiny time. There are 57 of its 133 provisions that apply to Northern Ireland.

The Bill is in two parts. The first is a legal framework for the new environmental governance and accountability that, it is hoped, will address any environmental governance details that have been excluded as a result of exiting Europe. In general, the second part concentrates on improvement of the overall quality of our environment, such as providing for a cleaner environment through better waste and resource management, leading to greater efficiency and an improvement in air and water quality through education and individual and collective responsibility. The second part of the Bill also recognises the need for biodiversity conservation to keep our natural ecosystems functioning and healthy.

The original Bill was introduced at Westminster in 2019 as UK legislation and had Northern Ireland provisions added because, at the time, Stormont was not operational. As a result, there are several issues in the Bill that may cause concern for Northern Ireland as it works towards a cleaner, brighter environment. There is concern that the Bill may bring about a weakening of environmental protection, leaving the UK with less protection than that provided by the EU. However, with environmental improvement plans and the importance of maintaining and protecting the environment, hopefully it will reflect that we do not need to be concerned.

There are also uncertainties around the Northern Ireland protocol. There are concerns that the Bill makes no specific reference to the protocol, which may have implications for Northern Ireland in terms of environmental standards and in relation to accessing the EU single market, for example, for our agri-food sector. Another source of unease is that the governance gaps can still prevail because of exit from Europe. While the Environment Bill attempts to prevent those gaps from arising through the development of an environmental plan for Northern Ireland, there are still many unknowns.

With regard to the establishment of an office for environmental protection, there is no reference to the independent environmental protection agency proposed in New Decade, New Approach. There is also no reference to the potential overlap of those organisations and the overlap of the enforcement bodies such as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). There is a need for clarification around the roles of those organisations and their recognition.

It is because of those issues that it may be necessary in the future to bring forward a bespoke Northern Ireland environmental Bill, something that Scotland and Wales are working towards presently.

The Bill contains a further number of clauses specifically addressing waste and resource efficiency in Northern Ireland. Those clauses are welcome. They include provisions on electronic waste tracking, the shipping of waste and enforcement powers to discourage waste littering. There are also number of recyclable and reusable clauses applicable to plastics. Furthermore, there are a number of clauses that relate to air quality through the Clean Air Act, with clauses setting out requirements for the need to maintain and improve water quality standards. While there are some issues that may be of concern, the majority of the provisions are welcome, so the Ulster Unionist Party will be supporting the Bill.