Environment Bill: Legislative Consent Motion

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

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Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 7:30 pm, 30th June 2020

I thank the Minister for his statement and the fairly extensive detail given. On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the LCM, although I should probably say at the outset that colleagues and I see this as a holding position, an interim measure and a framework on which to build a Bill and policies bespoke to Northern Ireland. That will probably come as no surprise to others, including those who sit with me on the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

As the only region in the UK and Ireland without an independent environmental protection agency, a climate change Act or specific net zero emissions targets, Northern Ireland is in urgent need of new policies that will protect the environment and restore nature. Some Members will be aware that the 'State of Nature 2019' report illustrated clearly the alarming rate of habitat and species loss. The Assembly will, I hope, commit to sufficient resources to honour pledges already made to ensure adequate progress and protections going forward.

The proposed Environment Bill goes some way towards addressing the environmental governance gaps that our exit from the European Union exposes, however there are a number of issues that remain and which need addressed. We need mechanisms for ensuring that future environmental improvement plans are sufficiently ambitious, deliver meaningful improvement and are relevant to Northern Ireland. Clarification is required around the relevance of and the role for Northern Ireland within the proposed Office for Environmental Protection how that sits with the independent environmental protection agency for Northern Ireland as promised in the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

Furthermore, the Environment Bill outlines that there would be one Northern Ireland representative on the OEP regulatory body. The obvious questions that stem from that are: who will that be; how will they be appointed; and from what sector will they come? The process for appointment, at this stage at least, is completely unclear. The Environment Bill also tells us that DEFRA will report to Westminster every two years on international environmental protection legislation. That does not, it appears, cover Northern Ireland-based detailed scrutiny, and that is another concern of mine.

There are, however, some positives and areas of the Bill that are appropriate to Northern Ireland and which address the specific environmental governance challenges. I am pleased to see the inclusion of polluter pays principles, considering the legacy of environmental problems such as river pollution, and I look forward to seeing the policies and the will to carry them through.

The Bill obviously, as I referred to a moment ago, gives us some continuity on environmental protection from the date of EU exit. On the subject of that EU exit, as has been referred to already this evening, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a land border with a European Union member state. That gives added importance to the need to maintain existing EU standards and to improve upon those further. This also gives us a serious and timely caution on non-regression.

The Republic of Ireland will still be operating under the EU framework, and, if Northern Ireland has a significantly different legislative framework or lower standards, it could be more challenging for us to work collaboratively with our neighbours to protect our shared environment. Few would doubt that, whatever drawbacks there have been, the existing threat of EU fines over the years has served as an effective deterrent on many environmental protection matters. I would have preferred a non-regression clause to be included in the Bill, and I hope that subsequent Bills, strategies and policies can address that shortfall.

With a view to those future solutions and improvements, to build on recent positive statements and initiatives from DAERA and, despite the concerns that I have expressed, to ensure cover going forward, I am happy, on behalf of the Alliance Party, to support the LCM.