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 Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green 7:30 pm, 30th June 2020

This Assembly is being asked to endorse the extension of these provisions to Northern Ireland, but these extensions are sub-power provisions. They are still under scrutiny in Westminster, yet we are being asked to rush them through, despite knowing that we are doing so without adequate scrutiny. Why are we being asked to endorse provisions that are not even law yet and that do not work for us in our context? Most importantly, we still have the option to amend and improve them.

I have listened to the Brexit and Environment group, which has spoken of their concerns that this legislation has been developed for England, made common by default, fine-tuned for England but not tailored to the needs of Northern Ireland. That is hardly surprising, given the absence of an Executive during the Assembly's three-year hiatus and the lack of formal public consultation, at a Northern Ireland level, and the principles and governance aspects of this Bill.

We are facing huge issues in governance and enforcement gaps, and the provisions extended to Northern Ireland do not adequately address those in the Bill's current form. This Bill and its provisions as they stand in relation to Northern Ireland are simply not good enough. It does not meet our needs. It does not adequately address the issues that we face. We need to develop our own environmental legislation that is specific to our context and is aligned with the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol. This is nothing close to that, so I find it hard to support the LCM. If we are to pass legislative frameworks to protect our environment at least let us get it right, because time is running out.

When we look at the provisions of the protocol, not only does much of this Bill not fit the Northern Ireland context, in some cases it limits and restricts it. The Environment Bill's provisions, both UK-wide and NI-specific, have not been tested to see if they are compliant with the protocol. In fact the Bill, as other Members have mentioned, makes no reference at all to the protocol. Quite frankly, that is unbelievable.

We know that adherence to the EU environmental standards contained in the protocol is how Northern Ireland businesses will be able to access the single market. We know that Northern Ireland is required to automatically adopt any changes to the EU environmental legislation listed in annex 2 to the protocol. We know that Northern Ireland will find itself extremely vulnerable to the impact of divergence between GB and EU law. Any such divergence would have implications for the protocol and for access to the EU single market.

What we do not know is how the protocol will impact on the UK's ability to create common environmental frameworks. Will Northern Ireland be subject to the enforcement powers of the European Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) for the protocol, and to the OEP for everything else? If Northern Ireland finds itself non-compliant with the protocol by implementing UK law or vice versa, which takes precedence?

We do not know the answer to those questions because the Bill has not been tested to see how it will interact with the protocol. How is it that we are being asked to endorse the extension of these provisions to Northern Ireland when no consideration has been given to our local context?

The issue of non-regression has been mentioned by several Members, and it is hard to ignore the criticisms consistently levelled at the Bill by experts charged with its scrutiny. The House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has stated that the Bill's provisions are not equivalent to current EU environmental standards, and that, in some areas, they mark a significant regression from current standards. That is unacceptable. It is essential that the Government commit to non-regression in the Environment Bill.

Let me remind you that non-regression is an environmental and legal concept that requires regulations and standards that should not be diminished. A strong version of non-regression does not just prevent a row back, but requires continual advancement in environmental law and commitments. Experts have told us that non-regression is essential for us to meet environmental obligations. How, then, does the Minister account for the fact that the Bill contains no non-regression provision at all for Northern Ireland?

Government and departmental officials have indicated that they have no intentions of weakening environmental protections. That should not need to be explained, but it seems that it must: aspiration and intent do not equate to legislative protection.

Northern Ireland is facing monumental environmental disaster. Of the designated special areas of conservation here, 98% exceed critical levels of ammonia. More than one in 24 deaths here are linked to air pollution and, if we keep going along our current trajectory, a considerable proportion of this region will be under water by 2050.

Intention is all well and good, but let us be honest: there is also form here. Our track record is dismal. How can we trust that there will be any change, when time and again we have allowed environmental destruction to occur unchecked? Aspiration is inadequate. We need a straightforward and substantive commitment to non-regression of environmental law that is written and included in the provisions for Northern Ireland.

The Minister must do his job and get this law right. That is how we will get this done. Anything else, and anything less, will just not be good enough.

There are other issues to touch on, such as agriculture and fisheries. Not only does this Bill not align with the protocol, it does not even align with the other Bills, the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill that we have been told that we have to give legislative consent to.

We are passing laws that are contradictory to each other and we have no provision to monitor their implementation or revise them when they are not working.

It should also be noted that, after the House gave legislative consent to the Agriculture Bill, Westminster was still working on it and it is still working its way through the Committee Stage and the Commons. After we gave legislative consent, Westminster then voted, with the support of the Minister's party colleagues there, to lower the environmental and food standards contained in the Bill. I call upon the Minister to address that by engaging with Westminster to ensure that we have laws that work in practice.

We look at water quality, and it was absolutely great to see the Minister pictured yesterday in his kayak on the river with local people cleaning up the River Bann. While we share the Minister's concerns at the shocking levels of pollution and waste in our rivers, we are not as shocked, because we know, we have been watching, we see it and we hear it from people who continually tell us about the pollution, the damage and the waste in our rivers. Our waterways are already in a deplorable condition, with only 31% of our rivers classified as being in good or better condition. The River Faughan experienced five major pollution incidents between Monday and Friday last week alone. Is the Minister working with his Executive colleagues, including the Minister for Infrastructure, to stop that happening and to identify the polluters and hold them accountable?

The Bill gives DAERA the power to change regulations around the protection of our water. However, there is no requirement for those changes to be positive. We need to see a clear commitment in the Bill to make sure that any change to water regulations and any standards are positive, and I call on the Minister to act to ensure that that is the case.

There is a simple reality that is not being engaged with here, and that is that we live on a shared island. That is not contained in the Bill, but that is our context. We share our nature and biodiversity, our air and our waterways. We share three transboundary river basins with the Republic of Ireland. Changes to the way in which we monitor water quality and any weakening of standards will affect those north and south of the border. At a time when North/South collaboration is so critical, why are we creating barriers to that cooperation on shared environmental issues?

I want to mention Aarhus rights, and I know that the Deputy Chair of the Committee mentioned that. The removal of Aarhus rights from the Bill — rights relating to public participation, public access to information and public access to justice — is a matter of huge concern for me. Article 8 of the Aarhus convention, to which the UK is a signatory, requires effective public participation in changes and decisions that can significantly affect the environment, and yet no public consultation took place at a Northern Ireland level on the contents of these provisions. Does the Minister agree that these rights are important? Can he enlighten us as to why there is no mention of the convention? Why has that been removed?

In conclusion, I find the evidence of the Bill quite damning. The Bill and its provision relating to Northern Ireland are not good enough. The Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol has either not been considered or just not been addressed. There is no substantive commitment to non-regression or environmental law in Northern Ireland. The provisions relating to water quality do not instil any confidence that there will be no further deterioration on our rivers, lakes and coasts. The questions remain around public access to environmental justice. Let us not forget what is at stake here. It is our future and our homes. Are we willing to accept a future outside the EU with lower environmental protections? As Greens, we will not.

It is my belief and the belief of my party that the provisions of the Bill relating to Northern Ireland pose a threat to our environment, but this is not a done deal. We can do better and here is how: work to amend the Bill. It is great to hear that our SDLP colleagues will be doing that. I am calling on the Minister and everyone else to do exactly the same. Include a substantive commitment to non-regression. Include a sunset clause for Northern Ireland so that we can create our own environment Bill that reflects our unique context.

The Scottish LCM, on the extension of the Environment Bill provisions to Scotland, was recently postponed due to their serious concerns about the content of the Bill. Why can the same not be done here? Fix this Bill, and bring this LCM back when the provisions will work to protect our environment. Westminster has shown no regard for the consent of this institution for previous LCMs, this one will be exactly the same.

As it stands, I cannot endorse the extension of these provisions to Northern Ireland. We have an unprecedented opportunity to build back better with a just transition. To not do so is a dereliction of our duty. Thank you.