Environment Bill: Legislative Consent Motion

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 8:00 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 8:00 pm, 30th June 2020

A number of issues were raised by Members. A number of the same issues were raised by a range of Members, and I will seek to respond to them.

Interestingly enough, one of the first issues that was raised was one of the last that was raised, and that was non-regression. I have to ask the House a simple question: who is regressing? Who is granting regression? Nobody is proposing regression. There is nothing in the Bill that facilitates regression. Regression will happen only if the House decides that it wants to reduce environmental law. Regression lies in the hands of the Assembly, so regression is a straw man and should not have any bearing on people's views of the Bill: there is nothing in the Bill that creates regression. The only opportunity for regression is if Members wish to regress in environmental law.

Time is of the essence. People may have great aspirations. There is nothing wrong with having great aspirations for the environment, but, at this moment in time, we are leaving the European Union properly on 31 December. We will not do what some Members would wish us to do in legislation by that time, so we need to do what we can do. What we can do in terms of this legislation is ensure that nothing changes, nothing is reduced and we are not in a worse position than we currently are. That is what will happen if the Bill passes. The notion that we can legislate for something other than the OEP is for the birds.

Mr McGuigan raised the issue of fines not being high enough. That was after his having raised the issue of the independent environmental agency. Who imposes the fines? Many of the fines that are actually in law are unlimited, so who institutes the fines? Is it some politician who does not want to fine the individuals enough, or is it some government body that is influenced by politics? No. It is the independent courts. So, if you are looking for independence, and then you complain about people who have independence, the argument does not stack up particularly well.

The OEP can be extended to an exclusive Northern Ireland body, and the Assembly can decide that. If we want to break away, that too is a matter for the Assembly. It is not something that we are stuck to. However, a Northern Ireland member will be appointed by DAERA, and that member will be expected to have experience in environmental law, science and/or regulation, so that is what will be expected of us.

In terms of a regulatory body to deal with the private sector, the NIEA is, has been and will continue to be the regulatory body that deals with the private sector. No gap is created by introducing the OEP. The work of the OEP simply replaces the work previously carried out by the European Commission. It does not change it; it replaces it. It does the same work and takes the same actions. Therefore, the argument about regression and a move backwards is not something that can be backed up.

There is nothing to stop the Assembly or my Department introducing our own environment Bill. The LCM is something that we are bringing to you now that will ensure that the environmental protections that we currently have are not diminished. Therefore, not agreeing the LCM, as the Green Party suggests, would be foolhardy. It is like Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burns. In this instance, whilst the Green Party fiddles, the environment burns.

Some Members raised the idea of a sunset clause. What is the benefit of a sunset clause? It merely puts pressure on you to reach a particular date. If you do not reach it, you lose the protections. Therefore, having a sunset clause in a Bill such as this is a high-risk activity. It is much better to have something that offers protections. Then, if we devise something better, we can put it through the House, approve it and implement it, but a sunset clause does not help us to do that.

Some suggested that the Bill does not provide adequate standards. Mr O'Toole was one of the Members who suggested that. He has gone. He must not have been satisfied with the European Union, because we are implementing its laws and standards and they will carry on. So, Mr O'Toole, who seems to be very fond of the European Union, must not be particularly satisfied with retaining the European Union regulations, because the Bill is doing that. Again, if divergence is to take place, there is nobody else to do it but this House. So what have we to fear? Only ourselves, in that instance. We will be taking over the decisions on environmental legislation from the European Union. I know that some people were very slavish in their attitude towards the European Union and their desire to stay in it. Have a little confidence in your own ability to make your own laws, to do what is right for your own people —