The Retained EU Law Bill (REUL) sounds innocuous. But if the bill, which was debated in the House of Lords this past week, becomes law it could presage the collapse of environmental protection in the UK. Conservation charities regard it as the gravest threat to our wildlife in decades.
The aim of the bill is to allow the government to reform or revoke laws derived from EU legislation. There is no doubt that some EU-derived law could helpfully be updated and, in relation to the environment, strengthened. For example, the Habitats Regulations could be reinforced and widened to address intensive land management. There is a vast amount of EU-derived law – around 3,700 pieces – of which more than 1,700 sit under DEFRA and concern the environment, from habitat and species protection to air and water quality.
The Wildlife and Countryside Link network (WCL), of which A Rocha UK is a member, flag three fundamental flaws in the Bill. The first is a ‘sunset clause’. The Bill stipulates that all EU-derived laws will expire at the end of 2023 – without requirement to replace them with an alternative – unless Ministers specifically exclude or formally revoke that law. Environmental charities have urged the government to exclude key environmental legislation from the Bill, so far without positive response.
Secondly, the REUL BIll proposes that changes to any retained law will be made through secondary legislation, but this does not get the parliamentary scrutiny by specialist committees and full debate which accompanies primary legislation. In effect, government ministers would be able to change legislation at a whim – including to indulge their private bugbears, be it dislike of protection for newts or tougher river pollution rules. To use secondary legislation for such important issues is a recipe for bad law and for many commentators, a threat to democracy.
Thirdly, despite earlier government promises that UK environmental protections would be equivalent or even stronger than EU ones, a clause in the bill would tie the government’s own hands. The clause bans any alternatives to deleted or changed legislation that would ‘increase the regulatory burden’ – the time or money businesses spend to comply with the law. Regulation needs to be proportionate, but is it a key tool in the toolbox of any government seeking improvements for its citizens. To rule out anything that could be cast as an additional ‘burden’, including in areas where protection is clearly inadequate at present, is extraordinary.
With fanfare, PM Rishi Sunak’s government recently committed to halting the loss of the UK’s biodiversity by 2030. If the REUL bill is passed with these critical flaws, it will undermine any possibility of the UK achieving that goal. A Rocha UK believes the bill should be abandoned in its current state. If you agree, please write to your MP raising your concerns.
Take action: Join the campaign from The Wildlife Trusts urging the government to bin the Retained EU Law bill