UK Might Have Broken International Environment Law With Brexit Bill

The UK government may have violated international environment law by not consulting the public when it drew up Brexit legislation.

A UN-backed committee says it is considering a complaint submitted by Friends of the Earth (FoE) in which the charity accuses the British government of violating the Aarhus Convention with its EU Withdrawal Bill.

The convention, ratified by Tony Blair's government in 2005, gives the public certain democratic rights to help protect the environment.

This includes being consulted on new laws that could have a "significant" environmental impact, so that concerns can be raised and alternatives suggested.

Much of the UK's environment legislation is currently EU-derived. FoE says the public were never consulted on how these laws are to be transferred when Brexit occurs.

The charity's campaigners are especially concerned as the Withdrawal Bill—which will see the bulk of EU law copied across into UK law—gives ministers powers to amend, add to or delete EU-derived legislation as they see fit, without consulting MPs.

"The UK government said Brexit was about taking back control, yet it has ignored the views of the UK people in taking it forwards," William Rundle, lawyer for FoE, said on Tuesday (9 January).

"There has been no consultation on what the Withdrawal Bill could mean for the environment and environmental legal protections, or what is the best way forwards.

"The Aarhus Convention requires effective consultation when new laws are being prepared that can significantly affect the environment, such as the EU Withdrawal Bill. This would have allowed environmental issues to be debated and understood, but also built democratic accountability and public confidence.

"The current approach by government in conducting Brexit fails to do this, they didn't even try. Nobody thought Brexit would be easy, but the government cannot ignore its legal obligations, or the views of the people."

Brexit Protest Westminster
Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, December 13, 2017. The UN will investigate claims that the Brexit bill passed infringes international law. Simon Dawson/Reuters

The UN-backed Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee has now allowed FoE's complaint to go forward.

It described as "admissible" the claim the UK government had failed to abide by Article 8 of the convention, namely the public's right to be consulted on draft laws that could have a significant impact on the environment.

In a letter sent to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) last week, it wrote: "The Committee has, on a preliminary basis, determined the communicant's allegation concerning the preparation of the draft 'Great Repeal Bill' and the alleged lack of a clear, transparent and consistent framework to implement article 8 ... to be admissible."

The committee has now asked the government to respond to the claims "as soon as possible," with a deadline of June 5. It will then decide whether the UK government has breached its obligations.

Defra has already acknowledged transferring EU-derived law into UK legislation will present a "significant challenge" for the department.

"Over 1100 core pieces of directly applicable EU legislation and national implementing legislation have been identified as Defra-owned," it said in response to a written question last year, highlighting the scale of the problem.

The Withdrawal Bill doesn't require that current environment standards are maintained when legislation is transferred, nor that the public should be consulted on any changes.

But a government spokesperson denied the bill violated the Aarhus Convention.

They told The Guardian: "The purpose of the withdrawal bill is to provide a functioning statute book on the day we leave the EU—it is an essential bill in the national interest.

"While we can't comment on proceedings, we believe we have complied with all of the relevant obligations in developing this crucial legislation and remain committed to maintaining the highest environmental standards. We will be submitting our full response in due course."