Environment Bill: Former Gove adviser accuses government of ‘power grab’

A clause in the government’s landmark Environment Bill to give the environment secretary the power to change how water quality is measured has been described as a “power grab” by a former special adviser to Michael Gove during his time at DEFRA.

Richard Benwell, who is now chief executive of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, has highlighted in a new blog post that section 79 of the bill allows the secretary of state to amend legislation relating to which pollutants should be “taken into account in assessing the chemical status of surface water or groundwater” and “specifying standards” relating to those substances.

The secretary of state would also be able to change whether water bodies are classified as of good or poor quality. 

As ENDS reported last week, DEFRA says this will ensure “regulations protecting water quality are keeping pace with scientific and technical knowledge”.

However, Benwell argued the clause means “all three pillars of the way the chemical status of our waters is measured could be pulled down”. 

While there may be “a good argument” for granting this power to the secretary of state in order to amend technical details of retained EU law, “this clause gives carte blanche for ministers to move the goalposts”, said Benwell. 

“These risks could be lightened by strong “level playing field” guarantees, but the shift in these rules from the legally-binding backstop to the non-binding political declaration has robbed them of any legal or practical force,” he added. “They could also be lightened by a robust non-regression clause for environmental standards, but that is notably absent from the bill.”

Green groups have hit out at the lack of a non-regression clause in the Environment Bill, as well as expressing dismay over the decision to move a commitment to a ‘level playing field’ on areas such as environmental protections from the legally-binding withdrawal agreement with the EU to the non-binding political declaration. 

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