His comments came during a high-stakes debate in the House of Commons yesterday that ended with a vote to reject the government’s agenda for scrutinising the Withdrawal Agreement Bill by Thursday, a timescale many MPs had criticised as insufficient given the import of the legislation.
Speaking before the vote, Johnson told Labour MP Caroline Flint, who has come out in favour of his deal, that he would commit to introducing a non-regression clause on environmental protections in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
“I welcome the pledge that the Environment Bill will enhance and not reduce the UK’s standards, but will the prime minister commit today to reinforce that ambition with a clear non-regression clause, as we have on workers’ rights, and write it into the bill?” Flint asked.
Johnson replied that he could “make that commitment”, before making an unrelated point about the bill’s provisions on workers’ rights.
Addressing MPs in the Commons today, he claimed: “We will always be open to members on all sides of the House to work together to ensure that whatever the EU comes up with [on environmental, labour and consumer standards] we can match and pass into the law in this country.”
Downing Street has been approached to clarify whether the government is now committed to introducing an environmental non-regression clause.
Meanwhile, a cross-party group of MPs has tabled an amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, whose progress through parliament the government has decided to freeze following yesterday’s vote, to include a clear commitment to maintain environmental protections after Brexit and introduce a mechanism to consider new EU environmental laws.
The amendment, tabled by Labour MPs Steven Kinnock, Alex Sobel and Lisa Nandy, and former Conservative Antoinette Sandbach, would require the government to set up a body to review new EU green rules and issue recommendations on whether the UK should adopt them.
“This new clause would oblige ministers to report on future EU environmental laws and consult with relevant experts to decide on whether and how to adopt those laws,” it explains.
Kinnock, who has signalled he is open to compromise to pass the new deal, said that he voted against it yesterday because Johnson had “removed level provisions on workers’ rights and environmental and consumer standards” and “diluted the language in the political declaration on the future relationship”.
“It is essential that our rights and standards are anchored in international law,” he added.
Shaun Spiers, the chair of Greener UK, urged the government to make good on Johnson’s pledge, noting that the Environment Bill alone would not be enough to secure existing green protections.
“The withdrawal agreement weakens our environmental protections from Day 1 of Brexit,” he wrote on Twitter. “That's why [the Withdrawal Agreement Bill] must be amended to ensure non-regression from current standards.”