Environment secretary Theresa Villiers and DEFRA minister Rebecca Pow presented the Environment Bill in parliament yesterday. Photograph: Parliament Environment secretary Theresa Villiers and DEFRA minister Rebecca Pow presented the Environment Bill in parliament yesterday. Photograph: Parliament

Government confirms commitment to binding environmental non-regression

Prime minister Boris Johnson will seek to introduce into law a provision stopping future governments from lowering environmental standards after Brexit, MPs heard yesterday.

Addressing parliament at the end of the second reading of the Environment Bill, DEFRA minister Rebecca Pow assured MPs that Brexit “does not change the UK’s ambition on the environment”. The prime minister, she added, “has recognised the strength of feeling on this issue and he is committed to a non-regression provision on environmental protection in legislation”. 

Johnson had told parliament last week that he could commit to a non-regression clause, although questions remained over the precise nature of his commitment. 

Introducing the bill last night, environment secretary Theresa Villiers said she hoped 2020 would be seen as a “turning point” on environmental action, “as a time when we came together, both nationally and internationally, to start to reverse the disastrous erosion of nature and wildlife”.

However, MPs from across the house expressed their concern over the absence of non-regression provisions from the legally binding EU withdrawal agreement and the Environment Bill.

Neil Parish, a Conservative MP, said the Environmental Audit Committee he sits on would examine the bill’s lack of a non-regression clause “very carefully”. Meanwhile, Mary Creagh, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, warned that at present “there is nothing to stop those targets [addressed in the bill] being quietly reversed by a future government”. 

Pow defended the future Office for Environmental Protection from accusations it would lack clout and independence. She said the government would not consider giving it the power to fine public bodies for breaching environmental law, as is currently the case under the EU system, because that would “simply shift resources away from the environment”. 

Likewise, she gave no indication that interim five-year targets on environmental progress should be made legally binding, simply stating that an obligation to make recommendations on reaching those targets “is very strong and important”. 

Questions around the exemption of nationally important infrastructure projects from mandatory biodiversity net gain, raised by a number of MPs including shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman, went unanswered. 

Hayman had criticised the exemption, arguing that national infrastructure projects “are often the most environmentally damaging development schemes”. 

While the bill will now technically pass to a third reading - during which parliamentary committees will have the opportunity to scrutinise it in much greater detail - MPs are expected to vote in favour of a December general election today, meaning it would have to be reintroduced to parliament under a new government. 

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