Speaking at one-off session held by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) yesterday, committee chair Mary Creagh asserted that non-regression commitments, which have been moved from the withdrawal agreement as presented by former prime minister Theresa May and put into the weaker political declaration, would not be legally binding on the government as it negotiates future trading arrangements.
Villiers conceded that the divergence could occur, but said that commitments had been made in the Political Declaration to maintain a level playing field and that Article 184 of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill makes a commitment to negotiating in good faith on the basis of the declaration, which she said meant it “has some legal status, though not one of treaty, obviously”.
The environment secretary has previously signalled that there could be divergence from EU rules once the UK leaves the EU, but has until now said that standards would either be maintained or improved.
She also referred to Johnson’s comments to parliament last week where he “indicated that he would be amenable to introducing a clause on non-regression into the Withdrawal Agreement Bill”.
Villers said a new environmental clause would likely follow similar lines to the existing non-regression clause on workers’ rights, which Creagh pointed out relates only to primary legislation and only requires ministers to make a declaration on whether workers’ rights are to be engaged or not.
The Withdrawal Agreement Bill is no longer being considered in parliament while the parties prepare for a general election on 12 December. The future of the Environment Bill is also uncertain as it would need to be re-introduced to a new parliament following the election of a new government.