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Sue Hayman on Brexit: The stakes couldn’t be higher for the future of the environment

Sue Hayman on Brexit: The stakes couldn’t be higher for the future of the environment
4 min read

Labour will stand up to the government and industry lobbyists to ensure the UK’s environment, farming and fishing have a sustainable future, writes Sue Hayman

Of all government departments, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), is set to be the most impacted by Brexit.

A staggering 40% of the entire EU budget is related to agriculture and rural development and Defra estimates that approximately 1,200 EU laws, a quarter of the total, relate to its remit. In the UK, EU farm subsidies currently make up around 50-60% of farmer incomes and about 80% of our agricultural exports go to the European Union.

Over our 40 years of EU membership, the UK has acquired one of the most formidable bodies of environmental law in the world.

Taking over responsibilities for farming, fishing, animal welfare, food standards and the environment will be a huge challenge for Defra. This is a department that has suffered the largest cuts of any government department over the two parliaments to 2015.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for the future of the environment and our food industries during the passage of the Repeal Bill and the course of the Brexit negotiations. UK and EU environmental laws are so deeply intertwined that disentangling them will inevitably throw up a wide range of challenges.

Looking to the immediate future, the parliamentary agenda for Defra is set to be one of the busiest and most substantial of all policy areas – with the Fisheries and Agriculture Bills on the horizon as well as the government’s long overdue 25-year environmental plan and the Immigration and Trade Bills also posing serious implications for our environmental standards and for the farming and fishing industries.

To a large extent EU law has been the driving force behind pushing this recalcitrant government into cleaning up our beaches, improving recycling rates, and banning bee-harming pesticides that we know they would have not done of their own volition. Crucially, it is the EU air quality laws that have allowed campaigners such as ClientEarth to hold the government to account for its failure to tackle the public health emergency of air pollution.

Without these legal requirements and pressures, this is a government unlikely to act in the interests of our environment. It is this Conservative government that has allowed fracking across the country, repeatedly tried to evade its obligations on air quality, with a cabinet in a state of conflict and confusion over food standards as part of new trade deals, with a department led by a Secretary of State, Michael Gove, who has previously championed an end to the teaching of climate change in schools. Is it therefore any wonder that powerful industry lobbies at home and abroad have already sniffed an opportunity to do away with regulations that put our environment and British consumers before corporate profits?

Alarmingly, Defra ministers have gone on record since the referendum to state that only two thirds of EU environmental regulations can be successfully transferred into UK law. What will happen to the remaining third of environmental law, or what this remaining third even constitutes, are questions the government has yet to answer. This demonstrable lack of transparency, planning and ambition for the future of our environment post-Brexit must be a wake up call to anyone concerned about our environment, food safety and our rural and coastal economies.

Not only will we be working with party members, charities and experts (notoriously mistrusted by Michael Gove) over the coming months to scrutinise the government line by line – we will also be using this unprecedented time in our nation’s history to ensure that the environment, farming and fishing have a sustainable future under a Labour government.

Too often Defra issues are viewed in isolation, as special interest policy areas, obscured in technical detail. Our challenge and opportunity now is to bring policy areas such as food, farming and the environment into the heart of our larger vision for a fairer, more equitable country, for the many, not the few.


Sue Hayman is Labour MP for Workington and Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

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