Speech on EU environmental protections

On these benches we did everything in our power to promote the case for the UK remaining in the European Union. A key part of that case was about keeping in place the protections that EU legislation has brought — in the workplace, on human rights and on the environment.

Yet these issues were too often brushed aside in the fierce political contest that we experienced during the referendum.

In fact, the environment scarcely featured in the debate about Britain’s membership of the EU at all.

Yet the environmental protections that we’ve enjoyed in this country for decades — covering areas such as air and water quality, emissions, waste, chemicals regulation and habitats protection — are all underpinned by EU legislation.

Britain’s membership of the European Union has had a extremely positive effect on the quality of Britain’s beaches, our water and rivers and the the air that we breathe. It has underpinned protection for many of our rarest birds, plants and animals and their habitats.

Like so many other questions on the detail of Brexit, the question of how we continue to protect these precious assets needs a coherent answer.

Because, whenever we look at an issue in more detail the value of collaboration at a European level becomes clearer. As the honourable member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip told the country just days after encouraging us to vote to Leave:

There will still be intense and intensifying European cooperation and partnership in a huge number of fields: the arts, the sciences, the universities, and on improving the environment.”

It’s not clear how this picture of intensifying European cooperation squares with the Home Secretary’s statement yesterday that “Brexit means Brexit”.

On matters that stretch across a whole range of different fields that are vital to our prosperity and wellbeing — there has been little more than evasion and confusion from the government thus far. 

This is why ministers must now do everything in their power to offer clarity about how they will take forward the protection of the UK’s environment in this new political situation.

There is so much about the EU that we don’t want to abandon, as I’ve noticed in relation to my other brief at meetings on the Digital Single Market — there is a strong view that it makes sense to continue to adhere to EU directives and projects— even thought we have voluntarily given up the capacity to shape them.

So it’s worth considering for a moment how the country’s approach to the environment has been shaped since it joined the EU.

In the 1980s Britain was known as ‘the Dirty Man of Europe’ because of our widespread pollution of air, land and water. There is now a risk that Britain will end up regaining that reputation.

While the UK has sometimes willingly followed the drive for environmental protections, it has taken years to get this country to meet standards that are considered to be the norm in Europe.

I’d also like to point out that when considering matters around environmental protection, it’s worth remembering that in addition to the inherent worth of our landscape and ecosystems, there are key economic benefits to protecting biodiversity.

In Scotland our natural environment contributes an estimated £21.5 billion to the Scottish economy.

Scotland also provides the major part of the UK’s contribution to the EU established Natura 2000 network of protected sites — with over 15% of our land area designated for a wealth of habitats and species. 

During the campaign we didn’t hear anything from the Brexiteers about what this vote would mean for the Habitats Directive, the Circular Economy (with its need for long term planning and investment) or issues around water quality, where the UK still has a lot of catching up to do.

 

What we did hear from them was a deep and often ideologically driven opposition to “red tape.”

This red tape includes measures that protect rare species and unique habitats and that prevent companies damaging the environment or using dangerous chemicals in their products.

So it’s now time to put the rhetorical bluster about red tape behind us and move on to focusing on what the government’s red lines will be as it undertakes these negotiations.

If its priorities are muddled, or key protections are sacrificed for short-term gain, we could be living with the impact for generations.  

So, wherever all of the different moving parts of this constitutional crisis end up, we must ensure that the UK continues on the right path. 

As a range of environmental groups have asserted before and after the Brexit vote cooperation and collaboration within Europe works.  

This is because we do not solve such problems in isolation. My own nation, Scotland understood this, but does this house? Does this government?