It’s the most hotly anticipated aspect of Brexit. The ‘Great Repeal Bill’ will annul the 1972 European Communities Act (ECA), end authority of EU law, and transpose all provisions into UK law. We are leaving the EU but keeping all laws. Aren’t we?
The concern for many will be that “there will be an opportunity to scrutinise, amend, repeal or improve any aspect of EU law in the future.” Four months on from this statement in The Guardian, uncertainty still persists over whether parliament will be able to “throw out bits of EU legislation” during the passage of the bill, or at a later date.
The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management supports the Great Repeal Bill. Their position is that “enabling legislation is what is needed” but they are concerned by the lingering uncertainty over the Bill.
The Wildlife Trusts are also concerned. They believe that “leaving the European Union could have far-reaching implications for our wildlife” and quote the results of a YouGov poll, which state that 80% of people think the UK should have the same or stronger environmental protection after Brexit.
Much of the UK’s wildlife is currently protected by law stemming from EU Nature Directives and enshrined in the ECA. This includes 652 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for habitats and species and 270 Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for birds. The Repeal Bill will provide the opportunity to either continue or to remove protection for these areas.
The law firm Burges Salmon hint that the UK may have a tendency to be weak on environmental law. They recognise that the UK has been kept in check by “threats of sanctions” from the EU for non-compliance with obligations. Dr Margherita Pieraccini, Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol, adds that a further benefit of EU membership is that the European Commission acts as an “external check on implementation” and can bring infringement proceedings. Burges Salmon reminds us, however, that the EU Directives are the means by which both the UK and the EU meet international obligations and it is therefore unlikely that there will be a “complete dilution” of UK habitat law.
A report produced by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society raises cause for optimism. They state that all those habitats protected by EU law are protected as sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) under UK law anyway (Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981). The report suggests that Brexit “would therefore have limited impact on protected areas policy.”
Burges Salmon appear less confident. If the UK no longer has to comply with Nature Directives, the Government would “have more scope to alter the level and type of protection over SSSIs and other natural areas” they claim. Dr Margherita Pieraccini also warns that the “management measures” of UK SSSIs are “not as stringent” as those for European protected areas.
Ministers must not turn their backs on the UK’s long history of environmental protection. They must not forget their international obligations, nor the public support for wildlife.