Scots charities warn on Boris Johnson's post-Brexit environmental 'race to bottom'
A COALITION of 40 of Scotland’s leading environment charities, has warned the UK government that its plan to create a post-Brexit UK internal market could seriously harm Scotland’s precious wildlife, landscape and food standards by dragging down standards.
The plan unveiled by the UK government last month appears to be aimed at both removing regulation and forcing all four nations of the UK to adopt the same standards irrespective of each nation’s environmental context or needs, say members of Scottish Environment LINK (SEL).
SEL say they believe rules for a UK internal market, which comes into play when the UK leaves the EU Single Market, could create a "race to the bottom", forcing Scotland to revoke or water down legislation protecting its environment to mirror any lowering of standards in the rest of the UK.
Internationally prized and iconic wildlife including otters, bottlenose dolphins, puffins, bats, red squirrels, golden eagle and osprey could be at risk along with Scotland’s drinking water, beaches and food standards.
At present 80 percent of Scotland’s environmental protections come from EU membership, but the UK will no longer be bound by EU law after 31 December 2020 when the Brexit transition period ends.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma published a White Paper last month which will see measures which were previously managed by the EU return to the UK at the end of the year when the Brexit transition period expires.
The 160 policy areas including animal welfare, public procurement rules and environmental regulations will now go to one or more of the devolved administrations.
Westminster maintains that a uniform single market is needed to avoid internal trade barriers and simplify trade talks with other nations.
The internal market rules which Westminster will legislate on in September would mean goods and standards allowed in one part of the UK would be accepted and applied in all four jurisdictions.
But with confirmation that there will be on independent arbitration process to resolve disputes there have been fears that the UK government would set food standards that devolved nations would have to accept or face court action.
SEL launched a campaign last year called Fight for Scotland’s Nature to help ensure ensure environmental protections for Scotland’s environment are not weakened post-Brexit.
The Scottish government has since committed to ‘maintain or exceed’ current EU environment standards, and published an EU Continuity Bill in June setting out how it plans to replace EU protections.
But the SEL while welcoming parts of the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill which seeks to embed environmental protections into Scots law, said there was still some crucial parts missing.
The umbrella group, which includes members such as the National Trust for Scotland, WWF Scotland, Marine Conservation Society, Friends of the Earth Scotland and the British Ecological Society, said that it lacks provisions to give citizens rights to raise complaints about their local environment and to see these fully investigated and enforced.
SEL is urging the Scottish Parliament to strengthen the bill to give greater powers and independence to Scotland’s new environment watchdog, and to enshrine in law the commitment to maintain or exceed standards, requiring Scottish Ministers to keep pace with developments in EU environmental law.
But the charities fear that the UK government’s internal market proposals could instead force Scotland to follow the lowest common denominator, especially where countries negotiating bilateral trade deals with the UK demand lower standards, seriously undermining efforts to combat climate change and biodiversity decline.
Charles Dundas, chair of Scottish Environment LINK, said today: “Scotland’s world-renowned natural environment is central to all our lives, and we must not allow arrangements for a UK internal market to put it in jeopardy by dragging standards down. At the same time, the Scottish government’s commitment to maintain or exceed present EU standards should be enshrined in law and is something we have been pushing for.
“High standards of environmental protection are essential if we are to achieve a green recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and tackle the joint crises of alarming nature loss and climate breakdown, the greatest challenges of our time.”
Last month, Mike Russell, the Scottish Brexit Secretary, said that the internal market plans would weaken Holyrood's ability to protect Scottish interests.
Among SEL's concerns has been a method to replace the European Commission's LIFE-Nature Fund which has given £25 million over 25 years to Scotland to help with more than 25 vital conservation projects protecting the country's at-risk wildlife and landscape.
They previously warned the losers would include a bid to stop Scotland's red squirrels from becoming extinct, as well as moves to protect the hen harrier, harbour porpoise and the corncrake, one of Scotland's rarest birds.
LIFE has also helped preserve some of Scotland's treasured landscape because of their European importance.
Receiving support was the restoration of the Flow Country peatlands in Caithness, one of the last great wildernesses in the UK and the preservation of primeval Celtic rainforest, the native Caledonian pinewoods and Scotland's coastal meadows, called machair.
A UK Government spokesman said:“We will never sign a trade deal that compromises our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards. The UK is a world leader in these areas and that will not change.”