The Lords standing up for environmental standards

Last week, the upper House inflicted a historic defeat on the Government’s Trade Bill. This article explains the reasons for and the significance of the defeat, in the context of the struggle over Brexit and in defence of a precautionary approach to environmental- and public-health- protection.

In a time of rising anxiety with the possibility of a no deal Brexit looming, there must be assurances made in law that our future trading arrangements are not going to expose us to gross potential damage to our ecology. This is one of the key reasons why the House of Lords last week inflicted a remarkable defeat upon the Government’s Trade Bill. This short article focuses upon this event, draws upon the contribution to the debate especially by the Green Party (in the person of the one Green peer, Baroness Jenny Jones) and reflects on on where go from here…

With up to 80% of the UK’s environmental legislation deriving from EU law there is a need for continuity agreements within any trade bill to ensure that necessary environmental considerations are not written out. While the European Court of Justice and the European Commission have far from solved our environmental problems, there is concern that any trade agreement should incorporate much more than accord on tariffs. We must also ensure that we don’t let slip our high standards on labour safety, environmental and consumer protection, and sustainable development.

The grounds for concern are made clear when one looks to the multilateral environmental agreements now under discussion with Australia. Baroness Jones raised attention to the potential for this deal to compromise our climate standards and further endanger biodiversity, as crucial ethical standards in relation to agriculture, food safety, and biodiversity have yet to be raised in the discussions.

Given the climate crisis and the broader ecological crisis, the need for a precautionary frame to all this has never been more pressing.Baroness Jones noted this during the debate, stating that trade deals are no longer a matter of ‘reducing tariff barriers between nations and ensuring physical access to each other’s ports’. Modern trade deals must include precautionary stipulations and these protective mechanisms must be enshrined in law.The worry is that these are being traded away in favour of political leverage as concessions are thought to attract trading partners who may refuse to buy into current standards; sadly the UK, as it potentially exits the EU, is all-too-desperate to attract such partners. Jones noted that we are just two months from Brexit and we have yet to receive any reassurances from the government that new trade deals will not simply bow to corporate interests and make unacceptable environmental concessions.

There has already been pressure exerted by the threat of a mass business exodus in the event of a no deal Brexit. In the face of such a threat, it is particularly easy to see how cynical reassurances could be made by a UK government in a chastened position. Some countries will want to revise the terms of current deals with the worry being that environmental restrictions will be lifted. Without environmental protections becoming a matter of law, our commitments will be circumvented by corporate interests pursuing profit. While foreign partners strengthen their hand, the implication of this will be the weakening of our standards.

We cannot trade the precautionary principle for a mere profit principle. Precaution is essential, when the potential downside of its absence is ecocidal. There is nothing, no amount of profit or new business, that can compensate for potential serious and irreversible ecological losses.

Furthermore, the precautionary principle demands that we think holistically about all this. If we lower food standards, public health will decline, putting our NHS under further strain. If we lower standards on emissions, the same thing will happen; the current air pollution crisis is partly a result of a widespread pro-car and weak-standards regime.

When it comes to public health, animal welfare and the precautionary principle, the chlorinated chicken is the symbolic image of our day and there is great distaste for it – and fortunately current legislation to guard against it. But it is concerning that the United States’ Defect Levels Handbook still makes provisions for ’30 insect fragments in a 100 gram jar of peanut butter and 3 milligrams of rat droppings per pound of ginger’.

If we lose the precautionary principle, if we trade it for example in return for some bargain basement deal with Trump’s America, then you can bet your bottom dollar that chlorinated chicken not to mention insect fragments and rat droppings will be heading straight towards our mouths.

So what is being done? Michael Gove has announced a new 25 Year Environmental Plan with the introduction of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). But there is some reason to be sceptical about this… While the ECJ took the UK to court for failing to comply with pollution targets, as of yet, it is difficult to see how the OEP, which has weak proposed powers of enforcement, can really deliver in the same way as the ECJ and the European Commission. If this new watchdog does not have the legal teeth to levy fines on public bodies that fail to comply with environmental targets, it will be a watchpup, more than a watchdog. There need to be legally binding targets to enforce public bodies to comply. As such, it is important to reiterate Lord Purvis’s closing remarks in last week’s debate, that ‘it is only when commitments given at a political level are enshrined in law that we can be reassured’.

Gove’s plan (that touches on some of the concerns that the Trade Bill debate covered) is under discussion in a key Select Committee in the House of Commons tomorrow, Jan. 30th. Let us hope that Parliamentarians carefully heed the strong message that the Lords have sent, in inflicting a rare defeat like last week’s upon a Government, and that they can work together to ensure that ‘free trade’ doesn’t scupper our current valuable protections.

Dr. Rupert Read is Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, and the Chair of Green House. Baroness Jenny Jones is the Green Party’s one peer. Thanks to Adam Woods for research without which this piece would not have been possible.