The government has still not committed to replacing around a third of all environmental rules governing air, water, chemicals and waste disposal that cannot be copied over into UK law from the EU.
With five months to go until exit day, MPs from the Environmental Audit Committee said the lack of clarity about a sizeable chunk of regulations was “deeply worrying”.
Uncertainty also remains around plans for a new body to hold environmental authorities to account once the EU’s oversight is gone.
Green groups and politicians are concerned that when the European Commission and European Environment Agency no longer have the power to intervene, a similar body will not be ready to ensure laws are enforced.
The government sought to assuage some of these fears in its response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s assessment of its 25-year environment plan setting out a vision for a greener future after Brexit.
However, despite a lengthy back-and-forth between green advocates and the government in recent months, committee chair Mary Creagh said gaps in the government’s proposals still needed to be filled urgently.
“The government’s woolly response makes no firm commitments on the future governance of the environment after Brexit, which is of great concern, given that the agriculture bill is making its way through parliament,” she said.
Green MP and committee member Caroline Lucas said: “What on earth have ministers been doing for the past two years? We’re less than five months away from leaving the EU and the government has tragically failed to ensure we’ll keep vital environmental protections.”
When she announced the 25-year plan in January, Theresa May made it clear the government wanted to strengthen and enhance environmental protections after Brexit, not weaken them.
Environment secretary Michael Gove has repeatedly called for a “green Brexit”, and promised to introduce a watchdog to “hold the powerful to account”.
However, with Brexit date looming and plans for an environment bill in the making, Ms Creagh said there were many areas of the committee’s critique of government plans that remained unaddressed.
“It is deeply worrying that the response does not commit to replace the one-third of EU environmental legislation that cannot be copied and pasted into UK law after Brexit,” she said.
While around two-thirds of EU legislation can be rolled over into UK law with just some technical changes in March, many will have to be replaced.
Besides this uncertainly, there is also currently no confirmation of the extent of the proposed watchdog’s powers, whether it will cover climate change or how it will enforce laws.
Thanks to European oversight, the UK has recently faced legal action over its failure to protect vulnerable harbour porpoises in its waters, and stop precious moorland habitat from being burnt on shooting estates.
“If we want a world-leading environment, we need a strong, independent environmental watchdog which ministers cannot quietly put to sleep,” said Ms Creagh, noting that it must be accountable to parliament.
ClientEarth legal and policy researcher Hatti Owens said that “if it is to adequately ensure the safety of the water we drink, defend the habitats of ferns and frogs, and protect the health of our children’s lungs”, such a watchdog would need the power to hold both government and public authorities to account.
Ms Lucas added that without such a watchdog “ministers will have little reason to enforce any existing environmental protections”.
The MPs also recommended the introduction of five yearly wildlife budgets that would show taxpayers’ money being spent on public goods like flood prevention, preventing extinctions and restoring soils.
Amy Mount of the Greener UK coalition of NGOs, which works towards a green Brexit, agreed the government’s response was evidence “that there is still a great deal of work to do if we are to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation”.
Responding to the criticism, a spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Our 25-year environment plan sets out in detail how we will improve our environment for the next generation, and we have already taken significant steps to deliver this pledge.
“We are bringing forward the first environment bill in over 20 years, have consulted on a new world-leading body to hold government to account on environmental standards and will publish draft legislation shortly.”