May is pursuing a strategy that will harm our environment as well as our economy, argues Mary Creagh MP
Theresa May’s speech on Brexit was an opportunity for her to set out her plans to put Britain’s national interest first as we leave the European Union. Instead, in order to placate her backbenchers, she has put the country on a course that risks the United Kingdom ‘crash-landing’ out of the EU, as Carolyn Fairbairn, head of the Confederation of British Industry has warned. The prime minister has said ‘no deal’ is better than a ‘bad deal’. But no deal is absolutely the worst outcome for our country.
A disorderly hard Brexit would harm the environment, our farmers and rural communities. The cross-party environmental audit committee, which I chair, found that changes from Brexit could put our countryside, farming and wildlife at risk. Protections for Britain’s wildlife and special places currently guaranteed under European law could end up as ‘zombie legislation’, even with the great repeal bill. We recommended that the government should safeguard environmental protections against Brexit with a new environmental protection act.
Andrea Leadsom told my committee that, even with the government’s great repeal bill – copying EU legislation into UK law – will not work for up to a third of EU environmental legislation. There is a risk that EU legislation transposed into UK law will no longer be updated because there is no UK body to update it; that it will not be enforced because there is no body with the legal duty to enforce it; and will be vulnerable to being quietly dropped with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. The government must set out how it will provide an equivalent – or better – level of environmental protection when we leave the EU.
Farmers and farm businesses, who account for a quarter of businesses in England, face a triple jeopardy from leaving the EU. First, the loss of subsidies from the EU’s common agricultural policy, which makes up on average half of UK farm incomes. The government have given farmers no guarantees that there will be subsidies after we leave. Some observers believe that without this support as many as 90 per cent of farms would collapse.
Second, new free trade agreements could threaten incomes if they result in tariff and non-tariff barriers to exports. At the moment, 95 per cent of British lamb goes to the EU. Leaving the customs union would result in a tariff on lamb of as much as 40 per cent. Leadsom told the Oxford Farming conference that farm exports to the EU will fall after we leave the EU.
Third, any new trade deals with the rest of the world, could lead to competition from countries with lower animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards.
David Davis told parliament that he will do ‘everything necessary’ to protect the stability of the UK’s financial services sector. The prime minister gave a ‘letter of comfort’ to Nissan. But there have been no such assurances for rural businesses.
We were told that a vote to leave would enable us to ‘take back control’, but now we risk losing all control over our ability to tackle pollution. There is a risk that key EU food safety standards are traded away as part of new deals with Donald Trump’s United States. The environmental audit committee has just launched an inquiry looking at what Brexit means for chemicals regulations. It may not sound exciting, but the EU has ensured the chemicals used in everything from children’s toys to food additives are safe for consumers and workers.
If we see clear evidence that what the Tories are doing poses risks to our country, we have a duty to speak out. People voted for Brexit at no cost, not Brexit at any cost. May’s strategy seems to rely on threatening the rest of the EU with the UK’s economic suicide, and a Brexit that would be disastrous for our environment, agriculture and rural communities.
Mary Creagh MP is chair of the environmental audit committee of the House of Commons. She tweets at @MaryCreaghMP