Welcoming an independent ‘green watchdog’: environmental accountability post-Brexit

RCP president-elect Dr Andrew Goddard responds to the government's consultation on environmental principles and accountability for the environment

The RCP shares the government’s ambition to ensure we leave our environment in a better state than we inherited it, and believe that the UK’s departure from the EU need not result in any weakening of our environmental or climate change commitments. Rather, it provides the opportunity for the UK to reassert itself as a global leader in this field, going further in the scope and ambition of its environmental policies.

We work to empower the healthcare profession to argue for better responses to climate change, as well as campaigning to raise awareness of the links between the issues. Human health and the environment are inextricably linked. When environmental degradation occurs, we often see a simultaneous deterioration in human health. For example, in the UK we know that around 40,000 deaths a year are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution

For the government to deliver a ‘green Brexit’, it is imperative that oversight and enforcement are maintained upon the UK’s exit from the EU.

Dr Andrew Goddard, RCP president-elect

Over the last 40 years, the EU has been a global leader in environmental legislation, with the UK often playing an important part. EU law has ensured the protection of our environment and, as a result, the health of the UK population. Up to 80% of environmental regulation derives from the EU and up to 25% of all EU legislation relates to the environment. Of course, law is only as effective as its enforcement, and institutions such as the European Commission and the European Court of Justice (ECJ) play an important role in ensuring governments are held to account for environmental outcomes. For the government to deliver a ‘green Brexit’, it is imperative that oversight and enforcement are maintained upon the UK’s exit from the EU.

The RCP therefore supports the creation of an independent ‘green watchdog’ to replace the current functions of the European Commission and the ECJ. We welcome the proposed ability of the body to enshrine important environmental principles, such as the precautionary principle, into domestic policy.

The RCP is encouraged that the proposed bill contains assurances that the new environmental watchdog will be independent and accountable to parliament. Additionally, we welcome the government’s proposal that the new watchdog will be supported by the necessary expertise and funds to carry out its duties. In all matters concerning public health, healthcare professionals will continue to hold the government to account in following through on these proposals.

By committing to introduce the watchdog through primary legislation, it would appear that the government echoes the RCP’s recognition of the importance of enforcement of the UK’s environmental standards after departure from the EU. However, the RCP believes that for any proposed post-EU watchdog to be able to adequately oversee and enforce environmental policy in the UK, it must be given the power to initiate legal action where appropriate. Without the power to initiate court action against public authorities or the government, or engage in other enforcement measures, the watchdog will provide oversight and enforcement functions that are less effective than currently provided by the EU. Without these functions, the RCP cannot support the watchdog in its proposed form.

Earlier this year, the prime minister herself vowed that a 'world-class' watchdog would be created, not just to protect current standards but to improve on them. We support this statement, and believe for this to occur any new watchdog should have at least the existing oversight and enforcement capability of EU institutions.

It is also disappointing to see the government proposals do not commit to enshrine vital environmental principles, such as the precautionary principle and the 'polluter pays' principle, in law. Instead, it is proposed that there be a 'requirement for government to have regard to [a] statutory policy statement on environmental principles in developing and implementing their policies'.

With there being no commitment for these to be legally enshrined (and enforced) post-Brexit, the RCP is concerned that legislation will no longer maintain key environmental principles in practice, which could have a major negative impact on public health through increases in environmental degradation.

Dr Andrew Goddard, RCP president-elect

UK legislation is underpinned by environmental principles that are enshrined through EU law. With there being no commitment for these to be legally enshrined (and enforced) post-Brexit, the RCP is concerned that legislation will no longer maintain key environmental principles in practice, which could have a major negative impact on public health through increases in environmental degradation. For example, the RCP is concerned that the absence of the ‘polluter pays’ principle could lead to a rise in pollution with attendant negative impacts on public health. Currently in the UK 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution annually, constituting a public health crisis. The government should be making every effort to reduce this number.

The negative health impacts of air pollution occur across the life course and can begin at conception. Air pollution is linked to reduced lung function in children and adults, lung cancer in adulthood and the development of new onset asthma as well as exacerbating asthma in those who already live with the condition. Air pollution is also an issue of health inequality. The most vulnerable groups – namely people living in deprived areas, children, older people living with chronic long-term conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cardiovascular diseases – suffer the most harm.

Lastly, the RCP would like to express disappointment at the fact that the proposed bill does not currently ensure compliance with the 25-year environment plan, and its remit does not extend to include climate change. Health, climate change and the environment are inextricably linked, and proposed new legislation for any of these areas must complement legislation in the others.

There have been reports of HM Treasury opposition to elements of the bill, with a suggestion from the Environmental Audit Committee that this could be a result of the assumption that action to reduce environmental degradation and improve the natural environment will negatively impact economic growth. As the government’s own Clean Growth Strategy describes, this is incorrect. In the same way that action to combat environmental degradation is good for the economy, it is good for public health, with the leading health bodies, including the Lancet and the World Health Organization, concluding that action to prevent negative environmental change is the ‘greatest opportunity for global health of the 21st century’. Therefore, any impact assessment of environmental policies must also include health and social benefits as well as the economic.

We believe there is great potential for a world leading independent statutory body to be put in place once the UK has left the EU, so long as it is given adequate powers.

Dr Andrew Goddard, RCP registrar and president-elect. You can follow Andrew on Twitter at @bodgoddard.

The RCP would like to thank the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change for its response to the consultation which helped frame our own discussion, most notably UKHACC lead author and policy and public affairs manager Antonia Jennings.