Important EU environment laws will not expire, says farming minister

Important EU environment laws such as pesticide regulation will not automatically expire at the end of year, the farming minister has said.

Mark Spencer told delegates at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) conference that there will be three “buckets” for EU laws that will be scrapped, saved or improved upon.

He said there is a lot of “rubbish we don’t need”, while other laws that are “very, very important” will be kept.

The Government’s Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill seeks to allow EU laws to expire by December 31 2023, unless they are specifically approved to be kept by ministers.

Environmental groups have criticised the plans, saying it threatens the abandonment of key regulations that are in place to protect nature.

The NFU said many of its members would welcome a post-Brexit reform of EU laws, but do not want it rushed within a year.

Speaking to the NFU conference in Birmingham on Tuesday, Mr Spencer said: “Some of the animal welfare regulations, some of the pesticide regulations, clearly the environmental regulations, we’re not going to touch any of that, they’re just going to be protected for the future. But there’s also there is an opportunity to tweak some of this stuff, and to improve it.”

Asked how Defra can ensure that important environmental laws will not automatically expire as part of the Government Bill, he said: “The only way you can make that mistake would be by putting something that’s important into the get-rid-of bucket.

“We’re doing a huge amount of work at this moment in time in the department to go through every single one of those EU laws and to work out the best bucket to put those in.

“There’s some really low-hanging fruit, which is very easy just to put into the get-rid-of bucket, there’s some really important stuff that we’re never going to get rid of, which of course, goes straight into the keep bucket.”

Mr Spencer also accused Labour of retaining “the worst excesses of the EU trap” and having no plan for farmers.

National Farmers’ Union Conference
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told farmers at the NFU conference that he wants his party to be as much about rural issues as urban (Ben Birchall/PA)

A Labour spokesperson said: “The Retained EU Law Bill creates huge uncertainty at a time when our food exporters need to know which standards they need to adhere to and which markets to access.

“The Government has no idea what it’s keeping and what it’s getting rid of.

“Labour would get a proper grip and provide the certainty needed for farmers on both standards and market access.”

In response to Mr Spencer’s comments, environmental law firm ClientEarth called for the Retained EU Law Bill to be scrapped, saying it does not allow for “adequate time and care” to review the laws.

Angus Eames, ClientEarth lawyer, said: “If the Retained EU Law Bill passes, the UK could fall into legal chaos and its climate and biodiversity targets could be rendered useless at the exact moment urgent action is needed most.

“The Bill could see regulations that have been in place for years, and in some cases decades, disappear entirely – including protections for nature, drinking water, food safety and employment rights, to name only a few.

“A post-Brexit review of laws retained from the UK’s time in the EU needs adequate time and care to avoid negative consequences and this bill simply does not allow for that.

“Instead, we are concerned that it will create red tape for the Government while threatening a whole host of longstanding protections. For these reasons, we believe the bill should be abandoned entirely.”

Nick von Westenholz, director of trade and business strategy at the NFU, said: “There is clearly a risk that important laws and regulations may just fall away and they’ll only be discovered when suddenly it becomes useful that there is some regulation governing a certain area.

“But there is a good discussion to be had about regulatory reform. Members of the NFU will have lots of ideas about regulations that don’t work well and can work better.

“The idea of reviewing current EU regulations, EU-derived laws, is not in itself a bad idea. In fact, we would say it was a good idea.

“The plan to do it in 10 months and associated with that, giving ministers very sweeping powers to make amendments is a problem. And it’s an unnecessary problem because it’s a self-imposed deadline that the Government could quite easily extend if they wanted to.”