UN Committee scrutinises UK government over Brexit

10 Jan 2018
A UN committee says that Britain's Brexit bill may have broken international environment law.
  • Campaigners challenge government’s failure to consult the public on the effect of the Brexit Withdrawal Bill on the environment
  • UN-backed committee’s decision means there are questions to answer
  • Presently, the Bill is being debated in Parliament with a total lack of public consultation on how it should work
  • Snap election could have meant legal processes were overlooked

The UN-backed ‘Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee’ has decided to consider a complaint by Friends of the Earth against the UK government over consultation failures in relation to Brexit.

The government failed to consult the public about what withdrawal from the EU means for the environment. Under the Aarhus Convention new laws being prepared that could significantly affect the environment should be subject to minimum public participation procedures, so that the public can have their say before the draft laws are put before Parliament.

Friends of the Earth highlighted to the Compliance Committee that the government failed to meet its legal obligations, and now the UN-backed committee has allowed the complaint to go forward, meaning that there are serious questions for the government to answer. If the Committee agrees with Friends of the Earth then this will mean the UK has breached its international legal commitments under the treaty.

These include sufficient time being given for effective public participation, so that they could comment on the draft Withdrawal Bill (and any alternative options), with the publics’ views then being taken into account - but this didn’t happen.

The Withdrawal Bill received no public consultation on environmental issues before it was laid before Parliament. It was produced just after the snap election in July 2017, and given straight to MPs.

Friends of the Earth says this is an example of a wider and systemic problem in the UK, because there is no statutory legal requirement for public participation when new laws are prepared that can significantly affect the environment, as required by the Convention. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU brings this problem out in stark relief, and at a critical time.

William Rundle, Lawyer for Friends of the Earth, said:

“The UK government said Brexit was about taking back control, yet it has ignored the views of the UK people in taking it forwards. There has been no consultation on what the Withdrawal Bill could mean for the environment and environmental legal protections, or what is the best way forwards.  

“The Aarhus Convention requires effective consultation when new laws are being prepared that can significantly affect the environment, such as the EU Withdrawal Bill. This would have allowed environmental issues to be debated and understood, but also built democratic accountability and public confidence.

“The current approach by government in conducting Brexit fails to do this, they didn’t even try. Nobody thought Brexit would be easy, but the government cannot ignore its legal obligations, or the views of the people.”

Friends of the Earth is calling for the UK government to fully comply with the Aarhus Convention, and for new legislation, so that the public is, from now on, always consulted on new laws when they relate to the environment. The UK should fully implement the Convention and finally live up to its international law commitments made back in the 1990s.