Image: Louise Broom

Two environmental groups have launched a High Court challenge to the UK government’s Brexit laws, over sweeping new powers that may weaken protection for seas and wildlife in the UK. 

ClientEarth and the Marine Conservation Society, working with lawyers at Leigh Day Solicitors, are challenging a decision of the UK Government made under the EU Withdrawal Act, which they say is an unlawful misuse of Brexit powers.  

The measures which the government has introduced, behind the scenes, put seals, otters, dolphins and seabirds and many other vulnerable animals, plants and precious sites around the UK, at risk. 

The legal challenge focuses on new powers that will allow ministers to alter and reduce standards for protected sites – which will fundamentally change how the law operates in the UK. 

If the change was allowed to happen, the groups argue, it would be a total breach of the UK government’s promises of a “green Brexit” and repeated assurances that only technical changes would be made to modify our laws under the Act. 

ClientEarth UK law and policy advisor Dr Tom West said: “The UK government has repeatedly promised that the environment would be safeguarded after Brexit. So, it is extremely concerning that the government has quietly and unlawfully introduced sweeping new powers behind the scenes that weaken environmental protection. 

“Quite rightly the public has been concerned by the use of so-called Henry VIII powers that give too much discretion to ministers to make new laws, with little scrutiny from parliament, the public or civil society.” 

Marine Conservation Society CEO Sandy Luk said: Whatever you think of Brexit, the government must keep its promise to the UK public that its seas, countryside and wildlife will not be worse off if EU protections are no longer in place. 

“The management of marine protected areas is not strong enough under current legislation and allowing these changes will mean weaker protections for vulnerable species and habitats. We could even see the possibility of protected areas being abolished after Brexit.  

“We cannot allow hard-won ocean protections, which will safeguard future generations and marine wildlife such as treasured dolphins and seabirds, to be lost or watered down.” 

Specifically, the charities are challenging the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) over parts of a statutory instrument, made under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act of 2018, which change the existing regulation of habitat and species conservation. 

Defra’s changes include potential alterations to the obligation to manage recognised conservation sites, and potential limits to the types of areas set aside to protect marine animals that range over wide areas. 

Defra has created 122 statutory instruments under the Act, which will replace EU laws after Brexit, and more than 500 have been submitted by other government departments. 

Dr West added: “This legal challenge focuses on the unlawful nature of just one of the hundreds of pieces of legislation that government departments have quietly been rewriting with little or no scrutiny.” 

“We fear that without improved scrutiny, we will continue to see the government using its powers in this way.” 

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