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Audit committee demands formation of post-Brexit UK environmental watchdog

New report says that an independent auditor that can take public bodies to court over failure to meet key targets in areas such as decarbonisation is needed outside the EU

An independent oversight body that would police and scrutinise UK government performance on key environmental commitments should be established to address the potential impacts of Brexit, parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee has argued.

A proposed Environmental Enforcement and Audit Office (EEAO) has been put forward as a preferred solution to take up functions currently performed by the European Commission and European Court of Justice.

The Environmental Audit Committee said that the organisation could be modelled on the existing National Audit Office (NAO) and function as environmental watchdog that would have the ability to hold government to its longer-term targets in areas such as reducing carbon emissions from heating. 

Recent concerns raised by a number of trade bodies and NGOs about a lack of clear detail on realising some of the key aims of the government’s Clean Growth Strategy and 25-year environmental plan were also shared by the committee in its findings.

A revised ‘Environmental Principles and Governance Bill’ that is due to be set out by government would also be among the commitments needing to be enforced, according to the committee.

The introduction of legally binding targets focused on key indicators linked to the government’s environmental targets, which could also be reviewed every five years with action reports, were among other key recommendations from the committee.

Environmental Audit Committee Mary Creagh said that the need for a “world-leading environmental watchdog” was vital to address the UK government’s referrals to the EU’s apex court in recent months for failing to tackle illegal levels of air pollution.

She said, “The Government’s 25 Year Plan is high on ambitions, but low on milestones. The government has more experience of getting rid of environmental watchdogs than of setting them up. We want an Environmental Governance and Principles Act that sets legally-binding targets and creates a new Environmental Enforcement and Audit Office to measure progress and enforce this new law.”

“The government needs to set out detailed delivery and funding proposals for the Plan and departments across Whitehall need to commit to its ambitions, rather than trying to water them down behind the scenes.”

The committee has argued that any EEAO should be accountable by parliament and have scope to review the work of a range of public authorities that would include councils and arm’s length bodies.

It should also have the ability to launch investigations on issues such as complaints raised by the public that can then be adjudicated in court.

Another recommendation from the Environmental Audit Committee is to ensure that a new audit body for the environment could take public bodies to court in cases where standards are undermined or not met.

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