Has Brexit Bill broken international environmental law?
Published: 10 Jan 2018

Friends of the Earth (FoE) have made a complaint to the United Nations claiming that the Government's EU Withdrawal Bill breaches the Aarhus Convention.

The Aarhus Convention requires public consultation on any new environmental law. Information relating to environmental legislation must be provided by public authorities in a 'timely and transparent manner', and at an early stage of the development of any new environmental laws the public must be allowed to participate.

A great deal of the UK's environmental laws derive from EU legislation, and FoE are concerned that the EU Withdrawal Bill provides ministers with 'unique and wide-ranging powers'' to amend or delete environmental law after Brexit without any public consultation.

FoE are claiming the UK Government may have breached their obligations under the Aarhus Convention in two ways, by:

  • failing to set out a consistent legal framework to allow public participation in the preparation of new environmental legislation; and
  • not giving the public an opportunity to comment on the Bill before it was presented to Parliament to be made into law.

They claim that in calling a snap election any possible public engagement with the white paper of the EU Withdrawal Bill was prevented and the Government failed to consult with the public.

A lawyer for Friends of the Earth, William Rundle, commented: ''The 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 EU Withdrawal Billl 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.''

The UK Government remains legally bound by the Aarhus Convention after withdrawal from the EU, and some have expressed concern that any withdrawal from the Aarhus Convention would be ''disastrous for UK environmental policy''. 

A Government spokesperson commented: ''The purpose of the EU Withdrawal Bill is to provide a functioning statute book on the day we leave the EU – it is an essential Bill in the national interest. While we can’t comment on proceedings, we believe we have complied with all of the relevant obligations in developing this crucial legislation and remain committed to maintaining the highest environmental standards. We will be submitting our full response in due course.''

A UN-backed committee is currently considering the complaint, and the UK Government has until 5 June to submit its written response. Once this is submitted, the committee will then decide whether the UK has breached its obligations under the Convention.