Rural and Environment

Next steps on environmental governance

June 1, 2018 by No Comments | Category Environment, EU

I am grateful to the members of the Roundtable on Environment and Climate Change for their report on environmental governance.

Scotland voted clearly and decisively to remain within the European Union. We have demonstrated that this is the best option for Scotland’s future. Many of our environmental successes and achievements have been built on the strong standards across Europe that underpin the common market.

However, while Scotland did not vote for Brexit, sadly we now have to manage the consequences. Since the referendum vote, I have made clear that we will continue to express the highest level of ambition we can for Scotland’s environment. We will maintain, protect and enhance standards and future proof policy to deal with demands and challenges likely to be faced by our environment and economy over the coming decades.

Our approach to governance is important to help secure that environmental quality. The Roundtable’s report provides the basis for further work to develop this future approach, if the UK leaves the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and the oversight of the European Commission.

The current arrangements within the EU have helped to drive up standards of environmental protection in Europe to the benefit of all European citizens and there are valuable lessons and experience from which we should learn for the future. The Scottish Government would be content to continue to operate within the EU framework. We will continue to seek to influence the UK Government to remain as close as possible to that framework. However we must prepare for the eventuality that this is not possible.

Members of the Scottish public have been accustomed to a high level of openness and transparency around environmental information, data and performance and are entitled to expect similar high standards in the future.

Action on climate change

The report acknowledges that in Scotland there are well established systems and procedures for holding public bodies to account for their performance and to provide challenge in the event that there is a perceived breach of legal powers and duties or a failure of performance. However, it concludes these are not as well developed nor as extensive as those which apply at European level.

To be credible, governance requires demonstrable independence, objectivity and integrity. As the report outlines, political accountability through Parliament will, on leaving the EU, be the ‘ceiling’ in terms of accountability for both the achievement of policy commitments and the effectiveness of actions by Government and public bodies.

The challenge, therefore, becomes how best to provide Parliament with the expertise, information, knowledge and analysis it will need on environmental matters.  How we best approach this will be at the core of our proposed consultation on environmental governance.

I have not yet concluded what the best approach in Scotland would be, but have not ruled out the creation of a new function for an existing body or a new statutory body to deliver the required level of independent scrutiny

It is unfortunate that the Scottish Government, and a number of Scottish stakeholders, were not fully engaged by the UK Government in the development of the proposals set out in their recently published consultation so I will take care not to repeat this mistake. We are ready to co-operate with the UK Government and other devolved administrations, both to ensure continuity of EU law and to seek to agree common approaches across the four administrations in the UK where this is in the best interests of Scotland’s environment and people.

In deciding what is best for Scottish circumstances, there are certain essential requirements.  Any solution must fit Scottish circumstances.  That means recognising and respecting that the environment is a devolved matter and must fit with established methods of accountability, including the separate Scottish legal system and the role of the Scottish Parliament as the body that holds Ministers to account.  It must be a system that helps us to maintain, protect and enhance environmental standards, to comply with international obligations, and it must be fair, open and transparent, built on evidence, hard fact and results not rhetoric.

Scotland’s distinct approach and our unique interests mean that it is essential that the UK Government fully involves the Scottish Government, and other devolved administrations, in developing an approach to negotiations with the EU.  The future EU-UK relationship will be an important framework in which we all need to continue to operate, and which should preserve our ability in Scotland to adopt higher environmental standards appropriate to our ambition.

Importantly, it must respect the devolution settlement and I welcome and fully endorse the statement in the Roundtable report that ‘systems of accountability should also follow the agreed allocation of responsibility and therefore where authority is devolved the devolved procedures for accountability, including in Scotland’s case the Scottish Parliament and separate Scottish legal system are the appropriate basis to pursue issues of compliance and performance’.

The Scottish Government will now consider this advice carefully, alongside our current  work to develop our strategic approach to the environment.  This process will allow us to develop proposals for consultation later this year.

I look forward to a lively and constructive dialogue on the steps that Scotland can take to protect and enhance the magnificent quality of our natural environment, on which our well-being, identity and economy depend.

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