High environmental standards will be maintained across the UK after Brexit, Michael Gove has told a Holyrood committee.
The UK Environment Secretary said future trade deals would not involve a “race to the bottom”, while a new environmental governance body with “considerable teeth” would be set up to hold ministers to account.
And he insisted Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as “equal partners” in the UK, would be fully involved in the new arrangements.
Giving evidence to the Environment Committee via video link, Mr Gove said: “The involvement of the devolved administrations in making sure that we get the right trade deal is central.
“We have been clear at a UK Government level… we absolutely need to maintain high environmental standards, and for that matter high animal welfare standards, in any trade deal that we conclude.
“There is no future for the United Kingdom in trying to lead some sort of race to the bottom, the future for us economically is being the home of quality, whether that’s in the food and drink that we produce, or also in areas like for example ultra-low emission vehicles.”
He said a new environmental watchdog would be established to uphold standards, and replicate functions currently carried out by the European Commission and European Court of Justice.
“We think it will have considerable teeth, it will have the capacity to enforce compliance with the law,” he said.
“Ultimately it would have the power to take the government to court.”
Mr Gove said the body could operate on a UK-wide basis, or separate devolved organisations could be established.
“I am open completely to thinking from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about how our shared commitment to these principles (on environmental standards) and to how appropriate governance should be given effect at a devolved level,” he said.
Pressed further on the new watchdog’s powers, and whether it would have the power to “call in” or even reverse policy decisions with an environmental impact, such as a third runway at Heathrow Airport, Mr Gove said: “When it comes to calling things in, there is a planning process.
“I think this environmental watchdog could offer advice about how planning processes might change in the future and how they could be improved, but I don’t think this body should second guess individual planning decisions.”
Mr Gove also moved to reassure MSPs over work to establish common frameworks across the UK in areas such as agriculture and fisheries, by insisting the UK is a “partnership of equals”.
How these frameworks will be set up, and who has the final say over them where ministers fail to agree, is central to an ongoing dispute between the Scottish and UK governments.
“I hope that we can prove that we want to make sure the Scottish Government is fully involved in all the conversations that we need to have to make our exit work, even if we disagree over what our eventual destination should be outside the European Union,” Mr Gove said.