Charter of Fundamental Rights – Government Report

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 21st November 2017.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 5:30 pm, 21st November 2017

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hanson. I rise to support amendments 101 and 105, tabled in my name. They relate to the debate we had about environmental principles on day two of the Bill’s Committee stage, and particularly about new clauses 60 and 67, and new clause 28 which was also tabled in my name.

As it stands, UK laws that arise from EU laws such as regulations and directives and that do not comply with the general principles of EU law can be challenged and disapplied. Administrative actions taken under EU law must also comply with the general principles. I say that by way of clarification, because I think a lot of people are trying to follow the debates in this Chamber during the Committee stage, and they are perhaps wondering what on earth we are talking about, so I am trying to make things as simple and as clear as possible for the public out there— and perhaps for some of us in the Chamber as well.

That is the situation as at the moment while we are members of the EU. Post-Brexit, though, schedule 1, as I interpret it, places unnecessary and unjustified restrictions on how these principles will be applied. That is what my amendments seek to rectify. Paragraph (2) states that retained principles will be only those that have been recognised or litigated by the Court of Justice of the EU in a case decided before exit day. Only those principles will be retained in domestic law; others will not, even if recognised in treaties. In the debate on day two, the Minister said in response to new clause 28 that this was because we needed a cut-off point and could not have ongoing interpretation of directives that would affect the situation in the UK. However, I would argue that there is still a real lack of clarity, and a danger that if we allow only principles that have been litigated on to apply post-exit day, the non-controversial ones that people do not have a problem with will end up falling away, while only the controversial ones are retained. It is also unclear whether these general principles include environmental principles, as the term “general principles” has not been defined by the ECJ or by the treaties. If environmental principles are not explicitly recognised as general principles, they could be lost entirely. I hope that the Minister can give us a bit of clarity on that.

Paragraph (3) of schedule 1 explicitly limits the legal remedies available when general principles are contravened. Under this paragraph, UK courts will no longer have the power to disapply domestic legislation on the grounds that it conflicts with these general principles. They could only be used like the pre-exit case law of the CJEU to inform the interpretation by UK courts of retained EU law. Paragraph (3)(2) therefore appears to narrow the scope for judicial review that currently exists. In the previous debate, some of my colleagues argued very eloquently as to the importance of judicial review in environmental cases but also highlighted the fact that it is often inadequate, and increasingly so, given the cap that is imposed. Paragraph (3)(2) would further narrow the scope of judicial review and make it harder for the public to hold the Government to account. As discussed last week, it is vital that the courts are able to enforce the environmental principles.

Amendments 101 and 105 speak to those points. Amendment 101 clarifies that all existing principles of EU law will be retained in domestic law, whether they originate in the case law of the European Court, EU treaties, direct EU legislation or EU directives. It also makes it clear that the key environmental law principles in article 191 of the Lisbon treaty are retained. Amendment 101 therefore expands the meaning of general principles to specifically include the environmental principles. Following on from that, amendment 105 seeks to retain the right of action in domestic law for the public to hold the Government to account for their breaches of the principles.

I know that the Government are proposing an environmental principles policy. I have lots of questions about how that would operate—whether it would be on a statutory footing and so on—but at this stage I ask the Minister to confirm whether they will publish at least an outline version of what that principles policy would look like while there is still time to consider it and its implications for this Bill. So far in Committee, Ministers have been very fond of asking us to take their word for it, but I am simply not prepared to do that: I want to see what these policies would look like.

Will the Minister also explain the Government’s objection to the idea of having internationally recognised principles of environmental law enshrined in UK statute? The Government could include the basic principles in UK law by accepting my amendments. Not least, that will provide us with much needed reassurance that the Environment Secretary will win out against the International Trade Secretary in ensuring that future trade deals with countries such as the US will not lead to imports of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-pumped beef on our shelves. The Environment Secretary has encouragingly said that the UK should say no to chlorine-washed chicken from the US and that we are

“not going to dilute our high food-safety standards or our high environmental standards in pursuit of any trade deal”.

But as was pointed out during last week’s debate, the environmental principles set out in the EU treaties have been instrumental in decisions such as the EU ban on imports of hormone-fed beef, the moratorium on neonicotinoid pesticides, and the control of the release of genetically modified organisms in the EU.

The debate on day two saw a degree of political consensus emerging around the value of environmental principles such as the precautionary principle, as well as in other areas, particularly the Environment Secretary’s mooted plan for a new independent body to hold the Government to account. I hope that when we consider the governance gap on a future day, we will hear more about his plans for that body. I think we also got confirmation from the Environment Secretary, although it was only a nod from a sedentary position, that he intended to follow the Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendation and introduce an environmental protection Act. I hope that we will hear more about that and the timetable for it. I understand that the much delayed 25-year environment plan may be with us in the first quarter of next year, a fisheries Bill is coming from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the agriculture Bill is due, I think, after the summer recess. If the Government are going to introduce an environmental protection Act before exit day, they will have their work cut out for them. I would be grateful to hear a bit more about that.

As I have said, the Bill, as it stands, does not protect those environmental principles, and environmental protection after exit day will not be as strong and rigorous as it was before exit day. I seek the Minister’s reassurance that he intends to make sure that that does not happen.