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Interpretation

Part of European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth 6:15 pm, 8th January 2020

My hon. Friend makes the point that I am trying to make: if the Government are committed to this, why are they not putting it in the Bill?

Last September’s UN climate action summit delivered a boost in momentum, co-operation and ambition, but as the UN Secretary-General said:

“we have a long way to go…We need more concrete plans, more ambition from more countries and more businesses. We need all financial institutions, public and private, to choose, once and for all, the green economy.”

This year’s UN climate conference must see existing commitments renewed and increased, not least by the Government. The political declaration, agreed by the UK and EU in October 2019, proposed that the UK and EU should uphold “common high standards”. However, the declaration is only indicative and is not legally binding. Including an amendment on environmental non-regression in the Bill would help to ensure that standards are not weakened across the UK during the process of EU withdrawal. Given that the scope of the Bill is focused on actions in connection with EU withdrawal, further non-regression guarantees will be needed, both in domestic legislation, such as the environment Bill, and in the future relationship agreement with the EU.

The new clause is broken down into a number of different sections. Proposed new section 14A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 defines regressive and protected matters covered by the proposal, which include

“the environment…food safety and other standards…the substance of REACH regulations;
and…animal welfare.”

Proposed new section 14B adds a procedural check—similar to that already carried out on new legislation in relation to human rights—for primary legislation. This requires Government to either state that new legislation does not weaken environmental standards or, if it does, to explain why and require explicit parliamentary approval of that regression. The new office for environmental protection must be consulted during this process.

Proposed new section 14C prevents withdrawal from the EU being used as a route for lowering environmental standards by secondary legislation.

Proposed new section 14D prevents withdrawal from the EU being used as a route for lowering environmental standards by other public body action.

Proposed new section 14E requires the Secretary of State to publish guidance for Government Departments and other public authorities to support them in avoiding any regressive actions.

Finally, proposed new section 14F ensures that all new EU environmental law is reviewed by an expert independent body to track potential divergence. If any potential divergence is identified and not approved by Parliament, the Government must commit to taking steps to rectify that divergence.

An argument has been made that the new clause is not needed, as the UK will have better standards. However, Ministers have stated many times that environmental standards will not be weakened, so it should not be controversial to guarantee that in legislation, as my hon. Friend Caroline Lucas mentioned. What objection can the Government have to committing to the new clause? I would very much welcome the Minister’s comments on that. A meaningful commitment to non-regression is essential if the UK is to genuinely put itself forward as a world leader in environmental protection. I urge the Government to support the new clause; we need to ensure that their deeds match their words.

I was very disappointed that my new clause 9, with which I sought to prevent any Minister of the Crown from financially benefiting from any proposed trade deal, was not selected for debate. I was under no illusion that the Government would support it, but I wanted to highlight the issue. If anybody has not read the excellent book by Professor Danny Dorling on what is driving Brexit, I thoroughly recommend it. If national policy is being driven by the narrow interests of a few, and their interests are their own enrichment, our politics is not just damaged but broken. As I am sure many here would agree, politics is about public service, not what it can do for us personally.