On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have the Bill in front of me. It states that it is presented to the House by “Mr Secretary Rees-Mogg”, but Mr Rees-Mogg is sitting on the Back Benches. Can you explain to the House how on earth we can possibly proceed with what was essentially a vanity project for that particular individual? Would it not be better for him to try his luck with a 10-minute rule Bill, or in the private Members’ Bill ballot?
The hon. Gentleman gets the prize for making the best point of order of the day, and possibly of the month or Session. His observation about what is printed in the Bill is correct, as is his observation that the right hon. Gentleman to whom he refers is sitting in his previous customary place on the Back Benches. At the point the Bill was printed, the Secretary of State was Mr Rees-Mogg, but government is seamless. The name of the right hon. Gentleman, then Secretary of State, being on the Bill is of historical importance, but of no constitutional importance today. Other Ministers are now ready to speak at the Dispatch Box representing the Government, and all Government Ministers are Ministers—[Interruption.] I hear a sedentary interruption from somewhere of “for now”, but that is exactly my point: individuals are transient; government is permanent—[Interruption.] Permanent during the space of one Parliament. As we are in that same Parliament, the personal position of the right hon. Member for North East Somerset is, I am sorry to tell him, irrelevant for the moment. I call the Minister, who last week was a new Minister and is now a seasoned Minister, to move Second Reading.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
News of my promotion to Secretary of State has been exaggerated, but as Minister I will do my best this afternoon. I pay tribute to—I will not say predecessor—the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg. Without his staunch and hard work, and his passion to help families and businesses across the country to survive the difficult winter that is coming, and ensure that the energy support would be there, a lot of families would be very worried this winter. I pay tribute to him for his work. It is honourable of him to be here during this speech.
How will the Minister answer the intemperate correspondence to which many of us have been subjected, announcing that the Bill will provide for the rape of the countryside and the destruction of wildlife? Will he be able to persuade people that this is a proportionate measure that will allow us to choose the regulations by which we wish to live, and judge them on their merits?
I think that is the longest intervention I have ever heard my right hon. Friend make. He is absolutely right. The premise of the Bill is to ensure that we do what we have always done, which is to be the best place in the world to live, and that includes our environment. It is an absolute priority of this Government that the United Kingdom will be the best place to start and grow a business, to live, and to ensure that our environment around us is supported at all times. Within the Bill are powers that will allow us to make good on that promise.
I will give way in a little while; I want to make some progress. The Bill will enable outdated and often undemocratic retained EU law to be amended, repealed and replaced more quickly and easily than before. That will remove burdens on business, and create a more agile and sustainable legislative framework to boost economic growth.
Will the Minister be honest with the House? He says that the Bill will allow us to have the highest standards, but clause 15 formally confirms that we can only go down, and we can only have a race to the bottom, because it talks explicitly about not increasing burdens. Will the Minister tell the House who voted to lower our environmental protections in the referendum?
I can be very honest in saying that the Bill will ensure that we have the highest standards, and within the process of this framework we will ensure that the burdens of delivering the best possible regulatory scheme are removed, while ensuring that we have the highest standards across all we do.
I will come back to the hon. and learned Lady shortly.
As has been alluded to, some naysayers have asked, “Why is the Bill needed?” As a consequence of the oddities created by our previous EU membership, there are currently insufficient powers to make subordinate legislation to enable the amendment or removal of retained EU law from the statute book. The practical result is that standards do not get updated when they should be. Regulation, rather than adapting to support the needs of businesses in stable and emerging markets, ends up holding British businesses back. That is simply wrong, particularly when businesses and consumers face high energy bills and food prices as well as the many other challenges that we know are down to world events, and in particular the awful actions of President Putin. With our new-found freedom, it is important that we take the necessary powers to bridge the gap and reform legislation in a timely manner.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Bill is about cutting red tape where it is not needed and ensuring that businesses can spend more time transforming their business than filling out forms. We have a great opportunity to deliver for them and for people across the nation.
I will make some progress and give way in a while.
As I said, rather than adapting to support the needs of business, regulation has potentially been holding British businesses back, and we have an opportunity to deal with that. To ensure that the devolved Administrations can also seize fully the benefits of Brexit, we are providing them with the tools to reform retained EU law by extending the majority of powers in the Bill for use by devolved Administrations. It is a great opportunity—
I am sure that many hon. Members are standing up to say how pleased they are with that announcement.
As someone who fought to free ourselves from the shackles of Brussels, I welcome the legislation. Does the Minister recognise that the passing of the Bill will make it even more imperative that the Northern Ireland protocol be removed, because those freedoms would not be available to the Northern Ireland Administration, which will still be bound by EU laws?
The right hon. Member makes an important point. This is about the United Kingdom and making sure that every single person across this great nation, wherever they live, can do and be their best in all that they do.
I strongly support the Bill and congratulate the Minister on his presentation. I hope that the Government will urgently reform the energy directives and regulations that have made us cruelly import-dependent such that we now have to buy excessively expensive energy on the world market when we should drive for self-sufficiency.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. It is ultimately about ensuring that we are doing the right thing by people across the country. The truth is that the Bill is a framework, and this is not the time to debate the minutiae and the details as there will be plenty of opportunities for that in Committee, the future stages and statutory instruments. We should welcome the Bill’s framework, which is about taking back control for the country.
The Minister said that the Bill is about doing the right thing by people. Earlier, I understood him to say that there will be no diminution in rights as a result of it. However, has he not looked at clause 15(5), which makes it clear that, far from creating higher standards, replacement legislation can only keep standards the same or lower them? That is the case, is it not?
I very much enjoyed serving with the hon. and learned Lady on the Joint Committee on Human Rights and understand that she is incredibly focused on detail. There will be much time for her to explore that further if she makes a speech; I hope that she will. The point of the framework is to transfer EU law into UK law and make sure that it does what it should. If she is happy with EU law where that is retained, it will be written in UK law.
I will come back to the hon. and learned Lady in a little while.
Has my hon. Friend noticed, as I have, that Opposition Members seem to think that the only place that can possibly regulate, possibly have high standards and possibly deliver laws for this land is the EU? Does he agree that, actually, we have created much better regulation and far stronger standards that are much more flexible and suited to these islands than the EU and that we should carry on doing that?
I thank my right hon. Friend—she is a very good friend—for her comments. The Bill is ultimately about making sure that we continue to do what we have done for decades, if not centuries: exporting high-quality products, exporting doing the right thing and exporting making sure that the world is a better place.
I will continue; I have taken quite a few interventions.
We have carefully considered how the Bill will affect each of the four great nations. We recognise the paramount importance of our continuing to work together as one on important issues, including environmental protections. The Bill will not weaken environmental protections.
My hon. Friend is doing a great job. It is right that, six and a half years after the referendum, we should get on with the process of taking control of our laws.
I served for two years in the Department for Exiting the European Union and gave many assurances in those years that, as we left the EU, our environmental standards and animal welfare regulations would be improved and strengthened, not weakened. Will he assure me that Ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will meet the Conservative Environment Network and our Wildlife Trusts to ensure that nothing is done in the process of the Bill to undermine our leadership in the nature protection space?
I thank my hon. Friend and applaud the briefing that the CEN gave Members earlier today. Ultimately, this is about making sure that we are the best place in the world to live. On meetings, I assure him that we will engage widely—including with Opposition Members—and deliver on those promises. We will use the powers in the Bill to ensure that our environmental law is functioning and able to drive improved environmental outcomes, with the UK continuing to be a world leader in environmental protection.
The Minister said earlier that the Bill was proportionate, but that is exactly what it is not, particularly given the sunset clause that means that DEFRA will have to go through revising and amending more than one piece of law a day between now and the end of next year. It is not proportionate; it is indiscriminate. It is also ideologically driven. Does he agree that DEFRA staff have better things to be doing, given that they are already late on the river basins management programme and the 25-year environment plan, and that the idea that the Department has the staff and resources to do that is irresponsible?
I totally disagree, but I thank the hon. Lady for the intervention. Let me remind her that the Conservatives were the green party before the Green party. We are the party of the environment and will continue to be so. We were the party that made sure that businesses will not be able to put sewage in our waters, despite many Opposition Members making out that we voted for sewage. We did not—we made absolutely made sure that we are protecting our waterways. We are protecting our green fields and our land from top to bottom.
I will continue, because I have a lot to get through. I am sure that hon. Members have worked incredibly hard on their speeches, and I would like to listen to them.
As I said, we will use the Bill’s powers to ensure that our environmental law is functioning and able to drive improved environmental outcomes. The former Secretary of State did an excellent job recently meeting representatives of environmental groups alongside the environment Minister and assured them of the work that we will do. I am sure that that will continue.
As well as maximising the benefits of Brexit across the UK economy, the Bill will enable the Government to take the necessary steps to put our statute book on a sustainable footing by removing or replacing more than 2,500 laws derived from the UK’s membership of the EU, many of which are outdated and unduly burdensome. Earlier this year, the former Secretary of State—it irks me to have to say that—invited the House and members of the public to review the mass of legislation for themselves through the retained EU law dashboard, which was published in June and is available on gov.uk. That treasure trove of reform opportunities has acquired more than 100,000 views so far. I thank the public, businesses and civil society organisations for their invaluable views and input.
Together, we have identified where retained EU law must be excised from our statute book. Now, using this Bill, we will go further and faster to capitalise on the opportunities of Brexit. We will achieve that by addressing the substance of retained EU law through a sunset which means retained EU law will fall away on
What is the justification for allowing Ministers to scrap legislation that currently applies simply by doing nothing because of the sunset clause? I have never seen anything like it before. What is the justification for allowing law to fall away if Ministers decide, “Well, I’m not going to address it at all”?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. He was a staunch advocate of not leaving the EU, and I appreciate that that is his view. To answer the question, the goal here is that we are looking at all those laws. It is actually public on the dashboard; there is an opportunity for everybody to engage. On the framework of the Bill, there will be a Committee stage, and the ability to have parliamentary scrutiny is huge. I would make one other point, however. At what point were we able to scrutinise these laws when part of the EU? We were not. All those laws were put in without scrutiny and without the ability for us to do the work we needed to do. We are now taking back control to this country to deliver on the promises we made to the people and on the referendum they voted in.
I will not take many more interventions. I will continue for a short while.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He is making the case for the constitutional importance of the Bill. As I asked him in Westminster Hall last week, will he not accept that the timetable proposed by the Government in the programme motion is wholly inadequate for the scrutiny of a Bill of such constitutional importance? If he will not commit the Bill to a Committee of the whole House, can he at least guarantee that we will have longer than a day on Report, so that it can receive the scrutiny it really deserves?
I thank the hon. Member for his comments and for taking part in the debate last week. To be honest, we would have had more time today to debate if we had not played silly games earlier with votes and points of order, although I accept that they were important.
I will continue, if I may.
Prior to the date in the Bill, the Government will determine which instruments should be preserved, which should be reformed and which should be revoked. I repeat that because it is important. I commend colleagues across Departments for helping to ensure that we are driving growth. We are already in the process of removing outdated retained EU law in many areas. The Procurement Bill, for example, which is currently in the other place, replaces the EU procurement regime with a streamlined British approach, and of course DEFRA has made great headway over the past two years, taking us out of the common fisheries policy and common agricultural policy and pushing the boundaries of innovation thanks to Brexit, with two new pieces of legislation on gene editing.
The Bill will help us to sweep away outdated and obsolete EU legislation, paving the way for future frame- works better suited to the needs of the UK, including on energy, emissions trading, services and consumer law. Many in this House have claimed that changes to individual pieces of legislation will not make a difference. I could not disagree more. We must address the EU legislation holistically. By making marginal improvements across a whole host of regulation, we can foment a revolution in the margins and radically improve the UK’s competitiveness and productivity.
I have given way quite a lot today, and I want to at least get to the end of my speech while I am still in post!
For example, there are 33 individual pieces of retained EU law relating to eco-design requirements. I posit that it would be easier for business to comply if there was just one piece of legislation covering all relevant goods, providing a strong market incentive for businesses to increase energy efficiency. There are countless examples across Whitehall of where the Bill enables positive changes, from improving the clinical trial process to establishing sensible and proportionate artificial intelligence regulation, while still being very mindful of the rules around the impact on the culture sector and on many others.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way and I congratulate him on doing such a sterling job under such difficult circumstances.
I recognise that it will be necessary to make changes to retained EU law that was never intended to be permanent, and there are good reasons for doing that, but there is a concern that doing it in the way proposed will add to legal uncertainty. The former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg, kindly wrote to me as Chair of the Justice Committee to say that officials from the Department had engaged with the judiciary on how the Bill will work in relation to the interpretation of retained EU law and changes to it. Can the Minister help me, having had the benefit of discussions with the judiciary, with how the proposed changes will improve legal certainty, which of course is itself important for business certainty?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. One of the key things for certainty is having a clear date and a point when it will all happen. Uncertainty often comes by not knowing. We were going to have to make sure that the sunset clauses came in at some point. If I am still in post, I will gladly continue to meet him. If I am not, I will make sure that the person who comes in after me—a bit like “Doctor Who” and David Tennant emerging from the TARDIS this week—continues that work. I look forward to that.
After consideration of the retained EU law dashboard, the former Secretary of State took the decision to exclude Acts of Parliament and Acts of the devolved legislatures from the sunset. The content of those Acts largely concerns the operation of domestic policy. As they have all been properly scrutinised and reflect the will of the public as enacted through democratically elected representatives, we will make sure of that. Given the practice of qualified majority voting in the EU, the same cannot be said for most other parts of retained EU law. That is why it is right we have the review and make plans to amend that law now. I remind Members that our constituents voted for us to be here to make decisions on laws that affect them. The idea that we should not be doing that and the idea that we are trying to say, “Let us keep it as it is” feels very wrong to me.
I accept, however, that some retained EU law in the scope of the sunset is required to continue to operate our international obligations, including the trade and co-operation agreement, the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol. Therefore, I am very happy to make a commitment today that the Government will, as a priority, take the necessary action to safeguard the substance of any retained EU law and legal effects required to operate international obligations within domestic law. We will set out where retained EU law is required to maintain international obligations through the dashboard, so that the public can scrutinise it. However, the sunset and the powers in the Bill are not enough to fully reclaim our parliamentary sovereignty. That is why I am also delighted to confirm once again that the Bill abolishes the principle of the supremacy of EU law. It is just absolutely absurd that in certain situations foreign law takes precedence over UK statute passed before we left the EU.
I am afraid I will make progress, because I can see the Opposition Front Bencher itching to get up and speak and comment on my speech.
By ending this constitutionally outrageous and absurd provision on
The Bill will unlock growth across the United Kingdom. As we seize the benefits of Brexit and restore a sovereign approach to law and regulation, we can again legislate in support of the UK’s interests, rather than those of Brussels. This is of particular importance now, as our country pushes forward to recharge our economy in order to make the UK the best place in the world to run a business—[Interruption]—whether you want to live here, whether you want to walk in a beautiful green field in a park in our wonderful, beautiful lands of the UK—[Interruption]—or whether you want to start a business or grow a business—[Interruption.]
Order. I have let this run, but I have had enough now. Ellie Reeves must stop shouting at the Minister. It is not appropriate behaviour and it gets us nowhere. She will have an opportunity to make a speech. If the Minister wishes to take her intervention, he will take it as he has taken other interventions, but she must stop shouting at him.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have no issue with Opposition Members shouting, but I think that they perhaps sometimes do it a little too much. We want to make this country the best in the world; I have taken many interventions and hopefully that has been recognised. I commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:
“this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill because, notwithstanding the need to address the future status and suitability of retained EU law following departure from the European Union, the Bill creates substantial uncertainty for businesses and workers risking business investment into the UK, is a significant threat to core British rights and protections for working people, consumers and the environment as signalled by the wide body of organisations opposed to the Bill, could jeopardise the UK’s need to maintain a level playing field with the Single Market under the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and contains powers which continue a dangerous trend of growing executive power, undermining democratic scrutiny and accountability.”
I thank the Minister for stepping in to do a speech at the last minute; that is not an easy task.
Before I turn to the detail of the Bill and the reasoned amendment that has been tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends, it is important to revisit the grotesque chaos that we have had over the past few weeks, because it goes to the heart of why the Bill should not become law. The Bill asks the British public to place blind faith in the Government—to trust them with our rights at work, our environmental protections and our legal rights—but why would we trust a Government who have crashed our economy, driven up the cost of borrowing, dashed the hopes of homeowners across the country and hiked up mortgages for the rest? This is the Government who pledged to ban fracking and then voted for it, and who sacked their Chancellor, their Home Secretary and finally, their Prime Minister, only to try—but fail—to bring back the Prime Minister that they sacked before while he is still under investigation by the House. We find ourselves debating a Bill that would transfer vast powers to the Business Secretary, covering every part of national life, yet we do not even know who that Business Secretary will be. It is clear for all to see that where the Conservatives go—like a bull in a china shop—chaos follows. It is just not good enough.
I listened carefully to the Minister’s speech. He cannot assuage the concerns of any of us, on both sides of the House, about the Bill. I do not think he denied that the sunset clause will be a huge source of uncertainty for businesses and workers. Contrary to his claims, rather than taking advantage of the freedoms that Brexit could conceivably grant the UK, that reckless approach threatens many of the core rights and protections that the British people currently enjoy. Far from taking back control, the Bill risks diminishing democratic scrutiny and accountability in key areas of British law.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, unlike the Minister. Does my hon. Friend share my concerns about the lack of a reference to employment rights in the Minister’s speech? Limits on working time, the right to paid holiday, rights for temporary and agency workers and parental leave all derive from EU law. Those fundamental workers’ rights could all disappear under the Bill. Given that the previous Business Secretary, Mr Rees-Mogg, stated that holiday pay is not an “absolute…right”, does my hon. Friend agree that we need confirmation that our hard-fought-for employment rights will be protected?
My hon. Friend is an expert in such matters and she is absolutely right to highlight those concerns. That is what the Bill is about. It is not about Brexit—Brexit has happened; it is a fact. For most people, there is no appetite to revisit those arguments. Although many people have strong views on how it has been done and how the Government have not delivered on the promises that they made—I understand that—the task for us in the House is to get on and make it work. It is therefore important to recognise that the Bill is not about whether people think Brexit was a positive or negative thing. It is about whether we wish to give the Government the power to sweep away key areas of law that are of great importance to all our constituents with no scrutiny, no say and no certainty over their replacements. Put simply, do we wish to bring more Conservative confusion and chaos into the British economy?
We now know that Labour is a party of Brexit, no different from the other major party of Brexit, but how on earth do we make something that is unworkable work in the way that the hon. Member describes? Brexit is not a political strategy; it is an ideological venture and mission. He may have given up on getting back into the European Union, but we on the Scottish National party Benches certainly have not.
I understand the hon. Member’s position. I simply say that, if we were to lock ourselves into a permanent debate on this matter, it would produce many of the negative consequences that have already come from this process. I appreciate that, from an SNP perspective, it does not see uncertainty as a problem, because its plans would, in many ways, produce even more uncertainty. However, I do not think what he suggests is a serious way forward. I am happy to have that argument because I do not think that it is a practical set of proposals.
The past four weeks in British politics have been nothing short of a disgrace, but the UK’s problems predate the past four weeks. As we heard earlier in Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions, at the heart of the poor economic performance over the past 12 years is the fact that our business investment has been too low. Even before the mini-Budget set fire to the British economy, the UK had the lowest rate of business investment in the G7, despite having the lowest headline rate of corporation tax.
Business is crying out for stability, for long-term political commitment and for consistent policy. That is why we on the Opposition Benches have published our industrial strategy and why the chairman of Tesco recently said that only Labour is on the pitch when it comes to growth.
The Conservatives’ imaginary view of business leaders who want deregulated, unpredictable, pure market forces simply does not sit with the established facts. Business likes certainty, but the Bill throws thousands of pieces of legislation into the grinder with no idea which and how many of them will survive. Why would a business have any confidence in our country when it has no idea what the rules will be that govern every part of its operation in 12 months’ time? Once again, this is a matter of trust. After the chaos of the past few weeks, Government Members are foolish to think that any business leader would now trust them with this seismic task.
I certainly can. I have always said, for instance, that Solvency II could be improved by having to do the regulation on a basis in this country. If we look at the Government’s approach to that area through the financial services and markets legislation, we see that they are taking exactly what might be termed a more sensible approach, going on a sector-by-sector basis, putting forward positive proposals, rather than following the sunset clause procedure, which is so reckless and uncertain. I say genuinely to the right hon. Gentleman: please have the humility to look at the damage done in the past four weeks, and the role of Government Members in that, and perhaps think, “What if we are wrong, and what are the consequences if we are?”
Might one of the reasons why businesses are so confused about the impact that the legislation will have be because the Minister is? He tried to claim to the House that all the laws affected are published on the dashboard and will have full transparency. However, 24 hours ago in answer to my written question, the Minister admitted that the dashboard provided an “authoritative, not comprehensive” list. Does my hon. Friend agree that, when businesses and consumers are already struggling with the cost of living crisis, the last thing that we need is to not even know what a piece of legislation is deleting?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The retained EU law dashboard, although useful, is not and never has been a comprehensive list of all the retained law that this Bill affects—[Interruption.] Government Members say that they never said it was. It does not clearly distinguish where retained EU law has been devolved, much to the frustration of the Welsh and Scottish Governments. However, it still lists more than 2,400 sources of law. If the Government want to put a blanket sunset clause on all of this, should they not be able to list exactly what is covered?
The practical case that the Government have put forward for the sunset clause is that they cannot find the time to use primary legislation to amend these laws. Why not? The Government have a majority of 70, at least for the time being. Where the law needs to be changed, what is preventing the Government from doing so? The fear is that what they really want to do is to reduce key regulations entirely, which brings me to my next point—that the Bill poses a threat to core British rights and protections.
There is no question but that the scale of the Bill is large. The policy areas affected cover not only employment law, but environmental protection, consumer protection, agriculture, fisheries, transport, data protection and much, much more. That is why a huge variety of organisations, from the TUC to the RSPB, have signalled their alarm. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will raise their own worries about those issues during the debate.
The situation in relation to employment law is particularly alarming. Most of the UK’s core labour law protections are contained in regulations originally made under section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972, rather than in primary legislation. They are not cumbersome red tape; they are things that British workers expect, including the Working Time Regulations 1998, the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999, the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 and the Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000. On all of them, the Government are saying, “Trust us.” Why should we?
This is a Government who have not kept their promise of an employment Bill to ensure workers’ rights post Brexit and who do not keep their manifesto promises at all. This is a Government in which we do not know who will be in each job from one week to the next—and I wrote that bit before Mr Rees-Mogg resigned as Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy a few hours ago. I am afraid that we cannot in good conscience hand the Government powers to arbitrarily decide matters that are of fundamental importance to the lives of working people in this country, not least because we have no idea whether any Ministers will still be in position in 24 hours, let alone 12 months.
Under the terms of the Government’s trade and co-operation agreement, the UK must maintain a level playing field with the single market. Such provisions are important to the UK: they protect against a global race to the bottom in standards and protections. We can only guess how the Government will use these powers, but the powers in the Bill are clearly deregulatory in tone.
This goes to the heart of the Conservative party’s simplistic and inaccurate understanding of regulation. When I ask a business what attracts it to invest in the UK, good regulators are always on the list. Businesses simply do not want the fantasy deregulatory agenda that lives only in the mind of so many Tory MPs. After the events of the past month, in which the financial markets themselves rejected the Conservative party’s allegedly pro-market agenda, I would have hoped for a little more wisdom and insight from the Government, but unfortunately I doubt that that will be forthcoming.
Finally, there is the issue of how Parliament will go about changing the law in future. The Government have already been severely criticised for how little power they have returned to Parliament since we left the European Union, and the Bill continues that approach. The use of negative statutory instruments, so that MPs have to actively object to prevent something from becoming law, is very poor practice indeed. When it comes to future proposals, the use of a sunset clause to cover such a large and complex body of law effectively puts a gun to Parliament’s head. Anyone who wishes to scrutinise or object to any future legislation replacing retained law will be taking a gamble, because unless that legislation is passed in time, the current law in its entirety will simply fall away. That is not conducive to good laws being made.
The obvious question is “Why not proceed on a policy-by-policy basis or, if appropriate, a sector-by-sector basis?” As we have already discovered, the Financial Services and Markets Bill does exactly that. Why not bring forward positive replacement proposals where the law needs to change or where something can be done better?
The fact is that this Government are out of ideas. They are more intent on their own survival than on putting in place the positive changes that we need. At a time when the British people are crying out for stable, competent government by a Government who recognise that economic growth comes from working people and businesses and from stability and certainty, not from the fantasy economics of the Conservative party, the Bill is not just wide of the mark, but wantonly destructive.
The hon. Member is giving a powerful speech. On environmental regulation, does he agree that this could be a very good test of the credibility of the Office for Environmental Protection? If the Government really are assured that there is no environmental risk, they should have no worries at all about referring the Bill to it. The OEP is already deeply worried about the workload in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and about the number of pieces of legislation that should be coming forward but are not.
The hon. Member makes a very good point. Unfortunately, we know that the Government do not like independent assessment of their choices. They believe that they can simultaneously deliver the promises made on net zero and bring back fracking. Some independent verification would be very welcome indeed.
It was actually this Government, through the Environment Act 2021, who set up the Office for Environmental Protection, knowing that it is so important to be seen to be doing the right thing on the environment. I think the hon. Member needs to be careful in what he says, because actually that is the purpose of the body. I know that it will be looking closely at the matter, but that is its role and that is what it was set up for.
I think the hon. Member has agreed with Caroline Lucas, so we have cross-party agreement. The Government will struggle to resist such a powerful alliance.
The Bill is the same sorry tale of uncertainty, dogma and poorly thought-out initiatives designed to appeal to Conservative Members and no one else. At a time when we need solutions for the future, the Government are retreating to the failed ideas of the past. The Bill promises yet more Conservative chaos, driving a bulldozer through our hard-fought rights.
Britain is fed up with this nonsense, frankly. It is time for a fresh start. It is time for serious government. The sooner we get a general election to achieve that, the better it will be for everybody.
May I say what a pleasure it is that normal service can be resumed, and that I am now able to speak slightly more freely than I may have done when I sat in a different place? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his particularly brilliant speech. I think it was particularly brilliant because I was involved in writing it; I may therefore be a rather prejudiced audience, but I thought it was delivered with panache and verve. He took so many interventions and put the case brilliantly.
I know that it is not orderly to mention people in the Galleries, but I do not know whether the officials’ Box counts for that purpose. Nevertheless, I would like to thank the officials who have been involved with the Bill. They have done a terrific amount of work to get it ready in a short time. I confess to the House that when I was Leader of the House, I thought that getting the Bill ready for Second Reading by this date would not be possible, but the work that has been done is absolutely terrific. Let me reassure those who may think that I have sometimes criticised the civil service that in this instance it is worthy of paeans of praise.
The Bill is of fundamental constitutional importance because it removes the supremacy of EU law. We have heard arguments about certainty. Certainty, certainty—everyone always wants certainty. In an uncertain world, I am not sure that certainty is ever possible, but in a legal context the Bill provides more certainty than the alternative, which would be to retain two different legal systems in these islands of ours that would apply in different circumstances. I know that we have Scottish law, English and Welsh law and Northern Ireland law, but we would have a separate law applying differently in each of those three jurisdictions. We are now removing that, so the law made and voted for by people in this country will be the supreme law. That is surely right.
The issue of supremacy is of constitutional importance. Anybody who opposes the removal of the supremacy of EU law is fighting the Brexit battle over again, saying, “We didn’t really leave after all. We’d like to pretend we’re still there. Isn’t it nice to allow this alien law to continue to tell us what we ought to do?” No, it would not be nice to do that. Let us clarify the law. Let us get as close to certainty as humanly possible, so that we have a sensible, intelligent and well-formulated statute book.
For some of us, the point is not the constitutional argument about which laws should be sovereign, which we may well happily accept, but the practical issue of how we convert literally hundreds of laws, for DEFRA and so on, within the timescale imagined. Does my right hon. Friend understand the severe doubts that many people have about the practicality of what is on offer?
I am afraid that my hon. Friend has never liked the decision to leave the European Union, and everything he says must be taken in that context. Otherwise, he would not have intervened—
I am not giving way again. Otherwise, my hon. Friend would not have intervened at this stage, because I was setting out the issue of supremacy before coming to the crucial point about why the Bill is now necessary and how it works in practice.
Order. This is a point of order. It would have been simpler had the hon. Gentleman been facing the Chair in the first place, because while he was addressing Mr Rees-Mogg I could not see him, and it was therefore difficult for me to hear what he was saying. When I ask Members to face the Chair, it is not out of some kind of vanity; it is because if everyone faces in this direction, everyone can be heard.
I appreciate the sensitivities. The hon. Gentleman knows that the content of the right hon. Gentleman’s speech is not a matter for the Chair, and not one on which I will comment, but he has made his point.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for all the work that he has done. I was actually hoping to clarify the point that our hon. Friend Richard Graham was making. Having myself held the role of Leader of the House during that attempt to leave the EU between 2017 and 2019, I recall that the House was able to get through some 800 or 900 pieces of secondary legislation. In my opinion, it is very much within the realms of possibility that this amount of legislation can and will be dealt with by the House very successfully.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has made an excellent point. The ability of the House to get through its business is exceptionally good, and it is able to do so in an orderly way, as my right hon. Friend showed in dealing with the no-deal Brexit legislation.
Given his commitment to scrutiny by the House, the right hon. Gentleman, who said that he was involved in drafting of the Bill, must have had sight of the draft programme motion as well. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which created retained EU law, was given eight days of scrutiny on the Floor of the House in Committee, and two days on Report. Does he really think that the time the Government are providing for scrutiny of this Bill is sufficient?
There is always a discussion to be had about whether a few days in a Committee of the whole House or upstairs in Committee provides better scrutiny. People sometimes reach different conclusions on that, but there will be a proper opportunity for a Committee stage upstairs, and I think that is perfectly reasonable.
I want to go back to the fundamental point about the supremacy issue. Let me reiterate that anyone who opposes the Bill is in fact re-fighting the Brexit battle.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all the great work that has been done on the draft legislation. Does he not find it an odd paradox, or contradiction, that many Opposition Members come to this place apparently to form laws but do not believe we can ever make a law that is good, and we need to rely on EU law in so many areas where I think we can actually do better?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is wise, as always. But it is even odder than that, because there is this very strange view that laws that came in without any scrutiny at all—regulations of the EU that became our law automatically—cannot be removed without primary legislation. That is just bizarre.
The laws with which we are dealing came in under section 2(2) of the European Communities Act. Either they came in with minimum scrutiny but could not be amended or changed, or they came in with no scrutiny at all. I know that my hon. Friend Sir William Cash disagrees with me on this, but we are not using this procedure to repeal Acts of Parliament. Even though these measures have the effect of introducing EU law, an Act of Parliament has had full scrutiny in the House, and to be repealed it deserves full scrutiny to be taken away. That is the correct constitutional procedure.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that some of us may be a little bit sceptical about the definition of democratic engagement that he has just set out? He is arguing that, for example, taking away laws that require cosmetics not to contain cancer-causing chemicals or laws on illegal trading—as well as maternity rights and TUPE—is a matter that does not require the scrutiny of the House, but only that of statutory instrument Committees. If he had been so wedded to restoring democracy, might he not have at least written the affirmative resolution procedure into these statutory instruments? Why he is taking back control, not for this House and the great democratic institutions—and he is now joining us on the Back Benches—but to No. 10?
I do not accept that construction of what is actually happening. The House will have the ability to focus on issues on which it thinks the Government are going in the wrong direction. Let me pick at random one of the retained EU laws that may be reformed or become redundant:
“a common methodology for the calculation of annual sales of portable batteries and accumulators to end-users”.
Does the hon. Lady really think that deserves primary legislation—a count of batteries? That is what is in the 2,400 statutory instruments on the dashboard, and, as has been pointed out, that is not necessarily the full list.
There are all sorts of minor and unimportant things that need to be dealt with. As for those that are of major significance, it was said clearly at the Dispatch Box that environmental protections would be maintained. That is fundamentally important. It is a commitment from His Majesty’s Government to this House. The Bill will allow those protections to become UK law—which I use as shorthand to cover the three different types of law in the United Kingdom—to ensure that they can be enforced logically and sensibly by our courts in accordance with our legal maxims. That must be a right and certain means of proceeding.
It is interesting that people, having been told this, are still opposing the Bill. I come back to the conclusion that those who are opposing it actually do not like Brexit altogether.
I am grateful for the chance to put a question to the right hon. Gentleman. I was going to welcome him to his position, but I did not want to seem ironic. He says that we can take a guarantee from the Dispatch Box. Even the Conservative party’s manifesto commitments no longer hold: we have seen that. How can we take the word of Ministers when even manifesto commitments no longer bind this Government?
The hon. Gentleman knows that Dispatch Box commitments have a very high standing in our political system. As Leader of the House, I was concerned that we were not using legislative reform orders as comprehensively as the legislation seemed to imply. In fact, the reason for that was a Dispatch Box commitment given by Paul Goggins, in the last Labour Government, during the passage of the Bill that limited the application of LROs to non-controversial issues. Dispatch Box commitments are actually a fundamental part of the way in which our discussion works, as the hon. Gentleman knows only too well.
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. This is an issue of the supremacy of this Parliament, and this law will enforce, and reinforce, the point that when we left the EU we made Parliament sovereign. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept, however, that the Bill will also highlight the fact that Parliament is not sovereign across the United Kingdom? Some of this cannot apply to Northern Ireland, where EU law past and future will still apply. If anything, the Bill could drive a greater wedge between Northern Ireland, constitutionally, and the rest of the United Kingdom.
I am certainly concerned about that. In the last couple of days I had to sign off a couple of explanatory memorandums covering law that was going to come into Northern Ireland from the European Union. That is an unsatisfactory constitutional situation, which is why I am so supportive of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill that is in the other place today. That is something we must push forward with, to ensure that we have a unified legal system across the whole of the United Kingdom.
The Bill creates several new powers that will not require UK Government Ministers to seek consent from the devolved Administrations, essentially retaining power over areas within devolved competence. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise the impact of this Bill on the devolution settlement?
The Scottish Parliament has been reluctant to give legislative consent motions to any Brexit-related legislation because of the politics of the SNP. That is a view that it has taken because it wanted to remain in the European Union—as the SNP, to its credit, argues for firmly and clearly on these Benches. The SNP is rather clearer about this state of affairs than the socialist friends we have in here who like to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. That inevitably means that, in my discussions with the devolved Administrations, there has not necessarily been a meeting of minds with the Scottish Parliament. But that is to be expected. This Bill in fact returns powers to the devolved Parliaments, because it gives them the authority to reform and repeal EU law too. They will be the decision makers over those areas that are devolved, so we are increasing devolution.
The right hon. Gentleman will of course accept that the Welsh Government have similar concerns to those of the Scottish Government. The Welsh Government are run by the Labour party, which is a Unionist party. Indeed, the Counsel General of the Welsh Government, Mick Antoniw, has said:
“As currently drafted, this legislation could see UK Government Ministers given unfettered authority to legislate in devolved areas.”
These concerns are being expressed not just on the nationalist Benches but among Unionist colleagues.
I know from my previous experience that His Majesty’s Government will observe the Sewel convention in relation to this. There may be occasions on which, for simplicity, the devolved authorities want the Westminster Parliament to move ahead with something on which everybody agrees, but what is devolved is devolved and the devolved Administrations will have the right to pursue it.
This Bill is not only one of constitutional importance that will get our statute book tidied up but one of massive opportunity. It presents an opportunity, not necessarily to do any one big individual thing—like the Financial Services and Markets Bill, which can change Solvency II involving billions of pounds for the economy—but to go through every single individual issue in detail, one by one, so that we can see, bit by bit, those rules that have made our businesses less competitive, those regulations that have put our businesses under more pressure and those intrusions that have made people’s lives less easy. We will be able to sweep those away, and we will be doing so in a proper constitutional process.
My right hon. Friend previously served on the European Scrutiny Committee, as I still do. Does he recall the inches-thick paperwork that used to land in front of us on a regular basis? Despite the pleadings of the Chairman, my hon. Friend Sir William Cash, that legislation never had any debate, and even if it had, there was little to nothing we could do about it. This is the true victory and the Brexit dividend that we can now face.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The ports directive was debated and debated, and opposed on both sides of the House, but it went through anyway. There was absolutely nothing we could do. This is why I challenge Opposition Members who say that this is not proper scrutiny. Why did they not object to the section 2(2) power? Why were they not joining my hon. Friend the Member for Stone on the European Scrutiny Committee to ask, week in and week out, why these laws were going through without anybody being able to gainsay them and why parliamentary sovereignty was not being upheld? We are restoring parliamentary sovereignty by ensuring that there is a parliamentary process, that Parliament will have its say and that we will have our own law for our own country.
The right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to know that I agree with the core of his speech about returning supremacy to British law and getting rid of EU supremacy. The way in which statutory instruments and the negative procedure have been used in this House has not always been satisfactory. For instance, covid regulations, past the time they had been implemented, were brought into operation and were inappropriate in many cases. I could give many other examples. As somebody who campaigned to leave the EU and is glad to get back control of our laws, I am disappointed that the process will not see full transparency of debate, because our regulations and laws are better when they are transparent and when different people can bounce their ideas off each other. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The scrutiny of statutory instruments in this House is not all that it should be. I actually think that the other place does it better. I think there are too many statutory instrument Committees that look at things for two minutes before they all go home, but that is an issue we must face as a House to decide how we want to improve it.
My final point is that those who oppose the Bill seem to think that British politics and the British electorate count for nothing. They stand up and say that we will have no employment law protections—practically arguing that we will be sending children up chimneys. Do they think the British voter was born yesterday? Do they really think the British electorate and the British people will accept or vote for a party that takes away the protections they already have and enjoy? Are they unaware of the fact that our maternity leave protections antedate the European Union’s regulations, and have always gone further than those regulations?
What sort of a country do opponents of the Bill think we are? Why do they have no confidence in our democracy? Do they think that right hon. and hon. Members on this side, when standing on a parliamentary platform and going before our constituents, will say that we are going to have a burning of everything they like? Of course we are not. We will stand up for people’s rights, we will stand up for people’s dignity and we will stand up for the rule of law. Most of all, we will stand up for that fundamental right, that overarching right, that right on which all our constitutional freedoms are built and on which all human rights depend—the right of the ballot box.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Rees-Mogg. Little did I imagine when I arrived this morning that that would be the case, because it would mean that one of only two things could have happened: either the SNP had become the official Opposition, or he had been sacked, neither of which would give me great joy.
I rise to speak to the amendment tabled in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, in which we decline to give this ill-conceived, ill-timed, ill-judged and frankly dangerous piece of legislation a Second Reading. I had intended to start by saying that a week is a long time in politics and that events had overtaken the Bill since we first debated the matter in Westminster Hall with the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Dean Russell. However, the chaos that continues to engulf this place suggests that an hour is a long time, and so much can change.
Already, as we have heard, the former Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset, has resigned, just hours before he was due to lead on one of the most important and wide-ranging constitutional Bills to have come before this House in a long time, leaving the Government frantically searching for a replacement. The Government, having allowed him to take this Bill with him when he was reshuffled out of the Cabinet Office, now find themselves in the farcical, ridiculous position of having to find a replacement for the Secretary of State, with a Bill stuck in completely the wrong Department.
As my hon. Friend Patrick Grady said, this was always a pet project of the right hon. Member for North East Somerset, something that previous Prime Ministers were prepared to indulge him on. However, today’s resignation means that yesterday’s man is no longer available to introduce yesterday’s Bill on behalf of yesterday’s Prime Minister—yet the Government plough on regardless of this almighty constitutional mess.
Right now, this poisoned chalice has been passed to the hon. Member for Watford to pick up at short notice. I am sure he will be aware of the credible rumours circulating this place that the new Prime Minister is planning to break up the entire Department, leaving this Bill like an unwanted Christmas puppy, which no one really wanted in the first place, no one really cares for and no one is quite sure what to do with now that the person who pressed for it has flounced out of the front door.
The whole sorry episode speaks to the dysfunctionality and complete disarray at the heart of this Government. As I said in my letter to the now former Secretary of State on Friday, I believe that this House and the nations of the UK would have been much better served had the Government withdrawn this Bill, following the resignation of what I think was the last Prime Minister last week. Certainly, given what has happened today, they should have withdrawn it from the Order Paper.
I welcome the hon. Member for Watford to his place, but he will be aware that in the current circumstances, while he may last longer than the average lettuce, the smart money suggests that he may not have too long a shelf life in this role. He, like you, Madam Deputy Speaker, must be pining for the good old days of the ministerial carousel when we could expect a Minister to go around at least once before falling off. We now have a political bucking bronco, from which Ministers are propelled out of the hotseat almost immediately they get in the saddle. The right hon. Member for North East Somerset can testify to what happens in this particular rodeo if one picks the wrong horse, or indeed the wrong donkey.
This Bill is the first test of the new Prime Minister, who has a decision to make. Will he decide it is business as usual and that he will plough on with this scorched earth, far-right, ERG-inspired mess, confirming once and for all that the Conservative party is happy to be the handmaiden of an ideologically driven, UKIP-style deregulatory race to the bottom? Or will he signal a reset in Government policy, one that includes resetting the relationship between Westminster and our Government in Edinburgh? His two predecessors deliberately let that relationship deteriorate to such an extent that, in her 45 days, the previous Prime Minister did not even bring herself to pick up the phone to our First Minister.
This Bill gives UK Ministers unprecedented power to rewrite and replace almost 2,500 pieces of domestic law covering matters including environment and nature, consumer protection, water rights, product safety and agriculture, and to do so with the bare minimum of parliamentary scrutiny. Taken in conjunction with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, this Bill threatens to undermine and alter the devolution settlement by giving primacy to the law of the United Kingdom in areas that are wholly devolved, such as environmental health, food standards and animal welfare. This means that legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament to keep us in lockstep with EU regulations could be overruled by a Government here in Westminster that we have never elected.
Does the hon. Gentleman understand the inconsistency of his argument? He objects to Ministers in the country to which he belongs being able to make changes to the law through this Parliament, yet he and his party would be quite happy to hand over all these lawmaking powers to Brussels, where he would have no say.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that Scotland, exactly the same as Northern Ireland, voted to remain in the European Union. What the Scottish people decide to do with our sovereignty is entirely our own decision. If we decide to pool and share that sovereignty with our European neighbours and friends, that is what we will do. He is asking me to accede to this Government, a Government we have never elected, riding roughshod over Scottish domestic policy in areas that are wholly devolved.
My hon. Friend is making a terrific point. Is it not a fact that, if we were a member of the European Union, the European Union would not seek to take away our powers without consent? What is happening here, at every stage, is an attempt to take powers away from the Scottish Parliament without consent.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about consent, because the Scottish Parliament has never agreed to this. I am sure I speak for future Scottish Parliaments, while the SNP are in government, when I say that we will never consent to having our rights taken away by a Government we did not elect.
In answer to the point made by Sammy Wilson, the difference in how the European Union treats its members is that, in our current Union, Scotland has 59 out of 650 MPs, so we do not have a proportionate say. The European Union’s members are equal, so a country with the population of Malta has the same say as Germany.
Again, I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I could not agree more with what he says. He is right to say that the way Scotland has been treated by this Government is disgraceful and it cannot continue, and this power grab will be called out for what it is.
Let me ask the Minister this: what would happen if the Scottish Parliament decides that we will remain aligned to the European Union and we ban the sale of chlorinated chicken, but this place decides that cheap, imported, chlorine-washed chicken is acceptable? Exactly what power will the Scottish Parliament have to stop lorryloads of chlorine-washed poultry crossing the border and appearing on our supermarket shelves? Similarly, what happens if the UK agrees a trade deal that sees the UK flooded with cheap, factory-farmed, hormone-injected meat but our Scottish Parliament decides to protect Scottish consumers and Scottish farmers by adhering to existing standards and protections? Can he guarantee that the Scottish Government will be able to prevent that inferior quality, hormone-injected meat from reaching Scotland’s supermarkets? What happens if the Scottish Parliament decides that it will stick by long-established best practice in the welfare and treatment of animals but Westminster chooses to deregulate? Can he give a cast-iron guarantee that the Scottish Parliament will be able to prevent animals whose provenance is unknown and whose welfare history is unaccounted for from entering the food chain?
Can the Minister guarantee that should this Government decide to “relax” the regulations on the labelling of food packaging but the Scottish Parliament decides to remain aligned to the EU’s rules, that this place, using the provisions in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, will not force labelling changes on Scotland and have Scottish consumers unwittingly subjected to chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-injected beef, genetically modified crops and animals of questionable provenance?
There is a genuine fear that this Bill and the power it confers on this place is a potential death sentence for the Scottish agricultural sector, which in my constituency requires a hefty subsidy to in order to manage the land, keep the lights on in our hills and glens, provide employment and stem the tide of rural depopulation, while producing high-quality, high-value beef, lamb, and dairy products. My Argyll and Bute farmers know that the lowering of food standards, the relaxation of rules on labelling and animal welfare, and the mass importation of inferior-quality products will be an unmitigated disaster for Scottish agriculture.
I know, as the Minister does, that Angus Robertson, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, has already raised these serious concerns directly with the Government. The Minister knows that if the UK Government choose to act in policy areas that are wholly devolved, they will do so without the consent of Scottish Ministers or the Scottish Parliament, and that that will represent a significant undermining of the devolution settlement.
This Bill is the starting whistle on a deregulatory race to the bottom; one in which individual citizens will surely lose out to the spivs and the speculators and, no doubt, to the “politically connected”, who will be fast-tracked into making a quick buck at our expense. Because despite the Government’s assurances, which we heard earlier, that the UK will have the opportunity to be bolder and go further than the EU in securing consumer and environmental protections, there are clauses in this Bill that will prevent Ministers from imposing any new “regulatory burden” on anyone. To me, that suggests strongly that this is headed in one direction only: to deregulation. That deregulation will make it easier to circumvent our existing legal obligations on labelling food for allergens; to row back on safe limits on working hours; to change those hard-won rights on parental leave; or to avoid paying holiday pay.
The Government will be aware of the fury that will follow should they move to weaken the existing controls on polluting substances being released into the air or to lower existing standards for water and in any way dilute the protections and defences of our natural habitats and our wildlife. It seems that for some Conservative Members there is no price too high in their desperate, deluded pursuit of the mirage of Brexit. They are prepared to put at risk our natural environment, food quality, animal welfare standards, consumer protection, workers’ rights and even our natural environment in order to achieve it.
As I said earlier, this is not a road that Scotland has chosen to go down—rather, this is a road that Scotland has been dragged down. Our nation rejected this Tory Brexit fantasy, but our democratic wishes have been ignored at every turn. This is not Scotland’s doing, but because of the constitutional straitjacket in which we find ourselves, we are having this done to us by a Government we did not elect. Thankfully, Scotland has a way out and will, as soon as possible, rejoin the European Union as an independent nation. I sincerely wish the people of the rest of the United Kingdom well in finding their way back, too.
The Government should be under no illusion that SNP Members will oppose the Bill every step of the way. Not only are the Government coming for the rights and protections that we have all enjoyed for decades, but they are coming for our Parliament as well. I urge them, even at this late stage, to perform another of their trademark, almost legendary, U-turns and abandon this disastrous Bill. Not only does it undermine the devolution settlement, but it diminishes the role of MPs, with a plan to deal with everything via secondary legislation, conveniently avoiding scrutiny measures by Parliament. A former Secretary of State said that this was taking back control, but we have to ask who is taking backing control. It is not Parliament, as the Government have gleefully announced to the press that
“the amount of parliamentary time that is required has been dramatically reduced.”
Taking back control for this Government appears to mean finding a group of a hand-picked party loyalists and putting them on a Delegated Legislation Committee, which has a built-in Government majority, so that they can bulldoze through change after change after change, as required. In the history of DL Committees, in the past 65 years, only 17 statutory instruments have been voted down—and that has not happened since 1979. While there is a role for such Committees, it is not to make wholesale and fundamental changes to vast swathes of the law, covering everything from the environment and nature to consumer protection.
As we have heard, parliamentary scrutiny is being avoided because, in their desperation or fervour to rid themselves of any European influence, the zealots at the heart of this collapsing Government have arbitrarily included a sunset clause, meaning that 2,500 laws will be removed and not be replaced. Unless the Government grant themselves an extension, those laws will simply disappear from the statute book.
That is a very good point, and it is something that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government are extremely concerned about, because doing something that is utterly unnecessary will take up a great deal of their time.
The tactic is fraught with danger, as it introduces another totally unnecessary Brexit cliff edge, which will be welcomed by no one outside the inner sanctum of the European Research Group. It is further evidence of panic at the heart of the Brexit project. They know the wheels have come off and their Government are disintegrating before their eyes.
Finally, I repeat: this Bill should be withdrawn. It is a throwback to different times, and if the new Prime Minister is serious about making a fresh start and resetting relationships with Edinburgh, Brussels and the people of these islands, then abandoning this ill-judged piece of UKIP-ery would show that he is serious.
Order. The debate is well subscribed. I do not want to impose a time limit, but my advice is that contributions should be around eight minutes, to make sure that everyone has equal time. I call Sir William Cash.
I add my personal best wishes to my right hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg following his resignation from his post. I commend the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend Dean Russell, for his excellent opening speech that he delivered at such short notice, and for his dexterity in answering questions.
Over the past 45 years, before we left the European Union, we were governed by and subjugated to European laws that were made behind closed doors by majority vote and without any transcript, such as we have here every day in our own Hansard in our own Parliament. Manifestly, that was not democratic and it was rejected in a referendum of all the people in this country and in the general election of 2019. Nobody can now justify returning to that undemocratic system of Government and the EU system of law making. It does not work, as we can see from the political resistance and national democratic changes that are taking place now throughout the European community, such as in France, Italy and Poland and throughout the whole continent. President Macron’s bid to create European sovereignty in his recent elections has paralysed his Government.
The sovereignty of our democracy and of the United Kingdom is guaranteed by section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. This sovereignty is not theoretical or constitutional; it is our democracy and is in line with the referendum result of 2016, which was endorsed by the results of the general election of 2019. We were elected on a manifesto, which I am glad the Prime Minister emphatically endorsed this morning as being, as he put it, at the “heart” of our mandate, including embracing “the opportunities of Brexit”, encouraging competitiveness, investment, productivity and some deregulation and innovation, such as our world- beating roll-out of vaccines, including the AstraZeneca vaccine, which, by the way, the EU tried to stop altogether.
We now have the opportunity to deliver those commitments and to stabilise this country against the background of the £400 billion spent on covid, and the increases in inflation, interest rates and the cost of living brought about by President Putin’s energy deal with Germany, which I predicted would create geopolitical and European instability in an article in 2001, which was commended by The Times. Covid and Ukraine were external factors; they were not caused by this Government, and they are at the root of our current problems.
Most other countries in Europe are experiencing a worse cost of living crisis and economic downturn. Our unemployment rate, for example, is running at only 3.5% and our job vacancies, according to the latest figures, stand at approximately 1.2 million. There are those who claim that we need legal certainty—I have heard that argument—but what is certain is that it would be untenable and hopelessly uncertain to have two statute books and two systems of interpretation.
As the Government have said, retained EU law was never intended to remain on the statute book indefinitely, but was preserved as a temporary bridging measure following Britain’s exit from the European Union. This Bill is an essential component in resolving that. It gives us the opportunity to remove unnecessary laws that restrict our competitiveness and growth and enables us to realise our potential as a sovereign independent nation, making our own laws through our own Members of Parliament, from all parts of the House, who were elected by the voters of this country in the general election. This is the fundamental issue that we have to address. This EU-derived law did not have UK levels of parliamentary scrutiny, as our traditional domestic, sovereign legislation demands, and was made subject to goings-on in Brussels behind closed doors. It is right that we should have full control over our domestic legislation.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset mentioned the ports directive, and I remember it terribly well. It was opposed by every single person in this House who had representative objections put to them by people from the trade unions, from the Government and from the ports employers. Every single sector involved in the ports legislation refused to accept it, but it made no difference; it went through anyway. Indeed, I can honestly say that, since 1972, and certainly 1984, since I have been in the House, not a single piece of European legislation passed under the auspices and direction of section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972 has ever been rejected by this House. This is an opportunity to put right that democratic absurdity. The simple fact is that retained EU law currently on the statute book lacks the legitimacy that we have in our Acts of Parliament. This Bill removes the supremacy of EU-derived law, much of which was created by the Council of Ministers, as I have pointed out, behind closed doors and without a transcript.
I was pleased to read in the Government response to our latest report, “Retained EU Law: Where next?”, that:
“The Government recognises the incongruous nature of Retained EU Law, particularly the principle of EU supremacy, which has no place in the legal system of an independent, sovereign nation”.
I am glad that that is clearly the basis on which the Prime Minister made his comments this morning, and I was actually encouraged, somewhat ironically—because I do not put too much trust in them, to say the least—by the remarks made about Brexit from the Opposition Front Bench.
The European Scrutiny Committee recommended that
“when retained EU law is modified by domestic legislation, the Government ensures that the amending legislation clearly indicates whether the modified legislation is to keep the status of retained EU law. We consider that the status should not continue.”
I am pleased that the Bill makes provision for that, and I welcome the inclusion of the sunset provisions to provide clarity and an effective timeframe for the repeal of all EU retained law, which is essential.
The director of the CBI on the “Today” programme this morning basically agreed that the Government have, as he put it, levers at their disposal that can support the growth push that we will need. He actually used the words:
“The growth imperative is bigger than before”.
He specifically mentioned, as part of that growth imperative, “different kinds of regulation”, and put growth at the heart of what he was talking about, because he knows it is true, Conservative Members know it is true and Opposition Members know it is true. We need growth and productivity. It is essential that we deploy these levers to achieve that growth, and in unity, to realise our potential and improve our competitiveness and our capacity for investment. I strongly support the Second Reading of this Bill.
Here we go again: another piece of legislation introduced in the name of Brexit, which we were repeatedly told was about restoring Parliament’s sovereignty and supremacy, and yet one that gives Ministers absolute control over whole swathes of legislation that impact upon our national life by cutting Members of Parliament out of the process almost altogether, and the public as well. This is what the Hansard Society had to say:
“The Bill…Sidelines Parliament because it proposes to let all REUL expire on the sunset deadline unless Ministers decide to save it, with no parliamentary input or oversight.”
This is a shocking Bill. As I see it, one of the main purposes of the Bill is presentational: it is trying to remove the words “Europe”, “European” and “EU” from the statute book. It is a form of linguistic and legislative purge, which may make those who argued to leave the EU feel better, but it does not add to the sum total of human happiness. The former Business Secretary, Mr Rees-Mogg, who has just left the Chamber, made it crystal clear what the aim was when he wrote to me on
“to remove unnecessary or burdensome laws which encumber business and no longer meet the Government’s policy objectives.”
I remind the House that one person’s burdensome law is another person’s safe working conditions; it is their right to take parental leave.
At a time of great uncertainty and economic difficulty, what the Bill does is simply add to the uncertainty. This point was brilliantly made by my hon. Friend Jonathan Reynolds. What businesses want to know is what the rules are and what the framework is, because that knowledge provides them with certainty, on the basis of which they can invest and carry out their work. The Government are doing the absolute opposite with this Bill. They are saying to every one of those businesses and would-be investors, “We just need to point out that the laws, regulations and rules that are in place today may not be in place in the same form after Christmas 2023 if we don’t get round to saving them.” I cannot think of an approach more calculated to undermine confidence in the British economy and to deter would-be investors than the one in this Bill. I point out that we are not doing very well on inward investment—we have the lowest level of inward investment in the whole G7.
Part of the problem is that we have no idea, and I do not think the Government have any idea, which bits of EU law the Government want to scrap, which bits they want to amend and retain and which bits they want to keep in their entirety. We know that there is a list; reference has been made to it. It is not a little list—it is a jolly big list, and it is found on the famous dashboard. I echo the plea made by other Members: I really hope that the Government have counted everything. To paraphrase Lord Denning’s famous phrase, now that the incoming tide of EU law has ebbed away, have Ministers and civil servants searched every estuary, every river, every tributary and every salt marsh to make sure they have found all the bits of legislation that will be subject to this Bill? It is really important that they have done so, because if they have missed anything, that bit of legislation will fall in December next year—it will disappear from the statute book, whether Ministers want it to or not.
The next thing that is objectionable about the Bill is that, for the first time I can recall, it allows Ministers to change the law of this country by doing nothing—by simply watching the clock move and the pages of the calendar fall until December 2023 comes around. Even if Government Members agree with the aim of reviewing these laws—and there is an argument to be had for that—it is extraordinary that Ministers are asking the House to give them this power. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Dean Russell, who is no longer in his place, did a good job of moving the Bill’s Second Reading having come to it very recently, but he had no answer to the point I put to him, and I have yet to hear one in the debate, about why Ministers should be allowed to get rid of law simply by sitting on their hands.
Well, what I do know is that I sat on the Council of Ministers for seven years as a Cabinet Minister and took part in discussions and decisions about directives. That is a point the hon. Gentleman never, ever mentions; it is like everybody was locked out of the room. He makes that argument to avoid addressing what is in the Bill. Saying that something in the past was not perfect—I happen to agree with him about the fact that we were not allowed to watch the Council of Ministers at work—is not an argument for what is proposed in the legislation before us today.
What is more, are Ministers seriously arguing that, given all the pressures and the things that the new Prime Minister no doubt wants to do, civil servants should spend time going through 2,417 pieces of legislation? I say good luck to the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whose Department has 570 pieces of legislation—the Department for Transport has 424 and the Treasury has 374—and who will have between now and next Christmas to decide what on earth to do about them. While they are valiantly trying to do that, there is absolutely no provision in the Bill for public consultation and there will be no impact assessment on any changes that they are proposing to make. It takes a particular type of genius to make an enemy of worthy organisations such as the Wildlife and Countryside Link, the Green Alliance and others by threatening that which we and they value in pursuit of a headline.
What about workers’ rights? What exactly is the Government’s intention, in detail, when it comes to the working time directive? We have often heard Ministers complain about some of the consequences of the working time directive, but at other times we have heard them say, “Under no circumstances will we weaken workers’ protections.” The Minister acknowledged that we have entered into certain commitments as a country—although that does not mean that the Government will keep to them, if the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is anything to go by—and that certain employment and environmental legislative commitments are engaged by the trade and co-operation agreement.
We all know that, if we act in a way that the EU thinks gives us an unfair competitive advantage, it can retaliate. How will it help economic growth if we are inviting the prospect of that happening? I listened carefully to the commitment that the Minister made from the Dispatch Box on environmental and employment laws, but I am sorry to say that it is still not clear what he means by that. It is the detail that matters, so what will be changed and what will be kept the same?
The Bill does its best to tell the courts what they can and cannot take into account when considering cases before them. The Government tried to do that previously with the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and they are back to have another go. One part in particular is extraordinary; clause 7(3) proposes to amend section 6(5) of the 2018 Act by substituting it with:
“In deciding whether to depart from any retained EU case law…the higher court concerned must (among other things) have regard to…the extent to which the retained EU case law restricts the proper development of domestic law.”
What on earth does that mean? Can any hon. Member explain what the proper development of domestic law is? I think that clause 7 is trying to kick the judiciary again into being more enthusiastic about Brexit, but Ministers know that in the end, the courts will take into account the things that they think are relevant.
I will say what I think will happen after this song and dance and all the chest beating about the wonderful new freedom. The Bill has not just one sunset clause, but three:
In conclusion, this is a bad Bill. It threatens lots of laws that people value; it creates uncertainty; it takes powers away from the House; and it allows Ministers to repeal the law by doing nothing. For all those reasons, it should be rejected.
It is a pleasure to follow Hilary Benn. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend Dean Russell, who is no longer in his place. He did a jolly good job of having to step in at short notice. I also pay my respects to the retiring Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg, with whom I share Somerset in common.
I rise to support using our Brexit freedoms to design better regulation and unlock economic growth as appropriate. Regulations are obviously there for a reason, but it is right to periodically analyse them to ensure that they are doing what they were designed to do—or indeed, what we would like them to do as things change. We have that opportunity now, so as many hon. Members have highlighted, we need to ensure that the regulations that have been rolled over from the EU are bespoke to our nation. The Minister stressed this himself, saying that they really need to be working in the UK’s interests, and I agree. A lot of very sound points have been made by Conservative Members on that very matter, but I want to focus my comments on nature and the environment, which probably will not surprise Members in the Chamber.
I want to thank the Minister for meeting a group of us earlier to discuss how there are quite clearly concerns and to have open discussions. I, too, have met many outside organisations on these issues—the Green Alliance, the Wildlife and Countryside Link, the Better Planning Coalition, Greener UK—but also many businesses and farmers, because these issues affect all those categories. All of those people and, I believe, Conservative Members as well—particularly those of us from the Conservative Environment Network, which is doing really good work in this sphere—are just seeking assurances that the Bill will not weaken the UK’s environmental protections.
I was reassured by what the Minister did say at the Dispatch Box, because he openly commented that environmental protections will be maintained. I take that as a signal that he means it and, indeed, that the door is open to work on this—and maybe our Green party Member, Caroline Lucas, will be working on it, too—so that we get to a place that everyone is happy with.
I am sure the hon. Member will realise that some of us are less happy than she is about this approach. Would it not be better for the British Government to bring forward alternative proposals on a sector-by-sector basis, as the shadow Secretary of State, Jonathan Reynolds, said in his remarks, and then the whole House can discuss and scrutinise those alternative proposals, as opposed to giving the Government a blank cheque?
I thank the hon. Member for that, but we have had assurances from the Minister that he is going to engage with us. I think it behoves us all to get involved in that, and to represent all the people who are coming to us, because there is a great deal of knowledge that I am sure the Minister will be open to discussing with us.
I particular want to set out for the House this Government’s record on the environment. We are the greenest Government we have ever had. We have moved further and faster on environmental issues than any Government, not least through our Fisheries Act 2020, Agriculture Act 2020 and Environment Act 2021, which is a groundbreaking piece of legislation. The rest of the world was watching us as we brought this through our Parliament, and they are still watching us now to see how we are going to implement all its measures, because it does put us on a sustainable trajectory for the future. Indeed, we on the Conservative Benches did all vote for it.
I was touching on our environmental record, and I know that the Minister for Climate certainly understands the need to uphold this record. We are a global leader on this, which is very appropriate with COP27 coming up. We cannot be seen to be backtracking on things on which we are actually considered to be a global leader. That is why we need to show that we can uphold our environmental protections, while also being able to grow the economy, as is necessary in what are very challenging times. In my view, there should not be any kind of conflict between having a fully functioning ecosystem and a growing economy, with secure food supplies and, indeed, increasing food production. It is quite possible to make it all work.
We have set a legally binding target to halt the decline of species abundance—basically nature—by 2030 and to start to bend that curve, but I would be the first person to say, and perhaps the right hon. Member for Leeds Central might agree, that while we have had environmental protections, they have not actually done a great job in protecting our nature. We have had a massive nature crash in this country, and that is what we have to sort out. We need to look at some of our system of protection and make it work better. We do not need to undermine what we are doing; we need it to function better for the UK.
I will press on because I think I will be under pressure—I will perhaps give way in a minute.
We have set a whole framework, and we need our protections to help that work to restore our nature. We must get those protections and the regulations enforcing them right. The Environment Act 2021 creates that framework, requiring Ministers to set long-term targets for environmental improvements, to set out policies to meet them, and to report annually on the delivery of those targets that relate to waste, air, nature, water and biodiversity. By the end of this week, on
I mention that because it highlights the huge amount of work that DEFRA already has on its plate to tackle these things, and having to do a major review of hundreds of pieces of EU-derived legislation could put it under a great deal more strain. There are something like 572 laws relating to the DEFRA portfolio, whether that is sewage pollution, waste, water, air or pesticides. I know it is a good Department with some great officials, but fifteen months is a pretty short time to wade through that legislation. There is scope in the Bill to extend that sunset clause to 2026 if necessary, and I urge that door to be kept open, and for us to be realistic about this. If the right position has not been found by 2023—some of these things are pretty complicated—and if more engagement would be appropriate, I ask Ministers seriously to consider extending that sunset clause. No one is saying, “Don’t look at the regulations,” but we need that door to be open.
On the habitats directive, I urge Ministers to look at the nature recovery Green Paper that DEFRA undertook while I had the honour of being environment Minister. A whole team was considering proposals to streamline and consolidate site designations, to provide more certainty and predictability for developers—they had input into that—planners, and consultants. A whole range of people were asked to come up with some thoughts on getting a more strategic approach for tackling pressures on our protected sites. We have already done that for the infamous great crested newt, which is often cited as a reason for holding up planning applications. There is now a good plan for working strategically with our newts, with mitigations and compensations and so on, and it is working well. I urge the DEFRA team to look at the proposals in the Green Paper, as they are a basis for reform without weakening environmental protections. May we also have clarity on the Emerald network of areas of special conservation interest?
Finally, businesses need certainty and clarity, which is why we must ensure that they know there is a level playing field that will ensure high environmental standards. Our manifesto committed us to delivering the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth. The Minister mentioned that earlier, and it is something we should be proud of not just here but on the global stage. It is what we need to deliver for future generations. Let us give ourselves time for the assessment process. Do not rush the changes. We cannot grow our economy by weakening our environmental protections, but we can make a bespoke system that is better for us all.
Order. I gently remind hon. Members that, if we are to be fair to each other, I did say that speeches should last about eight minutes, as opposed to 11 minutes.
It is a pleasure to follow Rebecca Pow. I hope she will appreciate that I listened to what she said and responded in my comments.
We have all done it: we have all accidently hit “Delete”, broken something or not saved a document that we meant to save. Or, even worse, we have been in workplaces where somebody has done that and all that institutional memory and knowledge has gone. Then we face a choice: either come clean that all that information is lost, or try to pretend that it did not matter. In taking the latter option, the Government are putting at risk thousands of rights that have been the fabric of everyday life for all our constituents.
In opposing the Bill, let me be clear that that is not talking about Brexit. It is not talking about rerunning a referendum. It is not to argue that we must go back. I am sorry that Mr Rees-Mogg is not in his usual place—I am not sorry, really—because it is also not about supremacy. It is about sanity and the business of doing government. In the time that I have, I want to set out that I and Opposition Members will oppose the Bill because of both what it does and how it does it. I urge Government Members to look at how the Bill operates, because all the powers, promises and ambitions in the legislation cannot be achieved.
We do not really know what the Bill does, because we really do not know what it covers. I am sorry that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Dean Russell, is not in his place—who knows whether he is still a Minister and whether, when he comes back, he will be on the Front Bench or the Back Benches—because being honest about the fact that we do not know the levels of European law is critical.
It is not just minor changes, as the former Secretary of State tried to suggest; there are serious, important pieces of legislation that many in the House, and especially those who care about environmental issues, have discovered are not on the retained EU law dashboard. The conservation of habitats and species regulation does not appear on the Government’s dashboard. Therefore, as a starting point, we have literally no idea which rules are being abolished by the Bill because the Government do not know—they have not found them all. That is what the parliamentary question admitted yesterday with its authoritative but not comprehensive list. Call me an old- fashioned democrat, but I would quite like to know what I was voting to abolish and be able to tell my constituents about that before being asked to do so.
It is also not clear how the legislation will operate in the devolved legislatures. Of course, that matters in making sure that laws are tenable if they are to cross borders, let alone for our colleagues in Northern Ireland who face multiple legislative processes—all that red tape that we were told we could get rid of by leaving the European Union.
Above all, the Bill asks us to play the worst game of “Snog, marry, avoid” that I have ever seen for any piece of Government legislation; in deciding whether something is kept, amended or simply abolished. Let us have a go at that and see whether our constituents really want to play when they see what is at stake.
Let us talk first, nice and simply, about those things that we probably want to keep. I presume—maybe I have misread things—that there will be general agreement across the House that it is a bad idea to have cancer-causing chemicals in cosmetics, so we should retain rules that keep those out. Again, we all think that insider trading is a bad idea, but the legislation will rip up all the rules on that. On airline safety—by that I mean literally the rules that require a plane to be worthy to go in the air—we probably agree across the House that having rules that ensure that planes are safe is a good thing, so we could take a bipartisan approach. Again, we probably all agree on preventing food manufacturers from making false claims about the nutritional content of their food, and on tackling illegal firearms smuggling. One question from many of us might be: when we have a cost of living crisis and a Government who are in chaos, why on earth are we spending time rewriting laws that, on the whole, we all agree with?
That is where the rub is in the legislation: what the Government want to avoid and abolish. They need to come clean to our constituents. They are asking us to approve powers that would let them get rid of the rules around a whole plethora of issues, including those that require major sporting events to be free to air. I was very troubled to discover at the weekend that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was trying to claim that was not the case. Clearly, Government Departments have not looked at the legislation on which they have depended. Disease control for bird flu is suddenly up for abolition, along with compensation rules for lost luggage and delayed trains. I guess if a Government are dealing with privatised rail industries and are unable to help them, they think that removing those basic consumer protections will somehow be good for them. However, they should be honest with our constituents if that is what they intend. The payout that comes if someone’s firm goes bust and the entitlement to 50% of their pension pot—let alone TUPE protections if their job is outsourced, paid holiday rights and maternity rights—are up for abolition through the Bill. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for North East Somerset is not in his place, because we could have a conversation about exactly how the EU protected women’s basic maternity rights against decisions by the UK Government.
On part-time workers’ rights, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane says she has had assurances from the Government. Well, I thought the Conservative manifesto was an assurance about what the Government were going to do, but that seems to have been ripped up. The Bill will give the Government carte blanche powers across 2,500 pieces of legislation and 300 policy areas. Can she really, hand on heart, be confident that all of those will be retained? She does not have in the Bill any recourse if those pledges come to nought, so she is taking a huge gamble.
Secondly, one might agree that all those things need to be up for grabs and that it no longer matters—I would love to see the referendum leaflet that said abolishing paid holiday leave would be a good thing; I will sit down if the Government can show me that—but the Bill hits delete through a sunset clause, abolishing everything all at once. As my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn says, that creates a power for Governments to abolish pieces of legislation just by doing nothing, with no judicial review powers if those rights are important.
I am sorry that Sir William Cash is not here. The Bill hands powers to those very Ministers who were in the Council meetings he objected to, to make those laws. In which case, we must all ask, “What help are they getting?” We have talked about 570 different pieces of legislation from DEFRA to be revised. At the moment, there are three DEFRA civil servants dealing with 570 pieces of legislation. It is the same across other Government Departments: two officials in the Department of Health and Social Care dealing with 137 regulations covering healthcare; nobody in the Department for Work and Pensions, which has 208 regulations to rewrite; and nobody in the Treasury, which has 602 regulations to review—snog, marry, avoid—in the next year and decide whether we will keep, or amend, them. The Department for Transport could not even confirm how many staff it had working on this issue. It does not even know who is responsible for it. That is not really a surprise. Of the 2,500 pieces of law that are being ripped up, on which we have been dependent for decades, 800 have no direct ministerial lead to even worry about whether we should keep them.
Ministers will decide what happens to those pieces of legislation—they can water down protections and any promises made to the hon. Member for Taunton Deane, or simply drop them without any form of scrutiny. I am disappointed that the right hon. Member for North East Somerset is not in his place, because those of us who are democrats believe passionately that the only people who are anti-democracy are those trying to take back control to Downing Street rather than to this place. It is simply not true to say to the British public that, through this Bill, Brexit is giving the House powers—let alone the trade war it could easily start, because we signed agreements in good faith with the European Union under the TCA that we would have a level playing field on areas such as food safety and employment rights. The Bill could lead to retaliatory tariffs.
What the hon. Member for Taunton Deane and her colleagues should reflect on most of all, perhaps, is clause 15, which enshrines deregulation. I would be with her in the Lobby on introducing higher environmental standards, but the Bill formally requires that that cannot happen. The direction of travel is only one way—to water down and reduce rights.
Clause 15(5) is why the Bill is the anti- growth coalition. Businesses, consumers and environmental organisations alike are against no regulation. No regulation is a recipe for less competition. It is a recipe for a wild west. They want better regulation. Clause 15(5) rules that out and gives Ministers the responsibility not only of finding legislation, but then doing something with it without any scrutiny from this place. There are plenty of parliamentary mechanisms that could change that. There are many different ways that could work. It is not just about the sunset clause; it is about affirmative regulations. There are ways we could reduce red tape, but they are not written into the Bill.
The new Prime Minister says he will fix the mistakes of the past. He could do no better than to abandon the Bill and rethink it, because, as we all know, when we hit delete and do not save, it is a mess for all concerned.
Having witnessed the EU legislative process at first hand as an MEP for six years, I can attest to the fact that it tends to be bedevilled by horse-trading, misunderstanding, ambiguity, vested interests and protectionism. My experience of that process and its often flawed results radicalised me and was a major reason why I decided, when the referendum came, to campaign to leave the EU. I believe that when it comes to regulation, we can do better in this country. We can and must retain our high standards—as every Government Member has said today, including the Minister—but deliver them in a way that is less cumbersome, less bureaucratic and less costly. We can ensure that our rules are properly targeted at the real problems that we want to resolve and that they are tailored to our domestic circumstances and our national interest. Delivering that change is a crucial means to making us more productive and more competitive and to growing our economy. It is a key benefit of leaving the European Union.
That point was made clearly in the report of the taskforce on innovation, growth and regulatory reform, of which I was a member. We highlighted the need to return to the principles of common law after nearly five decades in which the Napoleonic code-based approach had found its way into such a wide range of our laws in the UK. I therefore welcome the Bill’s proposal to remove the special status of retained EU law. I also believe that it is important to take a fresh decision on each item of law that we have inherited from our period of EU membership to determine whether it should be retained, amended or repealed. But—this is an important “but”—I am concerned that the hard-stop sunset clause, which kicks in at the end of 2023, may not give us time to conduct the in-depth, evidence-based review of regulation that is needed.
The Bill provides a mechanism in certain circumstances for that deadline to be extended to 2026, but, as many have said, that still leaves an immense amount of work to be done in a brief period of time. We do not know with certainty, for example, how many laws there are within DEFRA’s food, animal welfare and environmental remit, because that has not yet been comprehensively counted on the Government’s dashboard. However, groups such as Greener UK point out that it includes at least 570 pieces of legislation. Reviewing those 570 enactments is a mammoth task. I well recall, during my time as Environment Secretary, the huge bandwidth needed to prepare and take through the statutory instruments needed for the initial exit process, and that was only 122 SIs.
It is worth looking at our experience with the deposit return scheme. That is a popular move and businesses believe that it can be made to work well, yet it is not expected to be in operation until 2024 at the earliest—six years after it was announced. If an uncontroversial bit of regulation takes that long to get right, my fear is that the process of reviewing environmental, animal welfare and food regulations might not be completed prior to either the 2023 or 2026 deadlines.
Retaining strong environmental rules and protections is absolutely crucial if we are to meet our commitment to halt species decline by 2030 and become a net zero economy by 2050. The perils of any gaps in food safety regulation are illustrated by the fact that, 30 years after the BSE disaster, there are still countries that ban British beef.
In conclusion, I would be the first to acknowledge that there are aspects of EU environment and food rules that could, and should, be made to work better. The habitats regulations are perhaps the most important example of that. As the former Environment Minister, my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow, said, important work has already gone into potential changes and reforms, but we must avoid the situation where sunset clauses leave us with a period without legal rules on crucial environment, food safety and other issues.
This Conservative Government have shown the strongest commitment to environmental goals. They have led on the world stage and have enacted a groundbreaking new Environment Act. I now look forward to working with Back-Bench colleagues and with Ministers to improve the Bill and deliver legislation that seizes the economic opportunities provided by regulatory reform and ensures we achieve the historic goal that ours will be the first generation to hand on the natural environment in a better state than we found it.
I listened to the new Prime Minister’s speech this morning, in which he promised to fix “mistakes”, acknowledged that work was needed to “restore trust” in the Government, and said that his Government would be marked by “integrity, professionalism and accountability”. One problem with the Bill, however, is that it will hugely remove the Executive’s accountability to Parliament. That is one of the mistakes that need to be fixed by the new Prime Minister, because it was prompted by ideology and desperation to point to some so-called Brexit benefits, when the overwhelming body of opinion—from business to the trade unions—says that it is a mess that will lead to legal uncertainty and more chaos. The author of the Bill has gone; I think the Bill should go with him.
Let us make no bones about it. The departing Prime Minister has left an almighty mess behind her because she pursued an economic policy that the vast majority of people, including the incoming Prime Minister, advised her against. The vast majority of people are advising against the Bill, including the majority of parties in this House, business, the trade unions, legal experts, all sorts of third-sector bodies and the devolved Governments. My plea to the Prime Minister, given the promises that he made this morning, is not to make the same mistake with the Bill that his predecessor made with the economy.
There are so many problems with the Bill that it is hard to know where to start. Other hon. Members have outlined some of them, but there are seven that I want to raise.
The first problem is that the Bill represents a huge transfer of power from Parliament to the Executive. That is hardly taking back control. Taking back control was supposed to be about the people of the United Kingdom and this Parliament, not the Executive. The Bill will give Ministers incredible powers to legislate on areas that affect our everyday lives without any meaningful democratic input.
The second problem is that the Bill means that if Ministers want retained EU law to fall away, they need take no action at all. The decision to take no action is not subject to parliamentary scrutiny, meaning that very important rights and protections could be lost, including the right to equal pay as between men and women—a pivotal change in our society—as well as food safety standards, which other hon. Members have mentioned, and workers’ rights such as a certain amount of paid holiday per year and a 48-hour maximum working week for road hauliers. Those are not the sort of rights that should just fall away, perhaps even by accident.
The third problem, which I raised in my intervention early in the debate, is that far from creating new high standards in our regulatory frameworks, the replacement legislation cannot increase standards; it can only leave them as they are or lower them. That is what clause 15(5) says. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head, but in my opinion that is what it says, and many other legal experts think so. It is not a minor detail; it is a major problem with the Bill.
The fourth problem is that reducing standards or allowing key pieces of legislation simply to lapse could risk the UK’s trading relationship with the EU at a time when we can ill afford it. I know that it was several Prime Ministers ago, but will the Government please remember the trade and co-operation agreement and their obligations under it?
The fifth problem is the fact that the proposed speed and scale of these changes—as we have heard, the Government’s retained EU law dashboard includes more than 2,400 pieces of legislation in 300 policy areas across 21 sectors of the UK—are completely unrealistic, and will inevitably result in mistakes.
The sixth point concerns the problems that the Bill poses for the devolution settlement. My hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara went into those in some detail so, given the constraints of time, I will not go into them in the same detail myself. The fact of the matter is, however, that in its current form the Bill will allow UK Government Ministers to act in policy areas that are devolved, and to do so without the consent of the Scottish Ministers or our Parliament, because secondary legislation does not need consent. Primary legislation needs consent, but that rule is more honoured in the breach than the observance.
As usual, my hon. and learned Friend is making a forensic speech. She will be interested to learn that more than 10,000 people marched for independence in Cardiff recently. I never thought that that would happen in my lifetime, but it is happening because of Bills like this. The people of Wales are seeing the British Government supplanting the devolution settlement, and are concluding that they have a choice between direct Westminster control and independence. That is what is happening in Wales, and I am sure it is what is happening in Scotland.
Indeed, and I am pleased to say that I spent the weekend in Cardiff. It was my first visit, and I found it to be a beautiful city. I was attending the FiLiA feminist conference. I will certainly go back to Cardiff, and I should quite like to join one of those independence marches some time. Whether one is a Unionist or a nationalist, the fact remains that the mess that the Bill will create will only cause problems between Westminster and Holyrood.
That brings me to my seventh point, which concerns Northern Ireland and the impact of the Bill on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. The Government have not yet conducted a full and comprehensive assessment of retained EU law, and they have also failed to analyse which areas of retained EU law interact with or have an impact on the commitments made in article 2(1) of the protocol or, as I pointed out earlier, on the level playing field provisions of the trade and co-operation agreement. The removal of key frameworks for interpreting retained EU laws and settlement agreement legislation—including EU general principles, in clause 5, and retained EU case law, in clause 7—may have an impact on the “keeping pace” commitment associated with article 2(2). That is another area in which the Government need to go back to the drawing board.
As Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I can say that we will be scrutinising the Bill very carefully for its rights implications, and will table amendments. However, I must add that I think it is pretty much beyond amendment, and that, as I have said, the Government need to go back to the drawing board. I say to them, “Please do not pursue another dangerous ideological experiment at the cost of our constituents’ rights, and at the cost of their livelihoods.” The Bill will have a big impact on business and a big impact on workers’ rights. This is absolutely not about people, or this Parliament, taking back control; it is about executive fiat, and the sidelining of democratic scrutiny by this Parliament.
In his speech when he took office this morning, the Prime Minister said that he would put the country’s needs above politics. Well, the country does not need this, and, in fact, there is more than one country in our Union. The Government need to respect the wishes of Scotland’s voters, the wishes of Welsh voters and the wishes of Northern Ireland voters, as well as the devolved settlement.
My message to the Government is that the Bill is a mess. Yes, it is embarrassing to ditch Bills, but let us face it, the Government have had a lot of embarrassment recently and they are getting used to it. They have already ditched one Bill, the Bill of Rights; I believe it may be bouncing back soon as a result of the Cabinet reshuffle, but it is certainly possible to ditch a Bill at this stage. This Bill needs to be ditched, and the way in which we deal with retained EU law needs to be revisited completely.
The UK is party to many international legal arrangements, many of which do not enjoy a great deal of scrutiny in this House. Having heard several Members raise points about scrutiny in respect of EU law, I think it is important for us to acknowledge that there are a number of Members here with direct experience of that scrutiny process. We have heard about the Council of Ministers, in which UK Ministers signed EU law into the laws of all the member states. We have heard from former Members of the European Parliament, where the directly elected representatives scrutinise that law during the law-making process. I can speak as a former member of the Committee of the Regions, where the indirectly elected representatives of the United Kingdom authorities, including the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Government, scrutinised those laws in that law-making process.
I can also speak as having chaired one of the employer organisations in the social dialogue, which were part of the cross-industrial sector process of working up the detail of what those laws and regulations should contain. So while it is absolutely the case that that law, once it was signed into the law of the United Kingdom by our Ministers, did not enjoy further scrutiny here, the UK was well known as a leader in designing good regulation across the European Union. I recall my experiences in the education sector, where in neighbouring conference rooms organisations such as chemical engineers, veterinarians, pharmacists, clinicians and representatives of the aviation sector were having similar discussions seeking to design better law and regulation, which sits in this retained body of EU law today as part of Margaret Thatcher’s single market.
A weakness of that process that we must acknowledge is that it was easy for big industrial organisations and corporates to engage with, but in a country where around 70% of our workforce are in enterprises with fewer than five employees, it was challenging for those types of organisations to have a voice. They will not have had the input that the UK industrial sector had in the designing of these regulations. This should remind us of the importance of our scrutinising the detail of what this Bill means when it comes to deciding what pieces of law we might wish to keep and which we might not. Ministers and Members across the House have acknowledged this.
For example, it is easy to dismiss the value of regulations around batteries, but those pieces of regulation were designed to ensure that the ambition set out in this House by British Governments that all batteries would be recycled was achieved. We will wish to ensure that if we continue to support that ambition, which we clearly do, we will have an equivalent form of UK regulation, appropriate for our market, that will ensure that that outcome can be achieved, as was the intention of those European Union rules.
This seems to be a good moment to take stock of what is in this wide body of legislation. I welcome the fact that our former Prime Minister but one made a number of clear public statements that the Government’s ambition would be to go beyond what was set out in the EU legislation, especially in respect of environmental protections and animal welfare, and that it was the aspiration of the United Kingdom, just as we encouraged higher standards in the EU when we were a member of it, that we would use the freedom from those standards to seek to have still have higher welfare standards and higher levels of environment protections than those that previously legally applied. I hope we are going to hear that this is not simply a matter of maintaining a minimum, or indeed of going back, and that it is going to be a considered process of looking at where we can go beyond what we have, because that is good for our economy, good for our environment and good for our people.
It is positive that several Members have recognised that there are opportunities to make this legislation better. We know that the European Union, much criticised sometimes for the slowness of its law making, would have been unlikely to be able to implement changes to the financial market legislation, for example. I have to acknowledge, having been involved in some of the EU discussions about online safety, that the UK’s Online Safety Bill goes well beyond what was envisaged as part of the EU law-making process. It sets a higher standard for online protection in the United Kingdom than was likely to have been achievable across that greater body of member states. There are opportunities for us to do things better as a result of these changes.
That said, like my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers, I welcome the fact that there is scope within this Bill, as we go through the process of looking line by line at what the implications of those legal changes would be, to extend the life of those protections, indefinitely if necessary. I suspect Hilary Benn is correct that there will be a number of areas where we will decide that the regulations work just fine as they are, thank you very much, and we will consider them to be implemented at UK level. However, we will undoubtedly wish to change or reshape some elements in the light of our UK circumstances.
I have had a clear message from constituents, especially those with an interest in the environment and animal welfare. They recognise that some of those pieces of EU legislation have been cumbersome and that they have not always been as helpful, as sharp and as enforceable as we would like to see when it comes to things such as habitat protection; but they note that we have had the highest level of wildlife loss of any nation in the G7. There are reasons for that, and it happened under EU regulation, so there is a need to ensure that within this context of “taking back control”, the promise of higher and better standards and more flexible legislation that was made to the British people is met in full.
I urge colleagues on the Government Benches to keep that at the forefront of their minds. This Bill is not about deregulation; it is about showing that we in the United Kingdom will have the ambition to have the highest possible standards and the best possible regulation as a country outside the European Union.
I will speak as a trade unionist, taking up the point made by David Simmonds. From the trade union point of view, I have been inundated with briefings from individual unions, including my own, which is Unison, the TUC, etc. All of them have the wishful hope that any legislation that comes before this House would be about improving standards and moving to the best possible, as he said. Unfortunately, all the briefings I have received are about the risks, rather than the benefits, that accrue from this legislation.
The list is almost endless; other hon. Members have mentioned them, but I will run through a few: risks to the right to paid annual leave, limits to working time, health and safety protections, prevention of less favourable treatment for part-time workers, guarantees and protections for parental leave, TUPE rights, discrimination laws, equal pay and maternity, paternity and adoption protections —it goes on and on. There is fear out there about what this legislation can do.
Many trade unionists voted for Brexit. They will have voted on the basis of the slogan “taking back control”—that is the reality of it—and they will have been convinced by some of the arguments about reasserting national sovereignty and the argument that decisions should be taken by this Parliament rather than the EU. However, I do not by any means think they voted for a massive transfer of powers to Ministers on the scale seen in this legislation.
This Bill asks trade unionists for a leap of faith. It asks them to put trust in Ministers on both the sunset clause, to be able to include continuation of or improvement on all the existing legislation, and the scrutiny process in this legislation, which is largely based on delegated legislation. Even in the best of worlds, particularly when the Government are revoking the Lords’ amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 on the use of the super-affirmative process by which delegated legislation can be amended, that is a leap of faith too far.
That leap of faith relies on trust in a Government and a party that has been attacking trade union rights for 40 years and now seeks to introduce a new wave of anti-trade union legislation to undermine the right to strike itself. It also asks trade unionists to put their confidence in Ministers who in many instances do not survive a fortnight in office, and to put trust in Government and Ministerial decisions in the current industrial climate, with the Government cutting trade unionists’ pay and about to introduce another round of austerity.
In all the briefings I have received, there is a complete lack of trust in the Government’s competence to administer that transfer of legal powers. Mention has been made time and again of the 2,700 individual instruments. I agree with hon. Members who spoke of their lack of confidence in the Government even being able to survey the full range of instruments comprehensively. To put it in context, this is a Government who have announced the cutting of 91,000 civil service jobs in the coming period. It is very difficult to have confidence in the Government administering this whole process when they are decimating the civil service and removing that administrative expertise.
I urge the Government to think again about the detail of this Bill. I will vote against it today, because it is just not viable at the moment. Concern has been expressed on both sides of the House about the unrealistic sunset clause. The hard and fixed deadline of the sunset clause will not work. Even with the elements of flexibility contained in the Bill, it is hard to see how we can give assurance to our constituents that all their individual rights will be protected.
I have mentioned the concern within the trade union movement. I cannot see it having any confidence in this Government meeting those deadlines without some element of either malevolently undermining trade union rights or, following the cock-up theory of history, missing individual pieces of needed legislative reform.
We now need to look clearly at the legislative scrutiny process. I am sure the House of Lords will introduce amendments, as it did on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in 2018. We want this House to be able to have thorough scrutiny, with not just the ability to reject but the ability to amend and, in answer to the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, the ability to improve legislation through delegated legislation. That means the super-affirmative process included in the EU withdrawal process.
I re-emphasise what others have said: this Bill is transferring from Parliament to Ministers a scale of decision making, authority and sovereignty that we have not seen happen in this country’s peacetime history. This is fundamental to the rights of Parliament. Members on both sides of the House should take it extremely seriously and say to the Executive, “This is too far. You need to think again.”
As other Members have outlined, this Bill should not be before us. The chaos that has characterised the Government’s past few months has distracted from the scale and scope of the Bill. By moving the Bill on day one, the Government are undermining the more stable and cautious approach that the new Prime Minister told us they would be taking. There might be a different name over the door, but this is very much the same approach. The idea that Parliament could address all these issues in the next 14 months is for the birds. Members have outlined the vast number of regulations—we are talking more than one a day, in addition to all the other priorities of sponsoring Departments—and the closest we have come to reassurance from the Government is that it is within the realms of possibility, which does not give much comfort.
We have predictably heard quite a lot about sovereignty and supremacy. Actually, retaining these laws, as we decided to do a few years ago, was an act of sovereignty. It was a rational act by a Parliament taking the necessary action to protect its people and the economy, but the Government are now proposing to whip off the tablecloth as a posturing tactic for no real reason, just because other countries—“aliens” we are told—were involved in their shaping. That is petulant and reckless. The Institute for Public Policy Research described it as creating
“extraordinary uncertainty for businesses and workers.”
And it ignores the fact that the vast majority of these regulations, far in excess of 90%, were agreed with the UK’s full consent and, in many cases, with the UK as a driving force.
Handing these powers to Ministers, whoever they may be tomorrow or in the next few months, also undermines the concept of parliamentary sovereignty, which was a core platform of the Vote Leave campaign. Frankly, this race to the bottom stuff—that is what this is really about—would not have flown so well on Facebook in 2016, when that campaign was being run.
As other Members have pointed out, it is for exactly that reason that people do not trust the Conservative party with the scale of these plans. What is at stake is the protection of workers, consumers and the planet. As people have said, maternity, paternity, adoption and parental leave, equal pay, TUPE rights, holiday pay and many other things are at risk of just sliding off the books, with some of the Britannia unchained crew in the driving seat. Unison has called this:
“An attack on working women”.
It is hard to disagree.
As clause 55 makes clear, the only way is down. At no point has there been anything stopping this Government raising standards for workers or for the environment, but they have not done so. The risk to the environment and nature is even more acute. Just in the lifetime of this Parliament, with the Trade Bill and the Agriculture Bill, the Government have had many opportunities to legislate to protect standards and they have absolutely dodged them. So nobody has any confidence that with this Bill things will be any different.
Of course, my key concern is for Northern Ireland, including the impact on the non-diminution of rights provisions in the trade and co-operation agreement and the protocol. Our region is already one of the most nature-depleted on the planet, with more than 10% of species at risk. We only just agreed in the dying days of the last Assembly very basic climate targets. The absence of an Assembly now because of the veto of the Brexit fans and vetoholics who usually sit in front of me means that there is no opportunity for Northern Ireland’s elected representatives to try to design replacement legislation. Even if and when the Assembly returns, this Bill makes good governance all but impossible for Northern Ireland, because the ability to know precisely which legislation applies to us, which is still to be spelled out, and which gaps might suddenly appear in law, is not available to us.
Furthermore, the replacement of retained EU law using delegated powers means that new legislation that could have profound impacts on intra-UK divergence can be made without consulting this House, let alone Stormont or any other devolved Assembly. So the Bill would compound the difficulty we already have of ensuring commonality across the UK and across these islands, including between north and south on the island of Ireland, in the areas that are required by the Good Friday agreement and in the many more areas that have emerged, which we now know need protection and regulation; two and a half decades have passed since that agreement. All the borders that this Government have spent the last few years hardening do not see the environmental problems that this Bill could create.
Unfortunately, the Government have shown themselves to be quite ignorant of the basket of shared norms and regulations that keep these islands together and keep us relatively safe. The Bill will have unknown consequences, with various different Ministers, dozens of them, re-weaving that basket with different threads and different colours, and without any real adherence to any particular pattern or scheme. The concept is bad, the content is bad and the timing is bad. Northern Ireland, once again, appears to be an afterthought. We will be opposing the Bill and we hope others will, too.
In last Thursday’s business questions, there was some discussion about whether the Bill should be proceeding at this time. It is a good question not simply because of the uncertainty caused by the latest episode in the Tory leadership soap opera, which of course reflects the deep divisions that have torn that party apart in recent years, for which the country has paid the cost, but because the Bill comes from the same thinking that drove the mini-Budget. It puts ideology before common sense, ignoring evidence, refusing advice, dismissing experts, and causing huge damage to the economy and to families, in pursuit of what Conservative Members described as a libertarian experiment. That approach was honed in the referendum campaign. Let us remember the way the Office for Budget Responsibility projection of the hit on our GDP was dismissed. However, as the former Governor of the Bank of England pointed out last week, in 2016, Britain’s economy was 90% the size of Germany’s and now it is less than 70%. That is where putting ideology before common sense leaves us.
The point is not to reopen the Brexit debate, despite the best attempts of some Government Members to frame every discussion on the EU in that way. We are not rejoining the EU. We are not rejoining the single market or the customs union, although major Tory donors have made that case this week. The point is that we should learn from our mistakes, but the Bill doubles down on putting ideology before common sense, and which side he falls on will be a real test for the new Prime Minister.
Let us remember why we have retained EU law—it is because the Conservative Government proposed it as a sensible way of dealing with the practical problem of the legal vacuum that we would face if we left the EU without it. Hundreds and hundreds of laws that are part of the fabric of our lives would otherwise have fallen without proper consideration. We should remember —and David Simmonds made this point—that often those laws were driven through the EU by the UK; they were shaped by us; they were laws we needed.
The principle of retained law was that, over time, we could review the legislation and, if we chose, update, amend or drop it, but there are 2,400 laws. The madness of this Bill, but also its central purpose, is the sunset clause, which will see all retained law expire next December if it has not been incorporated in UK law. Of all people, Theresa Villiers warned about that quite forcefully as an ardent Brexiteer.
The Bill is the brainchild of a Secretary of State who is no longer in government. We know he faced significant opposition in Cabinet when he proposed it, and for good reason: it forces every Government Department to prioritise, above everything, the review of retained law over the next 14 months, or lose it. Is that really the priority for Government? We have an economy that is tanking as a result of their actions, a cost of living crisis that will break thousands of families, a war in Europe and a climate emergency, but in the face of all of that, the Bill tells every Department that its priority is to review retained EU law. It is complete madness.
What is at risk? In a cost of living crisis, with prices rising and businesses struggling, uncertainty will push costs even higher. The regulations and standards that we risk losing at the end of next year, as civil servants are stretched with the real business of government and struggling with the issues, are necessary for confidence in businesses, purchases and markets. They provide the certainty needed for growth. Without them, we are deliberately damaging investment—who would want to bankroll ventures that might lose their viability or access to markets as regulations are set to change significantly? How do British standards remain high and of good quality if we risk their simply dissolving without consideration either by Ministers or by the House when the sunset clause is triggered?
The legal chaos unleashed by this process is wildly unproductive. By tearing up all these regulations at a time of huge pressure on our public services and Government, the potential for things to be missed, late, or poorly executed is huge. How can businesses be sure of the obligations they need to fulfil in this situation? How can they ensure health and safety standards for their employees? How can they be certain that there will not be legal repercussions for their activities if these frameworks are binned in favour of a Daily Mail headline?
The head of the Government Legal Service from 2014 to 2020—the crucial period in which we debated our departure from the EU—said this weekend that this is
“absolutely ideological and symbolic rather than about real policy...there is no indication of which areas the government is thinking of retaining and which it is getting rid of. So there is no certainty about what laws we will have and what will replace them. It is a very, very bad way to change and make law...It creates…uncertainty within a very tight, and completely self-imposed timescale.”
Business is clear too—it has enough to be getting on with, protecting jobs and livelihoods, without the Government creating more barriers to their work. The Federation of Small Businesses has said that the Bill adds
“an extra burden to already very difficult trading conditions.”
“A year just isn’t long enough for small businesses”— the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner made that point well too—
“to work out how their operations will need to change in response to a fundamental shift in the regulatory environment, such as the one proposed by the EU revocation and reform bill.”
The hon. Gentleman refers to business uncertainty. Has he seen the detailed briefing that has been prepared by the Bar Council about its concerns over the creation of legal uncertainty in relation to certain clauses of the Bill? Those clauses leave doubts as to how retained law should be interpreted, and doubts as to its status and what discretion judges will have in its interpretation. Surely those things should be put right before the Bill goes any further.
I have not seen that briefing, but I will now look because the hon. Gentleman makes a very strong and forceful point, as he so often does in this House.
As I was saying, through the UK Trade and Business Commission, which draws representatives from every single party in this House, we have heard many frustrations from businesses over the past two years. Those businesses have asked for many things to improve the environment in which they are operating. Not one has said, “Please, ditch EU retained law.” Laws make sense—laws that we have helped to shape, laws that we have often played a key role in creating. Laws, as described by my hon. Friend Stella Creasy, protect pensions, prevent carcinogenic materials in cosmetics, protect part-time workers’ conditions and so on. They are not bureaucratic red tape, but basic laws that underpin a civilised society and a good quality of life.
Why chuck everything in a bin and set it alight? Over the past few weeks, in particular, have we not had enough of disrupters in Government? I listened to the new Prime Minister this morning. He talked about placing economic stability and confidence at the heart of the Government’s agenda. He set out priorities in which this Bill does not figure. He said that his Government will
“have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.”
If he is serious, he will drop this Bill. Let us legislate with purpose, not for a headline in the Daily Mail. Let us reject this Bill today.
To state what is so obvious to my struggling constituents, we are in the middle of a cost of living and an economic crisis—a crisis made worse by this Conservative party’s cack-handed handling of the country’s finances and economy. I am talking not just about the past few days either, but about the decisions that the Conservatives have made in the sort of agreement that we struck with the EU following Brexit.
This Government have put up many barriers to trade over the past few years. They have created enough business uncertainty. We do not need any more of it, but that is what the Bill does. As others have said, I am amazed to see the Bill being brought forward—today of all days. It is indeed the brainchild—the baby—of Mr Rees-Mogg. Minutes after Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions this morning, he then resigned, so it was left in the capable hands of the Minister, Dean Russell, who I guess in this case would be the nanny—but that would be appropriate, would it not?
This is also the first day of the Prime Minister’s new tenure. People say start as you mean to go on. Well, I am sorry, but this is a very, very bad start indeed. What the Minister has failed to fully answer is why the Government are introducing this Bill. Why do they have to introduce it when there are so many other things that we need to get done, post pandemic, to get out of this mess? Why this? Why are the Government taking forward legislation that will make life harder for businesses in my constituency and across the country? Why do they want to make it harder for them to trade with businesses in France, Germany and Spain? Every time we diverge in standards, businesses face more red tape to export into the EU. This legislation would mean divergence en masse. That is not a pragmatic way to approach trading ties with our largest trading partner.
Then there is the cliff edge. Why on earth do Ministers think this is wise? I think back to 2019—I can see many Members who were here then—because if there is one thing that can unite the House, it is that we do not like cliff edges in Parliament. They are corrosive, including incidentally to inward investment, because they are damaging to business. They create a fog of uncertainty and put undue pressure on Parliament. Indeed, Members have been wise to raise that point, in thoughtful contributions not just from the Opposition Benches but from the Government Benches. This cliff edge is entirely unnecessary and, let us face it, will probably not survive the Lords, and quite rightly. I urge the Government to think again.
The Prime Minister told us yesterday that the country faces a profound economic challenge. Actually, on that we agree—who doesn’t? Yet one of his first acts as Prime Minister was to bring in this Bill. If he was serious about putting the economy right, he would pull this Bill. He would act in the national interest and put businesses up and down the country first, but instead he has chosen to put his party first. This Prime Minister, who no one voted for, has decided on his first day in office to push ahead with a massive undemocratic power grab that tries to wrest control of scrutiny away from Parliament, preventing us from having any meaningful say on future changes, and with no clear steer on how exactly the Government are to achieve this mammoth task in the timeframe they have set themselves.
Incidentally—this bit is even worse—Ministers can choose to do nothing. They do not have to lift a finger, and the termination of these standards, regulations and rights becomes the default, and settled areas of law become uncertain and contested, as the Chair of the Justice Committee has rightly pointed out. I am sure that other Members’ inboxes will have been inundated, as mine has, with emails from constituents who are outraged at the whole suite of vital protections that could now be struck down by this Conservative Government —I dare say that the Prime Minister was right to say that trust is not there, because, boy, do they not trust this Government, and nor do I.
Environmental protection is top of my constituents’ list of concerns—I remind the Prime Minister that we are also in a climate crisis, as well as an economic one. The RSPB has described the potential revocation of environmental laws in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs policy space as “an attack on nature” and has expressed particular concern about the regulation of air and water quality, and the prevention of pollution. Ruth Chambers, a senior fellow at Greener UK, a coalition of conservation groups, has said that the Government are
“hurtling towards a deregulatory free-for-all where vital environmental protections are ripped up and public health is put at risk.”
The approach to employment law is the same, as others have said. A host of rights, such as holiday pay and agency workers’ rights, face being downgraded or eliminated. The Institute for Public Policy Research has said that the cliff edge would create
“extraordinary uncertainty for businesses and workers”, and the same is true in many different areas: justice, data protection, protections for consumers, and a whole host of others.
It is clear that this Bill is simply not fit for purpose. It is a Tory vanity project, replaying and harking back to an old record, played in happier times, and designed, frankly, to keep their fanatical right from their door. All of this will, in return, result in chaos, confusion and yet more consternation for our constituents and all those businesses, which deserve so much better. It will therefore surprise no one to hear that I and the Liberal Democrats will act in the national interest tonight by opposing this reckless Bill.
Some 78% of voters in Glasgow North voted to remain in the European Union in 2016, but now in this Bill they find out what “Brexit means Brexit” really means: not just moving away from European directives and regulations, but an attempt to literally erase from history the fact that the UK statute book was ever influenced by them at all. It was this Government who invented the concept of retained EU law with the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and now they want to abolish it.
I was going to say that the former Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Mr Rees-Mogg, like some even more terrifying version of the Borg queen from “Star Trek”, would decide which regulations would become assimilated and which would be ejected into the cold vacuum of space, but he has ejected himself to the cold vacuum of the Conservative Back Benches.
The rejections being imposed by the Government start with the core principles of European law: the equality principle and the protection of fundamental rights. That is what Brexit really means in the minds of the hard Brexiteers: getting rid of all the protections that have improved the safety and wellbeing of people and nature, and putting the drive for profit, externalising responsibilities and the race to the bottom back at the heart of trade and the economy.
Can the Minister name a single stakeholder, even among the former Secretary of State’s friends in the City of London, who genuinely think this Bill is a sensible, pragmatic approach to reforming retained EU law? As we have heard from Members across the House, there is a list as lang’s my arm of groups and organisations who think it is the precise opposite. They call it dangerous, a cliff edge, a power grab and more. Workers’ rights, environmental rights, consumer protections, health and safety standards, the Northern Ireland protocol, the devolution settlement and the building blocks of parliamentary scrutiny and democracy are all at risk from the provisions of the Bill. Yes, there are suggestions from some of the stakeholders for reform, amendments or changes, but the overwhelming consensus is that the Bill should be stopped and scrapped outright.
In Westminster Hall last Wednesday and in the debate today, Ministers have been unable to give a coherent or compelling reason as to why the provisions of the Bill are necessary at all. If Parliament genuinely is sovereign, and if we really have taken back control as a result of Brexit, surely the approach to retained EU law should be the same as to the rest of the statute book: propose policies, engage with our constituents, consult stakeholders and then legislate as necessary through the usual processes of political debate and deliberation in Parliament— but no.
The irony is that the Bill was proposed by a Secretary of State who carved out a role for himself as a defender of Back Benchers, the rights of the House and parliamentary sovereignty, and now from the Back Benches he cheerleads a power grab of unprecedented proportions, even in a world where unprecedented events seem to be taking place on a daily basis. The Brexiteers’ logic was that the EU had become all-consuming and stood in the way of this Parliament’s freedom to consider and legislate for the allegedly unique challenges facing the United Kingdom. Faceless Brussels bureaucrats and unaccountable commissioners were standing in the way of hallowed British parliamentary sovereignty, but now faceless Whitehall mandarins and out-of-touch Tory Ministers will essentially be given all the powers that were once held by the whole suite of EU institutions—its Executive, its legislature and its courts. All those processes will be wrapped up into this one piece of legislation.
That is to say nothing of the total disrespect being shown by the Government to the devolved legislatures on these islands. Tory Ministers sometimes like to ask Members from Scotland to name one devolved power that is being taken back by Westminster after Brexit, and now we know the answer: pretty much all of them. Anything previously regulated by retained EU law can be changed across the whole of the UK at the stroke of a ministerial pen, even if it is in a devolved area. The whole edifice of devolution is being undermined faster than you can say “Sewel convention.” That is particularly important because the Scottish Government have committed to remaining aligned with EU regulation wherever possible.
Alignment makes trade in goods and services easier and more beneficial to all. It will also make the process of Scotland rejoining the European Union as an independent country that much more straightforward, so perhaps it is not surprising that the UK Government want to ensure that as much of the UK diverges as much and as quickly as possible from the EU acquis.
If that was not bad enough, as I have said in interventions, we need to look at how the Bill is being scrutinised. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which created retained EU law, was scrutinised for two days on Second Reading, eight full days in Committee on the Floor of the House, a further two days on Report and then two rounds of ping-pong with their lordships’ House. But this Bill is getting whatever time we have been able to squeeze in before 7 pm today, with a bog-standard programme motion kicking it upstairs to a Committee full of hand-picked Government loyalists to rubber-stamp. A Bill of such constitutional significance should have been debated in a Committee of the whole House, and the Minister and his former boss, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset, know that. I hope that Ministers can commit to a supplementary programme motion for a Report stage that allows proper time for debate and for amendments to be discussed by the House as a whole.
As many hon. Members have said today, this Bill is not about efficiency; it is about ideology—the ideology of a Secretary of State who has now returned to the Back Benches. In reality, as hon. Members have also said, the Government will have to come crawling back to the House, either through the statutory instrument provisions or perhaps even with primary legislation, because what is proposed in the Bill will simply prove unworkable. It is not possible or necessary—let alone safe or secure—to sunset thousands of regulations at the end of next year.
As Hilary Benn and other hon. Members have said, there will have to be extensions, whether to the next arbitrary date of 2026, or perhaps a broader kind of continuation, much like what was established under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act in the first place. In the meantime, there will be uncertainty, confusion and a further erosion of any pretence of democratic scrutiny and accountability in the House. In among the Westminster chaos, people in Glasgow North and across Scotland can see what is happening, and they want no part of it. Their chance for a different kind of repeal Bill—the repeal of the Act of Union 1707—is coming very soon.
I rise to speak in support of the Opposition’s reasoned amendment. Many of us voted to leave the European Union to see a strong, democratic, sovereign state working, facilitating UK business growth and decent jobs, and ensuring the delivery of public infrastructure and services in the interests of its citizens. Contrary to the assertions made by Conservative Members, I, too, believe that the UK can thrive outside the EU. I support the supremacy of our Parliament, as many hon. Members have put forward already, but this rushed, dog-ate-my-homework legislation presents a future of more chaos and uncertainty under this Conservative Government.
As we all know, at the end of the transition period, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 incorporated most EU law on to the UK statute book as “retained EU law”, so there is a need to resolve its future status and relevance in terms of how applicable it is and whether and where it should be placed in a hierarchy relative to UK primary legislation. Indeed, setting out a future sovereign state after Brexit requires a legislative process to establish the future status of laws—I believe that people expect that.
The Government’s Bill, however, gives enormous powers to the Executive to repeal and amend—but not improve—vast swathes of rights and regulations. In doing so, the Government are flying blind, as they have not bothered to publish an exhaustive list of the retained EU law that is in scope. That is as disrespectful to all citizens and businesses, whatever view they took of our membership of the EU, as it is to the House, which in effect, is not being informed about how many pieces of legislation are affected.
While the retained EU law dashboard is helpful, it is not an comprehensive list, as we heard earlier. The Commons Library has said that the Bill will apply to at least 2,400 pieces of legislation, so will the Minister commit to publishing in the Library, as a matter of urgency, a comprehensive list of the legislation that would be in scope of clause 1? This is an important point of principle; democratic parliamentary scrutiny must not be ridden over roughshod by the Government.
Further to not being certain about the full details of the EU retained law that is in scope, it is absolutely chaotic to then pursue a sunset clause that simply removes it all from the statute book by 2023. That just smacks of a Government shying away from scrutiny and lacking any sense of accountability, in a chaotic pursuit of a free-market race to the bottom of workers’ rights and environmental protections.
The Conservatives have shown that they cannot be trusted on the economy, and while they are hellbent on causing more chaos and uncertainty for the British people, Labour will act in the national interest and make Brexit work. We just need a general election to offer the certainty and leadership that our economy needs.
I was elected to this place on a prospectus for Scotland’s independence, which is a completely legitimate argument. When Mr Rees-Mogg, who is no longer in his place, made his remarks about the value of democracy, they rang rather hollow in my ears. Although I respect England’s democratically expressed right to vote for Brexit and withdraw from the EU, I do not accept, as the Government and Opposition Benches do, that holding Scotland’s democracy hostage is somehow acceptable—it is absolutely not. The legislative process being considered this evening has been conducted without the consent of the Scottish people. It has not been consented to by our Parliament and it was not consented to in the referendum that was held. Although I do respect the right of withdrawal from the EU, it is disingenuous, at the very least, for the very people who embraced withdrawal from the EU to deny Scotland the right to withdraw from this Union.
Secondly, part of the agreement between the Kingdom of Scotland and England that led to the treaty of Union was that any law change should be to the “evident utility” of the people of Scotland. That is set in the articles of Union, and I see nothing in the Bill that is for the evident utility of the people in my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency. Scotland entered this Union through the coercive influence of the English Alien Act 1705 and the financial enticements of Scottish MPs who were bought and sold for English gold, to the outrage and consternation of the Scottish people. There was rioting in the streets and the Act of Union was burned in various towns.
Scotland’s 62% vote in the EU referendum in 2016 is often dismissed, as our history is often dismissed, as irrelevant to the modern era because we voted as one country. But the Act of Union 1707 created one state; it did not create one nation. Scotland is a country, and it has always maintained its identity as a country, even with the UN. From the declaration of Arbroath to the claim of right, it is the people of Scotland who are sovereign, not a Parliament and not a regent. That is a fundamental difference between Scots law and English law. Scots law is underpinned, in the common law, by the claim of right, whereas English law, and many other jurisdictions, is underpinned by Magna Carta. There are two Unions—there was the Union of the Crowns and, 100 years later, there was the political Union—but there was never a territorial union. Scotland is a separate and distinct people and country. The importance of the claim of right was best demonstrated most recently when King Charles acceded to the throne and had to swear to uphold the claim of right.
Despite some of my former colleagues being elected in 2016 on the basis of offering an independence referendum if Scotland were taken out of the EU against its wishes, subsequent elections have happened and no referendum has been brought forward. Despite pronouncements in this place and tough words in other Chambers, no referendum or preparations for a referendum have been forthcoming. Scotland has now been taken out of the EU against her wishes.
I do not know if the hon. Gentleman is not paying attention, but has he not noticed, and does he not recognise, that there is going to be a referendum in November next year? I know that Alba represents about 0.7% of all voters across Scotland, but at least they could start to pay attention.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and if he paid attention he would know that the last poll put us on considerably more than 0.7%, which I know he loves to trot out on Twitter along with his usual offensive messages.
This legislative programme gives nothing to Scotland, and it will undermine the preparations that the Scottish Government are supposedly making to rejoin the EU. We now know what the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill was for. It was to facilitate the destruction of the devolution settlement, and that cannot stand. Alba’s position is that Scotland should join the European Free Trade Association immediately after our Parliament acquires the competencies to sign international treaties and abide by them. That would give us access to the European economic area immediately, and give us free trade with the EU. It would also solve cross-border trade with the UK, because the UK already has an arrangement with EFTA. EFTA membership could be negotiated in weeks rather than the years that it will take for the EU process to complete, and which would leave Scotland in the wilderness. It is essential that EFTA is back on the table for the Scottish people to consider.
We would also bring forward a written constitution by which Scotland will govern itself, and work with the variety of groups that have already brought forward developmental pieces of work on that. We consider that a series of citizens’ assemblies would be much better placed than a Committee Room upstairs to consider the laws that apply to the Scottish people. When the people are free and independent, they must fashion the instruments with which they are to govern: the divisions of powers, the extent of those powers between the Parliament and the Executive, the franchise, the electoral system, the judiciary and its appointment, the relationship between Government, police and people, and the principles and values that describe us as the nation we want to be seen to be on the international stage.
The written constitution should start from the principle that the people are sovereign, in keeping with Scottish constitutional tradition. That would offer us greater economic and social stability than being shackled to a failing, visionless political Union and this tawdry Bill. It is incumbent on all independence-supporting MPs to act in concert through a constitutional convention, to define the means to take us out of this dreadful Union.
As we have heard, the Bill threatens environmental, health and industrial protections by casting an enormous shadow of uncertainty. During an economic crisis caused by the current period of Tory turmoil, the Government claim that they seek to promote growth, but the Bill would cause major disruption for businesses and, as the Chair of the Justice Committee said, put even more pressure on an overstretched legal system in settling uncertainties in the law.
There is also a huge cost to people and business, and I will concentrate on the tremendous pressure on the chemical industry, such as the one on Teesside, in complying with Government demands for UK regulations as perfectly workable EU ones are ditched. I am told that implementing the British REACH regulations, which has been demanded by the Government, will not now cost the industry £1 billion because, according to the Chemical Industries Association, the final bill is expected to be several times greater. Given that there is no clarification from Ministers about which laws and regulations they intend to retain, amend, or allow to expire, industries are left in a state of precariousness. Will EU regulations be retained, will they be amended, or will they just be ditched?
An incoming black hole left from the ditching of EU-derived legislation is increasing anxieties for businesses, including those in the chemicals industry. Many Members will know of the REACH—registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals—regulations, which regulate the majority of chemical substances that are manufactured in, or imported to, the country. They are vital for improving the protection of human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals, and for facilitating trade in chemicals across borders. Businesses that make chemical products and solutions are integral to some 96% of all manufactured goods and key ingredients, including for food and life-saving medicines, as well as material for mobile phones and electric vehicle batteries. The industry is calling for an alignment with EU REACH regulations that does not duplicate the efforts and costs already incurred by British businesses. Indeed, it would be unthinkable to do anything that reverses steps towards a better environment.
Will the hon. Member give way?
No, I will leave it, thanks.
Rather than scrapping any chemicals regulation, the industry wants to ensure that the system for managing chemicals is both risk and science-based to ensure a high level of protection for our environment and society. Furthermore, the Bill places at risk the UK’s fulfilment of legal obligations outlined by the trade and co-operation agreement. Should there be a breach of that agreement, the EU could seek to impose tariffs on UK goods, increasing the impact on consumers during a cost of living crisis. The Bill in no way delivers the frictionless trade and consistency that the industry desperately needs. Instead, it creates barriers to trade and is loading billions of pounds in extra costs on an industry that is already under pressure due to the energy crisis.
I also fear the Bill’s impact on investment. It saddens me to say this, but why on earth would a multinational company opt to invest in Britain where business life is so much more complicated and expensive when it could be on the continent of Europe where such impediments do not exist? That is not what people on Teesside who voted in large numbers to leave the EU wanted or expected. I seek assurance from the Minister that he will think again about ditching and minimise any deviation from the EU REACH regulations to protect our chemical and other industries.
The Bill also poses a significant threat to workers’ rights, as the TUC made clear. EU-derived law—we have heard this several times—currently delivers: holiday pay; agency worker rights; data protection rights; protection of terms and conditions for outsourced workers; protection of pregnant workers; rights to maternity and parental leave; and rights relating to working time. In many areas, it is unclear what will happen to the protections that workers currently rely on as a basic necessity.
The legal system could very much do without untold chaos. Where EU-derived legislation is restated by Parliament, previous judgments relating to those instruments will no longer be binding. Issues will have to go through the judicial system yet again. The result will be workers and employers spending more time in court to establish what the law now means.
“I think it is absolutely ideological and symbolic rather than about real policy”.
That is shown particularly by the failure of Ministers to provide answers on which areas will be affected.
The Bill also undermines the sovereignty of Parliament, removing the necessary opportunity for scrutiny and giving unwarranted powers to Ministers to revoke, modify or replace laws through secondary legislation. When people voted to leave the EU and take back control, they did not expect to be handing that control to a small bunch of Tory Ministers to do what they liked. We cannot allow Ministers to commandeer the parliamentary process for untold control, enabling them to change vast swathes of our law. Businesses, environmental groups, legal experts and unions are united on the desire to avoid the complications that the Bill will create.
The fundamental flaw on which the Bill rests is that well-established laws currently offering crucial protections on workers’ rights, businesses and the environment can essentially disappear. The former Business Secretary would have all forms of rights and regulations axed, but his days are over. It is important that Grant Shapps takes the opportunity to review this madness before it causes unbounded chaos and focuses instead on tackling the real problems that our country faces.
It is like the old days, is it not? I was going to say the good old days, but they were not all that good. Remember the endless blue-on-blue, Tory-on-Tory Brexit wrangling with nobody being able to make up their minds about the way forward. We have had a little of that, and I thought it was going to get quite serious when Mr Rees-Mogg seemed to be squaring up to Richard Graham—I almost saw top hats at dawn. Thank goodness that they were able to back down and come to some sort of a reasonable conclusion.
Here we are once again debating Brexit: the issue that never goes away. You would expect nothing else, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I will put my cards on the table: I think that this is an awful Bill. It is a dreadful Bill. In fact, it is a Bill conceived, drafted and prosecuted in their ongoing ideological Brexit frenzy, ridding the UK of any vestiges of their hated EU. In fact, I would call it a vindictive Bill—more of a vendetta than a piece of legislation. And like all desperate ideologues, all traces of the ancient regime must be obliterated. Everything must be erased. Year zero must be established. We are getting three year zeros, but I think the one at the end of 2024 is the year zero for when all of Brexit is finally banished and we have the sovereignty that they claimed we were always going to have but never actually quite aspired to.
And so, this Brexit exercise in self-harm goes on and on and on. It is the ideological battle that never ends. I get the sense that nothing will ever satisfy them. Their insatiability for things Brexit and EU will never actually be met. They are almost like the Bolsheviks in the 1920s prosecuting their permanent revolution. I suspect that once we are concluded with this Bill and it is on the statute book, they will get around to digging into the earth’s core and start to geologically separate this island just that little bit further from mainland Europe.
The thing is that everybody is coming to the conclusion that their Brexit is a disaster. Anybody and everybody is beginning to tell them that. Even their friends are telling them that. I never knew anything about this guy, Guy Hands, but he is extolling them to
“admit the public was lied to”.
He is saying that they should renegotiate a new deal with the European Union. He says:
“The first thing to do would be to admit that the Brexit negotiations were a complete disaster”.
I do not know this Guy Hands, but I suspected he might have been some sort of tofu-munching Liberal Democrat, with all due respect to my Liberal Democrat friends, but apparently he is the Tories’ biggest donor and even he is saying that Brexit must be renegotiated.
As this disaster unfurls, is it not so disappointing to see the Labour party embracing it? The Labour party is becoming another party of Brexit. But it is okay, Mr Deputy Speaker, because it is going to make Brexit work! Are we not all relieved about that, then? The thing is, and I say this candidly to my colleagues on the Labour Front Bench, is that they cannot make Brexit work. In fact, it is designed not to work. Brexit was never a political strategy, so it cannot work. Brexit is an ideological venture driven by those guys over there on the Conservative Benches, founded by and predicated on British exceptionalism, the exclusion of others and an almost pathological hatred of everything European. But Labour is going to make it work! It is actually going to make it work without revisiting the single market or reinstating freedom of movement. It is going to make it work almost identically to the Brexit ideologists.
Labour may have given up on getting back into Europe, but those of us on the SNP Benches will never give up on our European ambitions. We will lead an independent Scotland back into the European Union. We are a European nation which values our EU membership, which voted to remain and aspires to return. With Scottish independence, we will put Scotland back into the heart of Europe in line with the wishes of the Scottish people.
This is the first day of the third Government in three weeks or four weeks—a few weeks, anyway. Was it not just a perfect opportunity for them to reconsider, pause, rethink and assess whether all of this is working? I went online the minute I got up very early in the morning to have a look to see if the Second Reading debate on the Bill was still on the Order Paper. To my great surprise it was, because I thought they would have taken this opportunity to reset and have a think about their European relationship. But not a bit of it. What we find is that the Sunak Government are the same as the Truss Government, the same as the Johnson Government and the same as the May Government. They are all Brexit—
Order. Not only is the hon. Gentleman going a bit wide of the Bill, but he is mentioning current serving Members by name which he must not do. He has been here long enough. He knows.
I hear the Scottish highlands are even more beautiful, but we might debate that one at some other point.
This Bill will drive a coach and horses through the devolution settlement. Combined with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, we are beginning to reach a crescendo in the assault on Scottish democracy and our parliamentary democracy. The joint pincer movement of the internal market Act and the Brexit regulations means that the Government are now almost entirely free to legislate at their leisure on Scottish devolved issues—issues that are the responsibility of Scottish Government Ministers and within the purview of the Scottish Parliament. The fact that the Government can legislate at leisure and at will is a threat to our Parliament.
I say gently to Government Members that what has happened has been a disaster for them. The idea of aggressive, muscular Unionism having any sort of resonance with the Scottish people has not worked. If there is an early general election—let us hope that there is—they will find that out to their cost with the loss of nearly all their Scottish Members.
I can see you exhorting me to finish, Mr Deputy Speaker, but let me say this about the Bill. I do not think that we have ever seen such a nasty, awful piece of legislation come before the House. Given that 2,500 pieces of legislation have to be looked at, doing away with all the EU regulations means that the House will be endlessly debating this stuff. Why not leave it alone? Take this opportunity to reset and rethink. Dump this dreadful Bill. Let Scotland become an independent nation—and then everybody will be happy.
It is a positive delight to follow Pete Wishart, and it was refreshing to hear that strong defence of his position—to say that we will make Brexit work is frankly ludicrous for all the reasons he set out.
In the midst of a climate emergency, a nature crisis and a cost of living scandal, this reckless Government are introducing a Bill that is not only a bureaucratic nightmare, sucking away limited time from civil servants who should be able to address the critical issues that the country faces, but is purely ideological and can set alight vital environmental, worker and consumer standards in a bonfire of regulations.
All of this is happening because the former Secretary of State, Mr Rees-Mogg, was so obsessed with purging our statute book of the European Union, but that is legislation that UK MEPs will have scrutinised, amended or supported. I know that because I was a Member of the European Parliament for 10 years. I can tell the Government that UK MEPs will have had a big part in shaping that legislation. After listening to two of the Government Members who spoke, I am not sure where they have been over the past 20 or 30 years, but it is almost as though they do not know that we had UK Members of the European Parliament. It is almost as though they did not know that environmental legislation, for example, was made through co-decisions, so we had a real say, or that the UK was a leader in some of this stuff and that we had a big role to play in the Council of Ministers, too.
All of that is now being thrown out. REACH, for example, controls or restricts the use of hazardous chemicals and ensures that manufacturers and importers not only understand, but manage the risks associated with their use. Although those regulations are directed at businesses, they are crucial for protecting human and environmental health while also setting rules on, for example, animal testing. What is more, REACH has already been amended through secondary legislation to make it operable in a domestic context. It has already received huge input from the UK through its MEPs and the Council of Ministers. The Bill fails to recognise the importance of that regulation. The Government are prepared to see it fall. That threatens public health, diverges from the EU system of approval and could lead to yet more, for example, animal testing in proving the safety of chemical products for export. This is bad law-making.
The former Secretary of State said in his ministerial statement on the Bill that it would
“fully realise the opportunities of Brexit”.
If he were here, I would ask him, in all seriousness, to tell me for whom those opportunities would be, because all I can see from where I am standing is the opportunity for Ministers to unilaterally strike out legislation that offends their sensibilities—potentially taking us back decades—without giving any indication of which laws will stay and which will go, underlining all the uncertainty for business, which others have mentioned. Simply being derived from the EU does not make laws bad, so this is irresponsible lawmaking of the highest order.
First, as other hon. Members have said, the sunset clause at the start of the Bill will automatically revoke legislation on
Furthermore, although the Bill sets out that there can be a later deadline of 2026 for some laws, neither the threshold nor the process for arriving at that point has been outlined. It is not clear, for example, whether it will be a decision for Secretaries of State to make for themselves. Worse still, the power appears not to be available to the devolved Administrations.
Secondly, clause 15 will allow Ministers to revoke or replace legislation with similar or alternative provisions that they consider “appropriate”. These are far-reaching provisions that have been described as conferring a “do whatever you like” power on Ministers. The Bill will fundamentally undermine parliamentary scrutiny because its role in revoking secondary legislation will essentially become discretionary. As hon. Members have eloquently said, if the Government choose to do nothing, the legislation will simply drop off the statute book.
Thirdly, there are wide-ranging impacts of the Bill that we simply do not yet understand because the Government have utterly failed to produce an impact assessment on the environment, on workers’ rights, on businesses or indeed on devolved competences.
Fourthly, as I have said, the Bill will come at a huge cost to the Treasury and create a massive burden for Departments at a time when they are already under enormous strain to provide basic services and are being warned by the Chancellor that they will have to make so-called efficiency savings when we know that there is nothing left to cut.
In that context, it is hard to imagine how the Secretary of State can possibly think that launching this deeply complex and totally unnecessary programme makes any sense at all. As other hon. Members have said, the Government’s retained EU law dashboard contains more than 2,400 pieces of law across 300 distinct policy areas and 21 sectors of the economy. This is an enormous piece of work that will take a herculean effort to deliver. The Government seem to be relying on a “trust us” mantra, but giving huge powers to Ministers on a “trust us” basis is a bad way to legislate.
The Bill will entrench the Government’s move towards deregulation. Although Ministers can replace laws with alternative provisions, the Bill states explicitly that they cannot increase what it calls “the regulatory burden”. I simply point out that one person’s regulatory burden is someone else’s protection of human and environmental rights. “Burden” is defined as including
“a financial cost…an administrative inconvenience…an obstacle to trade or innovation…an obstacle to efficiency” and so on. An administrative inconvenience? I mean, come on! The protection of people, our environment, animal rights and human health has to be more important than something that the Government themselves define simply as an administrative inconvenience.
I was reflecting, as one does, on the 2019 Conservative manifesto, which included a clear commitment to “maintain high standards”. Hon. Members have repeatedly reassured us in this place that the Government will not weaken those standards post Brexit. Our concerns have been dismissed, brushed aside and ridiculed, yet the famous clause 15 absolutely makes the thrust of the Bill clear. Eroding regulations, or at least not increasing them, is built into it because they are not allowed to be strengthened, for all the reasons I have set out.
These are laws that have a very real impact on the lives of our constituents, ensuring that they are safe at work, that they are not subject to discrimination, and that they are able to spend time with their children—time that we know is fleeting and precious. The former Secretary of State has often made known his disdain for workers’ rights, but I think he has failed to understand the meaning of rights in the sense that they are universal and for everyone to enjoy, whatever their job is. It is not, as he has said, about some rights for some people but not for others.
The Bill constitutes the most significant threat to environmental law in recent history. As I have said time and again in this place, nature is at crisis point. The latest “Living Planet Report”, published just a few weeks ago, reveals that wildlife populations have plummeted by almost 70% globally in the past 50 years, a decline so severe that the World Wildlife Foundation warns that it
“puts every species at risk, including us.”
In the UK, we have lost almost half of our biodiversity since the industrial revolution—more than any other G7 country. That horrifying decline is blamed on our kick-starting intensive agriculture and industrialisation, or what Professor Andy Purvis describes as
“the mechanised destruction of nature in order to convert it into goods for profit.”
Hundreds of species are at risk of disappearing from our shores altogether. It is essential that we change that picture as a matter of urgency and restore our natural world, on which all life depends, but the Bill is going in the opposite direction.
I want to say a few final words about animal welfare, because it has not been mentioned much today. I am deeply concerned about the status of our major animal welfare laws, 80% of which are EU-derived and which the UK played a leading role in negotiating. These laws include bans on rearing hens in battery cages, the use of hormones in cattle and the import of products made from dog and cat fur, as well as covering the hunting and trapping of wildlife. Those are all deeply emotive issues about which we know our constituents feel hugely strongly.
I am glad that the hon. Lady is raising the issue of animal welfare, which is extremely important. I hope that the Minister, when he sums up the debate, will assure us that the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill will return to the House, and that some of the other Brexit commitments that were given—for instance, that we would ban the export of live animals for slaughter and fattening—will indeed be realised.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope very much that the Minister will give us that guarantee.
The Environment Secretary reportedly told the Conservative party conference that his Department would become an “economic growth” Department. That, I think, is a ludicrous statement, because it fails to understand that the economy is reliant on and embedded within nature, not external to it. Indeed, as the Treasury-commissioned Dasgupta review makes clear,
“Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: Nature.”
In the light of that, I urge the Government not only to drop this dangerous Bill, which prioritises deregulation and reducing administration for businesses above our environment, but to drop their entire attack on nature. What we need right now is positive action. The leaders’ pledge for nature needs to be honoured, and the COP26 presidency needs to go forward into COP27 with positive measures, not the kind of aggressive policy that is summed up in this Bill.
The chaos recently visited on our constituents is yet another episode in the Conservative party’s extended Brexit fugue state. Many Conservative Members saw the last Prime Minister’s accession to Downing Street as an intoxicating chance to shrink the state, to deregulate, and to cut taxes for the very rich. We now know how that ended, when their cravings collided with reality. This bad Bill is a morning-after hangover.
Equally delusional was the idea, peddled hard, that the UK could risk trashing trade with our nearest neighbours while also growing the economy. Brexit is the driving force behind a 5.2% fall in GDP, a 13.7% fall in investment and a drop of 16% in UK-EU trade from what was projected—to which the Bill adds uncertainty and its disincentive effects. One might have thought that that would provoke a change of policy, and from both large parties, given that some on this side of the House dream of making the Tories’ hard Brexit work. Were they ever to find themselves in office, however, they too could not evade the contradictions that are implicit between Brexit and wider economic and social aims.
Another Brexit claim that is crumbling on meeting reality is the claim that leaving the EU was about giving power back to the people. This Bill will transfer large legislative powers from Parliament to Ministers. Earlier, the Minister claimed that the Government’s aim was to co-operate with devolved Governments, but the Bill is yet another assault on our Senedd’s powers, and the powers of the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It gives UK Ministers powers to revoke, replace or update secondary retained EU law in devolved areas, subject only to the negative procedure in the House, and in many instances the test for use of these powers will simply be whether a Minister considers it appropriate. Indeed, as was said earlier, the Wales Counsel General has already warned that the Bill would give UK Ministers
“unfettered authority to legislate in devolved areas”, and inevitably lead to lower standards.
The UK Government have refused a Welsh request for the dashboard of retained EU laws to be updated to identify which legislation is reserved and which is devolved, and how Welsh legislation might be affected. That was a practical suggestion. I recall the pre-devolution days and the structural confusion when every LAC—local authority circular—from Westminster was a WOC, or Wales Office circular, but every WOC was not a LAC. The Government are insisting on further trouble, further chaos and further uncertainty with this Bill. Will the Minister tell us whether that refusal to update the dash- board will be revisited?
Further, that approach undermines the principle that the UK Government should not legislate in devolved areas without the Welsh Government’s consent. In this regard, I draw the House’s attention to an important Bill tabled in the other place by my colleague, Lord Wigley: the Government of Wales (Devolved Powers) Bill. That Bill would enshrine in law the principle that powers devolved to the Senedd should not be amended or withdrawn without a super-majority vote of Senedd Members. Unfortunately, such protections are desperately needed in the face of a Westminster Government who are openly hostile to devolution. In contrast to the Bill before us, protecting the devolution settlement it is not about posturing; it is about powers for a purpose.
This Bill risks creating a regulatory ceiling that would prevent the Welsh Government from strengthening our rights as citizens, as consumers and as workers. Indeed, it only allows for the status quo or a diminishing of those rights. We are at risk of losing hard-won health and safety rights and employment rights derived from, or reinforced by, EU law. Westminster could abandon or modify laws that are crucial to conserving and restoring the natural environment, protections relating to the safety and standards of baby foods, protections for pregnant workers and rights relating to working time, including rights to a maximum weekly working time and paid annual leave. There is much more, and all this is the Government’s Brexit spree. If they are so confident that the Bill is wanted by the people of Wales, why don’t they just call a general election?
I too am strongly opposed to the Bill. We can be wishful in our thinking that we are simply going through the motions today and that the Bill will never see the light of day again, but surely any Government who are serious about economic growth and doing the right thing by the UK as a whole would not allow it to proceed any further. Wide-ranging protections around the environment, climate change, employment rights, consumer protection and data protection are under threat from the Bill. We cannot separate this from the context of a Government with a stated objective of deregulation and trying to become Singapore on the Thames.
If the Government are serious about investing in growth, the lessons from around the world are that they should invest in skills, in infrastructure and in research and development. Crucially, they should also address the trade barriers that have been erected with our nearest trading partner, the European Union. That is where the biggest impediment to growth is coming from. I urge the Government to wake up and address that reality, rather than being blinkered around the ideology they have adopted. But even if there were no overt agenda and this was just a change of approach, the approach that has been taken is hugely reckless. Rather than simply adopting or amending each regulation or directive as they go along and as circumstances change, they are upending everything in one go. That is an accident waiting to happen, because gaps will be inevitable in that respect.
A few Members have referenced the pressures on the civil service, and there are precious few civil servants working on this already. This is an impossible timescale to get it done correctly, and next week we will see further announcements of spending cuts to Government Departments, including to staff, which will create further barriers. Frankly, this Bill is at best a huge distraction from what the Government should be doing, and at worst a sinister development that could undermine devolution in the three devolved nations and regions of the UK.
There are also particular threats both to the level playing field protections of the trade and co-operation agreement and, in particular, to the Northern Ireland protocol. Although the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Dean Russell, spoke about the UK observing its international obligations in that respect, there is none the less a danger that these obligations will be unpicked, particularly at the interface where it is not entirely clear where responsibilities lie or how different commitments are interpreted.
The classic example relates to the Northern Ireland protocol. Although it may be clear that annex 2 takes legal precedence over anything else, that is not the case for article 2 on the non-diminution of rights, which touches on a whole range of equality and employment rights protections that could well be unpicked because it is open to a certain degree of interpretation.
It is also fair to say that the more divergence there is between Great Britain and the European Union on a whole range of regulations, the greater the barriers will be to trade. The classic example is data protection. If the UK diverges on data protection, it will create barriers to UK companies dealing with the European Union. Companies often want to ensure that they have access to the European market, so it is in their self-interest to align with EU regulation. We have to recognise that few powers in the world have the mass and weight to be de facto arbiters of what regulation looks like. One is the United States and another is the European Union. I have to say, the United Kingdom is not at that level outside the European Union.
The Bill also creates an even bigger cliff edge for what is happening inside the UK with regard to the Northern Ireland protocol. The closer that Northern Ireland and Great Britain are aligned, the softer the protocol will be, but if Great Britain diverges further in the areas covered by the protocol, it will create more tensions in the Irish sea interface at a time when, notionally, the Government are seeking negotiations with the European Union to overcome those tensions.
The final area is the Bill’s overall impact on the devolved settlements. I agree with the many opposition Members, from a range of political parties, who have said that the Bill is a major threat to the devolved settlements, as it upends the balance between the UK Government and what happens in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. The Bill builds on the precedent of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and the repeated breaches of the Sewel convention.
Although we may have some protection in Northern Ireland through the protocol, we will potentially see as many as 500 pieces of regulation upended. In the devolved regions we have a cliff edge of 2023, as we do not have the option of extending it to 2026. That will place huge pressure on civil servants. I do not need to remind the House that Northern Ireland does not currently have an Assembly or an Executive, much to my regret. Frankly, those who pulled the plug are in dereliction of their duty and were asleep whenever this happened to our devolved settlement.
Civil servants will have precious little time to put this in place, which will potentially leave consumers, businesses and workers in Northern Ireland in an extremely vulnerable situation. I urge Members to reject this Bill today. If they do not, I hope we are going through the motions and that wiser counsel prevails, as this dead end is utterly counterproductive to the UK as a whole.
This is a Government operating without a mandate. We have had three Prime Ministers in less than two months and no general election. The new Prime Minister was appointed only a few hours ago, having been crowned with the support of fewer than 200 MPs and without a single ballot cast. This Government now want us to entrust them with sweeping powers to rewrite thousands of vital workplace protections. Let us not forget that it was the Tories who brought in the most draconian trade union legislation across Europe. This Government have been a disaster for workers, with a long history of opposing rights and standards at work, as we have seen from fire and rehire to the explosion of in-work poverty, precarious work and zero-hours contracts. They are currently undertaking a bonfire of basic rights, from the Public Order Bill to this Bill. Many years of struggle in the name of progress are being wiped out in the blink of an eye, and all with next to no scrutiny or accountability.
One of the most pernicious aspects of this Bill is the threat to maternity and paternity rights. In my constituency, and across the country, parents are already under enormous pressure because of the very high cost of childcare. My hon. Friend may well be moving on to this point, but I just want to ask the Minister or his colleagues to write to our shadow Front-Bench team to reassure them about the Government’s intentions in this important area.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I will be touching on that point. Others have mentioned today the rights that will be attacked. With all that in mind, how could this Bill be anything other than an unmitigated disaster? Equal pay, maternity and paternity rights, the 48-hour working week, minimum rest periods and holiday pay, to name but a few, are all on the table to be put on the scrapheap—and that’s not even the half of it. Can the Minister tell us where in the 2019 Conservative party manifesto it says that the Government intend to scrap all that? People in this country did not vote for this. Work will become more dangerous and yet more insecure.
This Bill is being driven forward by a small number of ideologues who are hellbent on discarding basic rights and protections, driving a reckless race to the bottom for workers. Hidden in this Bill are sunset clauses: provisions to create a countdown for the expiry of vital workplace protections by December next year. That means that by the time the festive season comes around next year, holiday pay could be off the table.
My hon. Friend is giving a powerful speech, as she always does. She is talking about the sunset on retained EU law, causing most of it to expire by the end of 2023, handing over to the Executive immense powers to do whatever they wish. She is making a powerful case about the impact of that on workers’ rights. The Institute for Public Policy Research has raised the concern that this will create extraordinary uncertainty for businesses and workers, as well as the prospect of legal chaos. Does she agree that in recent weeks the Conservative Government have caused huge uncertainty for businesses and that this simply will not help?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the disruption that this Government have caused in the past couple of weeks and months. This is a zombie Government clinging to power in order to push through their destructive agenda. They are running scared from the people they are supposed to represent. They have no mandate, no plan to meet the challenges of the cost of living crisis and nothing to offer working people.
The Bill places our rights at work, our environment and our hard-won equal rights on a cliff edge, left to the mercy of Tory Ministers. The economy is on the floor, with the cost of living crisis set to cost thousands of lives this winter. We need a stable economy with a significant redistribution of wealth and power more than ever. I wish to appeal to the Conservative Members opposite: it is within your gift to stop this deeply destructive Bill and the threats it poses to your constituents. You are facing some of the lowest polling your party has ever seen. Your economic credibility is in the bin. After 12 years of Tory austerity—
Okay, Conservative Members can make a lot of noise, because that is all they ever do. Thanks.
Is now really the time to decimate rights and standards at work, environmental protections, and health and safety? Conservative Members should consider just how destructive this will be, and just how angry people will be with this wholesale attack on their basic rights and protections. This Bill is not fit for purpose and it should not go ahead.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. At noon, the new Prime Minister promised “integrity, professionalism and accountability”. At 5 pm, he reappointed the former Home Secretary, who resigned from the post just one week ago, saying that she had broken the ministerial code and admitting that she had sent confidential documents outside Government from a private email.
In the urgent question last week, I raised a series of questions about whether there had been an official audit to check what other documents the former, and current, Home Secretary might have circulated from personal emails, because there were suggestions in the media that there had been others; and whether the right hon. and learned Lady’s resignation letter was in fact factually correct, because her account was different from briefings to the media and the statement by the Minister for the Cabinet Office last week.
May I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to help us to get urgent answers to these questions? The Home Secretary has access to the most sensitive information of all, relating to our national security. We cannot have someone careless and slapdash in that job. How on earth does it meet standards of integrity and professionalism to reappoint someone who has just broken the ministerial code, and has just breached all standards of professional behaviour in a great office of state? It looks as if the new prime minister has put party before country. Our national security and public safety are too important for this.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her point of order. While she will clearly have opportunities to address those matters in Home Office questions, I fully appreciate that the next Home Office questions will not be until